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John Kurien 98


This paper is written in the style of a personal statement sketching my involvement in the fisheries sector of Kerala State, India over a span of three decades. Initially this involvement was as a professional helping small-scale fishers to organize village level marketing cooperatives. Later the involvement changed to one of a researcher and policy adviser dealing contemporaneously at the local, national and the international realms. By adopting a schematized diachronic narrative, an attempt is made to provide a glimpse into the manner in which the fishery became unsustainable. It also tries to sketch the inter-related hurdles which come in the way of moving (back/forward?) to sustainability.


Kerala State is situated in a narrow strip of land at the south-western tip of India. It is the only state in India where the political boundaries are co-terminus with well marked physical boundaries. High hills called the Western Ghats - largely a tropical rain forest, reaching a height of 1 500 m - mark the eastern border. About 100 – 120 km away on the west is the bountiful Arabian Sea which laps Kerala's 600 km coastline. The state has a population of 30 million. It is one of most densely populated regions in India with a population density of 750 per sq. km. The state has 44 rivers which criss-cross it from east to west. That's one river every 15 km. This plentiful water transport from the tropical forests makes a substantial contribution to coastal primary productivity. The bountiful marine fishery resources of Kerala are in large part due to this. The lush green vegetation dominated by tall swaying coconut palms, plentiful inland fresh-water resources and placid lagoons that lazily meander landwards from the river mouths, are also hallmarks of the state. Tourism flyers call Kerala ‘God's Own Country’. It has been rated as one of National Geographic's ‘top 20 must-visit’ destinations. The local language of the state is Malayalam. The inhabitants are called Keralites. Those who speak Malayalam, and hence trace their ancestry to Kerala, are known as Malayalees irrespective of whether they now reside in India or abroad.

In global political discourse the state shot into prominence in 1957. Keralites voted in the world's first democratically elected communist party to power that year. Later, in the mid-1970s, the social development literature became replete with mentions of Kerala State for establishing a very high quality of life despite a very low per capita income. Kerala's human development achievements of high literacy, low infant mortality, high life expectancy and sex-ratio favouring women match those of many developed countries.99 Politics is finely balanced in the state. After about two decades of unstable governance between 1957 and 1979, the political parties coalesced into two popular coalitions composed of parties representing various interest groups. Ideologically they were positioned at different points on the political spectrum. One - the Left Democratic Front (LDF) - was led by the communists and the other - the United Democratic Front (UDF) - by a centrist party. Each of the fronts accounted for about 45 percent of the popular vote. The electorate was in million, voter turnout was invariably above 75 percent and every vote counted. Consequently, elections were very keenly fought and seats in parliament were won or lost by very small margins of a few hundred or thousand votes. Most socio-economic issues invariably got highly politicized. Every segment of the population was keenly attuned to political issues. Between 1957 and 1981 however, there were two exceptions - the marine fisherfolk inhabiting the coastal tract and the tribals in the Ghats. These two communities, spread along the two geographic fringes of the state accounted for three – four percent of the population of the state.


Kerala is India's most well-known fishery state. The coastal waters have been known for their high primary productivity. Shoaling pelagic species like oil sardines and mackerels and demersal species like prawns have made Kerala a major fish consuming and fish exporting state. The region also has the distinction of playing host to the world's first development project called the Indo-Norwegian Project for Fisheries Community Development (INP for short). It was undertaken under a joint agreement between the United Nations, the Government of Norway and the Government of India. (See Kurien, 1985) The INP commenced work in 1953. This project was intended essentially to upgrade the existing fishery sector and improve the standard of living of the fishing community in three villages. It however became the unintended catalyst for launching the whole of Kerala's fisheries into a new western-oriented export drive.100 Anchoring the fish economy to the new international market laid the seeds for a lopsided development - the existing beach based artisanal fishery was ignored as being traditional, unscientific and resistant to change. A totally new modern superstructure, based on harbour-based mechanized trawlers, with a single-specie orientation (shrimp) was actively promoted. When the INP started in 1953 there were around 38 000 active marine fishermen. Today (2004) there are 190 000. Spread over 220 villages along the coastline, with their family members they can form a human chain along the 600 km coast of the state.

Fishing communities in Kerala have tribal origins. They later were incorporated into the Hindu caste hierarchy and placed at the bottom of it. In the 8–9th century many communities in the northern region of the state were converted to Islam and in the 15th century a large number in the southern regions were converted to Christianity. Caste and religion were the defining identities of fishing communities in Kerala.

2.1 Getting involved in Kerala's fisheries

I am a Malayalee. But I was born and educated outside Kerala. Not even in my wildest dreams had I wished to go to Kerala to study or work. One sweltering hot morning in May of 1973 I found myself in a little Christian fishing village called Marianad near Trivandrum, the capital city of Kerala State. It was basically a courtesy call to meet community workers who had been living in this village. The visit resulted in a drastic change in my life. The community workers and the fishermen in the village entreated me to stay and help them organize fish marketing in their newly formed cooperative. Accepting the offer meant giving up a well paid but unsatisfying job as a business manager in industry. Being young and idealistic I took their request as a personal challenge.

Coming from an urban, upper class background I was appalled by the stark poverty of the fisherfolk. Most of them lived on the sea front in tiny huts thatched with the dry platted leaves of the coconut palm so ubiquitous in Kerala. Dark-bodied muscular men, frail women and pot-bellied children were the most common sight. The majority of the population was illiterate. The thumb impression or a squiggly sign of the cross was their signature. The health and sanitary conditions were appalling. I was then not aware of Kerala state's high human development achievements. If I was, given the stark reality that lay before my eyes, I would have grossly suspected the claim.101 (See ‘The Outlier Thesis’ below, section 16.).

The only real wealth of the community was their phenomenal knowledge of the sea and its resources and their modest collection of fishing equipment. Their fishing craft called a kattu-maram (literally: tied tree) was a raft made from four logs of lightwood. It was propelled by a triangular cotton sail and paddles made from bamboo. They had a variety of fishing gear - several types of cotton gillnets; boat seines; hooks and line sets; traps. Despite their vast knowledge of the resources of the bountiful sea, to which they had unhampered access, why were they so poor? Finding practical ways to overcome the hurdles to their socio-economic conditions was my immediate mission.

