The fish in the sea. Who do they belong to? It’s a question that’s been asked for generations in all parts of the world. Fish and seafood sustain a multi-billion-dollar industry and help support hundreds of millions of people around the world.
In India, some 14 million people rely on the fishing industry for their livelihoods. There are more than 3,800 fishing villages dotted up and down its immense coastline. It’s an industry worth more than $2bn. But India is losing out.
Like so many other industries in this vast and vibrant country, it has become the victim of corruption and mismanagement, lining the pockets of a few at the expense of the many.
And it’s thanks to loopholes in a government-run scheme that allows foreign ships to deplete India’s fish and take them to other markets, with no benefit to India whatsoever.
This scheme is called the Letter of Permit (LoP).
And at the risk of simplifying what is a complex story, here is the crux of the matter:
The LoP basically gives foreign-owned ships access to Indian waters, without any regard for the amount of fish they catch, the revenues, and the impact on the marine ecology.
Under the LoP, many foreign owned ships retain their original national registrations [in many cases Taiwanese] while also flying the Indian flag - an illegal practice known as flag hopping.
They regularly move their catch to other vessels out at sea to be transported to other markets, without any benefit to India - a practice known as trans-shipping.
The loopholes in the LoP scheme are being flouted by foreign and Indian companies at every opportunity while the government sits idly by and watches. And it’s quickly depleting one of the world’s last healthy stocks of tuna.
Areeba Hamid, Greenpeace India’s oceans campaigner, says: “The LoP scheme symbolises everything that is wrong with the fisheries management in India.
"From dual registrations to trans-shipments that are unregulated, to shell companies in India that facilitate foreign vessels entering Indian waters, it is riddled with blatant violations … in fact, most of the vessels that operate under the LoP scheme do so by flouting every rule in the book.”
The scheme was set up to overcome a problem: India’s fishermen didn’t have the type of trawlers and equipment needed to exploit the deep oceans around the coast.
As per international law, all the marine resources within a 360km exclusion zone from the coastline belong to India. Only ships registered in India can exploit these waters.
So the LoP scheme was introduced, allowing Indian fishing firms to buy foreign vessels as long as they were re-registered to India, had an Indian crew, declared their catch and paid the necessary duties.
In theory, this was a good idea. In practice, it is riddled with violations and mismanagement.
Prithvi Raj runs his own fishing company in Andhra Pradesh. He participated in the LoP scheme for four years before his conscience wouldn’t allow it.
He told me he wrote to officials informing them of the way the scheme was being abused. No one would listen. But his whistleblowing didn’t go unnoticed. He received threats to stop talking.
Even his bank loans were suspended after he began speaking out about the losses to India’s fishing communities as a result of the LoP.
The fishing communities of India are united in their opposition to the scheme - which they say has brought them neither jobs nor income nor food security, while causing further deterioration in fish stocks.
President of the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Society, V Vivekanandan, says “a very valuable natural resource is being just handed over on a platter to foreign companies to use at their will with no benefits to our country”.
YGK Murthy, another fisheries industry official, demands that the “LoP scheme be scrapped immediately and no more licenses or permits be given".
The Indian government says it’s looking into allegations of abuse of the scheme, but no action has been taken yet and the scheme is still operational.
India’s marine resources are vast. With more than two million sq km of deep ocean to explore and exploit, India’s fisheries should be helping to develop a domestic industry and market.
The faulty LoP scheme makes this unlikely. Essentially, it’s a story of loss - of revenues, fish stocks, livelihoods and the marine environment.