1. Rise in unvaccinated children in India
Their number doubled to over two million owing to pandemic, says data published by WHO, UNICEF
The number of children in India who were unvaccinated or missed their first dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTP) combined vaccine doubled due to the pandemic, rising from 1.4 million in 2019 to 2.7 million in 2021, as the world recorded the largest sustained decline in childhood vaccinations in approximately 30 years, according to official data published by the WHO and UNICEF.
The increase in zero dose, or those who missed their first dose of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis, between 2019 and 2021 is the “first time ever there has been a decline in evaluated coverage in immunisation for India as a whole,” Dr. Mainak Chatterjee, Health Specialist at UNICEF India, told The Hindu.
Though immunisation coverage continues to decline the world over, India was able to arrest the trend between 2020 and 2021. The number of children with zero dose rose sharply to three million in 2020. But a further backsliding was prevented and the number dropped to 2.7 million in 2021 due to catchup programmes such as the third Intensified Mission Indradhanush (IMI), notes the WHO-UNICEF report.
Nearly 25 million children are born every year in India.
Until the pandemic, India steadily improved immunisation coverage from 43% during the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) -3 (2005-2006), to 62% in the NFHS-4 between 2015 and 2016 and the NFHS-5 between 2019 and 2021.
India started the fourth round of IMI from February, which is expected to further reduce the number of unvaccinated children in the next round of WHO and UNICEF estimates of national immunisation coverage in 2023, adds Dr. Chatterjee. Annually, India vaccinates more than 30 million pregnant women and 27 million children through the Universal Immunisation Programme.
Globally, the percentage of children who received three doses of the vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTP3) — a marker for immunisation coverage within and across countries — fell five percentage points between 2019 and 2021 to 81%.
As a result, 25 million children missed out on one or more doses of DTP through routine immunisation services in 2021 alone. This is two million more than those who missed out in 2020 and six million more than in 2019, highlighting the growing number of children at risk from devastating but preventable diseases.
“This is a red alert for child health. We are witnessing the largest sustained drop in childhood immunisation in a generation. The consequences will be measured in lives,” said Catherine Russell, UNICEF Executive Director. The fall in immunisation coverage is especially worrying as it is being accompanied by a rapid rise in severe acute malnutrition due to a fall in income during the pandemic.
Intensified Mission Indradhanush 4.0
- India is implementing the largest immunisation programme globally where it annually covers more than three crore pregnant women and 2.6 crore children through the Universal Immunisation Programme (UIP).
What is IMI 4.0?
- It will ensure that Routine Immunization (RI) services reach unvaccinated and partially vaccinated children and pregnant women.
- Children up to two years will be covered in this drive.
- While the pace of routine immunisation has slowed down due to Covid-19 pandemic, IMI 4.0 will immensely contribute in filling the gaps and make lasting gains towards universal immunisation.
- Three rounds of IMI 4.0 will be conducted in 416 districts, including 75 districts identified for Azadi ka Amrit Mahotsav across 33 States/UTs.
- These districts have been identified based on vaccination coverage as per the latest National Family Health Survey-5 report, Health Management Information System (HMIS) data and burden of vaccine-preventable diseases.
Universal Immunisation Programme
- The Immunization Programme in India was introduced in 1978 as ‘Expanded Programme of Immunization (EPI) by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare.
- In 1985, the Programme was modified as ‘Universal Immunization Programme (UIP)’. UIP prevents mortality and morbidity in children and pregnant women against 12 vaccine-preventable diseases.
- But in the past, it was seen that the increase in immunization coverage had slowed down and it increased at the rate of 1% per year between 2009 and 2013.
- To accelerate the coverage, Mission Indradhanush was envisaged and implemented since 2015 to rapidly increase the full immunization coverage to 90%.
Mission Indradhanush (MI)
- It was launched to fully immunize more than 89 lakh children who are either unvaccinated or partially vaccinated under UIP.
- It provides vaccination against 12 Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (VPD) i.e. diphtheria, Whooping cough, tetanus, polio, tuberculosis, hepatitis B, meningitis and pneumonia, Haemophilus influenzae type B infections, Japanese encephalitis (JE), rotavirus vaccine, pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV) and measles-rubella (MR).
