Badri Narayanan and M. Krishnan Navigate the Choppy Waters of Fisheries Negotiations

Badri Narayanan, M. Krishnan, and Shruti discuss challenges, opportunities, and the path forward for fisheries.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India, where we examine the academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan, and I am a senior research fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. 

Today my guests are M. Krishnan and Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan. M. Krishnan is an economist based in Chennai and Singapore, and specializes in agriculture education systems, fisheries, and aquaculture research. He is currently an advisor at Infinite-Sum Modeling Inc and was a distinguished scientist of the Agricultural Research Service of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. 

Badri Narayanan Gopalakrishnan is an economist specializing in trade and international policy. He is a Fellow at the (NITI) Aayog, Government of India, where he formerly led the institution’s sections on Trade and Commerce, Strategic Economic Dialogue, International Cooperation, and Vision India@2047. 

Today we are discussing their recent coauthored paper titled Indian Fisheries in the Context of WTO Regulations, published by the Mercatus Center in collaboration with Center for Governance and Markets at the University of Pittsburgh. We spoke about the big issues concerning fisheres, in particular, India’s interests in at the 13th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) recently held in Abu Dhabi.

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit

Hello, Krishnan. Hello, Badri. It’s so nice to have you both here. I’m really excited for this conversation.

M. KRISHNAN: Same here.

BADRI NARAYANAN: Same here, Shruti.

Fisheries in India 

RAJAGOPALAN: You have this wonderful paper that you recently wrote for a series at the Mercatus Center on Indian fisheries, and especially all the concerns with respect to the the 13th Ministerial Conference (MC13) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) held in Abu Dhabi. One of the big topics other than agriculture was fisheries. The biggest expectation was to get some kind of global agreement on issues pertaining to fisheries like overfishing. The failure to get that agreement has, in some sense, been blamed on India’s refusal to agree to some of these terms.

Before we get into the big questions on what’s happening at the World Trade Organization in terms of eliminating subsidies, or overfishing, or illegal and unreported and unregulated fishing, and so on. 

Maybe, Krishnan, you can give our listeners a quick primer, since you are the expert in this field on Indian fisheries, and broadly how to think about both aquaculture but also wild fishing and capture fishing and so on, and what that landscape looks like for India.

KRISHNAN: First, Shruti, thank you for having me on your Ideas of India program. As far as this fishery sector is concerned, it’s been active for time immemorial, but still, the fishery sector itself is garnering importance of late.

It is only in 2019 we have a separate fisheries ministry. We have had the special allocations for the budget, and there are special programs which are drawn up by the government of India as well as by the State governments specifically targeted to the development of fisheries.

As far as marine fisheries is concerned, the production has actually plateaued. It is around the 3.5 million tonnes. As we have mentioned in our work at Mercatus, the predominance of the small-scale fisheries is very dominant.

Of the total gross value from fisheries generated from India, it contributes about 44%. The major dominating sub-sector of fisheries in India is by inland fisheries. It is dominated both by freshwater aquaculture as well as brackishwater aquaculture. Brackishwater aquaculture essentially implies shrimp farming. Andhra Pradesh actually has about 30% of all the fish that is produced in India. 

Under freshwater aquaculture systems, we have the open water systems. We have the semi-closed systems, we have the closed systems. Under brackishwater, primarily we are focused on shrimp. 

Among the shrimp varieties species, our focus is on Litopenaeus vannamei, which is the Pacific white shrimp which was imported from Hawaii in 2008. The whole sector of brackishwater is export-oriented. We are exporting to about 120 countries and our flagship product as far as brackishwater aquaculture or shrimp aquaculture is the frozen shrimp. That is the scenario we have on brackishwater or shrimp aquaculture. 

Then the sub-sector in-fisheries is cold water fisheries. We have large resources of coldwater fisheries in India, which are totally unexploited, unfortunately. We have lots of scope for developing the recreational as well as sports fishery component of fisheries development in those areas.

That primarily was not looked into very seriously because some of these areas were disturbed until recently. Therefore, under the new scheme of the government of India, the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, that is PMMSY, this particular sub-sector of fisheries that is coldwater fisheries is getting lots of importance.

