Fish and Small Fish Vendors – A Social Assessment
Fish contains very high quality protein, rich in many beneficial minerals and vitamins. About 80 crores people of our country eat fish. Compared to 1961, the per capita fish consumption has increased more than 3 times. Fish constitutes more than 13% of the total animal protein consumed by the people of our country. Save and except milk, fish provides largest supply of animal protein for the people of our country.
A very important aspect of fish as food stuff is that it is available at wide price range – from low to high and it is available in large city markets as well as in the small markets of remote villages. The fish vendors even reach the doorsteps of the households in different localities to sell fish. And that is why fish and small fish sellers play a crucial role in ensuring food security and maintaining nutritional status in our society.
The primary producers of fish resources i.e. the fishers and fish farmers who catch or produce fish are ultimately dependent on these retailers or small fish vendors for selling their produce. The fishers and fish farmers would not get any return from the fish they produced if the fish vendors did not sell the fish.
Yet, there is no official government account of the total number of small-scale fish sellers or small fish vendors in our country. In a rough and conservative gross estimate, it should be close to 30 lakhs. The number is crucial for two reasons. First, it has introduced a vast, Omni present system of fish supply to customers. Second, it has created one of the largest employment opportunities.
Most of the fish vendors engaged in retail marketing of fish across the country (more than 80 per cent) are women. In some states like West Bengal and Odisha, the number of female fish vendors is slightly less than that of males, but not less than 35 per cent. Therefore, socially, this field has a special role in maintaining the gender balance in employment.
Small Fish Vendor – The Anal of Perpetual Neglect and Deprivation
Socially very important sector of fish vending suffers from extreme neglect and deprivation. The neglect and deprivation hurt not only the fish vendors, but also the society as a whole.
Fish vendors face difficulties in getting official recognition as fish workers or fisher people. They are far behind fishers and fish farmers in getting Government identity cards as fish worker.
In their attempt to raise money for collecting fish for selling, they are exploited every day by moneylenders and usurers. Accessing institutional (Bank) finance remain beyond their reach.
Every day the fish vendors face disorder and mismanagement while collecting fish from the fish landing centers and wholesale fish depots. More often than not there are malpractices in auctioning. Jostling and pushing make it very difficult for the aged and women fish vendors to have a fair participation in bidding. The moneyed and the powerful always take advantage over the poor and weak fish vendors. Understandably, the women fish vendors are the worst sufferer.
Fish vendors need transport to carry the fish from fish depots, sea side fish landing centres or other fish production centres to the fish markets or localities. Fish vendors carry the fish by bus, pick-up van, motorcycle, rickshaw van and bicycle or even on their head. Fish vendors, especially female fish vendors, face severe difficulties due to financial constraints and lack of transportation. The allocation of bicycles, motorbikes or cold boxes provided by the government often goes to the supporters of ruling political parties, most of whom do not even belong to fishing communities..
Although fish is rich in food quality, it is a highly perishable commodity. In order to maintain the quality of the fish, it is very important to store it in cold storage from collection to sale. Unfortunately, the poor fish vendors do not have good quality cold boxes. As a result, on the one hand, fish buyers do not get better quality fish, and on the other hand, poor fish sellers have to sell the fish at a lower price every day at the end of the market, sometimes they simply have to throw away the rotten fish.
The cold boxes, bi-cycles, urns, weighing balances given free of cost under Government schemes are mostly taken away by leaders of ruling political parties and distributed among their followers – even if they are not fish vendors.
In most cases, fish vendors are forced to sell fish sitting by sewers or roadsides or in open spaces, often in very unhealthy environments. Even where the market is available, there is lack of seating and storing facilities, with inadequate toilet and water facilities. Night fish markets lack lighting. Fish is sold in an unhygienic and dirty environment. The situation is so common that the “fish market” in common parlance means a dirty, stinking place. Not only fish sellers, but fish buyers also suffer from this. Possibilities of contracting infection put food security and health safety at risk. The initiative of government, municipalities and panchayats to modernize the fish markets is almost non-existent.