- However, vaccination against Japanese Encephalitis and Haemophilus influenzae type B is being provided in selected districts of the country.
- Mission Indradhansuh was also identified as one of the flagship schemes under Gram Swaraj Abhiyan and Extended Gram Swaraj Abhiyan.
What is Intensified Mission Indradhanush (IMI)?
- It was launched in October 2017.
- Under IMI, greater focus was given on urban areas which were one of the gaps of Mission Indradhanush.
- It focused to improve immunisation coverage in select districts and cities to ensure full immunisation to more than 90% by December 2018 instead of 2020.
What is Intensified Mission Indradhanush 2.0?
- It was a nationwide immunisation drive to mark the 25 years of Pulse polio programme (2019-20).
- It had targets of full immunization coverage in 272 districts spread over 27 States.
- It aimed to achieve at least 90% pan-India immunisation coverage by 2022.
What is Intensified Mission Indradhanush 3.0?
- IMI 3.0 was launched in 2021.
- Focus of the IMI 3.0 was the children and pregnant women who had missed their vaccine doses during the Covid-19 pandemic.
- Beneficiaries from migration areas and hard to reach areas were targeted as they might have missed their vaccine doses during Covid-19.
What are the Achievements So Far?
- As of April 2021, during the various phases of Mission Indradhanush, a total of 3.86 crore children and 96.8 lakh pregnant women have been vaccinated.
- The first two phases of Mission Indradhanush resulted in 6.7% increase in full immunisation coverage in a year.
- A survey (IMI- CES) carried out in 190 districts covered in Intensified Mission Indradhanush (5th Phase of Mission Indradhanush) shows 18.5% points increase in full immunisation coverage as compared to National Family Health Survey (NFHS)-4.
- The Full Immunisation Coverage among children aged 12-23 months of age has increased from 62% (NFHS-4) to 76.4% (NFHS-5).
2. Iran, Belarus to be newest SCO members
With the expansion, China and Russia are looking to frame the grouping as a counter to the West
Iran and Belarus are likely to be the two newest additions to the China and Russia-backed Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) grouping, officials said on Friday.
Expanding the group is among the issues that leaders of the grouping, including Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping are likely to discuss at the SCO summit in Samarkand, Uzbekistan, in September.
The current SCO Secretary, General Zhang Ming, a veteran Chinese diplomat, told reporters on Friday the grouping hopes for an in-person summit in Uzbekistan, which could see Mr. Modi meet with Mr. Xi for the first time since 2019.
“So far, all participating countries have confirmed the attendance of their leaders but the format of attendance is not finalised. All wish to switch to the traditional way of meeting which is more efficient,” said Mr. Zhang, who recently visited Samarkand and said the facilities for the summit would be constructed by the end of this month. “At the same time, the epidemic situation is changing and there are new variants emerging,” he said, adding a note of caution, with last year’s summit held virtually on account of COVID-19.
China, Russia and four Central Asian states — Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan — were the founding members of the SCO, while India and Pakistan joined the grouping in 2017 in its first round of expansion. Last year’s summit in Dushanbe agreed for Iran to join, while Belarus has also begun the membership process.
“In the Samarkand summit, we expect the leadership to adopt a document on the obligations Iran must fulfil to gain membership. The legal procedures of Belarus’s accession are also about to start. We need to build consensus on the acceptance of Belarus,” Mr. Zhang said. “The significance of this round of expansion is that it shows the SCO’s rising international influence and that the principles of the SCO charter are being widely accepted.”
China and Russia are looking to frame the grouping as a counter to the West — particularly after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — and Mr. Zhang sought to draw a sharp contrast between the SCO and NATO.
“There has been discussion in the international arena that the trend of non-alignment is back,” he said. “The expansion of NATO is totally different as the SCO is a cooperative organisation based on non-alignment and not targeting a third party. NATO is based on Cold War thinking. The logic of NATO is creating new enemies to sustain its own existence.”
He said the SCO “believes one should not build its safety at the expense of other countries”, a statement China has used previously to blame NATO for the Ukraine crisis. Mr. Zhang also hit out at “small circles” — a term China has used in the past to criticise the Quad — underlining India’s somewhat unique position in the SCO, whose two most important members, China and Russia, are increasingly positioning the grouping directly at odds with the West.
