Fishermen’s unions protested throughout last week against the Government’s decision to scrap their fuel subsidy and introduce a new equipment subsidy scheme in its place. The protests began last Monday with fishermen sailing into the Negombo lagoon displaying black flags on their boats. Last Wednesday, three fishermen in Negombo began a fast-unto-death in front of [...]


We want fuel subsidy not equipment, say protesting fishermen

Malpractices led to halting of support system : Ministry official

Fishermen’s unions protested throughout last week against the Government’s decision to scrap their fuel subsidy and introduce a new equipment subsidy scheme in its place.

The protests began last Monday with fishermen sailing into the Negombo lagoon displaying black flags on their boats. Last Wednesday, three fishermen in Negombo began a fast-unto-death in front of the town hall grounds. The fast was called off on Friday with Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith discussing the issue with President Mahinda Rajapaksa.

Archbishop Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith talking to fishermen. Pic by Hubert Fernando

“We are protesting because we want a solution to this matter,” Anthony Warnaku-lasuriya, treasurer of the Kammalthota Fisheries Sector Cooperative Society and one of the protestors in Negombo, told the Sunday Times. “We ask the Government, either give us the fuel subsidy back, or reduce fuel prices altogether. We don’t need equipment, we need fuel.”

The Ministry of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources announced in May that the fuel subsidy granted in 2012 has been discontinued permanently and that the Ministry will implement a new, alternative scheme to distribute fishing equipment instead.

The alternative scheme would be to provide boats and fishing gear such as lifesaving jackets, a variety of fishing nets and engines, said Nimal Hettiarachchi, Director General of the Department of Fisheries and Aquatic Resources. The programme is estimated to cost around Rs. 4 billion.

“What we want to do under this programme is to increase fish production, improve living standards, and make technology more affordable,” he added.

Fisheries Ministry Secretary D.M.R.B. Dissanayaka said the Government, “has already begun preliminary work under the programme.”
“Now 50 percent of the work has been completed,” he added. “A stock of equipment is already on the way to selected districts and should reach the fishermen in two to three months.”

Unionists, on the other hand, were firmly against the new programme. Many fishermen the Sunday Times spoke with said fuel is more important than equipment.

Priyanka Niluk, a small-time fisherman from Wattakkaliya owns a boat that consumes about 20 litres of kerosene on a 12 to 15 nautical mile trip. The fuels costs him around Rs. 3,000 per day, in addition to some Rs.2,500 he spends on bait, ice, and other essentials.

Fishermen with placards and black flags on their anchored boats. Pic by Agustine Fernando

“The problem is some days we don’t catch any fish,” he said. “But if we had the subsidy then at least some of those losses are covered. So for the past 10 months we’ve been running at a loss without the subsidy, and our incomes took a hit from that.”

Another small-scale fisherman from Chilaw said the increased cost of fuel for fishing is affecting his household budget.

“I have two children, it’s very difficult to meet their various school expenses when the fuel costs are cutting into our household income,” he said. “Sometimes we have to roam the seas looking for places where the fish are. With unstable kerosene oil prices, it’s hard to purchase that extra oil needed to go a distance, thus affecting our catch.”

Oscar Amarasinghe, professor of agricultural economics at the Ruhuna University said fuel price hikes mostly affect small-scale fishermen. Increased fuel prices increases cost of production, and with low or fluctuating market prices for fish, it’s difficult for these fishermen to bear that additional cost.

Some fishermen also expressed concern that the new programme might not deliver as promised.

“If the Government is unable to give us the monthly subsidy, how is it going to manage a new Rs. 4 billion programme?” Rathna Gamage, national organiser of the All Island Fishermen’s Union, asked. “This scheme is a huge lie; the Government is only out to bamboozle poor fishermen. Even if we get a new boat, how are we supposed to take it out to sea without fuel?”
Mr. Dissanayaka said the alternative programme is ‘fully funded’ by the Treasury and there are ‘no issues, no risks” associated with funding.

“This programme is for increasing fish production. With increased production there would be no need for a fuel subsidy,” he added.
Nishantha, a unionist from Pitipala, said he didn’t trust the new programme ‘one bit.’

“The Ministry officials in a fax message in April promised us, and assured us, that the subsidy programme would be continued,” he said. “But they lied to us and slashed it.”

Regarding the fax message dated April 25 this year, signed by Mr. Dissanayake, claiming the Treasury has approved funds for the fuel subsidy programme and that the Fisheries Ministry was taking steps to continue it, Secretary Dissanayaka said Minister Rajitha Senaratne, Deputy Minister Sarath Kumara Gunaratne and himself ‘later decided on the new program instead.’ When asked how he would respond to fishermen insisting on the fuel subsidy, he only said, ‘can’t help.’

“We have received 28,000 applications under the new programme so far,” he added. “Ninety percent of the fishermen like the new programme. Only some groups in Negombo are against it.”

One of the issues with distributing equipment for fishermen is that fishermen employ a wide variety of gear to catch different varieties of fish. Fishermen might use one kind of gear for one species, but if they can’t find that species they might switch to a different kind of gear, Professor Amarasinghe said.

Mr. Hettiarachchi said the Ministry dealt with that problem by handing out applications in which the applicant could specify whatever equipment they desired, instead of the Ministry deciding for them.

But unionists claimed many fishermen are illiterate or couldn’t understand how to fill the application form. Some claimed to have filled the form halfheartedly and only because it was required of them.

“I filled it out about a year ago, only because I thought if I didn’t submit the application, I might be left with nothing,” Ekman, a fisherman from Hambantota, said.

“I included things like nets that I don’t even need just for the sake of it,” Chumley Lapuhewagama from Ahangama, said. “I was told it was mandatory.”

Mr. Dissanayaka said the Ministry will provide only ‘quality-assured’ equipment, strictly supervised by a technical committee and purchased from registered companies. He added that the Ministry will guarantee that all items listed in the application will be provided, even if there might be delays caused by market shortages.

The fishermen were granted from February 2012 a monthly fuel subsidy depending on the type and size of their boats. However, the payment of the subsidy which cost around Rs. 3.6 billon annually has been highly irregular.

The programme was also briefly halted due to ‘malpractices’ last year. A Ministry official said some fishermen exploited the system and claimed fuel subsidies even for boats ‘with holes in them and tied to trees.’ Professor Amarasinghe said it was ‘quite natural’ for some fishermen to go to the filling station and claim the subsidy whenever they were short of cash.

“They would go to the filling station and tell the owner, ‘mudalali, give me my fuel subsidy,’” he explained.

“If the subsidy was Rs. 10,000, then the fisherman would get about Rs. 7,000 in cash and the filling station owner would pocket Rs. 3,000.”

The Fisheries Minister and Deputy Minister are currently overseas and were not available for comment.

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