And in the few places where modern big fish markets are set up, it becomes impossible for the poor small fish vendors to meet the demand for selami or rent in order to get a proper place to sit in the market. Eventually the market is occupied by rich traders capable of making big investment.
The lack of toilets and restrooms in the coastal fish landing centres, wholesale fish depots and retail fish markets is a major problem for women fish vendors.
Social security for small fish vendors is also severely neglected. Lacking proper housing, most of them spend their days with their families in shacks, slums or dilapidated mud huts. Political nepotism and their inability to pay bribes deprive them of government housing schemes for the economically backward sections. There is no life insurance or medical insurance opportunities for them. Elderly or disabled fishermen do not get retirement allowance. There is no widow allowance for the helpless widows of deceased fish vendors. Marine fishers get special allowances or savings cum relief schemes during fishing ban period, whereas the fish vendors who bring fish to market from the coast do not get that assistance. There is no education allowance for the children of poor fish vendors.
On top of this, there is regular harassment by local extortionists. A class of local musclemen rob the poor and innocent fish vendors of their hard earned money. If anybody protests, he or she is heckled, is not be allowed to sit in the market and sell fish or the fish is looted.
In spite of and with this mountainous burden of neglect, deprivation, corruption and nepotism the fish vendors carry on selling fish to earn two square meals a day. And thus cheap fish is made available in markets. People’s palate and appetite are satiated. And their health is gets protected.
But how long will this neglect and deprivation last? Can’t the fish vendors expect just and responsible behavior from the society and the government?
Small Scale Fish Vendors Need
End of Deprivation
Right to Live with Dignity
Small fish vendors may be poor but they are not beggars. They work hard to sell fish in markets and localities enduring untold hardships, neglects and humiliations. Their efforts not only provide livelihood to themselves, but also caters fresh fish to consumers far and near. Fishermen and fish farmers also get the value of the fish of their hard labour because the fish vendors sell fish. A decent and dignified livelihood is inalienable human right of fish vendors. On the other hand our society and government bear the responsibility to ensure decency of livelihood and social security for the small fish vendors.
The following demands need to be seriously considered and met immediately –
Formulation of a National Fish Vendor Policy – A national uniform policy-guideline is needed to recognize the right to livelihood of fish vendors spread across the country and to ensure necessary facilities to cater fish to consumers in healthy and hygienic manner. Each state may enact necessary legislation and issue notices in accordance with it.
Official Identity Card in Recognition of the Occupational Dignity of Fish Vendors – Official identity card is the initial recognition of the occupational dignity of fish vendors. This is the first step towards acquiring occupational entitlements. It is also necessary to prepare a database for provisioning of occupational facilities to fish vendors. Every fish vendor needs to be provided with an official identity card on urgent basis.
Low Interest Working Capital for Fish Vendors – It is very important to protect small fish vendors from exploitation of moneylenders, usurers or micro finance companies. The government has the necessary resources for this. There are institutions like Nationalised Banks or Agricultural and Cooperative Banks. There is lack of necessary intention, initiative and management. Even in the case of extension of Kishan Credit Card loan for fisheries sector or Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampad Yojana (PMMSY), small scale fish vendors are facing difficulty to access the facilities though fish vendors are eligible beneficiaries.
Arrangements for Fish Transportation – Arrangement of public transport system (buses, trucks etc.) or private facilities like bicycles, motorbikes, pick-up vans etc. on easy terms and with subsidy should be made for fish vendors to bring fish from the fish landing centers on the coast, fish production places and wholesale fish depots.
Fish Markets with Suitable Facilities – Immediate construction, reconstruction and renovation of fish markets are required to provide much needed facilities to both fish sellers and buyers and for discharging larger responsibility to ensure food security, health safety and nutritional status of the society. Every fish market, big or small, needs to have platforms, sheds, drainage channels, adequate space for selling and storing fish, adequate water, necessary lighting, toilets, and regular cleaning. Especially for female fish vendors, there is a special need for rest areas including toilets and crèche facilities. The government, municipalities and panchayats must take immediate action on this.