2.2 Constituting the right of first sale

I had observed that fishermen were price takers on every front. This was not only for all the inputs which they purchased, but also for fish, the only output of their hard labour. This state of affairs was a result of the overlapping of the credit and/or land market with the output market. This led to varieties of exploitative ‘bondage’. Financiers who had advanced loans to fishers laid priority claim to their fish - at prices which were rather arbitrarily fixed. Landlords, who permitted fishers to stay on their land adjacent to the sea, took advantage of this to stake control over the right to sell the fish. I observed that the financiers did not collect interest nor did landlords collect any rent. Both found the control over fish more profitable.

To change this iniquitous situation and make it favourable to the fishers was the big challenge. In due course, the collective resolve of the fishers to take control over their fish sales and resist any undue pressures from merchant-financiers and landlord-merchants resulted in a mini-revolution in the village.102 Two able auctioneers from the village were willing to stand by the fishermen. The support and advice from the community organizers and myself provided the set-up for a regulated auctioning system controlled by the fishers' cooperative. By this collective action the fishers established two things: (1) their right and freedom to sell the produce of their labour and (2) within the context of the free play of market forces, through the adoption of an open auctioning system, they established a fair first-sale price for their fish. The Marianad Cooperative was singled out in Kerala State's official annual ‘Economic Review’ as the model for the state to get fishermen out of the clutches of unreasonable middlemen, merchants and landlords.

2.3 Toying with appropriate technology

Fishing with a kattumaram can lead to extreme drudgery of labour. The raft has severe space constraints thereby putting limits to the amount of gear and fish that it can carry. This was one of the important causes for the low physical productivity of the fishers and consequently their low incomes even after gaining control over their fish. However, the kattumaram has several advantages - it does not sink, it is inexpensive; it is easy to maintain and has remained unchanged in form for perhaps over a millennium. These attributes made it difficult to replace with a comparable alternative. Motorising the kattumaram was one option. Fitting a Japanese outboard motor to this rope lashed raft proved easier than one first imagined. A pilot project with four engines was initiated in 1974 by the Marianad Cooperative. It was undertaken with the cooperation of the Government of India, the Government of Kerala and the Yamaha Company of Japan.103 Training was given to the fishermen and data was maintained on the costs and earnings to assess the technical and economic viability of the enterprise. A year later the project folded up. The fishermen were not convinced that the additional costs and technical snags were commensurate with the benefits of being able to fish a bit deeper at sea and return a bit earlier to land. They abandoned the venture for the moment. In an evaluation of this experiment I called it ‘a technology blend a bit ahead of its time’. However, it took just a decade to be proved wrong.

2.4 Discovering data fallacies

The technology experiment spurred the need for data on socio-economic and technological aspects of fisheries in Kerala. A chance meeting with the state's chief fishery planner in 1975 turned out to be momentous for understanding the gap between planners, their policy advice and the real life of the people. A statistical appendix in a planning document that he showed me stated the number of kattumarams in Kerala to be 3 760. This was a surprise. In my village alone there were over 400 and in the district there were at least 40 larger fishing villages where fishermen used only kattumarams. If such bloomers were the basis of planning for fisheries development it was hardly surprising that fishermen remained poor. On his part the planner made a visit to the village. He was also convinced of the need to discover and revamp such errors in the system.104 This chance encounter with ‘statistics for planning’ and the experience of monitoring the experiment with the outboard engines provided the basis of a future path-breaking study that would situate Kerala's artisanal fisheries in proper perspective (see below).

2.5 Forming a marketing network

The ‘right of first sale’ operations of the Marianad Cooperative were a great success. Delinking of the sale of the fish from the credit and the land markets, led to a boost in the incomes of the fishermen. The idea of the venture caught the imagination of many fishermen from neighbouring and distant villages. They came to visit and learn. Soon a network of cooperatives was formed. The economic viability of the network became greatly enhanced with the fishermen's control over the species which were exported - initially shrimp and then cuttle-fish. Equally important was the credit provided by the cooperative to the members. This was directed to buy more fishing gear that yielded more fish to be marketed. From the enhanced income, the Cooperative set aside a small saving fund for each fisherman. This was pooled and then circulated again as credit.105 This virtuous cycle - credit - production-marketing - savings expanded rapidly with growing fish sales and infectious enthusiasm. By 1980 the network of cooperatives expanded and was ambitiously named the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies (SIFFS), to become an apex body of small-scale fishers' cooperatives.106

2.6 Showing small-scale fisheries to be economically sustainable

Arising from the above interventions and the ‘discoveries’ about data fallacies, one logical step was to provide hard data to establish the significance and the viability of the traditional, artisanal, small-scale fishery of Kerala State. The official government policy from 1960 to 1980 was to support the modern, mechanized, trawler-fishing sector which arose as an offshoot of the INP. It was given official encouragement and financial support in the form of subsidies because of its export orientation. A mechanised trawler and its gear cost over ten times the investment required for any one of the 22 craft-gear combinations identified in the small-scale artisanal fishery. The official thinking was that all those currently involved in artisanal small-scale fisheries would either gradually upgrade themselves to using mechanised crafts or just wither away. Neither happened. Even after over two decades of this approach, as much as 80 percent of the marine fish harvest came from the small-scale, artisanal sector. In fact, even about half the exportable harvest was their contribution.

Then came the unexpected opportunity - the possibility of a collaborative study with the FAO's Bay of Bengal Programme (BOBP) to conduct a pioneering study of costs and earnings across Kerala over the period of a whole year (1980/81). The study was conducted with the participation of the fishing community in the preparation, data collection and analysis.107 This was its hallmark. The results of this study had far reaching implications. It revealed that from an economic and a social perspective, the profitability of the small-scale, artisanal sector far outweighed that of the mechanized sector. The policy implications of the findings were, to say the least, disturbing to many policy makers. It questioned their existing rationale of total official neglect of the artisanal fishery. It showed that investments made in this sector would yield more fish, generate much needed income and employment among the poorer sections of the population, and even contribute to more foreign exchange. What better mix of outcomes!108


The costs and earnings study became a crucial document in the hands of the fast emerging artisanal fishermens' movement in the state. They had been agitating since 1980 about the increasing encroachment of mechanized trawlers into their fishing realms. They had perceived a decline in their fish catch109 and quickly attributed it to the ‘anti-Mother Nature’ activities of trawlers. They demanded a three-month monsoon trawl ban on the grounds that this was the breeding season for many fishes and that incessant bottom trawling during this three-month period was resulting in eco-system over fishing. Together with this they demanded greater attention from the state in matters of education of their children and social security protection for themselves and their families particularly in time of accidents and old age. The costs and earning study helped the fishermen to highlight the state's neglect of the viable artisanal sector at the expense of mechanized trawler sector that was actually ruining the resource. The FAO stamp on the study gave it high credibility and prevented it from being dismissed as unscientific or unduly biased.