India will host the SCO summit next year, and Varanasi has been selected as the SCO region’s first “Tourism and Cultural Capital”, Mr. Zhang said, a title it will hold next year coinciding with India chairing the grouping.
Shangai Cooperation Organisation (SCO)
The Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) is a permanent intergovernmental international organisation, created on 15 June 2001 in Shanghai (China). The founding members are:
- The Republic of Kazakhstan
- The People’s Republic of China
- The Kyrgyz Republic
- The Russian Federation
- The Republic of Tajikistan
- The Republic of Uzbekistan.
It was preceded by the Shanghai Five mechanism (1996) formed by the leaders of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, and Tajikistan.
The SCO Charter was signed during the St.Petersburg SCO Heads of State meeting in June 2002 and entered into force on 19 September 2003. This is the statutory document that outlines the organisation’s goals and principles, as well as its structure and core activities.
The meeting of the Heads of State Council of the SCO in 2017 in Astana gave the status of a full member of the Organization to India and Pakistan.
The SCO’s main goals are as follows:
- Strengthening mutual trust and neighborliness among the member states
- Promoting their effective cooperation in politics, trade, the economy, research, technology, and culture, as well as in education, energy, transport, tourism, environmental protection, and other areas.
- Making joint efforts to maintain and ensure peace, security, and stability in the region
- Moving towards the establishment of a democratic, fair and rational new international political and economic order.
The Heads of State Council (HSC) is the supreme decision-making body in the SCO. It meets once a year and adopts decisions and guidelines on all important matters of the organisation.
The SCO Heads of Government Council (HGC) meets once a year to discuss the organisation’s multilateral cooperation strategy and priority areas, to resolve current important economic and other cooperation issues, and also to approve the organisation’s annual budget.
The SCO’s official languages are Russian and Chinese.
The organisation has two permanent bodies-
- The SCO Secretariat based in Beijing
- The Executive Committee of the Regional Anti-Terrorist Structure (RATS) is based in Tashkent.
Present members of SCO:
- The Republic of India
- The Republic of Kazakhstan
- The People’s Republic of China
- The Kyrgyz Republic
- The Islamic Republic of Pakistan
- The Russian Federation
- The Republic of Tajikistan
- The Republic of Uzbekistan
- The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan
- The Republic of Belarus
- The Islamic Republic of Iran
- The Republic of Azerbaijan
- The Republic of Armenia
- The Kingdom of Cambodia
- The Federal Democratic Republic of Nepal
- The Republic of Turkey
- The Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka.
India and Shangai cooperation organisation (SCO):
Shangai cooperation organisation (SCO) is seen as an eastern counter-balance to NATO and India’s membership will allow the country to push effective action in combating terrorism and security issues.
The presence of India and China, the world’s most populous countries, makes SCO the organisation with the largest population coverage.
India for the first time hosted the heads of governments (HoG) meeting of SCO, three years after joining the eight-nation group in 2020.
- The SCO’s significance for India mainly lies in economics and geopolitics with the Eurasian states.
- SCO is a potential platform to advance India’s Central Asia policy. The SCO member states are India’s extended neighborhood where India has both economic and security imperatives.
- The ‘SCO-Afghanistan Contact Group’to stabilize Afghanistan provides India a vital counter to some of the other groupings it is a part of.
- The SCO provides the only multilateral platform for India to deal with near Pakistan and Afghanistan.
- Acknowledging the strategic importance of the region and SCO, the Indian Prime Minister had articulated the foundational dimension of Eurasia as being ‘SECURE’:
- S for Security of our citizens,
- E for Economic development for all,
- C for Connecting the region,
- U for Unite our people,
- R for Respect for Sovereignty and Integrity, and
- E for Environment protection.
Challenges ahead of India:
- Central Asia connectivity: a major thorn in India’s engagement with Eurasia remains the denial of direct land connectivity to Afghanistan and beyond by Pakistan. The lack of connectivity has dampened the development of energy ties between the hydrocarbon-rich region and India
- Russia- China: Initially, Russia pushed India’s inclusion into the SCO to balance China’s power. But Russia and China are growing closer, and India has been promoting better relations with the US.
- Belt and Road Initiative: While India has made its opposition to BRI clear, all other SCO members have embraced the Chinese project.
