Our fishing quota is being exploited by other countries

Chalasani Bhaskar, Agri ESG entrepreneur opines that before venturing into FTAs, India needs to invest in infrastructure including harbors, logistics and skilling centers. This will get fishermen to be efficient, productive & regulation compliant to remain viable, bankable and competitive.

Chalasani Bhaskar

IBT: What impact will India’s decision to stay out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) have on Indian fisheries exporters to the region, in your view?

Chalasani Bhaskar: The preamble for discussion of any trade deal by responsible governments is a couple of serious questions like why should we sign it, what is in it for us and how can we enforce a level playing field.

The job of the negotiators is to structure the discussions for each of the  products in the list of trade deals and analyse based on “Dual Circulation” trade model for the nation by factoring (1) trade deficits, (2) ESG compliances, (3) hidden subsides, (4) enforcement of clauses (5) country of origin monitoring and declaration (6) labour laws, 6 de-dollarization opportunities, (7) gravity models (common borders) , (8) multinational block models, & (9) national security issues. All the 9 conundrums are double edged swords in deals based on the agenda of each nation to benefit from the deal.

India is an attractive market, where around 60% of the population depends on small farming and small fisheries. The sector contributes around 16% contribution to the GDP, unlike in developed nations, where both the numbers are very small at less than 5%. A sudden halt in trade is likely to have some immediate aftershocks for sure. However, these aftershocks will be limited to only the exporters only.

Although the fisheries trade will continue, India’s fisheries exporters will lose out on their profit margin. The fact that fishermen will not be affected boils down to two things – there are alternate avenues available for the fish to be sold, and the benefits of a trade deal are limited to the exporters (they never trickle down to the fishermen).

 IBT: Were the concerns of Indian fisheries sector that opening up the Indian Ocean for Deep Sea Fishing (DSF) vessels will exhaust our fragile fisheries zone & displace millions of fisherfolk misplaced?

Chalasani Bhaskar: Deep-sea fishing entails fishing activities beyond 12 nautical miles from the shore line (territorial water). While other countries are not legally entitled to come and fish in Indian maritime waters, all countries are allowed to do DSF in international waters. So, to that extent we don’t have anything to worry about.

Indian fishermen are not in a position right now to do any DSF either way (in our maritime waters or outside) because they don’t have the required infrastructure for deep sea fishing – neither the harbour nor the boat. So, there is nothing to complain about and more so, what is happening is that the fish in Indian maritime waters is indirectly being caught by people from Singapore and China. Their fishermen had access to enough infrastructure so that they could go into international waters. So, the problem is not with them, the problem is with us.

Coming to the possibility of the catch being exhausted, seafood always replenishes itself; but only if it is fished sustainably. There are quotas on the amount of fish that can be caught. Any large boat that goes into Indian maritime or international waters cannot catch more than a certain quantity. And out of this, once every  year they’re given a holiday also so that the fish can regenerate. But unfortunately what happens is in many countries like Vietnam misuse it. Because enforcement is not there. So, that needs to be in place. It needs to be noted that India never meets its quota as we do small-scale fishing. For example, if an Indian fisherman catched 1 kg of fish, the fishermen in New Zealand catch per fishermen 250 kgs.

At the same time, Indian fishermen need to be imparted with the adequate skills to help them maximize their gains. We need to build Fishermen Services and Training Centres (FSTCs) at ports to teach them things like how to fish sustainably and how to use sustainable nets so that they do not catch endangered species. Sadly, in India, we don’t even have efficient verification of FSTC. So, that is required.

IBT: According to the ITC Trade Map, over the last 5 years, China, Japan, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia are the top importers of Indian fisheries products. Now that India has walked out of the deal, what can be done to enhance India’s fisheries trade with these regions? What must India do in future FTA deals to reduce trade deficits and gain from such agreements?

Chalasani Bhaskar: Let’s take Vietnam as a case in point. Vietnam is importing from a free port and it is exporting twice the amount of seafood. To breach the inverse trade  barriers, Indian traders  send their fish to Vietnam and from there re-export it, also,  processing infra being not available in India, fish is being exported to Vietnam etc for processing for onward export to other nations.