Cold Box and Cold Storage for Fish Storage & Preservation – To maintain the quality of fast perishable food stuff like fish and to save the fish vendors from daily losses, the small fish vendors should be provided with cold boxes for fish storage on easy terms and with subsidy. Cold storage facilities should be set up in large markets for collective storage of fish.
Modern Weighing Machines, Trays and Improvised Cycle Vans for Selling Fish – Fish vendors need to be provided with modern digital weighing machines and trays. Mobile fish vendors need improvised cycle vans with necessary facilities for selling fish on easy terms and with subsidies for fish sales.
Savings cum Relief Scheme and Livelihood Allowance for Fish Vendors – Marine and inland fishers get the benefit of ‘saving and relief scheme’ as livelihood assistance during fishing ban period or lean season for fish harvesting. In addition, different states have introduced livelihood allowances for fishers during this period. But fish vendors do not get this assistance or benefit. This is an abuse of social justice. The Savings Cum Relief Scheme and livelihood allowances should be introduced immediately for fish vendors to provide assistance during fishing ban period or lean harvesting season.
Assistance to Form Co-operative Society of Fish Vendors – It is necessary to ensure all possible assistance from government in the formation and management of small scale fish vendor cooperative societies. It is important to keep in mind that these deprived, neglected, impoverished fishermen can make a big stride forward towards self-empowerment through collective economic initiatives like cooperatives. It is the responsibility of the Governments to help build their capacity to help themselves.
Social Security for Fish Vendors – Steps must be taken to ensure the social security of the small scale fish vendors so that they can continue to provide the social services by providing fish in the markets and neighborhoods. Comprehensive social security scheme that includes allowances for retirement due to old age and any kind of disability, life and medical insurance, housing and children’s education etc. need to be introduced for small scale fish vendors.
Preference for Women Fish Vendors – Women constitute much larger part of fish vendors. They are relatively neglected and have to pursue their livelihood activities with greater difficulty. Government needs to adopt sensitive and effective policies for the development of this large section of fish workers. On the one hand there should be women fish vendor specific benefit schemes and women fish vendors should have preferential access to general benefit schemes. There should be special facilities for women fish vendors in transportation of fish. There is a need to provide basic facilities like toilet, rest room and crèche for women fish vendors in the wholesale and retail fish markets. In the formation of cooperative societies, priority should be given to women fish vendors.
Protection from E-Market Entrepreneurs – Introduction of e-marketing is going to hard hit the small scale fish vendors. E-markets and e-trading of fish and fish products should have mandatory safeguards for small scale fish vendors and exclusively conducted by their cooperatives or collectives.
Stopping Extortion of Fish Vendors – The harassment of small scale fish vendors by local extortionists is common. This hinders the fish vendors’ livelihood and robs them of their hard-earned money. The government should give effective instructions to the local police administration to take strict action in this regard and keep a close vigil in the matter.
The Right of Participation in Matters that Affect the Livelihood of Fish Vendors – This right is very important and has far-reaching significance. Participation of the fish vendors must be ensured in the management and control of the following areas:
- In conducting and controlling fish auctions at fish warehouses and coastal fish landing centers.
- In the management of fish retail markets.
- In setting up transport arrangements for fish vendors.
- No e-marketing or e-trading of fish and fish products without fish vendors’ cooperatives or SHGs.
- To declare eviction of fish vendors from designated or undesignated fish selling places without their consent and proper rehabilitation as completely illegal. If they are really needed to be shifted then their participation in the whole process of assessment of the need to shift them including their rehabilitation has to be ensured.
- Participation in the planning and implementation of various support schemes for fish vendors including issuance of identity cards. The right of the fish vendors to participate in and control planning and implementation of various rights and entitlements of fish vendors including issuance of identity cards through their associations, co-operative societies or unions in order to preempt malpractices and misappropriations.