The inland traditional fishers, such as those from riverine, estuarine, reservoirs, and wetlands of India, are primarily dependent on natural waters for their livelihoods. Governments at various levels have made several efforts, including decentralization of management rights, promotion of cooperatives and formation of self-help groups, to develop the fisheries. Despite these efforts, production from most of the culture-based inland fishery waters (particularly adopting fish stock enhancements) is below potential, as a vast gap is observed between the potential and existing fish production. There is immense potential for increasing the fishing effort, production and income. Capture fishery resources, particularly in the riverine fisheries, are declining due to resource degradation and excessive exploitation. The impact of fisheries developmental programmes instituted by government agencies like the National Fisheries Development Board are hardly recognised on fisheries communities due to the multiple-use common pool resource nature of the fishing resource. Comprehensive investigations on the socioeconomic status of riverine fisher communities are rare. The present investigation studies the socioeconomic conditions of riverine fisher communities in different regions of India. The study covered six states of five regions in India: Uttar Pradesh in the North; Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the South; Orissa and West Bengal in the East; Gujarat in the West; Assam in the northeastern region. The overall socioeconomic index results concluded that almost all the regions have achieved only 46% to 52% of the socioeconomic criteria studied. Institutional financial support for alternate income generation activities; organisation under self-help groups, and vocational training for fisherwomen to undertake alternate income-generating activities during the closed/off season are some of the suggestions resulting from the investigation.

Introduction

Fisheries in developing countries play a role in creating employment and generating income, thereby contributing to society through poverty alleviation, as well as nutritional security (FAO, 1997; Thilsted et al., 1997). Fisheries, being a community-based development process, have a direct bearing on the rural economy. India is endowed with a variety of aquatic resources from saline deep seas to mountainous cold waters, including deep seashore, estuary, rivers, reservoirs and flood plain wetlands. Most of the aquatic resources are utilised for fisheries purposes and the sector has grown steadily since 1950–1951, with fish production increasing from 0.752 million tonnes to 8.3 million tonnes from 1950–1951 to 2010–2011 (Planning Commission, 2012). Contribution of the fisheries sector to agriculture and national GDP also increased (National Centre for Agricultural Economics and Policy Research [NCAP], 2004). Contribution of inland fisheries is higher than that of the marine sector and has potential for further increase in fish production (NCAP, 2004). Although, the share of aquaculture is higher in total inland fish production, fisheries engage a large number of fishers and provide livelihood to millions of rural individuals (Katiha and Sarkar, 2010). For the past few decades, the fish production from natural open waters is witnessing a declining trend, both in quantity and quality, in terms of share of commercially important fish species (Planning Commission, 2012). Further, the expectations for the impact of fisheries developmental activities could not be realised by traditional fisher communities due to the common-pool resource (CPR) nature of resources with multiple uses. One of the major constraints towards appropriate policy and planning for development is a lack of information on socioeconomic conditions of fisher communities (Planning Commission, 2012). Therefore, it is increasingly pertinent to collect information on this impoverished sector. The present investigation is a step in this direction by collecting on (i) demographic patterns, (ii) literacy, (iii) health, (iv) employment, and (v) income status. The targeted community in the present study were riverine fisher communities that primarily drew their livelihoods from fishing in riverine water areas.

Methods

India has rich riverine resources comprising 14 major, 44 medium and 162 minor rivers with about 1.56 × 1012 m3 of runoff every year. This study on the socioeconomic aspects of fisher communities dependent on riverine fisheries focused on the households of different river systems located in various regions of the country. The methodology used is described below.

Selection of sample households and data

The study covered households from five regions and six Indian states: Uttar Pradesh in the North; Tamil Nadu and Kerala in the South; Orissa and West Bengal in the East; Gujarat in the West; Assam in the Northeast. The sampling was done at the level of rivers, states, districts, villages and households. A stratified random sampling method was adopted. The distribution of sample households is given in Table 1.

The data were collected from fishers operating in the rivers mentioned in Table 1 in the selected states. For the purpose of this study, 406 fishermen households were selected. Comprehensive and pre-tested schedules were used to collect primary data from the households. The secondary information was collected from different fishery stakeholders, including fisher cooperatives, State Departments of Fisheries and Revenue, and District administrations. The collected information included location of fishermen households, fish production data, number of cooperatives, credit status of the fishermen, institutional arrangements and governance.

Multi-stage stratified random sampling was adopted to select respondents. Primary data was collected from the fishermen households using comprehensive and pre-tested questionnaires.

Variables and analysis

The variables considered for the study were gender, age, literacy, health, employment, income and expenditure patterns. These variables were considered to be important for determining the socioeconomic status.

The study was conducted during 2010–2011. The data collected from respondents were tabulated according to the variables studied. The data were verified for consistency by the research scientists. Conventional tools of tabular and percentage analyses were used to process the data and bring out the results. A socioeconomic status index (Akinola and Patel, 1987) was generated using all the variables to determine the status of the socioeconomic conditions of the riverine community.