Another notable feature of this rising social movement among the fishermen was the gradual negation of old identities of caste and religion which were the basis for all collective action by fishing communities hitherto. This resulted in a fair share of tensions partly because of the emergence of a new breed of leaders, several from outside the fishing communities, who spoke a different vocabulary. The need for a greater class identity and a focus on the specific nature of fishery problems slowly became the underlying trait of the new movement.

The validity of the movement's conclusions regarding trawling and resource depletion was contested by the scientific establishment who implicitly claimed to have monopoly over the scientific knowledge of the sea and its resources. They questioned the correlation being made by the fishermen between trawling and declining fish production. In the monsoon months, the question: where do the fish lay their eggs, became a heated political issue in Kerala State! There was a clear polarization in Kerala society. A section of politicians, fishery bureaucrats and fishery scientists supported the position that bottom trawling for shrimp was benign to the marine ecosystem. They were thus in tacit support of the trawlers and the export processing industry. Another section of politicians, the avid fish consumers, environmentalists, and several NGO activists were in empathy with the views of the militant fishermen's movement. In a state familiar with only revolutionary class upsurges among the agrarian communities, this new ‘socio-ecological movement’ arising from a marginalized community, without the involvement of traditional politicians, provided a new dimension to collective action. (See Kurien, 1992).

3.1. The state reshapes its role

The first response of the state to the movement was to promulgate the Kerala Marine Fisheries Regulation (KMFR) Act in 1980. Basically it set out to zone the territorial sea within its jurisdiction (22 km of the coastline) into a zone reserved exclusively for the artisanal fishing units (up to 10 km from the coast) in which trawlers were forbidden to fish. An Expert Commission composed of government bureaucrats and state scientists was constituted to examine the merits of a trawl ban. These actions by the state brought the fishermen's movement to a temporary halt in 1981. However, considering that there was no enforcement mechanism, the ingress of trawlers continued. This then became the basis for reviving the movement in 1982 and 1983.

The monsoon of 1984 brought a renewed tempo to the movement. The lethargy of the government to address the issues being raised and ineffective enforcement of the KMFR Act was the main irritant. Dissatisfaction spread across the whole coastline of the state. Fishermen cutting across religious affiliation joined to support the independent trade union which was being formed to take up the cause of the artisanal fishermen. In a state where political parties dominated all forms of secular collective action, the impressive mobilization capacity of this ‘non-party’ formation was unprecedented. It became a potential threat to all political parties.

The experienced chief minister of the state leading the UDF from 1981 realized the full implication of the fishermen's demands. He did the unprecedented thing of taking over the fisheries portfolio. He figured that beating the financially powerful trawler lobby would be politically unwise. At the same time, he was politically astute enough to realize that being unresponsive to the massive vote bank of artisanal fishing communities, spread along the length of the state's coastline, would be political suicidal from the pure arithmetic of keenly contested direct parliamentary elections.

He ordered the constitution of a second Expert Commission to examine the issues raised by the fishworkers. This time it was composed of three eminent scientists from outside the state to give it the stamp of being unbiased. He announced greater institutionalisation of both promotional and protective social security for fishing communities (See Kurien and Paul, 2000). He stopped state patronage of the mechanized trawlers by withdrawing all forms of financial assistance hitherto extended to trawler owners. He also created a major organizational initiative which would be funded by government money and meant exclusively for the artisanal fishermen. It was called Matsyafed (the Fish Federation). It would cater to their specific technical needs. It was also proclaimed as a fish marketing organization.110 He promised to route a heavy dose of inputs - nets, boats, and outboard motors - to help the artisanal fishermen. His message was clear: you can't beat them (trawler lobby) but you can join their ranks in your own way with our support. The announcement of these ‘goodies’ created disunity in the fishermen's movement.

This decision by the state to ‘co-opt the small-scale fishermen’ can be seen as the starting point of the massive investment spree in the artisanal fishery sector of Kerala. The race for fish by the small-scale fishermen began here. Being unwilling and ill-equipped to regulate the access of the trawlers, the state was ipso facto converting the coastal waters into an open access realm. This helped to create and sustain myths like - the faster you get to the fish, the greater the chance that you will harvest some; the more you invest in nets and faster motors, the more fish you will catch.

3.2 Moving to unsustainable fishing

The introduction of outboard engines and new fishing gear for the artisanal fishing sector was hastened by two external factors: (1) the greater liberalization of the Indian economy which permitted easy import of Japanese engines (unlike in 1974 when I tried out the motors in Marianad) (2) the availability of large financial incentives from the state in the form of subsidies. Given this, the adoption of these inputs by individual fishermen was rapid. This process was accompanied by the innovation of a new beach-landing fishing craft that could replace the kattumarams and other crafts like dugout canoes.111

With the availability of technological alternatives and financial support, small-scale fishermen could fish deeper and fish more often. This contributed to raising the fish production from its low levels of the early 1980s. However, the increases in the physical productivity brought about with technology adoption did not translate into economic gains because of the continued domination of the merchant class. Efforts by the state to introduce a market regulation act were scuttled. This partial technological solution to their problems also took a toll on the militancy of the independent fishermen's movement. Moreover, by this time every political party had hastily set up their own fishermen trade unions. This was their strategy to retain influence in the politically volatile coastal fishing communities. It was much easier for politicians to distribute fishing equipment and get votes, than support fishery regulation and management measures which were highly divisive, difficult to implement and so different from the logic of the agrarian context with which they were more used to dealing.

