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Executive Interviews: Interview with Vivekanadan on Bottom of the Pyramid
November 2008 - By Prema Ramachandran

Former CEO of South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies

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  • You chose as your area of operation the fishermen community in the south. Why didn't you opt to extend your area of operation to those outside the southern part of India?
    SIFFS was formed in 1980 by ten primary societies in Trivandrum District where the first successful village-level cooperative society had come up a decade earlier. It was initially named "Trivandrum District Fish Marketing Cooperative Society", but the name dropped when registration under the Cooperative Act was denied on the grounds of overlap in area of operation with a defunct cooperative.Just when the organization was to be registered under the Societies Registration Act, there was a

    dialogue with the fishermen of neighbouring Kanyakumari District who also had around 10 societies working on the same model. The Kanyakumari societies promised to join the federation once it was up and running.

    This made the outlook of the proposed federation very different. From a district level federation, its profile changed to that of an interstate organization just because Trivandrum and Kanyakumari lay on either side of the Kerala-Tamil Nadu border. Eugene Culas, the activist who took the lead to organize the new federation, then went one step ahead and ambitiously named the organization SIFFS and included Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh in the area of operation for good measure.

    When I joined SIFFS in 1982, it was still an organization of the Trivandrum fishermen. The Kanyakumari fishermen would join only three years down the line. Yet the name "SIFFS" influenced my thinking and I imagined SIFFS spreading all over South India and living up to its name. However, a number of factors made this expansion a slow and erratic process. Even today SIFFS is only the federation of fishermen societies in 11 out of the 22 coastal districts of Kerala and Tamil Nadu. We do have some societies in the Union Territory of Pondicherry and a couple of experimental societies in Andhra Pradesh. Thus, we are still struggling to live up to our name. It is therefore unreasonable to expect SIFFS to go beyond South India at present.

    A major handicap for expansion has been the history that different NGOs organized the primary societies in different districts and SIFFS only inherited these groups. The science and art of organizing societies were not properly systematized like the Anand Pattern Societies. SIFFS itself lacked human resources to do this work. It is only in the mid-1990s that we tried to develop our own expertise in this and started working in North Kerala. This gave us valuable experience of organizing societies in a new area requiring modifications to our village society model.

    In 2000, we then entered the northcentral coast of Tamil Nadu and started organizing societies. This time we have been a lot more successful. From the humble annual growth rate of three societies we are now doing almost 10 new societies a year. This gives hope that SIFFS will live up to its name in a few years time.

    This realization that SIFFS has many institutional limitations for promoting societies across the coast was one of the factors that triggered my plan to resign as SIFFS CEO and start a new National NGO to promote fisheries development across the Indian coast. The new organization is being registered at the moment, but has already started working in Gujarat organizing fishermen societies in the remote district of Kutch.

  • I understand that you have travelled widely across the globe representing the fisheries sector of India. How do you compare the traditional fisheries sector in India with that of other developed and developing countries?
    There are both commonalities and dissimilarities. At one level, all marine capture fisheries in the world are going through a crisis stagnation and even decline of catches due to over-fishing and a failure to manage the fisheries. However, how the problem is being looked at in developed countries and developing countries is somewhat different.

    To start with, it is important to understand that marine capture fisheries are based on a Common Pool Resource (CPR) that is finite and exhaustible. Open access is the enemy of such CPRs as this leads to depletion of the resource. The challenge, therefore, is how to restrict access, especially after the initial phase of development (based on under exploited resources) is over. It is in this that there is big difference between the ways the developed countries and developing countries look at fisheries management.

    Most developed countries, if you look at the map carefully, are found in the temperate zone where the fish species diversity is limited and each species is found in large abundance. This has led to large scale fishing units that focus on catching particular fish species. In addition, most developed economies have gone through a social transformation that has led to very few persons willing to continue in the primary production sectors like agriculture and fisheries. There is actually a labor shortage for fishing in many of the developed countries. The Norwegians, famous for their fishery in the Arctic Circle, are actually employing Sri Lankan Tamils (who went in large numbers as political refugees) as labor on their boats!

    Yet another difference that influences the way developed countries look at fisheries is the general level of social security prevalent in those countries with the State providing doles or unemployment insurance. One may lose a job but one is not necessarily on the roads because of that. Each sector of the economy is managed purely from point of view of efficiency and competitiveness rather than for preservation of jobs in that particular sector. Even the big agriculture subsidies that we hear of in Europe and the US are actually meant to protect the interest of agribusiness than labor.

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