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Law, land use and the environment: Afro-Indian dialogues

Christoph Eberhard

Perspectives indiennes / Indian Perspectives

Sequencing and Pacing: Panchayati Raj Institutions, the Fisheries Sector and Coastal Ecosystems

J. B. Rajan T et P. Haribabu


Les institutions du Panchayati Raj, le secteur de la pêche et les écosystèmes côtier: vers quel développement ?

La réforme radicale de la décentralisation au Kérala attribue une grande autonomie aux institutions de Panchayati Raj (Panchayati Raj Institutions - PRI) dans le domaine de la planification et de la mise en œuvre de projets de développement adaptés à l'environnement local. Ces derniers s'inscrivent dans une optique de conservation des écosystèmes et de gestion des ressources naturelles selon les modalités du développement durable. La connaissance des particularités régionales ainsi que leur contact étroit avec les utilisateurs des ressources naturelles permettraient-ils aux institutions de Panchayati Raj de jouer un rôle tout particulier pour remplir ces objectifs ? La planification décentralisée a-t-elle permis d'élaborer des programmes adéquats pour la conservation des ressources naturelles ? Si ce n'est pas le cas, quels sont les écueils qui semblent empêcher un investissement sage par les acteurs des nouveaux espaces ouverts par la décentralisation ? Ces questions sont étudiées dans cette contribution à travers l'analyse des pêcheries maritimes et de leur impact sur les écosystèmes côtiers. L'étude procède à une évaluation de l'état actuel de l'écosystème côtier au Kérala, de la situation générale du secteur de la pêche ainsi que de la capacité que démontre le système de Panchayati Raj pour aborder les problèmes cruciaux qui se posent au secteur.

Cette présentation est le résumé d'une étude approfondie réalisée par les auteurs et intitulée Fading Images of Decentralisation in Kerala. Study with Reference to Marine Fisheries in the 10th Five-Year Plan. La recherche est construite autour de l'analyse des Padhaty Rekha (les documents de planification) de 106 institutions de Panchayati Raj de neuf districts maritimes du Kérala et s'intéresse plus particulièrement aux programmes élaborés et à l'utilisation des fonds par le « secteur productif » des pêcheries marines. Elle est complétée par une étude des provisions importantes du Kerala Panchayati Raj Act de1994 et des directives du Comité de planification de l'État (State Planning Board). L'analyse ne se limite pas à la description de la situation actuelle. Elle tente de suggérer quelques orientations pour des politiques et des approches de gestion environnementales qui permettraient de s'acheminer vers une développement durable du secteur de la pêche ainsi que vers une subsistance durable pour toutes ses parties prenantes.

Texte intégral


1Fisheries enjoy a distinctive status because of their total dependence on the natural environment. Both agriculture and fisheries owe their allegiance to nature, but the latter has the characteristic of reaping from nature without sowing. Unfortunately, planning in fisheries primarily emphasises production without giving due importance to conservation. This indifference, which fails to take into account the capacity of the natural environment, has caused havoc in the fisheries sector, with all kinds of hazardous fishing technologies and practices making it one of the most threatened and thereby unsustainable in modern times.

  • 1 The Environmental Protection Act, EPA, 1986, is the parent act that evolves with time and new requi (...)

2The increasing debate on the critical link between development and environment should be viewed in this context. Even though it is not often translated into action, there is a widespread consensus on the need for conservation and protection of the natural environment. Nevertheless, the general view is that at present development interventions have negative impacts on nature. The provisions of the Environment Protection Act (EPA), 1986,1 particularly mandating the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) prior to investment in large-scale development projects, underline this fact. However, primary production activities like fisheries do not come within the ambit of EPA because the major threat to fishery resources is unsafe fishing practices. In the context of Kerala, overcapacity and indiscriminate fishing have reached an alarming level. Extended coastal ecosystems are vanishing at a very rapid pace, water bodies are polluted increasingly, and the environment is degraded to a disturbing extent. Nevertheless, meaningful regulatory and conservation measures are yet to find a place in the planning process of the fisheries sector.

  • 2 Which creates panchayats.
  • 3 Which creates municipalities.
  • 4 The study was based on the Vikasana Rekha (Development Reports) and Padhaty Rekha (Plan Documents) (...)
  • 5 Village level, block or intermediate level and district level.

3In order to address harmful practices in the sector, the question is how to bell the cat rather than who bells it. This paper studies Kerala’s fisheries with a special focus on Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs) and on decentralization. Decentralized planning in Kerala has drawn much attention from other states for its visionary approach in advancing the objectives of the 73rd2 and 74th3 amendments of the Indian Constitution. Providing PRIs the right to plan for local-level development, backed by the devolution of funds, functions and functionaries, is considered to be a step in the right direction towards development. It is generally observed that these processes were of greater help in improving local development than conventional top-down approach. However, the study by the authors on the performance of PRIs during the tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-2007) in the context of the fisheries sector revealed that conservation, protection and regeneration of marine and coastal ecosystems figured very little in the decentralised planning process. On the contrary, there was an abundance of schemes and projects for supplying fishing fleets, thus further adding to the overcapacity existing in the sector. (Rajan and Haribabu 2005).4 In spite of local self-governments empowered to plan development projects, PRIs are still not able to tackle protective measures for the environment and ecosystems. This has led the researchers to examine the functions of PRIs, according to the Kerala Panchayati Raj Act of 1994 and the relevant guidelines at all three levels.5 The present paper attempts to evaluate the shortcomings of the panchayati raj system and decentralised planning in the State, with special emphasis on the conservation of coastal ecosystems and the regeneration of resources in marine fisheries.