These political and vote garnering compulsions were ideally suited to all political parties irrespective of their position on the ideological spectrum. They distributed thousands of outboard motors, ring-seine nets and plywood boats to a widely dispersed, relatively poorer fishing population. Two decades ago it was a few hundred mechanized trawlers to well-to-do capitalists from a few major fishing centres. Each of the new fishing units cost over 10 to 20 times the capital cost of the artisanal craft-gear combinations monitored in 1980. Having switched over totally to propulsion based on mechanical power, the operating costs also soared. The funds for such largesse were mobilised from national banks and development agencies eager to participate in this technology drive. The congruence between the technological penchant of the fishermen and the vote-garnering motives of the politicians provided an important basis for providing uncritical support to effort-enhancement. Despite all these welfare and technology measures initiated by the UDF government, it was not able to translate this into effective votes in the 1987 elections.


Eight years and two expert commissions later, the left-led LDF government that came to power in 1987 promulgated the first monsoon trawl ban in 1988. However, they exempted the main trawler-fishing centre - the site of the INP - from the ban. This made it a fiasco.112 The move caught the government on the wrong foot. Both the artisanal fishermen, and the trawlers owners (in the centres where trawling was banned) accused the government of partiality. The latter went to court on the issue and obtained a delayed but favourable verdict against the government. Clearly there were no gains from this rather ill-advised measure. The government resorted to getting yet another expert commission - the third in nine years - to re-examine the issue of the trawl ban. This commission produced its recommendation in June 1989. It strongly favoured a total ban of trawling in the entire state during the monsoon months. Armed with this recommendation the government hastily implemented a total monsoon trawl ban from mid-July 1989 to the end of August 1989.

The boat owners took the matter to the High Court. They argued that their fundamental right to pursue an occupation was being curbed by this trawl ban and requested a stay of the order. The court was unwilling to issue such a stay. The ban resulted in a considerable loss of employment for boat workers and processing workers. There was concern that it would affect the country's export earnings. However, the government held firm and enforced the ban. In the post-ban period the fish landings soared - but prices dropped dramatically. Reminiscent of the 1950s, oil sardines had to be dumped as manure for coconut trees! Politicians and fishermen were quick to attribute the increased harvest entirely to the positive after-effect of the ban.

The success of the 1989 ban raised the hopes of the fishermen as the monsoon of 1990 approached. However, no ban was announced. There was pressure on the government from the exporters lobby not to impose a ban. The ministry of commerce of the Government of India also questioned it on the grounds of the loss of foreign exchange to the country.113 The fishermen launched a counter campaign. Finally, yielding to pressure from both sides the government issued orders that banned trawling in the coastal waters but allowed trawlers meeting certain high technical specifications to have ‘innocent passage’ through coastal waters. They had to trawl in the deeper waters. The trawler owners went to court stating that though their boats did not meet the specifications, they could indeed fish in deeper waters. The court appointed a commission to get the boat owners to practically demonstrate their claim. They did so and also hauled in fish (but not prawns). The court then advised the government to reconsider its technical specifications.

The future of trawl bans as a fishery management measure was in serious doubt. However, given the political sensitivity of the issue, it was likely to stay - perhaps more as a welfare measure to placate the majority of the fishermen. The ban would be imposed, but enforcement would be lax: a strategic approach to please both parties. (For a detailed account of these struggles see Kurien, 1992).

4.1 Striving for consensus

In 1989, through the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), I took the initiative to call a meeting of all the different interest groups in the marine fishery sector to discuss the pros and cons of the trawl ban and the need for a larger consensus on fisheries management. There was no reluctance for the lead actors - leaders of the artisanal fishermen's unions, the trawler association representatives, the exporters, the consumer associations, the representatives from scientific institutions and the officials of the Department of Fisheries - to come together. All except the Department of Fisheries officials voiced their views loud and clear. The officials were tight lipped since the constitutional validity of the trawl ban imposed by them was before the courts. The discussion identified several causes and consequences for the current impasse in the sector. All the stakeholders expressed their eagerness to create a socio-political and economic context within the fisheries sector where co-existence was possible. The state, represented by the bureaucrats, was unwilling to play the role of referee. In this circumstance, follow-up was not possible.

4.2 Analysing overfishing

One outcome of the discussions was an article written jointly by my senior fishery planner colleague and myself outlining the causes and consequences of overfishing in Kerala and suggesting broad directions for its resolution (Kurien & Achari, 1990). We identified five main contributory factors: (a) the current open access nature of the coastal commons (b) the use of inappropriate technology (c) the booming demand for fish from the domestic and international market (d) subsidies resulting in distorted incentives (e) increasing population pressure on the coastal waters due to lack of employment alternatives.

We estimated the current of over-capitalisation in the fishery to be of the order of Rs. 530 million, an amount equal to the total development assistance given by the state to the fisheries sector over three decades. We assessed the impact of overfishing as leading to (a) falling productivity and income of fishermen (b) growing income disparities between owners and workers (c) and less fish for the domestic consumers. We then analysed the varying responses to the situation by fishermen, the boat owners and exporters, the state and the scientific community.

Finally we suggested measures to resolve the problems. These included: (1) An approach to the fishery in which development and management of the resources and the economy are seen as two sides of the same coin. (2) Matching the scale and type of harvesting techniques to make them consonant with the known biological and ecological parameters of the resource. We favoured small-scale operations, using multi-energy sources for propulsion and a decentralized mode of operation along the coast. (3) Restricting the ownership of harvesting technology exclusively to those who fish - calling for an ‘aquarian reform’. (4) Conscious efforts to enhance the biological productivity of the coastal waters - e.g. artificial reefs (5) Encouraging the movement of excessive effort to the deeper waters and providing subsidies for such actions (6) The creation of institutional arrangements for management of the resource to pull Kerala's fish economy out of its crisis and into a sustainable future.

4.3 Drafting a fishery policy

In 1991 the UDF returned to power. The Fisheries Secretary mooted the idea of formulating a long-term fishery development and management policy. A woman officer from the fishing community headed the Fisheries Department. Given her understanding of the issues and her commitment to the cause, she was able to mobilize a high degree of commitment to the task. The High Level Committee (HLC) constituted for this was composed of a group of persons with considerable experience in the sector and representing a variety of interests. The HLC held several hearings with stakeholders from all over the state. A preliminary draft was formulated based on the inputs from these hearings and a series of HLC meetings. This was sent for comments to organizations representing the various stakeholders.

