By Ajay Chacko May. 04, 2020
Chimbai, a little fishing village snuggled between Bandra’s highrises, has remained unaffected by Covid-19, even though the neighbourhood has had its share of the outbreak. Chimbai’s fisherfolk have escaped the disease so far, will they be able to ride out the wave of economic desperation?
The fishing villages of Mumbai, little pockets where Mumbai’s “original inhabitants” live by the sea, have made some depressing news when it comes to Covid-19 outbreaks. The worst affected has been Worli Koliwada, toward the city’s southern part. But Chimbai, the little fishing village snuggled between two luxury stretches of Bandra’s promenades, has been unaffected even though Bandra has had its share of the outbreak. But there’s not a single Covid positive case here.
I’ve lived close to Chimbai for the better part of six years now, but it’s only now as I navigate my way through the maze of single- and double-storey houses towards the jetty that I notice that – compared to the other fishing villages – there is relative affluence here. It’s cleaner than most urban villages and resists the brackets of “slums” or “shanties” that we’d usually associate it with.
Chimbai village resembles the crowded fishing blocks of Margao more than Dharavi. People are wearing masks, standing at six-feet distance in shops, and there are barricades at the entrance and exit dotting the main roads to prevent “outsiders” from meandering in and out. Forget police barricades that prevent absolutely none of our able citizens. It’s apparent that the Chimbai community has taken it upon itself to monitor access and check people regularly in addition to diligently practicing what we now understand as basic Covid hygiene. Nothing unusual, common sense with a tinge of vigilantism, but nothing coercive. And it’s worked.
Fishermen of Chimbai have a simple question: How will our daily fishing trip increase the risk of infection?
Yet, these fisherman are at sea. Naresh Gohil is a middle-aged third-generation fisherman who agreed to talk to me on the condition that he continues to mend his nets. Gohil tells me that there are around 200 small boats here in Chimbai and it supports a population of around 1,000 local fisherfolk. Each boat would typically get ₹5,000 bucks worth of catch every day on good days. On an average, the community here sells around ₹1-1.125 cr worth of fish every month. For the past month and a half they haven’t been able to operate even at 5% of the overall output and with the monsoon fast approaching there seems to be no hope.
Since April 20 fishing has been technically allowed by the government but the customs boats shoo them back when they venture out into the sea. They manage to sneak out and catch just about enough fish to feed the family.
This is the constant thread during the conversations I have with other men from the village: Young Manoj who also has a job at a local gymkhana said that he doesn’t expect doles from the government, but simply the permission to restart their trade. The irony, according to all the men I meet, is that despite their relative success in managing to stay Covid-free, their fate is actually not in their hands. It is in the hands of whoever interprets government directives and whichever department oversees the execution.
Nothing unusual, common sense with a tinge of vigilantism, but nothing coercive.
They have a simple question: How will our daily fishing trip increase the risk of infection? At least credit us for the fact that we have controlled it and have zero cases so far despite the lack of any government intervention and allow us to make our living. It is hardly an unfair ask. As this report in Hakai Magazine, titled “India’s Fishers Have Been Crushed by COVID-19” points out, “In mid-April, India’s government issued a revised set of guidelines allowing the fishing sector to operate amid the lockdown. But for many it was too late. A large part of the sector is unable to function, reeling under the shock of losses in money and staff. A recent report published by India’s Central Institute of Fisheries Technology in Kerala estimates that the marine fisheries sector has incurred a monthly loss of US $896-million.”
The interpretation of what is allowed and not allowed in the most recent directive from the government, suggests a central control at work without any consideration for ground-level realities. It isn’t just the fishermen who live in this village – across the supply chain, there are losses. And that will significantly dent our economy in the months to come. According to this report, “the fisheries sector contributed about ₹1.75 lakh crore to Gross Value Added in 2017-18. Marine products are the most important agricultural commodity exported, accounting for close to $6.7 billion, growing more than 10 per cent per year, CN Ravishankar, Director, CIFT, said.”
It isn’t just the fishermen who live in this village – across the supply chain, there are losses.
As Kaushik Basu points out, we run the risk of going back to the license-permit raj if we continue to create complex tables of what is allowed and create onerous conditions that need to be met, mostly at the subjective interpretation of central, state, local authorities and bureaucrats. This is a recipe for pushing a proud people like the ones I met in Chimbai back to poverty and desperation.
No bureaucrat will be able understand the nuances in local trades and communities, their interdependence and relationships, and tabulate all possibilities on a neat excel sheet. The basic starting point of trusting our people is missing from this equation of top-down directives. Instead, if we were to trust the wisdom of our people and communities like Chimbai has shown, one can prevent infection spreads as well as start off their trades without compromising on health. After all, Chimbai has shown us that it’s possible.