Another important segment, especially for small-scale fisheries, in the inland sector is ornamental fisheries. Ornamental fisheries has a very important role as far as providing livelihood options for small-scale fisheries people.

This is dominated by the Northeast Indian species. There are several species which are actually collected from nature, actually. We have not yet streamlined the breeding and culture programs of ornamental fishes. We have different species which are named as guppy, molly, goldfish.

The leading market for ornamental fishes is from Kolkata, followed by Mumbai and Chennai. The most important segment of fisheries development of late is seaweed farming. Seaweed is gaining a lot of importance and special programs have been drawn up for development of seaweed in the country.

Unfortunately, what is happening, it requires very ideal area where you can develop seaweed farming. We have only one authentic species that is Cyanidiophyceae. That is a red algae, which can be grown in 45 days.

Of course, this species has a lot of applications in pharma industry, in confectionery industry, and in fertilizer industry. It’s a very good biofertilizer. Of late, there is a lot of development as far as technology applications in fisheries is concerned.

Data analytics and artificial intelligence models have been brought into the fishery sector by private sector people. There are a lot of apps, and chatbots, and digital technologies playing a big role in the past development of the fishery sector.

Fisheries finance under PMMSY is also getting a lot of attention. The whole funds which amount to around 20,000 crores (Indian rupees) is being handled by National Fisheries Development Board, as well as it is routed through the State Department of Fisheries.

The interested people will submit the projects and those will be approved at the end of DP level. This is pouring a lot of money into the fishery sector, which ultimately leads to a lot of employment and income and resultant development and growth.

Fisheries markets also has improved a lot in terms of digital transformation is happening in fisheries markets, especially during the times of COVID. This has enabled the people to access fresh supplies of fish at home only through the use of the apps. This is a new development.

As far as institutional arrangements are concerned, there is a Ministry of Fisheries, then followed by National Fisheries Development Board, which both are under the Ministry of Fisheries only. Then we have the Marine Products Export Development Authority, MPEDA, M-P-E-D-A.

The Coastal Aquaculture Authority, which is again under the Ministry, which are looking after the export sector as well as the shrimp farming sector within the country. There are about eight fisheries research institutes of ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research).

The institute’s center of the ministry also are there. There is a specific institute, which is actually looking after seaweed in a sister organization of ICAR. This is just to what is happening as far as the overview of the fishery sector in India.

RAJAGOPALAN: One area we haven’t yet gotten into is aquaculture in great detail.

KRISHNAN: Yes, Dr. Shruti, we can talk a little about the various aspects of aquaculture in India, because that is contributing substantially to the fish production in India and also catering to the domestic market. The average market size in 2023 was around 13 million tons of fish was produced, and it is expected to rise to around 26 million tons in 2032. The average growth rate as well as freshwater fishes are concerned is growing at the rate of about 8%.

The freshwater aquaculture production basically is around 6 million tons out of which 95% are belonging from aquaculture production alone and other remaining is from open water systems. We have got different types of aquaculture in India. We have got the Indian major carps, which play the major role, as well as organized fish culture is concerned.

There are what is called as the composite fish culture, where we have the Indian major carps, which is consisting of Rohu, Catla and Mrigal. They are the three species which are consistent demand in the market, and also some exotic carps and also medium and minor carps are also cultivated along with that. Certain other fishes like Pangasius, which is high growth potential productivity and all that, so that also has got a lot of patronage with the farmers because they are disease resistant and they are performing very well in the field.

This is a kind of situation, and we have not only the pond culture, but we have got now the improved systems of farming, like RAS-based systems, recirculatory aquaculture systems. We have got the biofloc systems. All these things are contributing substantially to reduce the cost of production of fish in the country. That is taking the performance of freshwater fishes much ahead.

There is also quite a contribution from cage culture also. Cage culture is now being promoted not only by the private entrepreneurs themselves in semi-closed systems like reservoirs, but also we have the contribution by corporate sector also, wherein they chip in with the 2% of their total profits as corporate social responsibility. They help the local villagers to raise fishes in cages within these reservoirs and semi-closed systems. That has made quite a lot of progress.