The highlight of this policy was the radical ‘aquarian reform’ package proposed for implementation in the state. This would ensure that access rights to the territorial waters would be restricted only to those who actually fish. All absentee owners of fishing equipment would have to leave the fishery in a phased manner. The rights to decide the mode of sale and the floor price for fish would be the prerogative of those with access rights.

Based on the feedback from the various stakeholders, a final draft was reworked by the Director of Fisheries, one of her senior colleagues and me. This was discussed and approved by the HLC and forwarded to the government. The draft was discussed in the state cabinet and the state legislature (Govt. of Kerala, 1994). It was approved with the addition of one word to the crucial section on aquarian reforms. The clause reading: ‘An aquarian reforms package will be implemented in the state’ was altered to read: ‘An aquarian reforms package will be gradually implemented in the state’.114 This single word made the commitment time indeterminate. It therefore became a ‘radical policy’ with few teeth.

4.4 The outlier thesis

In 1995 a major international conference was held in Kerala to discuss and evaluate the directions taken by the Kerala economy.115 The much-acclaimed “Kerala Model” of development - low-income yet high quality of life - was the focus of attention. I presented a paper, based on my first hand knowledge of the socio-cultural and economic conditions of the fishing communities and the subsequent research work I had done (Kurien, 1995). The thrust of the paper was to highlight that the fishing communities had been “left out” of Kerala's positive development experience. They were not close to the “central tendency” but were “outliers”. The paper also went into the causes and suggested that while that state had provided the physical facilities to achieve human development (e.g. schools, health infrastructure etc), what the community lacked was the ‘demand from below’ for the utilization of the same. Only with the articulation of such participatory demands from below would the facilities translate into capabilities and entitlements for individuals adding up to a higher quality of life for the community as a whole. The paper proposed that the socio-ecological movement of the fishing communities had made a major contribution to this. No data was available then to evaluate the changes between 1985 and 1995. However, first hand field assessments did indicate positive developments.


In mid-1996 the LDF came back to power again. This was also the time when the preparations for the Ninth Five-Year Plans were taking shape. Part of the planning exercise was the creation of expert task forces to review the development in various sectors and suggest new approaches and new schemes. Taking off from the “outlier thesis” the LDF government constituted a special Task Force on Livelihood Security of Fishing Communities, which I chaired (Govt. of Kerala, 1997). Unlike other Task Forces which consisted only of experts, at my instance, the membership of this one was opened up to representatives of the various interest groups in the fishing sector. The rationale was simple. Unless the analysis of the fundamental causes for the poor livelihood conditions of the fishing communities met with a modicum of consensus by the different interests groups, there would be no support for the schemes that were to be implemented during the Plan period.

The Task Force endorsed the soundness of the analysis of the Fishery Policy of 1994.116 It advocated the implementation of aquarian reforms as the basic pillar for improvement of livelihood security. It also endorsed the need for a more decentralized approach to fisheries management and greater coordination of the various activities of the state intended to promote fisheries development and provide social security arrangements for the community. These were to be organized through “single-window” organizational arms of the state at the panchayat (village) level. They were to be called matsya bhavan (fish house) and supported from below by janakiya samities (people's forums) dealing with issues that have a bearing on resource management and community livelihood.

5.1 Multi-stakeholder training in fisheries management

In 1997, to bolster the initiatives which were intended to create a more sustainable fishery and to maintain the tempo of consensus creation, the Centre for Development Studies initiated a multi-stakeholder training in fisheries management. As in 1989, there was no reluctance to accept the mediation of CDS in this process. The first phase of the training was conducted with the collaboration of a Norwegian NGO with officials from the Norwegian Ministry of Fisheries participating in it. This was followed by a two-week study tour in Norway focusing on the fishery organizations and institutional arrangements. There were strong similarities and differences between the fisheries of Kerala and Norway. Meeting together in a different milieu in which they had no professional or political stake, representatives of competing and conflicting interests in Kerala's fishery could introspect collectively and calmly about the issue of sustainability of Kerala's fisheries.117 Many ‘discoveries’ were made. The most important was the lessons from the unique history of struggle of the Norwegian fishermen (1930–1940) and their efforts to create a just and participatory fisheries development. The state provided enabling legislations and governance structures. The meaning and the current relevance of this Norwegian history to the contemporary reality in Kerala's fisheries was revealing. The ‘participation act’ which limited the right of ownership of fishing assets solely to those who actually fish and the ‘raw fish act’ which gave the right of first sale of the fish to this clearly defined set of fishers, were two examples of institutional arrangements which could be adopted in Kerala.

When the group returned to Kerala they submitted a report to the Government on their experiences and the lessons which they had learnt. They also made suggestions about what could be done to make Kerala's fishery move to greater sustainability. The support for aquarian reforms gained greater ground. The LDF government was generally inclined to view the suggestions made by the group in a favourable light.

5.1.1 Aquarian reforms committee: a missed opportunity

In 2000 the LDF government constituted a committee to examine the issue of aquarian reforms and to formulate draft legislations to implement the same. The committee was composed of serving legislators and representatives from all the political parties in the LDF and UDF.118 These were persons who were closely related to the fisheries sector. Five of them had participated in the CDS - Norway training and exposure trip. The representatives of the trawler associations were however not included in the committee. A few independent experts from the field of law, social sciences and technology were also included. I was one among them, and argued for the inclusion of the trawler associations, but without much avail.

As a departure from the usual government practice, the committee was requested by the government to formulate its detailed terms of reference. This was to be based on the overall intention of the government to limit access to the fishery resources and enhance the value of the output such that the benefits of this accrue to the fishers. The committee circulated a questionnaire incorporating its terms of reference and requesting for views on them. The questionnaire was sent to all the fishermen trade unions, the trawler owner associations, scientists, community organizations, NGOs etc. The committee then held a series of hearings in different parts of the state providing occasion for stakeholders to air their opinions on the terms of references and any other matters of concern to them. Following these series of meetings a few members of the committee were given the task of drafting the report.

The Chairperson was mandated to consolidate these inputs and produce a draft which would be circulated to the members and discussed in detail. With the state elections drawing near, the members of the LDF in the committee were keen to finalise the report and submit the same for discussions in the legislature. However, for reasons that are still unclear, the Chairperson was unable to draft the report based on the inputs provided. The state elections were held in May 2001 and, in a major political upset, the LDF lost. With this the commitment to aquarian reforms was also given up. A major opportunity was lost to begin the process of entry restriction into the fishery, backed by adequate political support and legislative backing.