Results and discussions

Demographic composition

The demographic description of respondents' households provided the information about overall characteristics of the riverine fisher community in India. The parameters under investigation were age, gender, family size, family composition and sex ratio.

Age composition of respondent fishers

Age is an important factor in determining the socioeconomic status of a community. For example, if the younger generation is involved in the enterprise and they are unable to make a livelihood, the government is responsible for helping them to find an alternative option to make a living. The age structure of the river fisher respondents is given in Table 2. It indicated that over 42% of respondents belonged to the age group between 36 and 55 years old, followed by over 36% in the age group <35 years old. In most of the regions, the maximum percentage of respondents was between 36 and 55 years old, with the exception of the northern and western regions, where most of the fishers were younger than 35 years old. Fishers older than 55 were more common in the northeast and eastern regions compared to the other regions. These observations indicated that the majority of riverine fishers were younger than 55, although, in heavy fish-eating regions, many fishers belonged to higher age groups.

Distribution of households according to family size

The household size is also an important factor in the socioeconomic status of a community. A big household with many members and low income means poor status. The distribution of households according to size of family revealed that nearly half of them (49%) had 2–4 family members (Table 3), followed by more than 40% of the families with 5–7 members. The remaining respondents had family sizes more than 7. In the western river region, most of the fisher households had 2–4 family members, while in the eastern region the majority of households belonged to the 5–7 family member category. The average family size was 4.6, with with the eastern region being the highest (4.93), followed by the northeast (4.9) and northern (4.84) regions.

Family composition

Gender and age structure of the families are indicated using the metrics male, female, adult and minor. It is important to assess employment and income potential and expenditure. The estimates of these characteristics revealed more males than females in all the regions (Table 4). The maximum percentage of males was in the eastern and northeast regions (>55%), followed by the southern, western, and northern areas. The overall estimate of the numbers of males and females indicated 863 females per 1000 males. The overall male to female ratio was 1.16, which indicates that the society discriminates against women.

Education status

Literacy rate and level

Literacy is one of the key socioeconomic indicators and paves the way to development for any community at the micro level (Katiha, 2010). In the present study, the general literacy rate was found to be over 79% (Table 5). Across different regions, the literacy was highest in the southern (98%) followed by the western (75%) areas. The study further revealed that, among those who are literate, about 53% of the household members were educated up to the secondary level, followed by over 37% up to primary level. Only one-tenth of the respondents were educated at the college level. In concurrence with the highest literacy rate being in the southern region, about three-fourths of these individuals were educated up to the secondary level, while about 18% of fishers from the eastern region had attended college. A reasonable literacy level is increasingly important for underprivileged communities like fishers (Katiha, 2010). The literacy level during the past few decades has increased for all the communities in India, including among fishers (Planning Commission, 2012).

Access to educational institutions

The literacy level also depends upon the infrastructure available in the form of schools and colleges within reasonable distances (Planning Commission, 2012). Therefore, information has also been collected about distance to these institutions. The average distance to a primary school was 1.10 km with a range from 0.21 km to 2.95 km (Table 6).

Similarly, the high school was at an average distance of 3.43 km. Overall, the distance to college and professional colleges were 9.25 km and 16.80 km from fishing villages. The distance to primary school was lowest in the northeast (0.21 km), followed by the northern (0.38 km) and the western (0.43 km) regions. For high school, the eastern region students needed to travel the maximum distance of 5.9 km, followed by the northern region at 3.65 km. The minimum distance travelled for high school was for students from the southern region (2.04 km). The colleges were the most distant for the southern (12.44 km) region and the nearest for the eastern (7.09 km). The students of the western region had to travel the longest distances (26.7 km) to go to professional college, while its minimum distance necessary was in northern region (8.32 km).

Health status

Regarding health status, information was collected on the vaccination programmes, birth weight of infants, and incidences of child and maternal mortality during pregnancy. In most of the regions, the vaccination programme was implemented as per prescribed norms, so these results are not explained in depth.

Mortality rate of infants and mothers during delivery

During the survey, 382 deliveries were reported in the fishermen community. Out of these the mortality of 3 mothers and 12 infants was reported (Table 7). In the case of the mothers, all of the mortalities occurred in the Southern region. In the case of infants, mortalities were reported in all the regions except the northeast. These were highest in the eastern region, followed by the northern, the western, and the southern in decreasing order. The overall mortality rate was 0.79 percent and 3.14% for mothers and infants, respectively, as compared to 0.21 and 4.4 percent at the national level (MoHFW, 2011; Census of India, 2011).

Access to health services

Regarding the health facilities, the average distance to a primary health centre was 1.44 km, ranging from 0.56 km in the South to 4.38 km in the North (Table 8). Similarly, the average distance to a hospital was 10.55 km, which ranged from 4.83 km in the Northeast to 25.16 km in the North.

From all the above findings the Socio Economic Status (SES) index was calculated, which indicated that all the regions achieved only 0.46 to 0.52 of the socioeconomic criteria.