We got about 2.38 million hectares of freshwater ponds and tanks. We have got other systems like reservoirs. We have got rivers and canals and dams. The extent of freshwater availability, the resources is immense. I don’t think we have done enough to exploit that particular resources for freshwater aquaculture. Brackish water aquaculture is very interesting because brackish water aquaculture started in 1991 with the new economic policy. It was looked upon as a source of earning quick foreign exchange, because we had a big problem of foreign exchange deficit where we were not able to pay the import bills.

In those days, 1991, aquaculture, including Brackish water aquaculture, was identified and then the whole thing started in Andhra Pradesh. That has made a lot of headway. Now, we are producing about eight lakh tons, seven lakh tons is going for the export market. One lakh tons is actually servicing the local domestic market. The size wise composition of that which is servicing the domestic market is just less 50 counts and more. That is 50 pieces make one kilogram, so 100 pieces make one kilogram. Small ones make a dent in the local market because it’s a very high priced fish because it is sold in the international market for 800 rupees, 1,000 rupees, like that.

Therefore, that makes substantial interest of the entrepreneurs to invest in export oriented this thing. That is the kind of situation, as well as that was in shrimp is concerned. We had, of course, a lot of trouble with the respective shrimp, especially in ‘90s, 1990s. When the whole system collapsed, we had corporates entering the shrimp farming business. Now, again, since we are also discussing sustainability, I will say that we are having a policy of promoting only aquaculture even among the smallholders. We are trying to promote aquaculture as a means of promoting livelihoods in the remotest of regions of India.

Therefore, these people who don’t have any other forms of livelihood are looking up to aquaculture as a very good and lucrative means of livelihood. Now that has got very good support from the local state Department of Fisheries, as well as by the central government. Now things are looking up. Now we look forward to making $15 billion out of the export of seafood exports from India. That’s the kind of situation now.

Overfishing and Illegal Fishing in India 

RAJAGOPALAN: This is super helpful. Now, in your paper when it comes to the WTO negotiations, you highlight three big areas, which were up for negotiation and on the table. The first was about elimination of subsidies to fisheries, the second was on overfishing, and the third was on illegal unreported unregulated, which is IUU (Illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing.

Can we start with maybe overfishing and just walk us through the problem of overfishing both on the Indian waters in the EEZ and also globally what’s going on with overfishing and how and why this has become such a big WTO agenda in the last two rounds?

KRISHNAN: Sure. As for as your question regarding the IUU fishing and the contentious issues which were discussed at the WTO, unfortunately, we have had a stalemate situation at the Abu Dhabi MC13. IUU fishing has been happening for quite some time in our Indian waters, both within the Indian EEZ and just beyond our EEZ.

Recent reports also say that these IUU vessels, those fishing vessels, which are indulging in IUU fishing, they are somehow remaining invisible. 75% of those vessels, which are distant water fishing vessels, are not being able to be tracked by those people who are actually monitoring such activities. This is one huge issue.

Several legislative measures have been enacted in India. Now, because of improvement in tracking methodologies and tracking technologies, a lot of private players, even private players who are backed by ISRO, the Indian Space Research Organization, are into developing techniques to monitor IUU fishing within EEZ. [sr1] 

RAJAGOPALAN: In terms of IUUs, what are we really talking about? Is it the larger mechanized Indian fishing boats who are engaging in this? Is these foreign fishing boats? I know China has been accused of a lot of IUUs. Is that what is happening in the Indian waters and the international waters? How important is China in this? What is a good way to think about who are the big violators?

KRISHNAN: The big violators are the big Western countries as well as China. China has been very frequently transgressing into our EEZ. Even lately, 10 fishing vessels were actually detected fishing in our waters, very close by, near Sri Lanka. They were apprehended, actually. Apprehended, and they let off, of course.

Therefore, such things are happening. There is no question of Indian vessels overfishing. As I said, the pelagic waters, they have about 5.5 million tons, the projected capacity. We are hardly fishing about 2 tons out of the 5 tons which is actually available.