5.1.2 Who is a fisherman? The renewal of the caste card

In the late 1990s, at the all-India level, there was the renewal of the demands for ‘positive discrimination’ of communities which were ‘left out’ of the mainstream of the socio-economic development process. The class dimension of the issue was put on the back burner and the issue of caste once again became the defining identity of ‘community’. Caste has, and continues to be a major socio-cultural dimension of economics and politics in India and Kerala.

In Kerala however, the early history of radical left politics helped re-define a person's status more on the basis of class than caste. However, in the fishery sector, the revival of the caste card vitiated the question of who should have access to fishery resources. Unfortunately, even the leaders of the independent fishermen's trade union were now more inclined to give priority to caste though they did not totally renounce the class categorizations. Being born in a fishing caste - irrespective of whether one is an actual fisherman or not - was sought to be made the primary criteria for defining access to fishery resources. This would imply that the status quo would prevail with regard to the over-investment in small-scale fisheries and the trawler sector. Absentee-ownership would continue to rise. Those so involved were individuals or social institutions from fishing castes.

5.1.3 Reinventing fishery policy and greater dilemmas

The UDF came back to power in 2001. It was ambiguous about its approach to the fisheries sector. The fishery portfolio was given to a person hailing from a traditional fishing community. The power of the independent fishermen's trade union was on the wane. Its support base was now restricted to a few districts. In fact, contrary to its stand in earlier state elections, many of its leaders had tacitly supported the UDF and played the caste (community) card effectively to garner votes. For the LDF, being voted out of power was totally unexpected. They became preoccupied with more crucial oppositional issues. Fisheries concerns were no priority in their scheme of things at the moment. Having failed to finalise the report of the Aquarian Reforms Committee, they also had no concrete positions by which to challenge the UDF perspectives.

There was talk about a new fisheries policy doing the rounds. A draft prepared by a small group of experts was circulated in 2002 for discussion. At the first round of discussions of this draft, to the considerable embarrassment of the Department of Fisheries, it was pointed out that there existed a full-fledged and duly approved fishery policy which was in fact promulgated during the earlier tenure of the same UDF government! The Director of Fisheries pleaded ignorance of this fact, very clearly highlighting the lack of institutional memory even for significant policy matters. The enthusiasm on this count waned. Then in 2004 another draft appeared on the state's official website.119

The severe financial constraints facing the state also resulted in a ‘go-slow’ of many social security measures which were the hard won benefits of the fishworker struggles of the 1980s. The subsidy and loan granting policies started in 1985 resulted in a substantial increase in the number of motorized fishing units operating in the state. The technological and investment divide between artisanal fishermen and those fishing on mechanised trawlers ceased to exist anymore. Both also fished unsustainably. The further liberalization of the Indian economy resulted in rising prices of capital equipment and fuel for outboard engines. The costs of fishing have soared. Fish harvests had stagnated between 530 000 and 560 000 tonnes over the decade period 1993–2003. Beach prices of fish were not rising rapidly. The inadequate returns from fishing left fishermen straddled with huge debts. This was further compounded because the issue of access to the resources remained totally unaddressed. Fishermen were confronted with very few occupational options but to continue fishing. Significantly, there has been very little coherent data and information about any of the above mentioned changes after 1990. As a result, it is difficult to make any informed judgments on the social and economic health of the fishery sector. To conclude that the whole marine fishery sector and the fishing communities in Kerala are today in a dilemma would be a gross understatement. Both seemed anchored in a stormy sea of unsustainability.

5.1.4 Hurdles to sustainability

The above diachronic elaboration of some of the salient turning points in Kerala's marine fishery over three decades point unequivocally to some important hurdles to attaining sustainability. My premise is that the fishery that I entered in 1973 was bio-ecologically and socially sustainable. The costs and earnings study of 1980/81 proved that the small-scale artisanal techniques were in themselves economically viable. Yet the participants were poor. At the local level, collective action and the creation of appropriate organisational interventions ‘from below’ were a solution to this apparent paradox. However, at the macro level, despite the state-sponsored organisational structures that were created ‘from above’, there was little change in the condition of the fisherfolk. We concluded that the control of such organisations by politicians, and the strong electoral compulsions for distribution of technological largesse, were at the core of actions which finally pushed the whole small-scale fishery also into unsustainable practices.

5.1.5 Poor Governance, Lack of Will and Pressure from Below

Poor governance and the lack of political will to make management decisions are without an iota of doubt among the important reasons for moving towards unsustainability. Between 1980 and 2004 there have been six changes in the government with the LDF and the UDF alternating in power. In the period 1980 to 1994 there was no stated fishery policy. During this period radical changes in the investment priorities and governance approaches came as a result of the sustained pressure from the fishermen's movements. In 1994 a policy statement was legislatively accepted when the UDF was in power. This was not altered by the LDF in its rule after 1996. Attempts were made to sincerely follow up the spirit of the 1994 policy by specific institutional initiatives, including most notably the aquarian reform idea. Between 1994 and 2001 the independent fishermen's union lost its cutting edge. The increasing dependence of artisanal fishermen on technology fixes and the re-emergence of caste/community identities reduced the fervour of sustained collective action. None of the radical policy proposals of this period were genuinely adopted by the fishermen unions as their own. They remained trapped in their own contradictions. The demand for the trawl ban continued to be their main banner for struggle. With the return to power of the UDF in 2001, rather than continue on the trajectory put in motion by them in 1994, or update it to meet the new developments, they made incoherent attempts to formulate a new policy. The result was impasse and confusion.

5.2 Lack of Secure Rights

Granting secure rights, exclusively to those who fish, was perceived to be the right direction to limit access to the coastal commons. There was an evolving political consensus for this idea. However, there were strong vested interests acting against closing access to the resource in this fashion. The re-surfacing of old identities such as caste and sectarian definitions of community are clear manifestations of this countervailing force. The longer the rights issue remains unresolved, the weaker becomes the momentum and collective ability to move towards sustainability.