1. The Panchayati Raj System

1.1. Constitutionalising Local Governance

4The system for decentralized governance in post-independent India is the governance through the Panchayati Raj Institutions (PRIs). There is evidence of the term ‘panchayati raj’ in pre-independent India. But, considering the unjust social and anti-democratic forces that were prevalent, it could be deduced that such a system was marred with caste and religious hegemonies, feudal landlord (known in India as zamindari) supremacy and their undemocratic institutions. The sort of justice such a system would have provided to the untouchables and to the underprivileged masses, which constitute the majority in the country, can easily be imagined. During the early years of post-independent India, there were attempts to introduce the concept of local self-governments, which again did not succeed. Along with the earlier decadent forces, mellowed to some degree in the wake of a national government, it was political factionalism, corruption, bureaucratic apathy and arbitrariness that dominated and further impeded the attempts. This was in spite of the introduction of Article 40 in the Constitution of India (under the Directive Principles of State Policy), which states that “the state shall take steps to organize village Panchayats and endow them with such powers and authority as may be necessary to function as units of self-government”.

5But, as participatory politics became more pronounced, as the underprivileged became more vocal and as the number of their representatives in parliament and in state legislative bodies became more decisive, the idea slowly gained strength. Both union and state governments became more committed to adopting measures for local self-government. Evidence to this effect could be that the five-year plans included measures in their programmes to strengthen local self-governments to play a role in local development processes and to make them more responsive to people’s needs and expectations.

  • 6 Panchayats.
  • 7 Municipalities and corporations.

6Following unsuccessful attempts at constitutional amendment in 1989 and again in 1990 and in September 1991, the Congress Government under Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao introduced the 72nd (panchayats) and 73rd (municipalities) constitutional bills. The Lok Sabha passed the bills on 22 December 1992, after which they were passed by the Rajya Sabha, although their sequence changed to the 73rd and 74th respectively. Following the ratification by both houses, the president gave his assent on 20 April 1993. This culminated in the passing of the 73rd and 74th Amendment Acts to the Constitution in 1992, which added Part IX and IXa. While part IX relates to ‘panchayats’, part IXa relates to ‘municipalities’. Also notable is the fact that the legislation provides for a uniform three-tier system of panchayats at the village, block (also known as the intermediate) and district levels throughout the country. Thus rural6 and urban7 local governments were constitutionalised. The Panchayat Raj Institutions (PRIs) are enshrined in the Constitution like the two upper levels of governance, i.e., central and state government. The amendments give PRIs such powers and authority that enable them to function as institutions of self-governance. Another remarkable feature of the amendments was the creation of a fourth tier of governance; the grama sabha. Conceived as the basic body to ensure people’s participation in local governance, grama sabhas ensure direct democracy. The creation of local governments and grama sabhas have provided impetus for launching democratic decentralised governance, in which people have ample space to express their views. Some of the noteworthy attributes of these constitutional amendments as regards participatory democracy, economic rights and gender justice are: (i) the conducting of regular and periodical elections to the local governments every five years, (ii) the reservation of not less than one-third of the seats and positions for women, (iii) the reservation of seats and positions for weaker sections, viz. Scheduled Castes (SC) and Scheduled Tribes (ST), according to the proportion of their population, (iv) the constitution of a District Planning Commission (DPC) by every state at the district level to promote the bottom-up planning of LSGIs, (v) the constitution of an independent State Election Commission (SEC) by every state to ensure free and fair elections to the PRIs, (vi) the constitution of a State Finance Commission (SFC), by every state every five years to take measures for strengthening the fiscal aspects of PRIs, (vii) the devolution of functions by every state, i.e., twenty-nine items as per the Eleventh Schedule, and (viii) no arbitrary dissolution of local governments before the expiry of their legitimate duration.

7Although they still have a long way to go, it cannot be denied that the Panchayati Raj Institutions are a reality in India. As time proceeds, more progressive initiatives will highlight their significant status and their due share in participatory democracy. With both the central and the federal state governments coming under pressure to debunk the monopolistic single-party political control and replace it with multi-party representations in governments, the status of Panchayati Raj Institutions in the country is certain to attain greater significance. The amendments entrusted the states with enacting corresponding acts to strengthen the panchayati raj system. The State of Kerala has moved far ahead through its initiatives to democratise the decentralization process.

1.2. From Rhetoric to Concrete Partnership

8Apart from constitutional validity, the economic freedom of local self-governments continues to depend largely on the aid granted to the panchayats from the consolidated fund of the state government and other centrally sponsored programmes. The financial powers accorded by constitutional amendments, for example, the collection of taxes, duties and tolls, are meagre and the ‘leftovers’ from the central and federal state exchequer filling process. Even fifteen years after the passing of the constitutional amendment, federal states have not taken many meaningful steps to make PRIs their equal partners, either on the level of planning and governing, or (even less) financially. It is in this context that the Government of Kerala took a huge leap by declaring that the devolution of powers also means devolution of funds to the local self-governments. The initiative to justify this was taken during the ninth Five-Year Plan under the Left Democratic Front (LDF) Government headed by communist parties. Two fundamental approaches with far-reaching consequences were initiated in July 1996 by the Government and the State Planning Board: (a) projects worth 35-40 per cent of the state plan fund is to be planned at the local level and (b) the planning process will also be carried out at the local level and will be called People’s Planning Process.

9Succinctly, this means that the local self-governments will be given the right to plan development projects according to their requirements. First, this results in a fundamental shift from a top-down to a bottom-up approach. Second, funds corresponding to the projects for local requirements that arise from the local planning process will be directly transferred to the local self-governments from the state budget. Systems were also made and regularized by which this process would be made transparent and also accountable. In effect, this introduced crucial changes to the planning process wherein local democratic forums and structures were created and prepared to follow this novel approach.

10Debates on participation, governance and civil society can take place at several levels, and the same is true for the system under discussion here. Every system has its inherent strengths and weaknesses and systems of local governance in India are not an exception. First and foremost, the panchayati raj system is ‘inititated’ by the state and the interests cannot be far removed from that reality. If the system has its own shortcomings, there also exist threats of manipulation by other interests. For example, panchayat elections are to be devoid of political partisanship. This, however, is by all means impractical, as the same voters are to vote for the state legislatives and also in parliamentary elections in fiercely pitched battles. Apart from this, there will be a tendency to acquiesce to the state government and ruling party for favours and funds without which the panchayat cannot survive. The influence of political parties in local politics, caste affiliations, nepotism and individualism, etc., is more influential on the level of local politics, and will also be reflected in the elections.