- India-Pakistan: SCO members have, in the past, expressed fears of the organisation being held hostage to India’s and Pakistan’s adverse relationship.
3. Editorial-1: Stamp out this hate speech-manufacturing network
The online trolling of the judiciary is a new low, highlighting a sustained and organised campaign of intimidation
The recent ferocious attack on a judge of the Supreme Court of India by the IT cell of a prominent national political party has given the impression that there are a significant number of people opposed to the scathing judicial criticism of the former national spokesperson of the Bharatiya Janata Party, Nupur Sharma, for her remarks on the Prophet. Rather, it may well be that an overwhelming part of all religious communities would feel a sense of pride that a person of his standing would stand up to the tyranny of groups engaging in hate speech.
The criticism delivered from the Bench for the first time showed that some judges indeed have a spine and are capable of speaking the truth to power. Particularly at this time when Government interference with the judiciary is at its height (with transfers and supersessions of independent-minded judges), the pungent and fully justified remarks of the judge were like a fresh wind blowing through the country and the judiciary, and boosted the confidence of judges to stand up to executive excesses.
Equally important, the events of the past few days and the uncouth trolling of the judge raise very important questions relating to the ever-growing tendency by the Government to intimidate the judiciary. The questions that arise are: Who are these groups that attack democratic-minded individuals who speak out against injustice? Does the Government have an underground network which operates as an arm of the Government? And, are they financially supported and ideologically encouraged to engage in hate speech? Finally, what should the judiciary do to stamp out organised hate speech of this kind, whether it be against journalists, political opponents of the Government or the judiciary?
Growth, political support
In her book, I am a Troll, Swati Chaturvedi describes Internet trolls as persons who sow discord through inflammatory comments on the Internet. She traces the growth of this network from the early 2000s and attributes its steep upward curve to the support it received from a senior political leader in Government. ‘Rightwing propaganda websites constantly peddle hate tweets and slander journalists. They are backed up by coordinated hashtag campaigns where anonymous Twitter handles retweet the same tweet continuously until trending begins’.
She gives instances of tweets of ‘gory cow slaughter and imaginary instances of love jihad’. Some of them ‘mock women who face sexual abuse and harassment.’ They did not spare their own party leader, Maneka Gandhi, when she set up a helpline called ‘#IAmTrolledHelp’.
A Twitter handle from this group engaged in sustained abuse of a well-known female broadcast journalist. Another hosted a photoshopped picture of a female actor when she joined the Aam Aadmi Party. One of this network asked for ‘execution of undertrials without due process saying that the State should not bother to arrest suspects but kill in cold blood’. An extreme episode was when a Congress spokesperson ‘was threatened with Nirbhaya-style rape by trolls’. In the context of pellet blinding in Kashmir, there were trolls who called for ‘mass murder of Kashmiris, and the dropping of a bomb on a funeral procession’.
When journalist Gauri Lankesh was killed in Bengaluru in 2017, a Twitter handle followed by leaders of the party in power tweeted a message that had much profanity. Other journalists were also threatened that they were ‘going the Gauri Lankesh way’.
The Wire reported that a network of 757 Twitter accounts was used to mount attacks against Mohammed Zubair (co-founder of fact-checking website Alt News) and the website, and that the recovery email id for the anonymous Twitter handle was that of a youth leader of the party in power. These accounts revealed sub accounts ‘which exhibited multiple characteristics associated with bot-like and inauthentic behaviour posting more than 500 times a day at all hours of the day’. The purpose was to manipulate public perception about the arrest of Mr. Zubair.
Similar targeting processes were managed by ‘Tek Fog’ ( a ‘sophisticated app used by online operatives to hijack major social media and encrypted messaging platforms’); over eight lakh hostile replies were sent out to tweets by women journalists, of which over five lakh were classified as ‘offensive’. The Wire commented that the handlers of ‘Tek Fog’ are politically aligned and that is why ‘India’s political elite are silent’. One of the hashtags amplified by these operatives ‘reached an audience of around eight crore users’. Newslaundry has reported that this ‘well-oiled propaganda machine churned out fake videos and mass tweet links to gear up for Twitter storms’.
An ‘attack factory’ at work
Online abuse has often led to actual violence as in the case of the attack on a prominent lawyer by persons who barged into his office. This is not surprising because, as reported by Ms. Chaturvedi, ‘office bearers of the party in power have publicly supported these trolls’.