5.2.1 Narrow Understanding of Fisheries Management

The decision to ban trawling in the monsoon months took ten years, three expert commissions and the annual feature of fishermen's struggles. Even in 2004, it was only after the fishermen's unions pressured the government that the decision to declare the ban was announced. However, a grave and creeping contradiction has evolved between the first total trawl ban in 1989 and the one in 2004. The ratio of levels of investment of artisanal craft-gear of the small-scale fishermen and that of the trawlers was no more 1:10 as in 1980. By 2004 the capital costs of several fishing units of artisanal fishermen were on average double the cost of the mechanised trawlers! Moreover, artisanal fishermen were adopting fishing techniques such as ring seines and mini-trawls that were at least as harmful to the marine ecosystem as bottom trawls. That during the monsoon, the former fished freely and the latter were banned, questioned the very rationale and resource management impact of the monsoon trawl ban.

Fisheries management concerns, if and when they become mainstream, should go beyond the bio-ecological realms. Fisheries management has now come to be equated to the monsoon trawl ban by the fishworkers, the politicians and the managers. The social and economic sustainability of the fisheries sector as a whole should be the foundational concern. But an engagement on these issues calls for much greater consensual discussions among stakeholders and more political sagacity. This also warrants that state fishery officers and planners make more structured efforts to assess and ascertain the emerging issues confronting this dynamic and evolving sector.

5.2.2 Inadequate Human Capacity

Capacity building and training are crucial elements in being able to more away from unsustainability. The staff of the Department of Fisheries (over 1 000), of whom at least half take decisions which impinge directly on the well-being of the fishers and the state of the fishery resources, need a clear reorientation of work perspectives. The mentality of achieving fisheries development through providing additional inputs - craft, gear and mechanical propulsion - must be thrown overboard. The focus must change to reducing the effort and enhancing the productivity measured per unit of investment, unit of cost or unit of energy expended. In short, a greater concern with resource management, ecological and economic efficiency. Retraining to appreciate these perspectives is paramount.

5.2.3 Poor Data and Information

The necessity for improved data and information for wise decision making which will get the fishery out of its current unsustainability can hardly be underestimated. The large scientific establishment has concentrated excessively on the natural resource. They also adopt a specie by specie approach, rather than a fishery or eco-system approach. Though more recently a greater degree of techno-economic studies have been undertaken, they remain in the academic realm with little impact on the policy-making processes. The real-time information on the fish economy from its technological, economic and socio-cultural perspectives has been largely left unattended. Much of it continues to be generated in the domain of the NGOs.120 The enormous knowledge that exists among the participants in the sector - the fishers, the traders, the exporters etc - has remained outside the realm of these state sponsored scientific institutions. Scientists have little regard for its validity, and when they do, there is no way to structure it into their disciplinary moulds.

5.2.4 Few Employment Alternatives

Lack of employment alternatives for the members of the fishing communities is an important cause for the unsustainable pressure on the fishery resource. The adoption of ‘appropriate technologies’ has also reduced the skill barriers that existed earlier. Today even the educated in the fishing communities have the option of investing in fishing and putting out to sea to ‘try their luck’. Such investment and employment options contribute to lowering the average yields. However, the characteristic of fluctuating fortunes of the fishery (and the probability of the chance bumper catch), act as important motivators for continued involvement of the youth even though average earnings from fishing are low. Considering that educated unemployment is a rampant problem in the state as a whole, this ‘return to fishing’ is no surprise.

5.2.5 Booming Demand

The underlying motivation for incessant fishing is the sustained demand for fish both from the domestic and international market. Beach prices of fish continue to increase at a faster pace than the overall commodity price index. But the producer's share of the consumer retail price is not expanding. This highlights the lack of producer influence and control on the lower ends of the marketing chain. The sordid failure of cooperatives initiated by the state to enter into fish marketing and the undue political control over their functioning made them impotent institutions. The lack of control over the first sale leaves fishermen little choice but to maximise their volume of harvest to enhance income.

5.2.6 Persistent Poverty

There is a strong perception that fishing communities as a whole continue to be perceived as among the poorest sections in the State. My interaction with them over the last three decades, my own studies of different aspects of their well-being, and my analysis of the available secondary data lead me to a more nuanced conclusion. The kind of abject poverty that I confronted in 1973 is now only confined to a few pockets. There has been an overall improvement in the quality of life - better housing, more literacy, significant improvements in health standards, and greater awareness of rights. The drudgery of fishing has vanished with the adoption of the outboard engines. But this has resulted in a total loss of significant occupational skills such as sailing. It has created a new form of ‘enslavement’ to the dictates of the multinational companies that produce the engines as they set the prices and phase out models. Incomes on average have increased because of the sustained increase in prices. The random occurrence of bumper harvests, the retention of the share system and the fact that the crew-share has not dropped below 50 percent of net earnings, provide a mirage against an overall deterioration of value added in the sector as a whole.121 But all this is against a backdrop of vastly increased indebtedness incurred for continuous technological upgradation and galloping running expenses. This reality has also lead to a new feature in the small-scale fishery - alarming asset and income inequalities. There is little reflection by fishermen unions or policy makers on these issues. The economic and social implications of this evolving reality in the sector point to further unsustainability of the fishery into the future.


Kerala's marine fishery - particularly its ‘small-scale’ sector - has evolved towards unsustainability partly by its own volition and significantly due to the inability of the state to constructively intervene to manage the coastal commons. The early initiatives of micro-level development interventions (1970s) and the subsequent success of larger collective action (1980s), highlight the realms of the possible and the vast innate potentials - human and material - that exist in the sector to transport it to sustainability by determined community action alone. When development paradigms are contested, as they have been in Kerala's fisheries, the state will necessarily intervene. However, the special character of any state is that it is the only institution that legitimately represents the interests of society as a whole and yet takes the predominant character of the special interest groups that effectively control it. This ambivalence often leads to schizophrenic actions by the state. The result is that all the stakeholders get the impression that ‘something is/will be done’. This scenario was very evident in Kerala over the last two decades. The net result has been the fostering of irrational choices and sub-optimal solutions to burning problems. The way out of this conundrum is for greater, more systematic and dedicated collusion by stakeholders with similar interests. In Kerala's marine fishery, this alludes to all those who perceive long term livelihood stakes in the fishery, and as a result of this, have a stake in the sustainability of the resource. This may be the crucial ‘label of identity’ to recognise compatriots in the common struggle for removing the hurdles to sustainability. The old unitary labels of class, caste, creed and community must give way to this.