11The dichotomy of referring to the FSGs as governmental while they serve only a ‘developmental’ function is the real challenge in the system. The local government should, on the one hand, have powers to draft and enforce law and order, which is crucial. On the other hand, it should also have a say in decisions pertaining to overall local development. In the current system, it does not have powers to enforce law, which makes it a weak subordinate of the state and central governments. It should also be noted that there is no consultation with the local government regarding large-scale projects and what are termed ‘state’ policies and ‘national interests’, although these policies and projects are to be located in the jurisdiction of local governments.

12These points apart, there are several larger questions, similar to any other system, to which the FSGs are subject, questions about cultivating grassroots democracy, about providing space where dissenting voices can be heard. There is also the question as to who and what will adjudicate between national policies and local realities. This arises especially when there is competition for common resources, but ‘interests’ that vary between national and local, between natural environment and local livelihood options and the so-called national aspirations to be global players. These and similar questions are both here and now and point to the future. In this context, the issues of communities dependent on natural resources are all the more important. The fisher people are one of the communities facing occupational displacements due to indiscriminate developmental efforts. The deepening crisis in the fisheries sector has adversely affected the fishing community, which is further marginalized through negative externalities. But, to what extent can PRIs solve these issues?

2. Resource-rich but Neglected Ecosystems

13Any attempt to plan in fisheries requires that special attention be given to the following contradiction: a resource-rich sector, but a mistreated ecosystem. The abundance of nature’s gifts showered on Kerala makes its coastal area one of the most ecologically sensitive regions. The diverse marine and coastal ecosystems are direct beneficiaries of the State’s ecologically strategic location. The thriving fishery activity in Kerala is a testimony to this feature. ‘Keralam’ is a narrow strip of land between the Western Ghats and the Arabian Sea, with a maximum average breadth of 70km (Soman 2002). The State is endowed with rich inland water bodies consisting of 44 rivers (having an area of 0.85 lakh ha), 30 major reservoirs (0.30 lakh ha), freshwater ponds and tanks (0.25 lakh ha), 45 backwater and extensive brackish water area (2.43 lakhs ha). The continental shelf area (sea spread up to a depth of 200 metres) adjacent to the Kerala coast is 39, 139 knr, which is almost equivalent to the land area of the entire State (Govt. of Kerala 2005).

14The State is a major producer of marine fisheries in the country. Among the fish catch from the Kerala coast, which consists of more than 300 different species, the commercially important fish number about forty (ibid.). Marine fish production during 2003-04 was 6.08 lakh tonnes. The marine export earning during this period was Rs 1,099.13 crores, constituting 18% in terms of value of the Indian marine products export (ibid.). There are 222 fishing villages in the marine sector, where fishing and related activities provide livelihood to a vast majority of the fishing population of 8.43 lakhs. The number of active fishermen is 1.79 lakhs in the marine sector (ibid.)

15Despite these peculiarities and contributions to the economy, the fisheries sector is not free from evident contrasts. In spite of heavy investment and modernization during the last five decades, the fisheries sector could not keep pace with the developments that took place in other sectors of the economy. The margin between the per capita income for the State as a whole and that of the fish workers in 1980-81 was only Rs 540. It increased to Rs 1,105 in 1993-94, to Rs 3,960 in 1998-99 and to Rs 4,462 in 1999-2000 (Govt. of Kerala 1988, 2002). The current performance of the sector is also far from satisfactory. The increase in fishery export value is a result of the price increase in global markets rather than of the increase in export quantity.

16Insensitive treatment of the State’s fragile ecology in general, and marine ecosystems in particular, in pursuit of modern development has contributed gravely to their destruction, leading to severe resource depletion. Although rather late, this crucial factor is gaining recognition, according to some recent studies conducted by the State itself. A most recent study on the Poverty and Environment Nexus, undertaken jointly by the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), put this more explicitly: “The coastal zone of Kerala is affected by sea erosion, destruction of mangroves, shrinkage of wetland, loss of cultivable land, water pollution, decline/ stagnation of fish catch, species reduction and biodiversity loss” (ADB and CESS 2003).

2.1. The Eroding Coastal Belt

  • 8 Public Works Department, which is mainly responsible for the construction and maintenance of infras (...)

17The Coastal Zone Management Plan (CZMP) of the State reveals the status of the environmental degradation of the coastal region. “Coastal erosion is a major problem confronting Kerala. [...] PWD8 has earlier estimated that 320km of the Kerala coastline is undergoing erosion. A later assessment of PWD indicated that a 470 km area is vulnerable to erosion. A recent CESS study has shown that only 150km are undergoing severe erosion (including those protected by seawall) and about 110km are consistently accreting” (Govt. of Kerala 1995). According to CESS: “In highly erosion prone areas there are no landward second herns. Several of these locations extending to the above 340 km are protected by seawalls” (ibid.).

18Building seawalls continues to be the one and only remedy for the ‘protection’ of the coast. “Sea wall is a common form of protection measure to prevent coastal erosion. Part of the coastline is protected. However, it prevents free movement of fishermen and restricts beach related activity. The seawalls also get frequently damaged and need occasional repair. In addition, it transfers the erosion problems from one place to another. The seawalls are not only ecologically unsuitable but also costly in economic terms. The involved cost to construct a one km long seawall ranges between 10 to 15million Indian rupees. Shifting of settlements from the vicinity of erosion-affected area can perhaps be considered as one of the options to minimize economic loss.” (ADB and CESS 2003). However, this cannot be an easy to implement measure considering the densely-populated coastal regions. The density of population in the coastal area is 2176 as against 749 for the State as a whole (Govt. of Kerala 1995).

2.2. Vanishing Coastal Ecosystems

19Urbanisation and infrastructural development play havoc with extremely sensitive extended coastal ecosystems such as wetlands and mangroves. In the fishery resource context, these are the breeding and spawning grounds of many varieties of fish and shrimps. The depletion rate of these crucial supportive ecosystems is alarming. The wetland area in the State has decreased from 55,000 ha to 46,000 ha during this century. (Unofficial sources estimate this area at 42,000ha) (Govt. of Kerala 2002). Similar is the fate of mangroves. Mangrove forest along the coastal belt of Kerala has decreased from 70,000ha to 2,000ha (ibid.).