The IT cell of the Government has seen its activity expand with the induction of many volunteers and paid workers. Ms. Chaturvedi has reported that the party in power has ‘created a bank of thousands of dormant Twitter accounts’ to be used for ‘synchronized tweeting’ and ‘storms’. The party also has ‘bots created by the central IT Cell which tweets out identical messages simultaneously’ so that they ‘look like a real user’. These volunteers and employees ‘were given a hit list of mainstream journalists who needed to be constantly attacked’. One of the India’s most prominent and respected female journalists was attacked in ‘filthy terms’ and given ‘rape threats’. These volunteers and employees use virtual private networks (VPNs) to ‘hide the actual location of the user’.
Going back to the incident of Nupur Sharma in the Supreme Court, it is imperative that the Court understands that the country stands with the judiciary. The hate speech tweets are manufactured by a factory of a political party that produces millions of hate speeches. A criminal investigation by an independent special investigation team of the police is called for. Prosecution must follow. This hate speech manufacturing network must be crushed. This is vital for democracy to survive and for the judiciary not to be intimidated.
4. Editorial-2: Time for vigilance
Increased testing and building awareness, not stigmatisation, can stop spread of monkeypox
India reported its first laboratory-confirmed, imported case of monkeypox virus when a 35-year-old man in Kerala’s capital tested positive. The diagnosis was easy as the individual informed health-care workers of his contact with an infected person in the United Arab Emirates. To cut the transmission chain, people who have come in contact with him in Kerala have been isolated. The first case of the virus outside Africa was first reported in the U.K. on May 6, 2022. Since then, the virus has spread to over 63 countries — Europe has reported 8,238 cases from 35 countries as of July 12, and the U.S., 1,470 cases as of July 14. Never before has the virus spread to more than a hundred people a year during any outbreak in endemic countries except Congo. In fact, sustained transmission beyond a few generations has been rare in Africa. In contrast, the rapid increase in cases and geographical spread have primarily been due to human-to-human transmission largely during sexual contact, especially among men who have sex with men (MSM). While a few rave parties in Spain and Belgium have turned out to be super-spreader events, WHO suspects that “undetected transmission for some unknown duration of time followed by recent amplifier events” to be responsible for cases being detected simultaneously in several countries outside Africa. With cases crossing the 10,000-mark in non-endemic countries, and a large number of cases in Spain (2,034), the U.K. (1,735), Germany (1,556) and the U.S. (1,470), the risk of the virus becoming established in some of these countries is becoming increasingly real.
While the first human case was reported in 1970 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and the virus became endemic in 11 countries in Africa causing small outbreaks, no attempts were made to study it all these years. With the virus having a free run in non-endemic countries, scientists have now unveiled many discomforting facts: the virus appears to mutate at a much higher rate than what was assumed. And, based on genome sequences from the current outbreak, they have found the emergence of a novel clade of the virus in early March. A recent study has found monkeypox virus DNA in samples of semen, saliva, urine, rectal swabs and faeces, and at high viral loads; the infectious and disease potential of these body fluids was not studied. Whether the new clade by itself has a higher potential for human spread is not known. But surely, close sexual contact is providing the virus much opportunity to spread within the MSM community. With the sustained spread and a few cases already detected in women, the possibility of spread into the general community cannot be totally dismissed. Increased testing, contact tracing and building awareness, and not stigmatising the infected people can stop the spread.
5. Editorial-3: Fishing in uncertain waters
With fish in the shallow waters of the coastal sea disappearing, fisherfolk in Kerala are staring at penury. Navamy Sudhish reports on the disastrous impact of extreme climate events, rising fuel prices, destructive fishing practices, and overexploitation on livelihoods and biodiversity
As dawn breaks, Vitalis slowly glides into undulating waves below an azure sky. With a sparse crew of six, she bobs towards the fishing ground some 10 nautical miles off the shore. The boat returns after five hours, its hold nearly empty. A pall of gloom settles as the fishers offload the catch and divide the meagre earnings among themselves. “This is our fourth futile trip in a row. This is supposed to be the peak season for us (traditional fishers) and we are staring at a famine,” says Thomas, a fisher from Tangassery, Kollam.
