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
NameFishworkers struggle in Kerala, India
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)Aquaculture and fisheries
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Specific CommoditiesShrimps
Project Details and Actors
Project DetailsFollowing 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.

The new surge in mechanised fisheries had drastic repercussions for the coastal ecosystem and the livelihoods of the fishworkers. The bottom trawlers used for catching prawn began destroying the sea floor, and along with it eggs and juvenile fish. Similarly, purse-seining, another practice involving heavy equipment, depleted resources once abundantly available to the traditional fishing community. 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 resources1.

A chief conflict centered on the monsoon season, which is the breeding season for the fish near the shore ; thus, trawling during the monsoon severely affects the catch for traditional fishing communities.

Tradition fishworkers felt an acute need to organize themselves against increasing threats to their livelihood. There were already district-level organisations, which were largely controlled by local caste or religious organisations. In 1977, the Latin Catholic Fisherman’s Federation (LCFF) formed a state-level organization.

In November 1978, the LCFF called a relay hunger strike in the district of Alapuzha, which continued for 59 days, with 4 people at a time fasting in front of the collectorate. The demand was for a comprehensive Marine Regulation Act. However, the mechanised boats continued to operate, and clashes started getting severe. On 30 December 1978, a young fisherman Babu was killed when a mechanised boat rammed into his country craft.

On 20 March, 1980, the LCFF decided to change its name to Kerala Swathantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF), as it felt that fishworkers of all religions should unite under one banner. The main objective of the KSMTF were outlined thus : “to work for the socio-economic and political development and education of fishworkers who are involved in fishing and marketing of fish in inland and coastal waters, and to work to get the rights and benefits of fishworkers from the government”.

On 24 May 1981, Kerala’s government banned trawling during the monsoon season throughout the Kerala coast, but within ten days a relaxation was made for the Neendakara area, which had the largest concentration of mechanised boats. This move was opposed by the KSMTF, and on 12 June, fifty fishworkers forcibly entered the office of the Fisheries Director and were arrested. The next five days saw fishworkers picketing around the residence of the Fisheries Minister, and on 25 June, Father Thomas Kocherry and Joychen Antony started an indefinite fast. They were joined by thousands of fishworkers. On 4 July, thousands surrounded the collectorate of Kollam district. Finally, on 13 July, the Fisheries Minister invited representatives of KSMTF, and conceded to the formation of an expert committee to look into mechanised trawling. In the end, the committee, named the Babu Paul Commission, did not recommend banning monsoon trawling ; however, it did suggest several moves to protect traditional fishworkers. Yet even these modest suggestions were not implemented.

Meanwhile, due to tensions between Fr. Parasivala and other members, the KSMTF split, with Parasivala and his supporters breaking off to found a more religiously-oriented group. The KSMTF emerged as a strong secular trade union, bereft of any church influence. K.K. Velayudhan and Seythali, both active fishermen, were elected as President and General Secretary. The percentage of Hindu and Muslim fishworkers increased within the union, and by the end of 1984, KSMTF had become the largest trade union among fishworkers.

On 10 April 1984, KSMTF submitted a new memorandum to the Chief Minister of Kerala. The government did not respond, and a series of marches, rallies, demonstrations, torchlight processions and door-to-door campaigns were organised to mobilize people at the grassroots level. On 2 May, a mass sit-in was organised in all districts, and on 15 May, A. Joseph sat on an indefinite fast in front of the Kollam collectorate. More than 7000 fishworkers courted arrest, and the national highway was picketed by over 1000 women. On 25 May, A. Joseph was arrested and taken to the hospital, and Fr. Augustine took over the fast. 13 women, including 3 nuns, picketed the fisheries office in Trivandrum and were arrested. After widespread media coverage, the CM finally agreed to meet the trade unions, assuring them of the ban on night trawling and a grant of 180 million rupees for welfare programmes. But there was no talk of monsoon trawling.

The KSMTF struggle received a shot in the arm when two Members of Legislative Assembly (MLAs) decided to join the hunger strike, and on 18 June, all opposition parties staged a walkout from the assembly. This support for an independent fishworkers union was unprecedented.

True to their word, in 1985 they continued the agitation, sending a new list of demands to the government. Between 25 May and 9 June 1985, they started the ‘fill the jail’ campaign, courting arrest, with almost 220 fishworkers serving prison terms. Following this was a series of hunger strikes. On 23 July, more than 10,000 marched to Neendakara and picketed the Fisheries Port Office, only to be arrested. Fr. Jose Kaleekal started an indefinite hunger strike outside the secretariat. On 9 October, the CM called representatives from all fishworkers unions. The union representatives walked out of the meeting, as the CM was absent. Finally, on October 10, 1985, the fast was called off, with protesters breaking their fast with coconut water. The 183-day struggle was successful in bringing widespread publicity to the fishworkers’ concerns.