2.3. Pollution of Water Bodies

20The discharging of industrial effluents, of domestic and of urban sewage directly into the sea and other water bodies is common phenomenon in Kerala. According to CESS: “The water bodies in the coastal zone are susceptible to pollution mainly due to effluent discharged from industries, domestic and community sewage. Drainage from agricultural land (containing fertilizers, pesticides, fungicides, etc.), retting areas for coconut husk and spillage of oil and kerosene in the vicinity of major commercial and fishing harbours also contribute to pollution of water bodies” (Govt. of Kerala 1995).

21Recent statistics provide a clearer picture of the gravity of the issue. Around 200 large and 2,400 small-scale industrial units discharge 6.5 million litres of polluted water into the rivers and backwaters of the State (Govt. of Kerala 2002). Ultimately, this ends up in the sea, affecting the marine resources. A document by the ADB and CESS from 2003 sums up the impacts of these damaging situations on human living conditions: “People depending on the local resource are hard pressed to eke out their living as environmental deterioration imposes restrictions on resource availability or access to resources. A mutual re-enforcement trend is observed between environmental degradation and poverty. A proper environmental management plan with due attention to conservation measurements can ameliorate the situation and provide necessary support to address the issue of poverty reduction” (ADB and CESS 2003).

2.4. Aquatic Degradation and Stock Depletion

  • 9 The fisheries crisis in the State has prompted the government to set up expert committees to study (...)

22Unhealthy competition for more of the same resource in the fisheries has resulted in overexploitation and overcapacity in the sector. Considering the potential of marine resources in Kerala, the Kalawar Committee9 in 1984 recommended to limit the number of mechanized boats to 1,145, motorized country canoes to 2,960, and non-motorised country canoes to 20,000 (Kalawar 1984). The statistics show that the fishing fleets in use in the marine waters of Kerala have far exceeded these quotas. The overcapacity in fishing fleet is alarming at 132% for all types of crafts. (Rajan 2000).

23The fishing pressure in the coastal waters has increased from 8 persons per km2 in 1985, to 10 persons in 1992, and 12 persons in 2001. Studies show that the overcapacity in fisheries leads the sector to huge losses and the owners of fishing fleets will become insolvent in the near future (Rajan 2000a). The mounting issues of fish stock depletion, aquatic degradation, loss of traditional knowledge, increasing fishing pressure, unhealthy competition in technology introduction and overcapacity in fisheries compound social tensions and lead to further displacement of the traditional fishing communities. The sector has now moved from low-gear to high-gear technology, from low-cost to high-cost technology and from eco-friendly to eco-destructive methods (Rajan 2001). The marine fish production in the State is stagnant and seems to have achieved saturation level, whereas inland fish production showed signs of improvement from 1999-2000, followed by a slight decline (Govt. of Kerala 2005). The traditional sector dominated fishery until 1983, and thereafter it declined with the fast development of the motorized sector (Yohannan et al. 2000). In 1994, the contribution by the mechanized sector had increased to 57%, relegating that of the motorized sector to second place, at 39%. The traditional sector suffered further decline. In 1996, the motorized, mechanized and traditional sectors contributed 51, 44, and 5% respectively (ibid.).

Table-1: Overcapacity in marine fishing fleet of Kerala

Fleet Type

No. of Fleets in 2002-031

Allowable Limit of Fleets2

Overcapacity in Fleets (%)3

Mechanised Boats




Motorised Canoes




Non-motorised Canoes








Source: 1. Govt. of Kerala 2004; 2. Kalawar 1984; 3. Computed with the formula: [(actual fleet-allowable fleet)/allowable fleet] x 100.

24The purpose of detailing the severe and complex issues in the fishery sector is to show that centralized planning has done little to mitigate them. The situation has continued unchecked for decades, without any meaningful interventions from the concerned departments and state functionaries. Further examination of this vicious circle is attempted in the context of decentralised planning.

3. Projects on Fisheries in Decentralised Planning

25One of the core objectives of decentralised planning during the tenth Five-Year Plan (2002-2007) as envisaged by the State Planning Board (SPB) is to “focus on Natural Resource Management and integrated area development” (Govt. of Kerala 2002b). The attainment of this objective would help to resolve the two major threats facing the fisheries sector of Kerala, viz. (i) the fishery resource being one of the most depleted natural stocks and (ii) the coastal area being in a vulnerable condition due to indiscriminate encroachment. A perusal of the projects on fisheries of the coastal PRIs under the heading ‘productive sector’, as revealed by Padhaty Rekha (plan documents) during the tenth Five-Year Plan, draws a dismal picture as far as these issues are concerned (Rajan and Haribabu 2005).

3.1. Environment, the Missing Link

  • 10 Funds to the PRIs are to be earmarked for three broad sectors: the productive sector and the infras (...)

26The projects on fisheries in the “productive sector” are in the different categories of pre-harvest, harvest and post-harvest, as are welfare and infrastructure schemes. Considering the nature of the projects under the heading ‘productive sector’,10 an attempt is made to logically classify the projects of coastal LSGs into six major components on the basis of their similarities (ibid.). They consist of:

  1. direct fish production activities (fishing fleet, fuel, fish culture, support activities, etc.)

  2. fish production auxiliary services (mostly, pre-and post-harvest activities)

  3. welfare (housing, electricity, drinking water, sanitation, etc.)

  4. conscientisation (awareness training programmes relating to fisheries and general)

  5. environment (conservation related)

  6. administration overheads (office building, office furniture, etc.)

  7. miscellaneous (items that do not fall under the above six categories).

27As much as 49% of the fisheries’ outlay under the heading productive sector is for projects on direct fish production. Projects on environment and conscientisation each form a negligible 3% of the total. At the same time, projects that are inappropriate under the heading productive, viz. welfare, administration and miscellaneous, amount to almost 16% of the total production outlay. The dismal contribution to environment and conscientisation projects, which is crucial for resource protection and conservation in fisheries, points to the fact that there is no long-term management strategy in the sector as far as LSGs are concerned.

