The floodplain wetlands of Bihar, Assam and West Bengal are under the ownership of different government departments. In Bihar and West Bengal these waterbodies were leased to fisherman cooperative society for fisheries management (Chandra and Ekka 2015, Sarkar et al. 2020, Chandra and Das 2019), while in Assam the waterbodies are leased to either individual fishers or fisherman cooperative society (Chandra 2009, Chandra 2011, Chandra and Das 2019). Fisheries management practices also differ in these states (Chandra 2010, Chandra et al. 201, Sarkar et al. 2020). The COVID-19 impact on the wetland fishers shows visible changes in various activities related to fisheries. The fisher responses to the lockdown were different in all three states.
The result presented in three broad themes that emerged from the survey, namely impacts on wetland fishers livelihood, income and food access. These themes are also disaggregated based on the respondents’ engagement.
1. Impact on Wetland Fisheries
1.1 Fishing Days
All the fishers (100%) responded that they were not allowed to fishing in first phase due to strict lockdown enforced by the local authorities. In second phase, fishers of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam responded 73 56 and 30 percentage loss in fishing days respectively. There was 53 and 42 percentage loss of fishing days in West Bengal and Bihar respectively. Fishing ban was observed from 20 April to 15 June, hence no loss in third phase in Assam (Fig. 2). The sudden lockdown falls during the medium intensity period of fishing in wetlands of Bihar, Assam and West Bengal, led to a significant economic loss to fishers because of loss of fishing days. In Bihar local administration allowed fishers to fishing and its sell for 4 hours in the morning in the second phase. In third phase of lockdown this restriction was lifted by the district administration leading to normalcy in the fishing operation. In West Bengal, though fishing partially allowed in second phase of lockdown but most of fishers could not do fishing due to supply side problems. The fishers of Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam lost 20, 25, and 9 fishing days respectively due to lockdown. Overall, one fishing day provides an average income of INR 500 to wetland fisher.
1.2 Fish catch/ fishing practices
To further quantify the impact of COVID 19 lockdown on wetland fishers livelihood we asked the fishers if they were a) fishing same amount of fish; b) fishing in group as like previous year. When asked more directly about fish harvest, majority of fishers (68%) stated that the fish catch was less than the last year. Fishers of Bihar, West Bengal and Assam responded that the fish harvest during March to May was 32, 44 and 20 percentage lower respectively than the previous year due to lockdown restriction. Explanations for the reduced fish catch include reduction in fishing days, restrictions on group fishing due to COVID-19 measures and time allowed for harvesting operation. Group fishing is a community based practice in wetland fisheries in all three states, but due to COVID-19 measures, numbers of fishers fishing in wetlands were restricted. Fishers of West Bengal stated that due to restriction on group fishing both the harvesting operation delayed. Fishers of Bihar stated that in earlier years, during this period fish harvesting was done on alternate days with 300 kg catch per fishing day. The fish harvesting during lockdown initiated after 15 April, 2020 keeping with the COVID advisory by maintaining 2 meters of physical distance with covering of the face. The distance between two boats was maintained at six meters apart. Due to the loss of 20 fishing days in the month of March-April and reduced intensity of fishing after 15 April onwards, fishers estimated a loss of 32%.
1.3 Marketing /fish value chain
Three kinds of value chains were operational in wetland fisheries prior to lockdown in all the three states. a) Fishers-retailers-consumers, b) Fishers-landing centres-whole sellers- retailers-Consumers and c) Fishers-consumers .
Supply side constraint mainly mobility restriction and closure of transport led to disruption fish value chain. During lockdown restrictions the broadly operated value chain involving fishers-whole sellers-retailers-consumers was completely wanting. In Bihar after the relaxations in phase II, all harvested fish were directly purchased by the retailers from fishers at farm gate level in the morning hours due to restricted fish sale time from 8–10 AM in the morning. The other impact of lockdown was visible in increase in price of fish in market due to huge demand supply gap. The supply of fish was half of normal times in the market and this demand supply gap led to the in 20–40 percent increase in farm gate price of carps and catfishes in Bihar, West Bengal and Assam. Around 15 percent of the fish demand of Assam met by fishes imported from other states of India. Due to transport restriction, fish supply from other states has completely stopped and this led to the increase of fish price by 25–40 percent higher than the period before lockdown. In West Bengal, Cooperative Societies (PFCS) of the selected wetlands decided not to harvest the fish because of very low options of selling the harvested fish to the whole sellers.
