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Fishworkers struggle in Kerala, India

A strong fishworkers movement, the Kerala Swathantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation , complained against mechanized trawlers, achieving many successes. A well known leader was Thomas Kocherry.


In the 1960s, there was an increasing international demand for prawns, leading the Indian government to promote export-oriented prawn fisheries. Mechanised boats were built and training programmes for fishermen on the use of ‘trawl nets’ were introduced. The shift to export-oriented fisheries and the high rate of investment allowed the entry of merchants into the fisheries sector, resulting in a gradual marginalisation of the traditional fishing community from mechanised fishing.[2]. The new surge in mechanised fisheries had drastic repercussions for the coastal ecosystem and the livelihoods of the fishworkers.  This resulted in a two-fold attack on the fishworkers : first, a reduction in the immediate catch, and second, a threat to the stability of future resources.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Fishworkers struggle in Kerala, India
State or province:Kerala
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Biomass and Land Conflicts (Forests, Agriculture, Fisheries and Livestock Management)
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Wetlands and coastal zone management
Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Shrimps
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Following India’s independence, it was felt that a modernization and mechanization of the fisheries in Kerala would assist in increasing their productive capacity. In 1953 the Indo-Norwegian Project (INP) began in three villages with the aim of improving the infrastructure and practices of the fishworkers. However, in the 1960s, there was an increasing international demand for prawns, leading the government to promote export-oriented prawn fisheries. The INP shifted its focus to harvesting prawns. Mechanised boats were built and training programmes for fisherman on the use of ‘trawl nets’ were introduced. The shift to export-oriented fisheries and the high rate of investment led to a gradual marginalisation of the traditional fishing community from mechanised fishing.

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Type of populationSemi-urban
Affected Population:10,000,000
Start of the conflict:1970
Relevant government actors:Goverment of India
Government of Kerala
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Kerala Swathantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF)
World Forum of Fisher People
Conflict & Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Development of alternative proposals
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Jail Bahro Andolan (movement to fill the jails). Relay hunger strikes. Picketing of authorities. Mass sit-ins.
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Other Environmental impacts
Other Environmental impactsOverfishing (struggle against)
Health ImpactsVisible: Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Accidents
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in violence and crime, Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Specific impacts on women, Violations of human rights, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (undecided)
Negotiated alternative solution
Proposal and development of alternatives:Moratoria on trawling in the monsoon season
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:Yes
Briefly explain:The immediate objectives on the Kerala fishworkers movment were acchieved. The movement extended alsos to the whole coast on India.
Sources & Materials
References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Subir Sinha, Trasnationality and the Indian Fisherworkers movement, 1960-2000, J. of Agrarian Change, March 2012.
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Nayak, N. and A.J. Vijayan, The Coasts, the Fish Resources, and the Fishworkers’ Movement, New Delhi: National Human Rights Commission, 2006

Aerthayil, M, Fishworkers Movement in Kerala (1977-1994), New Delhi: Indian Social Institute, 2000

Manju MENON, A Sea of Fury: A brief history of four decades of struggle of the National Fishworkers Forum

Rohan Mathews, Fishworkers movement in Kerala
[click to view]

John Kurien, The Blessing of the Commons: small scale fisheries, 2004
[click to view]

Obituary of Thomas Kocherry in The Hindu, 2014
[click to view]

Rohan Mathews, Firshworkers Movement in Kerala, 2011
[click to view]

John Kurien, Ruining the commons and the responses of the commoners, UNRISD, 1991.
[click to view]

Meta information
Last update18/08/2019
Conflict ID:3683
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