With the territorial waters running out of marine stocks, the boats often venture into deep sea investing a lot of fuel, time and effort. But the shoals stay elusive and the once-abundant fields are reporting lower and lower yields.
“I have been venturing into the sea for over five decades and I don’t think we can survive this ordeal. Many species, including croaker and sardine, are fast vanishing from the sea. The traditional sector is heavily dependent on oil sardine and mackerel. For several days now, boats are bringing back only pink perch and anchovy,” says 68-year-old Ambrose, a fisher from Pallithottam, Kollam. Oil sardine and mackerel are pelagic fish (fish that live in the upper water column of the sea) and were once available round the year, according to fishermen. Pink perch, on the other hand, are demersal fish, or fish which are found just above the ocean floor.
Every year, Kerala imposes a trawling ban during the monsoon season to ensure the prosperity of the marine stock. Only traditional crafts are allowed to operate during the period of the ban, which lasts for 52 days from June 9 to July 31. All trawling operations till the midnight of July 31 are prohibited. But more than a month into the ban, the traditional fishers are yet to see any monsoon bounty. Though the sea is free of trawlers and there is no competition from the mechanised sector, their holds are never full.
“Many boats have stopped venturing into the sea as the catch is hardly enough to meet operational costs. We require around ₹50,000 for a brief sortie and very often the catch fetches us less than ₹10,000. Two shares of our total earnings go to the boat owner and the rest is hardly adequate to feed our families. We are all neck deep in debt,” says Wilson from Neendakara.
Perhaps this was one reason that forced Esthev and Anto, two fishers from Saktikulangara, to take a risky trip despite the squally weather. As their boat, Kanikkamata, was idling for 12 days, they ventured into the sea on the morning of July 11 hoping for a brief respite from penury. Hardly one nautical mile into the rough sea, Kanikkamata capsized. While the other two crew members were rescued, Esthev’s body washed ashore the same day and the search for Anto is still on.
Traditional fishers at sea
A few years ago, ‘karamadi’ or ‘kamba vala’ (shore seine fishing) wasn’t a rare sight along the Kerala coast. With the net cast in a semi-circular shape near the shoreline and hauled together by two groups of fishers, the fishing practice targeted pelagic shoals close to the coast. “Even though the net was cast only 2-3 km from the coast, the catch was good. Today, the practice has become extinct in most parts due to the absence of fish in the shallow waters of the coastal sea. We had hundreds of kamba valas in Kerala earlier, but now you will find only 10 or 15,” says Esho from Poonthura, Thiruvananthapuram.
Seventy-two-year-old Vasu is familiar with the sea and its intricate system of currents. An old-school fisher, he knows that the surface swimmers move in shoals and turn the brine into shades of red and black. “A whitish tint means pomfrets. The presence of seabirds and air bubbles also helps you in identifying meenpadams (fishing fields). A sudden change in currents or in the direction of the wind indicates natural hazards,” says the fisher from Alappad. But of late sun, seasons and constellations have failed him in braving the surf. “We can no longer plan trips based on the lunar calendar as cyclones and storms emerge out of nowhere. Though we see a lot of juveniles, the catch is dipping every day. The sea is becoming unreadable. It’s a very scary prospect.”
There is an increasing sense of desperation in the community, says Jackson Pollayil, a fisher from Thiruvananthapuram and the president of the Kerala Swatantra Matsyathozhilali Federation. Minimum Legal Size (MLS) refers to the size at which a particular species can be caught legally. Fishers used to leave oil sardines of 10 cm in the past, capturing bigger ones. It is a prolific breeder producing around 80,000 eggs in a spawning season. “But total oil sardine landings during the last couple of years present an alarming picture. Today, fishers net oil sardines once they acquire the MLS (even though the sardines are yet to reach the reproductive stage). Due to the scarcity of fish and fall in fishing days, they are left with no other option. Since June, we have lost around 13 fishing days and the fishers are struggling,” he says. “The MLS should be made 15 cm and strong surveillance measures should be maintained to save our livelihood.”
