“In my father’s time, there used to be so many fish that we would catch enough in just a few hours. Now, being a fisherman has become very expensive,” Ramji, a fisherman from Kutch, Gujarat, told Re:Set.
With less fish in nearby shores, fishworkers like Ramji are forced to go into deep waters to sustain their living which means increased cost of fuel, fishing gear and human capital. But the primary reason for them to wade further into the sea is environmental pollution and climate change.
Like much of the global south, India has not been exempt from the harsh effects of climate change. According to the Global Climate Risk Index, a research paper published in 2019, India ranked seventh among all the countries affected by climate change. Over the last decade, the country has seen devastating floods, droughts, landslides and heat waves amongst several other crises. While each incident — and its casualties — are marked off into statistics, India’s most vulnerable communities, the people who routinely live through these disasters, are also living through a silent mental health crisis.
In the early 2000s in Gujarat, several ports and red industries began cropping up on its vast coast, cutting access to and encroaching traditional fisherfolk land and also polluting the land and the sea. Since then, Pagadia fishing — the traditional fishing method in Kutch which has sustained fishworkers for generations — has disappeared almost entirely.
“If the water is not suitable for fish to breed, they will go to waters where the conditions are more suitable. That means we also have to go deeper into the sea,” Ramji said. “To go that far into the sea, we need bigger boats which are very costly.”
A bigger boat in this case is a trawler — a mechanized fishing vessel that is about three times the size of a simple fishing boat. These trawlers hold up to a crew of eight people and are usually taken deep into the sea for a fortnight. “For a trawler trip, we need money for diesel, to pay the crew, food and ration for the 15 days and repair costs,” Ramji said. “Each trip costs between two to three lakhs ($2,725-$4,087 USD). How do we get that kind of money?”
The majority of fisherfolk don’t and struggle to make ends meet. So they borrow money from formal and informal lenders at a high interest rate. Ramji’s nephew, Govind, borrowed two lakhs ($2,725 USD) from money lenders to buy a trawler. When he was unable to repay them, he was harassed by the usurer. This was in addition to the costs he was accumulating for each fishing trip and its allied expenses.
Unable to keep up with the mounting pressure, Govind, the sole earner in his family, died of suicide in 2017, leaving behind his wife and three young kids. After his death, his children were forced to drop out of school. His wife, Sobhana and their daughter work for paltry wages in houses close by and wait for the two sons to become teenagers so they can work on trawlers to help sustain the family, Ramji said.
This pattern is common among Gujarat’s fishermen. Unable to find enough catch, most of them either borrow money to buy trawlers or migrate to other coasts where they can work. Neither gives enough money for them to run a family, forcing many to take out loans. What follows is a cycle of debt, harassment from money lenders and in some cases, the fishworker or boat owner dying of suicide, with the burden of the debt falling on their wives or relatives.
This is the cost of climate change and environmental pollution for India’s most vulnerable communities and it’s not just the fisherfolk feeling the brunt on it. In the neighbouring state of Maharashtra, the same story is playing out among farmers.
A crop without yield
Between 2001 and 2019, over 32,000 farmers have died of suicide just in Maharashtra. Despite their plight making headlines nearly every year, the issue of farmer suicides is a short-lived memory in the country.
It became a talking point when Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region saw a massive spurt in farmer suicides from the mid 2000s. Nearly 8,000 farmers died of suicide in the region between 2013 and 2019 with this spilling over to neighbouring Marathwada in 2011 and 2012.
Geographically, Marathwada is not a region that receives high rainfall and this was further exacerbated when the droughts began in 2012.
“In the entire season of monsoon, there would be only 10 days of rain of which six were only light patters,” said Kavitha Iyer, a journalist and author who has been reporting from there for over a decade. Drought-led crop failure for several, consecutive years left farmers with no money to fend for themselves or their families. Similar to fisherfolk, the same cycle of borrowing money followed and this coupled with crop failure drove many to die of suicide.
But suicide is the final, extreme step in what is a widespread mental health crises among farmers, fishworkers and their families in India.
Operational chains like fishing and farming require the whole family to work. While men go into the sea or farm, women are tasked with repairing fishing nets, cleaning and selling the catch, feeding livestock, and tending to the crops. Teenagers in the family either accompany the men on fishing trips or help with farming. Amidst working tirelessly to make ends meet, concepts like mental health and self-care are out of reach and unimaginable. Mental health remains a privileged concept in India where it is still largely stigmatized and inaccessible. So a mental health crisis for one person can affect everyone in the family.
In 2015, Swati Pitale a teenager from Marathwada learned that her family was unable to afford a ₹260 ($3.55 USD) bus pass for her daily commute to college. Realizing that her education would only add to the expenses of her family, who were already in deep debt, Pitale died by suicide.
Vidarbha and surrounding areas, including Marathwada, have seen a surge in what is called altruistic suicides. Children from here, some as young as 15, often take their own lives so that they don’t burden their families with additional costs.
Only the beginning
When farmer suicides hit mainstream news and got to a point where it could no longer be ignored, central and state governments took some measures, including loan waivers and a counseling programme called Prerna Prakalp to prevent farmer suicides in Maharashtra. In 2016, the Tamil Nadu state government earmarked ₹3 lakhs ($4,087 USD) for each family who had a farmer die of suicide. But those living and working in these regions say even these measures are riddled with problems.
In 2017, farmers in Tamil Nadu were enraged when the state government told the Supreme Court that there had been no farmer suicides due to droughts. “The government doesn’t mark every farmer suicide to crop failure. They say it’s due to spousal conflicts or health conditions,” P. Shanmugam, a member of the All India Kisan Sabha, the peasants front of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) that works for farmers’ rights, told Re:Set
For decades, fishing communities have stood up to governments.
In Maharashtra, the Prerna Prakalp program remains severely understaffed, thereby reducing the impact it was meant to have among the state’s farmers. “You can’t have a one-solution-fits-all model for a complex and nuanced subject like farmer suicides,” Iyer said.
Meanwhile for fishworkers, even these measures are out of reach. “There is severe pressure from the central government to eliminate the fishworkers and their livelihoods along the coastline,” said Olencio Simoes, the General Secretary of the National Fishworkers Forum. He alludes to the the government’s focus on aquaculture and fish farming (breeding fish in manmade, artificial water enclosures), and policies like Sagarmala — which incentivizes building polluting ports and commercialization of the coasts — are not sustainable . This has been forcing large scale displacement of traditional, coastal fishworkers, further pushing them into deep poverty.
Laws like the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) which are meant to protect the coast and the livelihoods of fishworkers have been diluted and amended to allow for more industrialization at the cost of environmental regulations.
For decades, fishing communities have stood up to governments and industries and fought for their rights with resilience. But according to Simoes, this is hard to sustain if the current is always against them. “If the government continues on this same path, it will lead to mass suicides among fishworkers.”