Number two is that India has nothing to gain. It imports a lot of fish from Vietnam because India never built local supply chain and retail infrastructure. It is easier to get seafood to Delhi or Bombay from Singapore or Vietnam than from Hyderabad to there because of infrastructural barriers. So, India has one of the largest seafood consumption market. But our per capita consumption is very low because we never build the infrastructure. India before venturing into FTAs, has to invest in infrastructure to first get the fishermen to be efficient, productive & regulatory compliant to be able to compete to remain viable and bankable.  The dichotomy of not having a level playing field should be addressed first.

IBT: What challenges are Indian fisheries exporters facing while trading with these nations? How can they be resolved?

Chalasani Bhaskar: Indian fisheries exporters always are facing infrastructure issues starting at port & right until the shipping point.  The lack of infrastructure is costing Indian fishermen heavily, rendering them competitive. The solution is in building infrastructure through PPPs, with terms of reference benchmarked to the best infra in the world. Fishing harbours, the core and essence of the model were never built in India. The reasons why the country should invest in developing a fishing harbor are:

  • A fishing harbour is a place where many things come together – fish, people, and fishing technology.
  • There is probably no other structure or facility in fisheries that matches the diversity of stakeholders and activities in a fishing harbor.
  • The conditions prevailing in a fishing harbor may have consequences not only on human and environmental health, but also on fish price and exports.
  • Fish provides more than one billion poor people with most of their daily animal protein. Fisheries sector has huge contribution to India’s national economy. It also provides a livelihood to an estimated 10 million people
  • It is a meeting point for buyers, sellers, and service providers. Moreover, it is a point of convergence between production and trade. It is a place of encounter between public and private institutions.
  • A fishing harbor offers enormous opportunity for the promotion of responsible fisheries, specifically the reduction of wastes and preservation of fish quality.
  • While having the right infrastructure at the right place is very important for the proper functioning of a fishing harbor, how it is managed and maintained are crucial considerations as well.
  • Stakeholders are a vital link to the sustainability of a fishing harbor.

IBT: What opportunities does the finalisation of RCEP provide Indian fishery sector, and how would it change their approach to the market?

Chalasani Bhaskar: Let us know open the playing field to competition when our fishermen are neither ready nor equipped. RCEP opportunity to Indian fishermen is possible only when the Indian fishermen are put on a level playing field by building infrastructure (harbours, logistics and skilling centers).

This will help open up the Asian market for Indian fishermen to cater to bigger and mature markets. Indian fisheries infrastructure is at least 10 years behind its competitors. RCEP based competition will help Indian fisheries to work towards efficiency and productivity, which will enable Indian fisheries to become a sustainable fisheries sector by 2030.

Fisheries sector, in order to be sustainable, should not only implement sustainability mandates across the supply chain but also be vocal for local as foods produced and consumed locally will have minimum impact on the environment. Sea foods should be supplied to only those regions / nations that are landlocked.

Chalasani Satya Bhaskar is a serial social entrepreneur and an expert in agri-strategy, finance and risk modeling for revival, restructuring and turnaround of stressed assets and NPAs (Non Performing Assets) in India. Mr. Bhaskar graduated with an engineering degree from Wayne State University, USA in 1989. He journeyed from working at Ford in USA, to entrepreneurship in paper, bio-chemicals, agro projects, investments into ARC (Asset reconstruction company), and strategic, financial and investment modeling for stressed non performing assets.

Mr. Bhaskar is passionate with insights to discover, diagnose, design, develop, deploy and deliver new generation landscape ESG centric agri – food, feed, fiber & fuel projects encompassing the covenants of One health – One planet – One people thesis. He is Founder & Chairman of Dhakshhin Agropolis Ltd, a sum of parts landscape ESG agri project designed and being developed as a first of its kind model in Andhra Pradesh. He plans to replicate it across the 739 district’s of India to touch the life’s of every farmer and farm workers for enabling risk hedged aspirational, dignified and living incomes and to facilitate India’s and the world’s food security needs through Vocal for Local for Global. The views expressed are his own, as discussed in an interaction with Virat Bahri, Editor, India Business & Trade.

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