In 1988, marches were organised in seven districts demanding a ban on monsoon trawling. There was no response from the government, leading Fr. Thomas Kocherry to begin an indefinite fast. In Kerala’s capital, the harbour was picketed, with “1000 fishworkers in about 125 big country crafts surrounded the fishing harbour…from morning till afternoon” . On 23 June, the government proclaimed a ban on monsoon trawling, exempting Neendakara. The agitation was called off. However, the government proclamation was never instituted as an official statute.

On June 26, 1989, an expert committee appointed to study marine fishery resource management in Kerala recommended a ban on monsoon trawling. The KSMTF intensified its struggle, with indefinite hunger strikes and massive agitations across the state. Finally, the CM announced the decision of the cabinet to ban monsoon trawling from 20 July to 31 August in the territorial waters of Kerala. The mechanized boat owners protested, but the government enforced the order, and finally a single bench of the Kerala high court ruled in favour of the fishworkers. This was a huge victory for the movement.

In June 1993, the Supreme Court issued an order stating that the government was right in placing a ban on monsoon trawling operations. This was another huge victory for the movement, and following that the compromise ban period remained for 45 days in the monsoon season.

More recently, fishworkers have opposed the growing push for free trade agreements (FTAs), stating that such agreements work to the detriment of their interests. In 2009, a protest sit-in took place in a post office, with the KSMTF openly opposing the free entry of imports into the Indian markets. Also in 2009, the KSMTF and other fishworkers trade unions formed the Kerala Fishworkers Coordination Committee to protest against the Indo-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, which the government had recently signed. Arguing that cheap imports from the ASEAN countries would threaten the livelihood of the fishworkers, the Committee organized a march to parliament. Several fishworkers from all parts of Kerala converged in Delhi, and held a march and sit-in outside the parliament house.

Meanwhile, female fishworkers have fought for their demands under the banner of the Coastal Women’s Forum. One example from their fight illustrates their success. Women vendors, who traveled 10-15 kilometres a day, were initially not allowed to use public transportation, owing to stigma associated with fishworkers. This affected their performance in the market, as they would be out-competed by those who could reach earlier, and so after a long struggle in the late 1980s, they won their right to use public transport. And in 1981, after another protracted struggle, they were given a special bus by the government to transport them to the market.

The struggle to protect the seas against indiscriminate exploitation has been central to the fishworkers movement in Kerala. Their bid to protect the sea cannot be detached from need urge to protect their livelihoods, and in fact, the movement has been able to maintain its strength due to the consistent nature of their demands. The relevance of the movement exists at several levels : first, the ability to rely on community mobilization and support groups in their show of strength against the government and the large trawler owners ; second, their ability to actively mobilize for sustained periods of time and actively utilize the media for voicing their demands ; third, the ability to reflect particular occupational needs based on traditional community practices on to the level of trade union action ; and finally their ability to consistently unite on both local and global needs in a concerted manner and to be united with fishworkers across the country.


Rohan Mathews, Fishworkers movement in Kerala.

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

Nayak, N. and A.J. Vijayan, The Coasts, the Fish Resources, and the Fishworkers’ Movement, New Delhi : National Human Rights Commission, 2006

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

Type of PopulationSemi-urban
Potential Affected Population10,000,000
Start Date1970
Relevant government actorsGoverment of India

Government of Kerala
Environmental justice organisations and other supportersKerala Swathantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF)

World Forum of Fisher People
The Conflict and the Mobilization
Intensity of Conflict (at highest level)HIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
When did the mobilization beginIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups MobilizingIndigenous groups or traditional communities
Local ejos
Local government/political parties
Social movements
Trade unions
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
Fisher people
Forms of MobilizationDevelopment of a network/collective action
Hunger strikes and self immolation
Public campaigns
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Media based activism/alternative media
Street protest/marches
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Occupation of buildings/public spaces
Development of alternative proposals
Official complaint letters and petitions
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
OtherOverfishing (struggle against)
Health ImpactsVisible: Occupational disease and accidents, Deaths, Accidents
Socio-economic 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
Pathways for conflict outcome / responseCriminalization of activists
Court decision (undecided)
Negotiated alternative solution
Development of AlternativesMoratoria on trawling in the monsoon season
Do you consider this as a success?Yes
Why? Explain briefly.The immediate objectives on the Kerala fishworkers movment were acchieved. The movement extended alsos to the whole coast on India.
Sources and Materials

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

Nayak, N. and A.J. Vijayan, The Coasts, the Fish Resources, and the Fishworkers’ Movement, New Delhi: National Human Rights Commission, 2006

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

Subir Sinha, Trasnationality and the Indian Fisherworkers movement, 1960-2000, J. of Agrarian Change, March 2012.
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Rohan Mathews, Firshworkers Movement in Kerala, 2011
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Rohan Mathews, Fishworkers movement in Kerala
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John Kurien, Ruining the commons and the responses of the commoners, UNRISD, 1991.
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John Kurien, The Blessing of the Commons: small scale fisheries, 2004
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Obituary of Thomas Kocherry in The Hindu, 2014
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Other Documents

Tribute to Thomas Kocherry by Pakistani fishworkers
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Last update26/08/2018