Income expenditure and savings of the fisher households

Income

The income sources of the fisher households comprised fisheries, business, labour, agriculture, and other minor income generating activities (Table 9). Out of the total average household income of INR 2609/month, the highest share was from fisheries at around 42%, followed by business (22.40%), labour (21.02%), and agriculture (13.18%). The percentage contribution of fisheries to the total family income was highest in the northern region, where it contributed more than 85%. This was followed by the northeast region (71.18%). In the western region, fishers derived only 18% of their total livelihood from the fisheries sector. Business was the major profession in this region. The total monthly income was the highest in the Western region (INR 6297.34), and the lowest in the eastern (INR 965.23). The income from fisheries was highest for the riverine fishers of the northern region (INR 2409.00) and lowest for the fishers of the eastern region at (INR 617.05). Daily labour contributed to around one-fourth of the income for the fishers operating in the eastern, the southern, and western regions, while agriculture (22.17%) and business (36.24%) contributed the maximum percentage of income in the western region.

Expenditure patterns

The average monthly expenditure per household was estimated at INR 1752 (Table 10). About 58% of these expenses were for food, followed by 8.5% for consumer durables, and 7% each for clothing and personal expenses. Education expenses were very low at 6%, which was even lower than the personal and clothing expenses. The percentage of expenses on food was highest for all the regions, with the maximum in the Northeast (71.52%) and minimum in the South at 48.09%. All the remaining items of expenditure followed almost similar trends with the exception of durable goods, which reflected over 15% and 11% of the expenditures for the southern and western regions, and nil for the northeastern region during the study period.

Savings

The income and expenditure patterns revealed that fishers were able to save only a small percentage of their income in all the regions (Table 11). The average monthly savings were estimated at INR 857.19. The average savings for most of the regions was found to be less than INR 293, but the savings in the western region at INR 2991.84 skewed the average estimate. This was primarily because of the higher income level in this area due to non-fishing activities. The percentage savings of fisher households for different regions ranged from 4.05 in the North to 47.51 in the West.

Conclusions and suggestions

This study focused on exploring the socioeconomic aspects of riparian fisher communities in various regions of the country. The study indicated poor to moderate socioeconomic conditions of the fishers using socioeconomic status (SES). Figure 1 reveals that the northern region has achieved only 46.53%, followed by the eastern region with 48.56%. The western region achieved only 52.1%, and the southern region only 49.03% of SES. Therefore, the study concludes that the socioeconomic status of the fishermen was poor. Fisheries has been recognized as a key industry for ensuring food security and improving market access for the rural poor, as well as strengthening performance in global markets (Worldfish Center, 2005). A number of researchers have concluded that more than the harvest of fish or other resources, local institutions and the power structure that controls access to resources might also be determinants of levels of low socioeconomic status (Ruddle, 1994a, 1994b, 1998; Béné, 2003). Hence, institutions and the power structure need to be studied. The management policies need to be directed towards ensuring a sustainable livelihood for the people who are dependent on fisheries. To ensure community participation, access rights to the river stretches must be considered. The fishermen operated within a complex socioeconomic setup, where fisheries are only one component. Thus, there is a need for a holistic approach with regard to fisheries development programs.

Based on the analysis of information gathered and suggestions made by the respondents, the following measures may be adopted with the objective of improving the socioeconomic status of different regions.

The Northeastern Region:

  1. A Planning Commission study (2001) found that institutional credit is a critical weakness in the eastern and northeastern regions. Therefore, arranging institutional financial support with programs such as micro credit for alternate income generation activities is required.

  2. Creation of more self-help groups.

  3. Organization of awareness camps regarding the importance of education.

The Eastern Region:

  1. Farm households not accessing credit from formal sources as a proportion of total farm households is very high at 95.91% and 81.26% in the northeastern and eastern regions, respectively (ARC, 2012). Hence, special attention is needed for penetration of formal sources of credit to these two regions.

  2. As Bhatia (1999) observed, the rural infrastructure plays an important role in the growth of rural economy. Hence, provision of rural infrastructure for general societal/ human development should be ensured.

  3. Capacity building on community-based fisheries.

  4. More emphasis on health status.

The Western Region:

  1. More priority needs to be given to education and health care facilities.

  2. Lack of awareness is the major reason for various central and state government schemes not reaching the communities (Times of India, 2012). Organisation of awareness camps to make the commnities aware of different government development and social sector schemes are required.

The Northern Region:

  1. The study found that health care facilities are at long distances in the northern region. Hence, construction of modern hospitals with all necessary infrastructures should be prioritized, and health care facilities should be easily accessible to the fishermen.

  2. Capacity building on community based fisheries.

The Southern Region:

  1. In the southern region, the total income of the households was low. In addition, sources of non-fisheries income were also limited. Vocational training for fisherwomen to undertake different household income activities during the closed/off season may provide them extra income.

  2. Alternatively, arranging institutional financial support programs like offering micro credit for alternate income generation activities should also be required.

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