28The fact is that the Report of the Expert Committee for Fisheries Management Studies, (Balakrishnan Nair 2000) and the document on Tenth Five-Year Plan (Govt. of Kerala 2002) speak vehemently about the resource crunch in fisheries and the need for resource sustainability measures. But, the fact that the planning of the coastal FSGs has not adequately formulated environment-related projects constitutes the real crisis of decentralised governance in fisheries!

3.2. Fuelling the Overcapacity

29An examination by the Padhaty Rekha of coastal LSGs in the tenth Five-Year Plan revealed that the projects on direct fish production that are formulated under the heading productive sector are against the notion of ‘productive’. The ‘direct production’ component of the fisheries outlay showed the presence of schemes like people’s fish farming, fuel and oil subsidy and an enormous supply to the fishing fleet through decentralised planning. It is startling that nearly 60% of the outlay for “direct production” is earmarked for the supply of the fishing fleet. These schemes and investments require further justification, as the present level of the marine fishing fleet far exceeds the recommended limit fixed by the Dr. Kalawar Committee. Both private and government agencies continue to invest in the fishing fleet over and above the recommended limit. The fishing fleet supplied through the decentralised planning process, with a subsidy from Matsyafed, adds to the acute overcapacity in fisheries. It is paradoxical that the forum entrusted with the collective responsibility to address the crisis fuels the same.

30Another point is the great emphasis placed on culture fisheries, with 20% of direct fish production, although coastal people are not the beneficiaries. In short, an examination of the production components in schemes of the fisheries through decentralised planning reveals inadequacies in addressing critical issues in this sector.

3.3. The Stakes at the Lowest Segments

31The unbalanced allocation of funds between the three tiers - grama, block and zilla - for the productive sector in marine fisheries was observed while scrutinizing the Padhaty Rekha of the coastal LSGIs. While the contribution of the grama panchayat is 66.6 per cent, the block and zilla contributions were 6.9 and 26.5 per cent respectively. It is unclear on what criteria these allocations were based. But it is evident that the conservation and protection of marine and coastal resources suffered through this unbalanced approach. The specific document dealing with fisheries, released jointly by the Department of Fisheries and the State Planning Board and in circulation during tenth Five-Year Plan, is clear about the conservation needs and the roles of three tiers. The document states: “Only through cooperation of the LSGs and general public the fishery resource protection-development and management can be effective. LSGs must initiate to plan innovative schemes to encompass the various issues discussed in this chapter” (Govt. of Kerala 2002). The document further specifies the roles of the three tiers in conservation measures as follows:

  • “Mangroves plantation along coastal and backwaters (district panchayat)

  • Regional level fishery resource protection-management forums (grama panchayat, nagarasabha)

  • Forced breeding of threatened fish - through fisheries department (grama panchayat)

  • Code of conduct for responsible fishing - dicussions/ conscientisation programmes/local level programmes (grama, block, district panchayats)” (ibid.).

32According to these guidelines, the zilla and block panchayats are expected to play a significant role in conservation, management and conscientisation measures. This is possible only when proportionate funds are allocated by the two upper tiers to work in collaboration with the grama panchayat. Sufficient fund allocation from the two upper tiers for joint conservation projects would have also forced the grama panchayat to undertake similar projects and schemes.

4. The Setbacks

33The dismal status of environmental degradation along the coast and opportunities lost in decentralised planning are shown in the previous sections. Negligence and systemic failures, which do not sufficiently recognise the importance of new modes of governance, are some of the factors contributing to this sad state of affairs.

4.1. The Gaps in the Act

34It is imperative to detail the functions of the PRIs as enunciated by the Kerala Panchayati Raj (KPR) Act, 1994, so as to provide a realistic picture of the gaps with respect to ecosystems in general and coastal areas in particular. The KPR Act categorises the functions of PRIs under three headings, viz. (i) mandatory functions, (ii) general functions and (iii) sectorwise functions.

35There are twenty-seven Mandatory Functions of Village Panchayats under the Third Schedule [Sub-section (1) of section 166 of KPR Act, 1994]. These functions begin with ‘regulating building construction’ and end with ‘issue licence to domestic dogs and destroy stray dogs’. But, there is nothing relating to environmental protection in general or any specific mention of coastal ecosystems!

36In the general functions, however, mention is made of ‘inculcating environmental awareness and motivating local action for environmental upgradation’. However, as is evident, this is only a general function and is not mandatory.

37Moving to the sector-wise functions of the Act, fishing ranks fourth after agriculture, animal husbandry and minor irrigation. The sector-wise functions in fisheries are detailed as:

  1. development of fisheries in ponds, pisciculture in freshwater and in brackish water and mariculture;

  2. improvement of fish seed production and distribution of offspring

  3. distribution of fishing implements;

  4. provision of assistance in the marketing of fish;

  5. provision of minimum basic facilities for fishermen’s families;

  6. implementation of welfare schemes for fishermen.

38It is pathetic to note that none of the sector-wise functions in fisheries deals with the real issues in the sector.

39There is no mention of the environment in the General Functions of Block Panchayats (Fourth Schedule [Sub-section (1) of section 172 of KPR Act, 1994]). In sector-wise functions under fisheries, mention is only made of the “development of traditional landing centres”.

40As far as the Functions of District Panchayats (Fifth Schedule [Sub section (1) of Section 175 of KPR Act, 1994]) are concerned, we can note that general functions are all about providing technical expertise and assistance to the lower-level tiers. Although specific areas are not mentioned, it is clear that the intention is to assist sector-wise functions envisaged by the village and block panchayats. However, the Sector-wise Functions of the District Panchayats in fisheries are more elaborate. They include:

  1. arrangements for fish marketing

  2. management of development agencies for fish farms

  3. management of district level pisciculture centres, net-making units, fish markets, feed mills, ice plants and cold storages

  4. management of fisheries schools

  5. introduction of new technologies

  6. provision of implements required by fishermen

  7. promotion of fishermen’s co-operative societies.