Therefore, the estimates which have actually been done by ICAR, CMFRI [Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute] at Kochi, they are the best people. They have got excellent people who are working on such methodologies and estimating. They have said that 92% of our fishery resources in our EEZ is still very healthy.

There’s only 8% which is actually overfished. There is not a single species which has actually collapsed. Therefore, things are very good. Even though there is a lot of overfishing going on, IUU fishing by foreign vessels, and distant water fishing vessels going on in our EEZ, things are not so bad. According to the estimates given by CMFRI, which is the authentic Government of India Institute, to give such reports, things are quite okay.[sr2] 

RAJAGOPALAN: When it comes to overfishing, is the reason that it’s not such a big problem in India because most of the Indian fisheries tend to be relatively small, relatively small boats with relatively low capacity, not very mechanized? [They] don’t have sophisticated techniques to do the deep water trawling and that thing, which is happening in the international waters and by other developed countries. Is that the main reason for not having this overfishing?

KRISHNAN: Yes, you could say that. The thing is, I would like to tell you that there are about 200,000 total number of vessels in our waters, in our Indian coastal waters, as well as within our EEZ. Out of which 37% or 56,000 boats are motorized and artisanal boats. This is the situation. Therefore, as you said, Indian fisheries is not yet developed for multi-day trawling on extensive trips.

They cannot go on extensive trip into our waters and make huge hauls because their carrying capacity is also low. This kind of situation is actually helping the sustainability of the EEZ, the fisheries in EEZ.

Again, the thing is, what has actually happened is, the per capita fish landing per fisher per year has come down from 3 tons to around 2.3 tons. This actually has happened only because of overfishing done by the distant water fishing vessels of foreign countries. This is the situation.

RAJAGOPALAN: In this, are we being too optimistic? In the sense, are there large, illegal boats and trawlers that are operated by Indians which are doing some of the IUU activity that is so far just gone undetected? Or is this entirely foreign? Are we good at regulating our own rule violators?

KRISHNAN: Actually, there are some vessels, which are called flying flags of convenience. Actually, they may have taken the letter of permit to fish in the particular waters, but they would actually be using a vessel, which is actually not licensed to fish in that.

The documents will reflect one thing, and the actual fishing boat, which is actually fishing in your waters, is completely different. This is the situation. Whether the manpower, who are manning the particular vessel are Indians or not, I’m not very sure.

Overfishing Negotiations

RAJAGOPALAN: You’re right. The way we track these things internationally is through the flag on the boat. I think we just have to compare apples to apples. I want to bring Badri into this conversation at this point.

Badri, what are the big questions of overfishing internationally, especially when they’re talked about at the WTO, given what Krishnan has just said that this is not a huge problem within India for various reasons, including our fishermen mostly are just too small to engage in this overfishing.

NARAYANAN: Yes. Thank you very much, Shruti, for hosting us, and thanks to Dr. Krishnan for sharing his expertise in this area. On this particular topic, I was in Abu Dhabi when the negotiations were going on. At a very high level, the discussions were very difficult.

On the developed countries, on one hand, like Dr. Krishnan also mentioned, they are the main subsidizers for overfishing, so that they did not want to give up. They were also pushing for a lot of leverage and a lot of space for continuing their subsidies.

On the other hand, India’s concern was mainly about how do our fishermen in the longer term, when they expand their scale and when they expand their production, how do they really comply with these new regulations that may come under WTO to ensure that these subsidies are not being construed as overfishing subsidies and so on? That’s one important aspect.

The third is the Pacific Island countries and other small countries who are really hoping for a solution, because they are among the most exploited. They were pushing for at least a cap on the subsidies. If not eliminating the subsidies, let’s have a cap. This was going on very vigorously.

The Western countries pushing for their agenda, and India trying to make it more practical and more implemented in a way that it is friendly for our own farmers—sorry, fishermen, and the Pacific Island countries pushing in the direction in which the actual—they were closest to the spirit of the original text.


RAJAGOPALAN: Can you give us a sense of what this subsidy regime looks like within India? One, who is the Indian government subsidizing? Second, how does that compare with what the developed countries are doing? Just so we get a sense of the landscape. When we try to get this joint agreement across so many different parties, it’s useful to understand the asymmetries involved.

