In the face of stiff resistance by the India Committee of the Netherlands, the proposed financing of any more trawlers in excess of the nine already delivered for India from the Dutch Government's development aid funds was shelved for some time. But indications are that the controversial trawler issue might be discussed at the forthcoming Indo-Dutch aid-spending negotiations in New Delhi scheduled for next month. The India Committee first pointed out the conflicting interests between the Dutch trawler programme and the declared policy of the Dutch Ministry of Development Cooperation, aiming at "improving" the living conditions of the poorest groups in developing countries. There are no two opinions on the harmful effects of trawlers because they mainly operate in coastal waters instead of going into deep-sea fishing zones, thereby forcing the traditional fishing community, one of the poorest, sections of India, to starve.
Under the cover of "the experimental deep-sea fishing programme" grounds are said to have been prepared for another Dutch trawler deal. During the Sixth Five Year Plan India is likely to introduce 350 trawlers in addition to the existing fleet of 6000 mechanised boats and trawlers with a view to boosting prawn exports. If outright import faces rough weather, Indo-Dutch joint ventures may be floated to build most of the 350 trawlers in the Indian shipyards. This is the only option left for the governments of the two countries to pacify popular protests against the Dutch trawler business.
If past experience is any guide, the mechanised boats supposed to operate in deep sea confine themselves to coastal waters. What is more, prawn catches along the Indian coast are sharply declining. The days are not far when Indian shallow waters will be totally devoid of prawns. The vested interests are determined to price out of the market some 200,000 non-mechanised boats. In unequal competitions without official safeguards, the traditional fishermen will have to die or switch over to some other informal sector for survival. The National Forum, an organisation of 13 major regional fishermen's unions, has been agitating for a new Marine Act ensuring the rights of the fishermen since 1978, without much success. True, three coastal States have enacted laws in conformity with the centrally drafted model Marine Bill but implementation of law is another matter. In Goa non-implementation of the Marine Regulation Act, 1980, led to a series of protest demonstrations and
relay hungerstrike by the traditional fishermen.
The reckless poaching of prawns in shallow waters by trawlers and the export of seafood - the sky is the limit for the exporters - are against our national interest. The National Forum has been campaigning here and abroad against the fishing policy of the Indian Government. The India Committee too has done a commendable job by exposing the Dutch manoeuvres.
The fishermen demand the right to fish in a zone of 20 km from the coast. Sometimes violent clashes occur over this demand. If trawlers are allowed to patrol as they please, more bloody clashes await the coastal villages in the near future. Interestingly, the political parties, left and right, have been conspicuously silent over this burning issue affecting the livelihood of six million families.