There is a long way to go. A beginning must be made. Now.


Government of Kerala, 1994. Fisheries Development and Management Policy, Government Press, Trivandrum.

Government of Kerala, 1997. Report of the Task Force on Livelihood Secure Fishing Communities, State Planning Board, Trivandrum.

Kurien, J. 1980. Fishermen's Cooperative in Kerala: A Critique, BOBP/MIS 1, Madras.

Kurien, J. 1985. Technical Assistance Projects and Socio-Economic Change: The Norwegian Intervention in Kerala's Fisheries, Economic and Political Weekly, Bombay. Vol. 20, Bombay. 25p.

Kurien, J. 1992, Ruining the Commons and Responses of the Commoners: Coastal Overfishing and Fishermen's Actions in Kerala State, India, in Grassroots Environmental Action; People's Participation in Sustainable Development, Ghai and Vivian (eds), Routledge, London.

Kurien, J. 1995. The Kerala Model: Its Central Tendency and the ‘Outlier’, Social Scientist 23 New Delhi, pp. 13.

Kurien, J. 2004. Changing Profile of Poverty among Kerala's Fishing Communities: Are They Still Outliers? ( unpublished manuscript prepared for State Development Report).

Kurien, J. & Willmann, R. 1982, Economics of Artisanal and Mechanised Fisheries in Kerala, FAO/UNDP/WP 34, Madras.

Kurien, J. & Achari, TRT. 1990. Overfishing Along Kerala Coast: Causes and Consequences, Economic and Political Weekly, Bombay. Vol. 25.

Kurien, J. & Paul, A. 2000. Net for Social Safety; An Analysis of the Growth and Changing Compositoin of Social Security Programmes in the Fisheries Sector of Kerala State, India, Samudra Monograph, ICSF, Chennai.

United Nations, 1975. Poverty, Unemployment and Development Policy: A Case Study of Selected Issues with Reference to Kerala, New York.

98 The views expressed in this paper are solely those of the author, John Kurien, Fellow, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum India,

99 This was initially brought to international attention by a study prepared by the Centre for Development Studies in 1975 (UN, 1975). Thereafter many economists, including Amartya Sen have dealt at length with the factors that explained the outcomes of Kerala's development experience in comparative perspective. In popular writing, the Booker Prize novel “God of Small Things” by Arundathi Roy has spread the news!

100 Several species of fish was being exported internationally from this region for many centuries. The big markets were in Southeast Asia and the UK. There is record of fish manure from the region being sold in Japan, Argentina in the 19th century.

101 It was after two decades that I wrote challenging the universality of the Kerala human development experience by showing how and why fishing communities were ‘outliers’ (Kurien, 1995).

102 What began as a few fishermen confronting a landlord-financier-merchant all wrapped in one, turned out as a major challenge to the socio-economic status quo on the coast. This move of the fishermen to form a cooperative was opposed tooth and nail by the church, the politicians and the police on different grounds. I give details of these events in a paper published by the FAO/BOBP ( See Kurien, 1980).

103 India had a very restrictive import regime and any technological artefact could be imported only under very strict controls.

104 My association with this person, who had worked as economist with the INP, grew into a very fruitful collaboration of over two decades. We combined our efforts to influence policy makers and inform and educate the various stakeholders in the fishery - particularly the small-scale fishermen.

105 The idea of micro-finance much ahead of its time!

106 Today (2004) SIFFS has about 5 000 members and a sales turnover of over US$ 5 million. After over two decades this is a very small coverage. However, being a genuine people's organisation it will only expand at the pace at which fishermen, on their own volition, join its fold.

107 This was possible because the study was conducted by the NGO that my colleagues from Marianad village and I had set up. Our long association with the fishing communities in the state ensured their wholehearted participation. We called it ‘movement-oriented research’. This also accounted for greater credibility and accuracy of the data generated.

108 This study (Kurien and Willmann, 1982) was the first of its kind undertaken in a small-scale fishery using continuous real time monitoring of data over a full period of one year. It helped to highlight the great diversity of fishing techniques.

109 Fish production dropped from the peak of 490 000 tonnes in 1974 to 274 000 tonnes in 1980.

110 The idea was to start something on the lines of SIFFS. However, unlike in SIFFS, in the Matsyafed the real active fishermen are not involved in the decision-making bodies. Politicians from fishing castes dominated these bodies.

111 This innovation was spearheaded by the SIFFS which promoted the design of these new genre of fishing crafts with the help of the organisation called ITDG in UK set up by Dr. E F. Schumacher, author of “Small is Beautiful”.

112 There were political compulsions for doing this. The leader of one of the parties in the LDF had major interests in the export processing industry that would have been affected if the ban were implemented in this centre.

113 India was going through a very major foreign exchange crisis at this time. The trawler owners and the marine product exporters were able to use this as a major issue to scuttle the trawl ban.

114 Note that it was the same Chief Minster in power who in 1985 offered the technology package.

115 Intellectuals belonging to the communist party that led the LDF (then in the opposition) took the main initiative for the conference.

116 Though this policy was drafted at the time of the previous UDF government there was no attempt made to revise or change it. The LDF presumably found it an adequate and radical enough basis for their new approaches to the sector.

117 The representative of the independent fisherme's union included in the group did not come for this exposure to Norway.

118 Representatives of the independent fishermen's union were not included. This perhaps reflected the consensus of the political parties to keep them out.

119 It is embarrassing that this document is rather hastily drafted and replete with mistakes that show the literate state in poor light. For example there is reference to ‘World Food Organisation’ - presumably the Food and Agriculture Organisation; the ‘Responsible and Integrated Fisheries Guidelines’ - presumably the Code of Conduct for Responsible Fisheries; and the ‘World Trade Treaty’ - presumably the World Trade Organisation.

120 For example, the only census of fishing crafts, gear and motors across all the fishing villages in the state was done by the SIFFS. This is the only data available from which estimates of investment in the sector can be made. After the costs and earnings study undertaken in 1980/81, no efforts have been made by the state institutions for even periodic assessments despite the major changes that have occurred in the sector.

121 My recent assessment (Kurien, 2004) shows that the ratio of value added by the fishery sector to the total value of output of the sector has dropped significantly over the last three decades pointing to lower transformation efficiencies.

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