41It is seen in all three tiers that the protection, conservation and regeneration of the environment in general and coastal ecosystems in particular do not find any significant place in the KPR Act. The KPR Act lacks affirmative provisions relating to the protection of the coastal environment for the PRIs, despite the fact that there are nine coastal districts in the state and that the coast of the Arabian Sea runs along the entire length of the state - a total of 590km! It is therefore unambiguous as to why the PRIs spend least in conservation and regeneration projects. On the other hand, both village panchayats (distribution of fishing implements) and district panchayats (provision of implements required by fishermen) promote the supply of fishing fleet and motors.

4.2. The Missing Element in the Guidelines

  • 11 Handbooks to assist the PRIs in planning are prepared for all sectors by concerned departments prio (...)

42The Draft Approach Paper to the tenth Five-Year Plan by the Planning Commission gives due significance to environmental concerns. The document states: “Environmental concern and problems are growing and pollution and waste generation are now beginning to hit the country, especially in urban areas, because of unsustainable development. Pollution of air, water and soil is emerging as a serious threat to human health, biodiversity, climate change, ecology and economy of the area. It has therefore, become an urgent necessity to reconcile population and economic growth with environmental conservation” (Govt. of India 2001). It further identifies sources of pollution, management measures and, very importantly, the need for providing environmental education and awareness to the masses, as well as identifying agencies for imparting the same (ibid.). This subject is extremely crucial to Kerala in general and to coastal regions in particular. But the state guidelines neither translate the central guidelines to the LSGs, nor do they provide any guidelines for environmental concerns and management. However, the fisheries-specific document,11 issued jointly by the Department of Fisheries (DoF) and State Planning Board (SPB) and in circulation during the tenth Five-Year Plan, is clear about the conservation needs and the roles of the three tiers. Yet, even this failed to deliver, either in terms of fund allocation or in projects.

4.3. Want of Mandatory Outlay

43There is a prioritization of components in the productive sector of decentralised planning. For example, the guideline insists on the mandatory plan outlay by the LSGs for women. “The women Component Plan should get at least 10% of the total plan size” (Govt. of Kerala 2002b). Thus, the component of women reaped rich dividends in overall plan size. The state-level share of women’s schemes in the outlay for fisheries during the tenth Five-Year Plan shows an enviable 18%, while the mandatory minimum is 10%. (Rajan and Haribabu 2005). A similar mandate for the environmental component would have forced the LSGs to look more critically at issues related to conservation and regeneration, which would have resulted in corresponding schemes. The absence, however, is evident, with a pitiable 3 per cent of the total outlay!

4.4. Low Adaptability

44There are community initiatives of models for the conservation of natural resources, but the LSGs have failed to adopt these. Models initiated by the community include the placement of artificial reefs to rejuvenate the damaged marine habitat, the conservation of sea turtles, etc. Many of these initiatives are results of individuals and groups that are committed to conservation without any external support. Such local initiatives, which have received international recognition, are not accorded by LSGs.

i. Community Conservation of Turtles at Kolavippalam

45In Payyoli, a coastal village around 30km from Kozhikode district, a small coastal stretch named Kolavippalam is now noted for its turtle hatchery initiated and managed by the community. Youth in the area grew curious about turtles, which come to nest on the beach, and developed a passion for observing and conserving them. Earlier, it was a common practice in these areas to dig out and consume turtle eggs. Other predators like foxes, mongooses and dogs consumed whatever escaped human eyes. The youth began to keep vigil against the predators, took turns for night patrols in the area and also began to propagate the importance of conserving these endangered species. They later formed a collective, the Theeram Prakriti Samrakshana Samiti (Coast and Nature Protection Committee).

46Turtles nest on the beach from October to January and the youth are busy during the next two months protecting the eggs until they are hatched. The eggs are transferred to a more protected and enclosed hatchery near the beach, where they are kept under the watchful eyes of the Samiti members. Records are maintained about such particulars as the number, colour and size of the eggs, the number of successful hatches, mortality and so on. There is a festive atmosphere when the young turtles hatch. School children and wildlife enthusiasts are taken to the hatchery to watch the newly hatched turtles emerge from the sand and finally swim into the sea. The Samiti records show a steady increase in the number of turtles that come each year: 37 in 1997-98, 52 in 1998-99 and 72 in 1999-2000. An activity that is recognised even internationally is under threat from vested interests and the Samiti members even face physical assault. An estuary adjacent to the nesting ground and hatchery is extensively mined for sand, which in turn has resulted in severe coastal erosion, badly affecting the hatchery. The beach in the area is generally prone to coastal erosion. Kolavippalam, incidentally, is the only refuge for the turtles along this coastal stretch since all other adjacent beaches are covered by a sea wall. The LSGs in the area did not even recognise or support this local initiative.

ii. The Story of the Artificial Reef

47Fishermen who have accumulated over many years knowledge of the sea and aquatic life know that external objects deployed on the seabed are an effective way of attracting fish and other marine fauna and flora. The fishermen on the south coast of India have extensive and detailed knowledge of reef ecology and fish behaviour, based on their fishing experience in natural reefs. Knowledge of the marine environment and fish leads to innovation that spreads horizontally. The attempt to create artificial reefs started in the 1950s and became a routine venture of southern fishermen, who use mainly hook-and-line for fishing.

48In the 1980s, NGOs such as the Programme for Community Organisation (PCO) intervened in the deployment of artificial reefs in a more systematic and collective manner, which included the participation of the fishermen. The coastal waters of Thiruvananthapuram then witnessed a spate of artificial reefs: bamboo reefs, concrete rings, concrete triangular modules and ferroconcrete triangular modules. The PCO has been involved in the planning, organisation and construction of artificial reefs, together with studies and dissemination. This has helped to shed light on the fishermen’s innovations and also to enlighten the process (Rajan 2001).