NARAYANAN: I will add a little bit on this, and Dr. Krishnan can explain the details. Here, we are looking at a really minuscule share when we compare our subsidies with the Western countries. More importantly, we are talking about survival.

Just basic support for the fishermen who are really struggling for their livelihood. We are talking about artisanal fisheries and those kind of things which are really not even talked about in the Western context. Dr. Krishnan can explain more on the numbers and explain this in greater detail.

KRISHNAN: Actually, the best figures which are available on subsidies is actually from University of British Columbia, Vancouver. The best fisheries economists in the world. They have come out with the figure of $35 billion US which is going into fisheries subsidies.

This is the kind of figure that we are contending with. 60% of that is going for building over capacity, and that is a very important thing that we have to keep in mind. Again, what is happening is that, according to some projections, when they have projected the supply of marine fishes in the market from 2023 to 2032, it is projected that supply will be in excess of demand.

You see how much of overcapacity and distant water fishing fleets are destroying the biodiversity, as well as sustainability of fishing in the oceans, open oceans, international waters. This is a very bad situation. As far as Indian subsidies are concerned, they are not subsidies at all. The little help, the range of subsidies is something like $15 to $36.

This is nothing. I think it’s something like what you pay for a breakfast in the US. Therefore, this is nothing. Practically, the maximum subsidy which is given to a fisher in the Scandinavian countries is reported to be $80,000.

$80,000 for a fisher per year. There is no question of—you cannot even call it a subsidy. There is nothing like subsidy for Indian fishers at all. It is just some help to keep their boats afloat. That is all that we can say about it.[sr3] 

RAJAGOPALAN: On this, I want to push you a little bit Krishnan because while you are right that there’s this huge asymmetry, we also know that India is on the rise. In terms of the number of people engaged in fishing, we know that the groups have gotten smaller and smaller as India is undergoing a broader structural transformation.

The expectation is that as India gets richer, like most countries, it’s going to have smaller crews, fewer boats, larger boats. The expectation is that if you don’t eliminate the subsidy now, then eventually India will make the same mistakes as China and the developed countries. Is there much merit to this argument that India needs to get on the negotiating table right now to prevent the mistakes that other people have made?

KRISHNAN: See, actually there is no question of comparison for fishing industry in the West and what is happening in India. The fishing sector, there is no industry at all. Fishing industry in the West is run by corporations. There is not even one single private public limited company in India, which is in the fishing industry. There is absolutely no question of comparison.

Whatever help that they’re getting, and whatever refurbishments that is happening to the fishing vessels now, and whatever the new vessels which are put into waters for exploiting the pelagic fishes of additional 2 million tons which is available in our pelagic waters, is through the assistance given by the Prime Minister Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY).

That is going to take quite some time to actually flructify. That is why India has asked for that 25 years transition period. Therefore, there is no question of using the word subsidy at all for the Indian fishing sector. I’ll not call it industry at all. This is the kind of situation, so that’s the thing.

At the Negotiating Table

RAJAGOPALAN: Basically, the way you phrased it, of the three big questions, which is subsidy, overfishing, and IUUs, you’re saying that overfishing is a problem but a minor scale relatively about 8% in some pockets.

You are saying that there isn’t much of a subsidy given. It’s basically some technical assistance to keep the boats afloat. The real problem is only IUUs, and on this, India is facing a serious problem, especially in its waters from countries like China, and also other rogue crews which are using foreign flags and so on.

Wouldn’t it have been good for India to get on the table on the question of overfishing and subsidies in order to get what it wants when it comes to IUUs? Right now, India has not solved that problem for itself when it comes to the WTO negotiation.

KRISHNAN: Actually, I feel that official delegation which represented the agreement on fishery subsidies were very well aware that this. See, actually there is no question of overfishing. This kind of mistake will never happen in our Indian fishery sector. This is not going to happen because whatever the thing is concerned, there is now a transition let me tell you.

There is a lot of influence of education on fisher folks, especially in the highly educated to totally illiterate state like Kerala. Now, these fisher people who are actually getting a regular education, like getting a BSC degree or a BA degree, they are trying to move away to the urban areas.