Adding to their woes, the price often depends on the inflow from neighbouring States. In June 2022, the Food Safety Department had seized over 10,000 kg of stale fish from the Aryankavu checkpost in Kollam as part of ‘Operation Matsya’, a special drive to detect adulteration in fish. “Since Kollam contributes the largest share of total fish landings from Kerala, these consignments are sold as fresh catch. The State has around 40,000 traditional crafts and lakhs of families are dependent on the sector. Agents and wholesalers prefer the fish from other States as the commission is high. Small-scale fishers are striving hard to stay afloat as we have no facility to store the fish and ensure a fair price,” says Jackson.
Woes of the mechanised sector
Meanwhile, the mechanised sector is looking forward to the end of the trawl ban and is pinning its hopes on a possible post-monsoon bonanza. “More dry months can spell doom for the sector as we have been grasping at straws. We are still reeling under the post-pandemic slump. Demersal resources are also dwindling,” says Peter Mathias, president of the All Kerala Fishing Boat Operators Association.
Martin (name changed) had to go on a borrowing spree after his boats failed to generate anything near the expected revenue during the last two years. One of his boats was scrapped five months ago for a paltry ₹8 lakh so that he could pay back some loans. “Fuel prices have hit an all-time high and each trip leads to huge losses. The boat was seaworthy and I could have operated it for another 10 years. But there was no other option with soaring fuel rates, maintenance costs and a decrease in fishing days due to frequent weather warnings. The trawl ban and COVID-19 had kept our boats off waters for over four months in 2020. Right now the only thing I own is my second boat and since fishing is no longer a lucrative business, only scrap dealers are interested in it. I am keeping the second boat as scrapping it will alert my creditors. If the situation continues, we will have to end our lives like farmers,” he says.
According to the association, more than 500 boats have been scrapped across Kerala in the last couple of years. An average trawler requires anything between 150 litres and 700 litres of diesel for its operations. Meeting the fuel expense is a challenge and each outing to the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) can mean mortgages, personal loans and pending bills. “The fisheries sector in the State offers livelihood to nearly 15 lakh families and our catch is worth ₹40,000 crore every year. But the government is doing nothing to protect the sector and Kerala is slowly losing its relevance as a maritime State and export hub,” says Joseph Xavier Kalappurakkal, general secretary of the association. He feels all the old fishing grounds have gone dry. “Fishing depended on luck earlier too, but now it has become a matter of pure gamble. Very few trawlers return with a good catch as currents have changed their course and shoals are not visible in many parts,” he says.
A vicious cycle
According to a study report presented by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute on July 5, the Kerala coast saw a massive fall in oil sardine catch in 2021. The total landings came down to 3,297 tonnes, registering a drop of 75% compared to 2020. “This was the lowest catch of the fish after 1994 in the State. Again, this was 98 per cent lower than the annual average of sardine availability during 1995-2020 which is 1.66 lakh tonnes,” says the report.
N. Aswathy, Principal Scientist who conducted a study on the impact of this on livelihoods, says the sector suffered a colossal loss due to the dip. “The annual value of sardine in the landing centres dropped to ₹30 crore from ₹608 crore in 2014, causing a loss of ₹578 crore to the sector. The small-scale fishermen who venture into the sea on outboard ring seins bore the brunt of the dwindling catch as they primarily depended upon this fish for livelihood. Even as many other fish resources showed an increase in the landings, the annual income of this group of fishers was reduced to ₹90,262 in 2021 from ₹3.35 lakh,” she points out. Though the State recorded an increase in total marine catch in 2021 compared to the previous year, experts believe this is still low. In 2020, fishers had lost many fishing days due to pandemic-related restrictions and cyclone warnings. A comparison with the fish landings in 2020 does not make sense as that year was an exceptionally lean period.
Climate change might have already activated a vicious circle putting coastal ecosystems under stress. Its impact is reflected in the catch and composition in many parts. “When ocean warming increases, the fish shoals move northwards or they dive deeper. To track this properly we need excellent data from all these regions,” says Roxy Mathew Koll, climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology, Pune. While there has been a shift in the distributions of fish stocks, extreme climate events are also changing the fishing calendar. “The increasing presence of cyclones and low-pressure areas in the Arabian Sea is another threat. Along with the number, their duration is also on the rise. While the number of cyclones has increased by 52% in the Arabian Sea, the time they spend over the sea has increased by 80% (between 2001 and 2019). The ocean absorbs 93% of heat due to global warming and the oceanic conditions often influence cyclonic circulations and monsoon winds. Weather over the Arabian sea has definitely changed and there are more fluctuations and variations compared to earlier times,” he adds.