49In the past, the placement of artificial reefs was known only known in the regions it was practised and was not widespread. With the intervention of NGOs, it became a full-fledged programme and proved to be one of the important means of resource regeneration and sustenance of marine habitat. Realising the success of the programme and that it is appreciated by the traditional fishermen, the Department of Fisheries (DoF), in association with NGOs, entered into a joint venture to create artificial reefs in Pozhiyoor, a fishing village in Trivandrum, in 1994. In the following years, the DoF showed keen interest in continuing the programme. Appreciating the significance of the artificial reefs, a few LSGs also came forward to implement the programme.

50Artificial reefs on the south coast are definitely a model for replenishing the destroyed, overexploited and degraded seabed and marine aquatic environment. But the programme received inconsequential attention and, even then, only from a couple of LSGs. As an effective programme to rejuvenate marine flora and fauna, introduced by the traditional fishermen and initiated and systematized by NGOs, coastal LSGs could have channelled their funds appropriately towards the deployment of artificial reefs, if they were keen to ensure the sustainability of marine wealth.

5. Want of a Radical Sequencing and Pacing in the Kerala Panchayati Raj Regime

51These are times of aggressive market thrust in which the environment takes a back seat. But these are also times that recognise the role of ecological concerns in economic development. The PRIs, however, could not link the development of marine fisheries with the conservation of coastal ecosystems. This leads us to believe that there are fundamental flaws in the existing system, both at conceptual and implementation levels. We also realized that radical reforms in local governance may not automatically contribute to environmental conservation and ecosystem regeneration. In addition to these points, the following suggestions address some of the gaps this paper has revealed.

5.1. Mandatory Share of Minimum Outlay for Conservation of Natural Ecosystems

52In the case of the component for women, which enjoys a mandatory share in the outlay, the output has been very encouraging. When there is a directive for a mandatory share, it becomes a ‘must’ for the local bodies and will result in enquiry at different quarters leading to multiple outputs and outcomes. For example, a mandatory share of minimum outlay for the conservation of natural ecosystems would compel the PRIs to take stock of the available ecosystems and assess their status and the threats to them. This in turn would lead to the identification of agencies and schemes for resource conservation and regeneration and in employment generation for the local youth.

5.2. Mandatory Share of Outlay (Minimum) for the Generation of Artificial Fish Habitats and Mangroves Linked to Production

53Resource depletion has led to larger and more powerful crafts and motors, but less to questioning the reasons behind it during the earlier top-down type of planning. The devolution of powers to the local self-governments is an opportunity to incorporate both traditional and modern knowledge systems for the regeneration of resources, for which funds could also be made available. As in the case of women, a mandatory share component would also compel the PRIs to look into schemes like artificial reefs. There is also a possibility for the exchange of ideas among PRIs that made such attempts earlier and reaped its dividends. Once such initiatives are taken up, regular intervention and recurring investments would inculcate long-term habits in the conservation of resources, apart from providing additional job opportunities and consistent incomes.

5.3. Management Linkages for Inter-Panchayat and Inter-District Schemes

54Our research has shown that there are no consultations as regards to projects and funds among the three tiers of the LSGs. Grama panchayats were found to be the largest investors in fisheries, while the higher tiers contributed very nominally. The three-tier linkage in the context of fisheries is by and large limited to theory. An action-based approach can overcome this. It can also circumvent political boundaries distancing the different tiers. The grama, block and district panchayats can contribute to mutual interests while taking up common schemes. The other major contribution of such a joint programme would be to pool funds that may be very sparse when taken separately, but when put together can be enough to initiate larger schemes. It also opens up avenues to seek external funds collectively.

5.4. Incorporating Environmental Justice in the Panchayati Raj Regime

55Our systems are yet to link poverty, health, unemployment, etc., to clean environment and safe practices. Struggles for a socially just society are linked very much to the statement ‘right to clean environment is right to livelihood’ as interpreted by the country’s highest court. All development and projects must ultimately be located in a panchayat or a municipality, where people try their best to live in the natural environment with which they are endowed. However, there are often conflicting interests between state and central development priorities and local needs. The mandate given to the PRIs is limited in such situations. But, as always there is scope to widen the space in functioning democracies. The PRIs will have to fight it out and prove that the nation’s sustainability is possible only through sustainability at the local level. Without the support and cooperation of the local self-governments in protecting the natural environment, the state and central governments will not succeed in providing social justice to the people.

5.5. Steps to Initiate Environmental Valuation of Coastal Ecosystems

56Does the environment have a value? Is it proper to value environment in terms of money? Faced with these questions, the time has come to introduce and provide a different way of understanding the environment. If the natural environment can provide resources that can provide livelihood support, then it is clear that it is possible to understand the value of the ecosystems in economic terms, and to quantify ecosystems. When this is done with the participation of the PRIs, the latter could be involved in future planning and evaluation of their surroundings and in the assessment of development alternatives, the wise use of funds and informed investment options. And, more importantly, their right to decide whether an ecosystem should be changed from the present use to a different one can be a choice based on measurable parameters, rather than emotions or rhetoric.

6. Conclusion

57The devolution of powers to PRIs and the unique Kerala experience of decentralisation are very significant. The recognition given to the fisheries sector in the productive sector is also important. Nevertheless, there remains a need for a critical rethinking and for a conceptual harmonisation between the devolution of powers and the organization of the fisheries sector. To set things right, the Government of Kerala (GoK) and the Department of Fisheries (DoF) have crucial roles to play. The GoK should make necessary amendments in the KPR Act to include environmental conservation and pronounce it mandatory in all the three tiers of the panchayati raj system. This would ensure the environmental and social justice for which the PRIs stand. The DoF needs to take serious note of the schemes and fund utilization of the PRIs and also devise monitoring mechanism. Decentralized governance calls for fresh policy directives, institutional structures and environmental management approaches to achieve sustainable livelihood and development in the fisheries sector.



ADB and CESS, 2003, Regional Technical Assistance for Coastal and Marine Resources Management Poverty Reduction in South Asia (ADB RETA 5974-Poverty & Environment Nexus Study-India (Kerala), Asian Development Bank & Centre for Earth Science Studies.

