Perspectives from ISB

The COVID-19 pandemic and consequent lockdown affected the world at large. Kanyakumari, a coastal district in the southernmost fringe of the Indian subcontinent, was no exception to this. The fishing communities of about 30 villages in the Colachel area of this district faced unprecedented livelihood challenges, which initially manifested as denial and defiance to the restrictions. However, a collaborative model of local regulation initiated by the administration was taken up wholeheartedly by the community and enabled everyone to overcome challenges. The insights gained by this stakeholder-driven approach to problem-solving can be a template for policymakers for cutting edge administration.

The Fishing Ecosystem and its Relations With State Agencies

The unique livelihood ecosystem of the fishers of Kanyakumari involves men ‘going to the sea’ for their catch and the women creating wealth by ‘going’ to the inland towns and villages to sell the catch. The marine industry is well developed in the area with various modes of fishing like deep-sea, trawling, mechanised small boats, traditional Kattumarams and Karamadi net fishing. A notable feature is that the sector requires a considerable workforce, which in recent years comprises low-cost migrant workers from East & Central India and, in some cases, from Bangladesh and Nepal. Prominent state agencies in constant interaction with the community are the State Fisheries Department, Police, Revenue, Public Works Department, and Rural Development Departments and recently, the Disaster Management Department and the Coastal Police.

Navigating Turbulence: Impact of COVID-19 on Kanyakumari’s Fishing Community and Their Resilient Response

The first lockdown and intensive restrictions on movement lasted till the end of May 2020– incomes dwindled, and the fish stock was at risk of decay. This was followed by the annual 45-day fishing ban from 1st June to 15th July. The consequent adverse impact on the fishing industry and community in Kanyakumari was seen as follows:

  • Complete shutdown of all sea-going activity during the first lockdown
  • Large-scale exit of the low-cost migrant workers during the lockdown
  • Closure of markets and restriction on movement of retail sellers
  • Stoppage of inter-state sales of fish leading to piling up of huge stocks of high-value Tuna
  • Closure of ice-plants leading to shortage of ice, which could damage the fish catch
  • Closure of units making small ancillary parts of the fishing industry; sourcing spare parts became difficult
  • Subsidy payment from the Fisheries Department was delayed
  • Coercive action by the Police towards the groups of fishermen who would assemble in groups
  • Opposition to visits by the Public Health Department officials to take swab tests on symptomatic persons and cordoning off certain blocks. These restrictions on movement led to a sense of insecurity.

The community’s initial response to the above stress factors was that of open and vocal defiance, stemming from an inherent denial to accept the new restrictions of the state agencies and a deep belief that they were not vulnerable to the coronavirus. The community leaders like Parish Priests, Parish Councils, elected representatives, and members of HMCs were also bewildered by the unprecedented situation. Vehement opposition to government officials started rising so much that in one of the cases, a swab test on family members of a person who died due to COVID-19 like symptoms was resisted to the extent that the police had to step in. Many persons who tested positive refused to go to government hospitals and isolation centres.

De-escalation through Collaboration

The economic, social and individual stressors started to fray the already strained relations between the fishers and government officials. The Police were called to mediate and assist by all the public agencies, leading to a toll on the health of police personnel, many of whom were infected by the virus. This difficult situation led to a rethinking on the part of the Police towards the principles of ‘Community Policing’, and they initiated a dialogue with critical stakeholders of the coastal society to address the challenges in a calibrated manner.

Meetings of government officials (primarily the Police, Fisheries, & Revenue departments) with stakeholders in critical villages were held in neutral venues like schools or harbours. The issues were discussed threadbare to analyse how economic activities could be restarted to generate incomes for the fishers. This meant innovating with the usual mode of transactions and creating acceptance for the same in the fishers. It was assumed that once livelihood concerns were assured to some degree, the fishers would willingly follow the norms of public behaviour. Community-led enforcement would be done under the overall joint supervision of Police-Fisheries officials, the Parish Council, Auction agents and Local Fishermen Cooperative Society (FCS) members. Elected representatives also pitched in for this novel approach to problem resolution.

A comprehensive strategy was implemented, focusing on three key aspects to navigate the challenges posed by the pandemic. Firstly, a structured fishing schedule was introduced, with villages adopting an alternate-day approach to prevent competition and overcrowding. The Cooperative Society played a pivotal role in ensuring fair opportunities by deciding which fishermen would engage in fishing each day, while access to boats and harbours was regulated through the issuance of tokens. Secondly, to manage markets effectively, the practice of auctioning was temporarily halted, replaced by a daily price agreed upon by all stakeholders to facilitate direct retail sales. Local markets were established within each village, and larger markets were relocated to vacant bus stands to avoid congestion. Thirdly, in the realm of deep-sea and mechanised fishing, the Police Department took the initiative to issue tokens, ensuring controlled gatherings, while similar measures were extended to vehicles from other districts and states involved in receiving high-value fish. This multifaceted approach not only addressed immediate concerns but also fostered adaptability within the fishing community.

Empowering Coastal Communities: Transformative Measures and Collaborative Dynamics in the Fishing Industry The immediate benefit of these measures was income generation for the hard-hit fishing community. People from inland towns and villages started visiting the coastal markets to buy fish, which is the staple dish of the majority. The economic and social dynamics were reversed since the customer came to the producer to buy. This led to a feeling of empowerment and security for the women who were primarily the sellers. Women worked collectively in these markets instead of competing. They forced the men to agree to the changed norms of public behaviour. Good-performing villages were incentivised, and violations led to restrictions on fish sales or, in some cases, closure of the markets, leading to loss of income.

The cumulative outcome was a reduction of the general distrust amongst the fishers towards the Government machinery and the Police in particular. The Police inspectors and sub-inspectors actively engaged with the fishing community and nudged them to shed their reservations. All the police personnel were tasked with creating awareness for social distancing norms and wearing masks in the coastal villages. This closer collaboration for positive outcomes was a marked difference from previous historical interactions between the people and police. This set the template for further iterations of Public-Police collaboration in the coming months, leading to the peaceful conduct of election to Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) the same year.

In Conclusion

A collaborative approach in an adverse public health and livelihood situation led to a rethinking on pre-existing notions and biases of the government officials and the fishing community of the villages around Colachel. Small steps were initiated to resolve the livelihood problems, and collaborative resolution mechanisms evolved organically to mitigate the adversity. A unique template for Community Policing was thus put into action for positive outcomes.

Author’s Bio: Vishwesh B. Shastri is an Indian Police Service (IPS) officer from the 2017 batch (Tamil Nadu Cadre). A Bachelor of Technology graduate in Electronics and communications, he is currently posted as the Aide De Camp (ADC) to the Hon’ble Governor of Tamil Nadu. Vishwesh is a participant of the Co’24 of the Advanced Management Programme in Public Policy (AMPPP) at the Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB). He served as the Assistant Superintendent of Police (ASP) in the Colachel Sub-Division in Kanyakumari District of Tamil Nadu during the COVID-19 pandemic period.

DISCLAIMER : The views expressed in this blog/article are author’s personal.

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