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Economic liberalisation and gender dynamics in traditional small-scale fisheries: Reflections on the proposed EU-India free trade agreement

Focus on the Global South | August 2010

Economic liberalisation and gender dynamics in traditional small-scale fisheries: Reflections on the proposed EU-India free trade agreement

by Susana Barria and Rohan Dominic Mathews


Violation of the federal structure

Underlying the fundamental tension between the Union and Kerala Government on
Fisheries policy, is the deeper clash between neo-liberal policies, livelihoods of small-
scale producers’ and systemic ecosystem management. This conflict also emerges at the
international policy level, such as between the United Nations Convention on the Law of
the Sea and the World Trade Organisation. In the face of these conflicts and challenges, any
international commitment, like the Free Trade Agreement between the European Union
and India (EU-India FTA), or national legislation that marginalizes small-scale fishworkers
will constrain the scope for decentralised policy-making that seeks to recognize, protect
and enhance the rights and livelihoods of these small-scale fishworkers.

EU-India FTA is of a new generation of trade agreements, which are far more invasive in
nature. The prerogative of the executive in such matters cannot hold and these agreements
must be placed under scrutiny of elected representatives in the parliament — who represent
the constituencies that will be affected, including women and men fishworkers.

Export orientation impact on sustainability and food security

In the 70s, indiscriminate exploitation within export-oriented fisheries and the attractiveness
of a lucrative export market was followed by a radical decline in fish caught for local
consumption by the masses, threatening their food security, especially for the women. The
condition of overfishing directly affected the traditional fishing communities, which bore
the impact in terms of the shrinking of their livelihoods. The reduced landing of fish also
impacts fish vendors, mainly women further increasing their dependence on credit and
undermining their livelihood. The traditional fishermen adapted, but the investment
needed for such adaptation was large and took a toll on the sustainability of traditional
fishing activities, in terms of investment needed and technologies used.

The EU-India FTA further reinforces the export-led model for the fisheries sector. While
there is evidence of the adverse impacts of such a model, no impact assessment was made
public regarding the impacts on fishing communities’ livelihoods, environmental
sustainability and food security. At the same time, the agreement does not provide
efficient and accessible checks and balances to handle the same. The penetration of a neo-
liberal agenda further into Indian fisheries threatens the very existence of traditional
fishworkers and their livelihoods. The disavowal of traditional fisheries is detrimental to
the prospects for curbing further damage to the coastal ecosystem. Any such measure, in
the form an FTA intensifies the exclusion of fishworkers from the very sphere of production.

Deteriorated conditions of life and vulnerability of women fishworkers

The introduction of a strong export-orientation in the fisheries sector has reduced large
sustainable opportunities for several women and men fishworkers who require alternative
Economic Liberalisation and Gender Dynamics in Traditional Small-Scale Fisheries
activities to maintain an income. There has been a trend towards increased employment
of women from fishing communities in organized processing units. Migrant women form
the majority of the work force on a sub-contracting basis. Here they have no social
protection or unionizing rights, but instead face worrisome working conditions. The
deteriorating condition of life is seen as the reason for taking up such deplorable work.
The EU-India FTA furthers the same export oriented model for the fisheries sector and
there is no reason to expect that it will not further deteriorate conditions of life in
traditional fishing communities and directly increase the vulnerability of women in this

Women constitute the majority workforce in processing firms. These firms are expected to
increase their activity due to the preferential access provided in the FTA. Surplus labour,
especially women, have moved to modern fish processing units where work conditions
are deplorable and wages paltry. In this new social environment, patriarchal rules
redefine themselves, resulting in distinctions between masculine and feminine labour,
‘justifying’ workers being underpaid by firms that, in turn, are better able to compete on
the international market. In such conditions, the challenge one faces is the prospect of
decent work.

Threat from competition with EU players

The rules for investment of the EU-India FTA can invalidate the present policy that
regulates the operation of foreign fishing vessels in Indian waters. This would provide EU
fishing vessels access to Indian waters as well as landing rights. Alongside, through the
rules on trade in goods, this FTA requires for drastic cuts in import duties, giving EU
products a preferential access to the Indian market, as compared to other imported
products. The EU has requested cuts in import duties for fish found in Indian waters. In
such a situation where potential access to Indian waters is unrestricted, it would amount
to EU vessels landing duty-free fish that would compete with the local products in the
local markets, thereby threatening the livelihoods of fisherman (who will face competition
in the sea) and fish vendors – who are primarily women (who will face competition in the
market). The facilitated operation of EU companies in fish retailing would mean serious
competition for women fish vendors, by displacing them from the place they occupy now
– as the only vendors of good quality fresh fish on a day to day basis.

Abdication of protection from imports

EU marine exports to India may not be seen as a potential threat for local producers at
this point, but unforeseen competitive EU products could threaten local producers in the
future. Despite this, the provisions on trade in goods amounts to an abdication of the right
to apply import duties as a protective mechanism for producers at any point of time.

Benefits of increased exports to bypass fishworkers

The EU-India FTA is expected to increase marine exports from India; however, the
foreseeable beneficiaries would be larger fishing conglomerates and exporters owing to
the systemic marginalization of small-scale fishworkers in the export market because of
the investment required.

Intensification of the pressure on coastal land

The EU-India FTA provides for facilitation of investments, which could include access to
coastal land for setting up any kind of economic operation, thus, intensifying pressure on
access to coastal land. Infrastructure development activity on coastal land not only affects
livelihoods, but interferes with the functioning of fishing communities by encroaching
upon village lands and housing spaces. These activities also cause high levels of pollution
and disturb the ecological balance in coastal areas.

Situation of policy freeze

Policy frameworks on fisheries are being debated at the Kerala state level (the Inland
Fisheries Bill is a work in progress) and central level (with at least 3 fisheries legislations
in the pipeline – Costal Regulation Zone Notification, Traditional COastal and Marine
Fisherfolk Bill and the Fishworkers Act and Marine Fisheries Bill), often as part of a
controversial yet, democratic process of consultation with the fishing communities.
Signing a comprehensive treaty such as the EU-India FTA that runs counter to the
principle of subsidiarity and federalism could compromise these processes and result in
a policy freeze environment. It is therefore prudent that until a robust domestic legislative
framework is in place, commitments under fisheries be put on hold.

 source: Focus/ICR