Congress MP Rahul Gandhi repeatedly called for a dedicated fisheries ministry that would serve the interests of fisherfolk in the country during the recent election campaigns in the Solai Nagar area of Puducherry and Kollam in Kerala.

"Just like our farmers farm the land, you farm the sea. The farmers have their ministry in Delhi. You don't have a ministry in Delhi. No one speaks for you in Delhi. So the first thing I would like to do is have a ministry dedicated to the fishermen of our country, so your issues can be protected and defended across the country." Gandhi said while addressing the fisherfolk in Kollam, Kerala.

While his claim drew flak from several union ministers of the ruling party, Gandhi doubled down on his statement and highlighted the need of an "independent and dedicated ministry of fisheries and not just a department within a ministry." Currently the Department of Fisheries which solely deals with fishing is one of the two departments that falls under the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying. His claim has also been fact- checked by BOOM, a fact-checking website. The ministry was formed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in May 2019 and is currently headed by Union Minister Giriraj Singh. Prior to February 2019, issues pertaining to fisherfolk were handled by the Department of Fisheries under the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare.

Although a fisheries department exists under the Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying, a standalone fisheries ministry and a fisheries council of India is imperative for the welfare of the fishing community in the country, experts say.

The fisheries sector is identified as a major factor contributing to food security in the country -- employing more than 14.5 million people living near coastal regions and contributing to 1.07% of the GDP and 5.37% of the agricultural GDP, latest available data show.

"India has a long coastline of 8200 kms, 2.02 million square kms of exclusive economic zone, 0.52 million square kms of continental shelf area, 1.97 lakh kms of rivers, 3.15 million hectares (mh) of reservoirs, 2.35 mh of ponds and lakes and 0.2 mh of brackish water," said Dr Shivakumar Magada, professor and head of the Fisheries Research and Information Centre, Bengaluru, Karnataka. We also have 2,200 different species of fish and 31 fisheries colleges in the country, he said.

"Furthermore, animal husbandry management and its principles are totally different from fisheries; dealing with aquatic life is a different science. India is the second largest producer of fish in the world, next only to China; ranks fourth in marine fish production and second in aquaculture-- producing about 13.6 million metric tons of fish per annum. Since we're one of the leading fish producing nations in the world, why can't we have a standalone ministry and fisheries council in the country?" Magada asked.

'Aggressive development' and increasing human interventions

Experts called attention to the large scale development near coastal regions and on how it's proving detrimental to coastal livelihood and ecology. "The main concern that requires immediate attention is the eroding coast," A.J Vijayan, member of the National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF), an organization that represents the grievances of fisher workers in India told FactChecker. "Man made interventions have disturbed the natural sediment movement near the coastline. This has resulted in destruction of homes of coastal communities," he said.

Nearly 34% of the coastline has already been eroded, according to a 2018 report by the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR). A Lok Sabha response states that the government has identified 98 coastal erosion hotspots in eleven coastal states and union territories.

"Almost 70% of Kerala's shoreline has been eroded. This has especially affected the shoreline fisher workers. There is a fishing method called shore fishing where people stand on the shore and pull the net. It's mainly the older fishermen who depend on this kind of fishing and when you lose the shore due to erosion this method cannot be used," Vijayan said

The Fisheries department saw a 48% increase in budget allocations from Rs 825 crore in 2020-21 to Rs 1,220 crore in 2021-22. While allocations for the centrally sponsored Blue Revolution scheme doubled, with the new Pradhan Mantri Matsya Samada Yojana (PMMSY) getting Rs 1000 crore, experts question its utilization.

"The government solely focuses in terms of generating export revenue; schemes are being allocated to bigger corporates. This mostly helps fish farmers and not the traditional fisherfolk who go to sea," said Olencio Simoes, vice chairperson of the National Fishworkers' Forum (NFF), Goa. "Big corporations have over the ports, airports and railways.Soon they will have complete control over the water of India as well where aquaculture and mariculture will be the only form of fishing in the near future," said Simoes. He also added that the focus from 'capture to aquaculture would be detrimental to fisherfolks -- -- especially ones below the poverty line.

Experts have also raised their concern on the soaring fuel prices. "Most crafts are motorized. When competition increases, fishermen are forced to have a motor to continue fishing. Now with the increasing cost of fuel this is a huge issue. Very often the fishers don't get enough catch to meet the running cost of daily fishing because the fuel price is so high," Vijayan of NFF told FactChecker.

Need for a separate ministry for the welfare of fisherfolk in India

Fishing communities in inland areas tend to be affected more than ones near the coasts because coastal fisher groups are large in size and are better represented by unions, according to experts. "The fishing communities in Kerala and Tamil Nadu are large whereas inland fisher workers do not have a say when their needs aren't met.," said Magada of the Fisheries Research and Information Centre, Bengaluru.

In addition, inland communities don't have the necessary infrastructure to sell fish in a decent surrounding; some are forced to sell fish near the drainage of roads. There is no established cold chain and 20-25% of fish is wasted after harvest, he said.

There is an urgent need to provide health insurance to all fisherfolk and upgrade fisheries research and infrastructure in the country. Apart from a separate ministry of fisheries, it is also necessary to form a fisheries council of India to address the issue of the dwindling endemic fish species and to ensure conservation aquatic resources, Mogada said.