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.. 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.
As John Kurien wrote at the time. this must be seen as a "tragedy of enclosures", because the artisanal fishing communities had been operating as sustainable commons and now the resources were being appropriated by outside trawlers.
A movement started, mainly in Kerala. The conflict between traditional fishworkers and the trawling sector was clear, and clashes began to take place at sea. Between 1970-85, more than 50 fishermen were killed due to attacks from mechanised boats. 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. Traditional 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 and submitted a memorandum to the Chief Minister (CM) of Kerala, demanding that mechanised boats be allowed to operate only beyond 5 kilometers from the coast. A second memorandum included demands such as a ban on monsoon trawling and the curbing of pollution of inland water resources. 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 district’s central administrative office). The demand was for a comprehensive Marine Regulation Act. However, the mechanised boats continued to operate. On 30 December 1978, a young fisherman Babu was killed when a mechanised boat rammed into his boat. This shocked the fishing community, and a series of protest marches and retaliatory attacks began to take place. LCFF organised a jeep rally in Trivandrum, and Fr. Paul Arackal, the president, went on an indefinite fast, demanding a marine regulation law, police protection to fishworkers, and compensation for Babu’s family. The fast received widespread support, and K.M. Mani, the finance minister, soon conceded to all the demands.
On 20 March, 1980, the LCFF decided to change its name to Kerala Swathantra Malsya Thozhilali Federation (KSMTF), as it felt that the former name was too restrictive, and that fishworkers of all religions should unite under one banner. The term ‘swathantra’ (meaning ‘independent’) referred to its non-affiliation with any political party, and the term ‘malsya thozhilali’ (‘fish worker’) indicated the solidarity the fishworkers shared with workers in general. 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” . A debate ensued as to whether a priest or a layperson should take charge of the organization. Finally, Fr. Albert Parasivala, a Catholic priest, was elected president.
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.
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 CM. 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. On the same day thousands of fishworkers marched to the assembly. Finally, the CM met the gathering and, later, announced a lump sum grant for education for fishworkers’ children and a fishworkers’ pension scheme. On 22 June 1984, KSMTF called off the 50-day agitation, with the official statement : “We suspended the agitation only to give some breathing time so that we launch an even more powerful offensive in the future” .
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 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.