Now, what is happening, as you rightly said, technically qualified people who are actually beneficiaries of the agri startups which is actually promoted by the government of India, they are getting into the marine fishery industry. There is a possibility that they will exploit the resources optimally because they will not be able to over-exploit.

Again, the thing is that they are now being very seriously monitored by satellite technology and all that. There is no question of any over-exploitation that will happen in future also. Therefore, I don’t think we should be worried about that.


RAJAGOPALAN: On the question of IUUs, what is the way to proceed given that, that has also not fructified into agreement at the WTO level? What can India do to protect the water especially the EEZ better, and how can India actually think about this?

You know, for India IUUs is a triple threat. One threat is of course when it comes to overfishing and biodiversity. The second threat is there are a lot of these fishing trawlers which pose as trawlers but are actually exploring for petroleum or rare minerals and those sorts of things, which is also going on.

Then the third is strategic security concerns. There’s a three-way problem when it comes to IUUs. We don’t know what is exactly the illegal activity that is being engaged in other than overfishing. What is a good way to think about this from the point of view of India and the rest of the world, given that this also was supposed to be part of the agreement but we don’t have agreement on it?

KRISHNAN: We don’t have an agreement on it because IUU is IUU. Therefore, I don’t think there is any official statistics on how it is done and how it gets converted into products and reaches the market.

So long as there is demand for it, IUU will continue. So long as there is subsidy given to these fleets, this will definitely continue. The western industry, the fishing industry is trying their best to continue whatever is happening right now.

Therefore, I don’t know to what extent India will be able to influence the complete stoppage of subsidies being given for IUU fishing. Whether IUU fishing is being done in Indian EEZ, it is now being controlled. Now there are technologies which is available which is monitoring our EEZ waters properly.

To a large extent because of the noise that perhaps India is making, things may have quietened down a little. This is the kind of situation which I see. As you said, let us see the kinds of solutions, which are actually proposed earlier by University of British Columbia and Marine Stewardship Council, even by Dr. Christine McDaniels and another Canadian Legal Professional [Audrey Beaulieu]. I read a letter in Down to Earth. She says that the extent of fishery subsidies should be based on the percentage of contribution to total fish protection. That means people who are actually officially contributing more. Like for instance, if India is contributing 4% of total fish protection, India can give subsidies to their vessels up to US$50 million.

Which is like giving 5 crore US dollars to fisheries subsidies. This is something, they have absolutely no idea how this is totally lopsided. That is a kind of situation. The other one, the other suggestion which has been made by the Marine Stewardship Council[Adrian] Gutteridge of MSC in one of the papers in 2024 January in Marine Policy, he has suggested that very good suggestion that all fisheries should be based on the MSC certification.

If the MSC certification is there, they have already given the guidelines for how to keep a particular fishery sustainable. Even India is the beneficiary of MSC certification because we have the case of clam fishery in Ashtamudi Kyle, that is Ashtamudi backwaters in Kollam District of Kerala which where they were overfishing the clams in that particular estuary.

This had actually come down to the unsustainable levels and the clams from that particular estuary where blacklisted. We could not export them. Then the Weiser Council prevailed and the Department of Fisheries of Kerala, they worked along with the fishers of that particular region, and made them understand why it is very important for them to follow sustainable practices for clam fishing in that particular backwater.

This happened over a period of time, and now they are able to take 10,000 tons of clam, and which is having a branded value of blue clams from that particular backwaters. This is the kind of solution that we must put forward, and that should work out for all the countries. It is not just for developing countries. It should work out for all the countries.

Fisheries should be sustainable, whatever the fishery may be, whether it is salmon fishery or whether it is Indian shrimps or sharks or whatever. Everything has to be sustainable. The best suggestion has been made by MSC and that I feel could be a game changer that could be followed by the entire fishing industry across the world.

Seasonal Fishing Ban

RAJAGOPALAN: India has also been particularly good in some aspects. For instance, this was of course, pioneered by Kerala, this annual seasonal fishing ban (SFB), which for a few weeks of the year, there is a complete stopping in fishing activity.