Experts point out that the change in temperatures can trigger the migration of some species and the sardine currently available in the market is from the east coast where the stock is abundant. A. Biju Kumar, Professor and Head, Department of Aquatic Biology and Fisheries, University of Kerala, says the depleting resources will hit both the livelihood and nutritional needs of the fishing community. “Pelagic fish like sardines and mackerels, which form a major part of our fishery wealth, are climate sensitive. The change in surface temperature is one reason for their absence in coastal waters and we can also see that oxygen minimum zones are increasing in the Indian Ocean. If a particular species decreases or disappears from the marine ecosystem, the entire food chain will collapse. We need a longer period of time to know the cascading impact,” he says.
Resorting to unethical practices
As the crisis in the sector deepens, many boats are making exclusive fishing trips to fetch ‘trash’. Large quantities of edible juveniles are brought back and despatched to the fish meal plants outside Kerala. Since agents offer a good price and take care of all the logistics, some fishers consider it an opportunity to make some quick money. “The market for bycatch has increased and we have seen crates of young sardines in carrier boats. We know it’s totally unethical and we are driving the species to extinction. But in the middle of all the hardships, we are unable to resist their offer. We don’t have any fixed income and our savings are always zero. What else can we do in case of emergencies,” asks Louis from Aroor, Alappuzha.
As per reports, the total fish landings in Kerala also include a considerable percentage of juvenile catch which is used by the fish meal fish oil (FMFO) industry. If this continues unabated, it will be hard to replenish the fishery stocks and the practice can also bring in some undesirable changes in the marine environment. “Currently we have no system to monitor juvenile discards at sea, their quantity or species. Switching from the diamond mesh codend to the square mesh codend can reduce the bycatch of juveniles and other unwanted varieties with no commercial value. It’s high time we shifted to such sustainable fishing practices so that there is less biodiversity loss,” says Vinod Malayilethu, Associate Director, Marine Conservation Programme, WWF-India.
The depletion of pelagic fish has also hit the procurement and supply of Matsyafed (Kerala State Co-operative Federation for Fisheries Development Ltd) for its marts. “Over 50% shortage has been reported from some places as the current marine landings are very low. Since some sought-after varieties are fast disappearing from the carts, we are focusing on inland aquaculture,” says Dinesan Cheruvat, managing director. Though the fish consumption of Kerala is largely marine, the State is dependent on supply from other States. “Kerala’s total fish landings, including inland catch, comes to around 6 to 8 lakh tonnes. But in Andhra Pradesh, it’s around 40 lakh tonnes and farmed fish constitutes a major portion of it. We don’t have the domestic production to meet the requirement and further decline of resources will affect our consumption pattern and food habits. Along with promoting aquaculture, conservation measures should be intensified to protect the marine pelagics.”
Overexploitation and destructive practices seem to be other factors aggravating the situation. “Though our recommended fleet size is 24,000, the State has over 40,000 vessels fishing in the Kerala coast. Add to it the boats from other States and the number easily goes beyond 50,000. The biggest challenge faced by fishers in some coastal districts like Kasaragod is the illegal vessels from neighbouring States,” Cheruvat adds.
Fisherwomen in deep waters
The situation has also thrown thousands of fisherwomen into distress. Earlier engaged in fish vending and allied activities, they are struggling to make two ends meet. Elizabeth, a 73-year-old vendor from Kollam, says she was rendered jobless in 2021: “Now most women from the coastal belt work as maids, but nobody wants an elderly woman. Most of us are not educated and we are struggling to survive.”
Kerala has nearly 50,000 women working in the fisheries sector and most of them are looking for alternative options. “By early 2022, both my sister-in-law and I had no work. All these years our day started at the harbour and we used to walk around 10 km a day to scrape a living. We both are single parents and the only breadwinners of our families,” says Sheeba, a vendor from Varkala. After trying her hand at a string of jobs including rubber tapping, she now works as a cleaning staff. “The government officials keep talking about free ration, subsidies and housing schemes. But nobody is there to protect our livelihood and we are a generation with no future,” she says.