FISHERIES Minister Vinod Palyekar is considering transfer of a part of the fuel subsidy given to trawler owners to consumers to make fish available at cheaper rates. The government is driven to think of that as, though a total subsidy of more than Rs 100 crore has been released to trawler owners in the last five years, fish prices have been soaring up, giving no benefit to consumers. The beneficiaries of the subsidy are trawler owners. If Palyekar is able to get the proposal through it could make fish available at affordable rates to Goans for whom fish is a staple food. The subsidy was not meant for the profit of trawler owners. They have taken advantage of it. The fisheries department should quickly draw plans to cut down the fuel subsidy given to trawlers and pass on the differential amount directly to consumers through the proposed Goa Fishing Corporation.
The government plans to review the subsidies it has been giving to the fishermen for purchase of fuel and financial assistance on value added tax. The fishermen community has opposed the proposed government move to partly cut the fuel subsidy. They plead that most of them were getting minimal benefit as small boat owners, while big operators were benefitting most from government subsidies. Over the years the number of Goans selling fish in retail markets has been on decline. One of the reasons is the younger generations of the fishermen families moving out of their ancestral occupation and taking up white collar jobs. The number of non-Goans selling fish in the retail markets across the state has been growing. Rising fish prices could partly be attributed to entry of non-Goans in the fish retailing business as they try to make the most of the growth in demand for fish to sell fish at higher prices. The trend is unlikely to be reversed as most Goans have been giving up their traditional occupations.
Despite the fishermen netting huge quantities, fish prices have not come down in the local markets. They have to pay dearly to enjoy their daily dishes of fish. The fish catch has been rising: with over 69,000 tonnes in 2001 it reached more than 1.03 lakh tonnes in 2005. Over the last three years the fish yield has been constantly over 1 lakh tonnes, despite there being ban on fishing for 61 days in a year since 2014. The fish catch till March 31 this year was 31,867 tonnes. More than a third of the total fish catch is being exported from Goa port alone, to China, USA, UAE and European countries. Fish caught off the Goa coast might be exported from other ports in the country. Fish exports give the fishermen hefty returns, with exporters earning nearly Rs 446 crore in 2013-14 by exporting nearly 34,300 tonnes. The export of fish in 2014-15 stood at 44,684 tonnes, giving the exporters an income of over Rs 569 crore and in 2015-16 exporters earned over Rs 490 crore by exporting just 31,681 tonnes of fish.
It can easily be seen that while the trawler owners have financially benefitted from the government subsidy and other schemes they have also got good returns from exports. In contrast, the Goan consumers are stuck with the destiny of paying higher and higher prices for fish year after year. The trawler owners have not been ethical about using public money without transferring the benefit of the subsidy to the consumers. The government proposal to pass on the part of fuel subsidy amount to consumers therefore deserves a welcome. Given the fact that government subsidy schemes have been misused, the government should ensure that the proposed scheme is properly formulated to ensure that the average Goan consumer is the beneficiary and not the trawler owners. The government must be careful not to let vested interests eat up the transferred subsidy as well, leaving the consumers stuck with their destiny of paying higher prices. What system will the government put in place to prevent the vested interests from buying subsidised fish in bulk and earning profit by retailing it? While making fish available at cheaper rates, the government has to ensure that it is fresh and palatable. The government must also create a network to supply fish throughout the state and not just in specific pockets. Any failure to spread out the benefits of government schemes with regulation and control could end up in the same story: a few clever people siphoning away the public money and the average consumer left to their mercy.