2. Impact on Income
The sudden lockdown and restriction of fishing in wetlands led to considerable loss of income to the fishers. 70, 60 and 55 percent of the respondent fishers of wetlands of West Bengal, Bihar and Assam admitted that the lockdown made them partially jobless. Due to loss of fishing days, fishers of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar lost income 70, 56 and 60 percent income in first phase of lockdown and 30, 44 and 40 percent in second and third phase of lockdown (Fig. 3). The income loss to each fisher due to lockdown was INR 10000/-, 12500/- and 4500/- respectively in Bihar, West Bengal, and Assam and on an average INR 9000 for an Indian wetland fisher.
Perceived economic loss by Fishermen Cooperative Societies (FCSs) of Bihar and West Bengalduring the COVID-19 Lockdown period has been presented in Fig. 4. All the respondents of West Bengal reported decrease in fish consumption due to high demand and less supply of fish in the market raising its price.
3. Food access
Disruption of agriculture sector as a whole including fisheries and income losses has also affected fishers as a consumer. During the phone survey we asked the respondents on a) household affordability of sufficient quantity of food b) affordability of sufficient variety of food (includes grain, pulse, fish/egg, vegetables) to assess the potential impact of lockdown on the fishers household. We found that around 70 percent of the households were affording more or less same quantity of food during the lockdown period. They said that they have used household saving for purchase of food materials. Only 45, 52 and 40 percent of fishers of Assam, West Bengal and Bihar responded that they afforded more or less sufficient variety of food as like before lockdown period. Almost all the respondents of West Bengal reported that there was a decrease in fish consumption due to high demand and less supply of fish in the market raising its price. According to them, 75 percent of people did not consume fish or consumed fish occasionally during lockdown. In comparison to West Bengal, fish consumption by fishers by Assam and Bihar were slightly better. The lack of income during the lockdown probably caused insufficiency in the nutritional needs of the fishers’ families in all the three states.
The federal government of India announced under Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (PMGKY), 5 kg food grains and 1 kg pulses per persons of each household below the poverty line provided free of cost through the public distribution system for the month of April to September. PMGKY provided the necessary safety net to the poor population during this lockdown (Dev 2020).
4. Other Stress
Due to the pandemic and consequent lockdown, households have faced different kind of stresses like financial, mental physical and social stress. The fishers were anxious, constantly under stress and faced difficulty for not being able to socialize. Concerning their physio-psychological changes, however, due to restriction on social gathering created a feeling of occasional isolation and sadness among them. 25 percent of respondents rated the psychological impact of the COVID outbreak as moderate to severe; 25 percent of the fishers reported moderate to severe anxiety symptoms. Most fishers reported that they are spending more than 17 hours per day at home.
One phenomenon seen in all the states was that fishers of were comparatively less anxious about the financial loss as they believed they would be able to recover the loss after the opening of the lockdown. The price of fish has been appreciated by 25–40% due to supply-side constraints. The fishers are anticipating that they will recover partial loss due to high price realization. The most contrasting case was of Kothia wetland in Bihar, where harvest was allowed only in third phase of lockdown after 12 May 2020. Harvesting was carried out for next ten days and 5 metric tons of fish harvested, providing a good earning to the fishers community.
Institutional Response To Support Fishers
Institutional response to support fishers varied in different states. In Bihar the response was timely. Department of fisheries notified fisheries as essential activity and instructed the district administration to allow fisheries activities in water bodies. Fishing was allowed from 5–10 AM in the morning by the district administration from 15 April, 2020. This timing was further relaxed from 25 April 2020.
Government of India and state governments have announced several measures to help the public to cope hardship during the lockdown period. This includes announcement of fisheries as a part of essential activity and allowing fishers to do fishing operation during lockdown period maintaining COVID social distancing protocol. Government of India announced $22 billion relief package which include food and cash transfers for the poor. This includes INR 2000 cash transfers to the bank accounts of 87 million farmers under PM Kisan scheme (Dhakade 2000). The daily wages under MNREGS was increased from INR 182 to 202, apart from it LPG gas used in cooking food was provided free of cost by Government of India under Ujjawala yojana to below poverty line households. All these measures have helped fishers during this COVID-19 pandemic.