BALAKRISHNAN Nair, 2000, Report of the Export Committee for Fisheries Management Studies-Kerala, Chairman-Expert Committee, Directorate of Fisheries, Vikas Bhavan, Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of Kerala, 2005, Economic Review-2004, State Planning Board, Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of Kerala, 1988, Planning Helper (4), Fisheries Sector, Department of Fisheries and State Planning Board, Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of Kerala, 1995, Coastal Zone Management Plan of Kerala, Centre for Earth Science Studies (CESS), Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of Kerala, 2002, Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007) - Project Planning of Local Self Governments - Fisheries (9), Department of Fisheries and State Planning Board, Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of Kerala, 2002a, Master Plan Fish Book-1: Data on the Water Resources for the Development of Inland Fisheries in Kerala, Department of Fisheries, Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of Kerala, 2002b, Guidelines for the Preparation of Tenth Five Year Plan by Local Governments, Planning & Economic Affairs (A) Department, Thiruvananthapuram.

Govt. of India, 200, Draft Approach Paper to the Tenth Five Year Plan (2002-2007), Planning Commission, New Delhi.

KALAWAR, 1984, Expert Committee Report on Kerala Marine Fisheries, Dept. of Fisheries, Govt. of Kerala.

RAJAN J. B., 2005, “Grama Sabha: A Forum for Direct Democracy”, Journal of Local Governance, Vol.1: July-December 2005, Kerala Institute of Focal Administration, Thrissur.

RAJAN J. B., 2001: Appraisal of Artificial Reef Programme in Pozhiyoor, Fisheries Research Cell, PCO, Thiruvananthapuram.

RAJAN J. B., 2001, “Conflicts in the Traditional Fisheries and Issues of Property Rights”, paper presented in the Conference ‘People and the Sea’ organized by Center for Maritime Research (MARE) and Netherlands Institute for the Social Sciences on 30, 31 August and 1 September 2001 at Amsterdam, The Netherlands.

RAJAN J. B., 2000, “Over Capacity in Fisheries and Its Impacts”, paper presented in the seminar organized by KSMTF on 21st Nov. 2000 at YMCA Hall, Thiruvananthapuram on the occasion of the World Fisheries Day.

RAJAN J. B., 2000a, Impact of Credit Market Structure on the Earning Capacity of Small Scale Fishing Units in Kerala, PhD Thesis, Kerala University, Thiruvananthapuram.

RAJAN J. B. and HARIBABU T. P., 2005, “Sustainable Development of Fisheries through Decentralised Governance: A Study of Coastal Local Self Governments in Kerala”, Journal of Local Governance, April-June 2005 Vol.1, No.2, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur.

SOMAN K., 2002, Geology of Kerala, Geological Society of India Publications, Bangalore.

Further Readings

BALAN P.P., 2006, Capacity Building for Strengthening Local Governance The Kerala Experience, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur.

ISS, 2000, Status of Panchayati Raj in the States and the Union Territories of India 2000, Institute of Social Sciences, New Delhi

Govt of Kerala, 2006, Regional Consultations on Draft Approach Paper for Kerala’s XI Plan, Kerala State Planning Board, Thiruvananthapuram.

KILA, 2006a, Grievance Redressal Mechanisms and Information Delivery Possibilities in Local Governance, Proceedings of the Workshop Organised by KILA, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur.

KILA, 2006b, Decentralised Governance and Poverty Reduction - Lessons from Kerala, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur.

KILA, 2005, Strengthening Panchayati Raj-Role of Legislators, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur.

KILA, 2003, Local Government in Kerala - Reforms, Decentralised Development & Local Government Finances, Kerala Institute of Local Administration, Thrissur.


1 The Environmental Protection Act, EPA, 1986, is the parent act that evolves with time and new requirements. This is a Central legislation, which is followed by the Environment (Protection) Rules, mainly to put into action the objectives of the parent act. For example, the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification, of 20 February 1991, under Section 3(2)(v) of the EPA, for the protection and regulation or prohibition of various types of activities along the coastal stretches of India, is applicable to all the coastal states in the country. There is the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) at the central level and an environment ministry at the state level. Through their various regulatory bodies - for example, the Pollution Control Boards - the ministries can take punitive action against offenders. As regards its ability to withstand pressures on development issues and large-scale projects, its track record is as good as in any other country. Just as Japan makes a mockery of world forums through its whale hunting for ‘scientific experiments’, or just as international agencies fund big dams, our country also yields to pressures from various quarters. There are foreign vessels that are ‘legally’ fishing in our territorial waters while severe fishery depletion is faced and the survival of the fishing community in the country is debated.

2 Which creates panchayats.

3 Which creates municipalities.

4 The study was based on the Vikasana Rekha (Development Reports) and Padhaty Rekha (Plan Documents) of 106 coastal panchayats selected from the list of 152 coastal panchayats in Kerala. These are two mandatory documents for PRIs - the former is intended to provide the ground-level data relating to various development segments and the latter is intended to provide project details of the plan period with budget figures.

5 Village level, block or intermediate level and district level.

6 Panchayats.

7 Municipalities and corporations.

8 Public Works Department, which is mainly responsible for the construction and maintenance of infrastructure in the State.

9 The fisheries crisis in the State has prompted the government to set up expert committees to study and to provide recommendations. There were several such committees in the past: Babu Paul Committee (1981), Kalawar Committee (1984), Balakrishnan Nair Committee (1988), Balakrishnan Nair Committee (1990), Dr. P. S. B. R. James Committee (1993), Dr. E. G. Silas Committee (1994), Balakrishnan Nair Committee (1998).

10 Funds to the PRIs are to be earmarked for three broad sectors: the productive sector and the infrastructure and welfare sectors.

11 Handbooks to assist the PRIs in planning are prepared for all sectors by concerned departments prior to the five-year plans.


Assistant Professor at the Kerala Institute of Local Administration (KILA) and expert in decentralised governance and natural resources.

Freelance researcher. Formerly Dy. Coordinator of EQUATIONS (Equitable Tourism Options), a tourism research organization based in Bangalore.

© Institut Français de Pondichéry, 2008

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