Then it got extended in 2015 by the union government. Right now, I believe the seasonal fishing ban lasts almost 60, 61 days to give time for replenishment and so on. It’s led to a pretty big move towards conservation. Is this also followed by other countries? Is India unique in this? Is this another thing that needs to get on the agenda when we are negotiating at the WTO and so on?

NARAYANAN: Again, I’ll start very briefly and request Dr. Krishnan to expand on the details. Generally, like Dr. Krishnan also mentioned before, we are moving from, like you also mentioned, we are going through a lot of transformation.

There is a possibility that in the future we may have a good fishing industry but at the same time, the example that you gave, these are the kinds of things which are, in many other instances, we call this as leapfrogging.

When we develop an infant industry and when it grows, it directly gets armed with the best practices like this MSC example that Dr. Krishnan also gave. We go in an exemplary sustainability leadership approach, and that way, we don’t have to worry about Indian fishermen indulging in these practices because we are starting so late. When we start, we already take into account all these standards.

Also, another aspect is going back to the subsidy discussion before, and also drawing a parallel between the fisheries and the agriculture is about how we are talking about subsistence, all the support that we are talking about. I think support is a better word. Domestic support, that’s a better word.

We are talking about subsistence while the others are talking about rail subsidies. That actually, that discussion has been, in the WTO particularly, the negotiations on fisheries and negotiations on agriculture, they have a parallel, very similar kinds of issues. Dr. Krishnan, over to you on the details.

KRISHNAN: See, actually, as far as the seasonal fishing ban is concerned, I don’t know whether many other countries are following the same pattern of the fishing ban because this is restricted maybe to tropical countries where the fish comes to the continental shelf for breeding.

Therefore, it’s very important that they should be given space and time to breed so that the fishery will flourish and the livelihoods of the people will be protected. I think if I remember right, there is some restriction in tuna fishing in Japan. That kind of a thing is very much there because they are also very protected species.

Maybe some other instances are also very much there. I am not able to recollect right away. What I can say is that besides SFB, seasonal fishing ban, we have also got the local communities working towards the responsible fisheries.

For instance, in Goa we have the small-scale Responsible Fisheries Association, which is taking care of the interests of the fishers, the local fishers, against any mechanized fishers coming into their waters, into their territory. There is a difference between demersal as well as pelagic fisheries.

Mechanized vessels are supposed to be going into the pelagic fisheries beyond particular depth of the water. The artisanal boats are supposed to be fishing along the coast. This is the situation. Again, we have other conservation measures also being adopted. In Porbandar, we have the conservation program for sharks in Porbandar.

On the East Coast, we have the Olive Ridley Conservation programs in Gahirmatha in Odisha Coast. Similarly, we have the conservation programs. Organized conservation programs. Programs are running all over the country on different parts of the coast. But Sundarbans, again, is another example where we are having very concerted focused programs for conservation of that particular area of fisheries. This is the kind of situation, whether it is actually being replicated or whether we have copied from some other countries is not the argument that we have to address. The thing is, it is being taken up by the people themselves. That is the most important thing. That’s what I feel.

Leading the Global South

RAJAGOPALAN: On this, to me, there’s an additional issue here because when we think about the international politics of this, one way of slicing and dicing is the global north versus the global south or the developed versus developing countries.

India has very much, especially over the last decade, positioned itself as the leader of the global south, especially in these international trade negotiations and so on. The other reason for the big disappointment on India not signing or coming to agreement on the fisheries deal, is as a leader of the global south and the largest player, it has left many of the smaller countries, the Pacific Islanders, everyone, even more vulnerable than they were before.

Now it’s clear that there’s going to be no agreement for a while. What is a good way to think about this? Do we need a separation of these issues or dividing it and get agreement first on the illegal overfishing aspects before we get to the subsidies? What’s a good way to think about this, especially when we are thinking about protecting biodiversity of small islands that can’t quite defend themselves?

KRISHNAN: See, actually India’s been trying to protect the interests of the developing countries’ fisheries also, the other fisheries, because many of the Western countries are now having an agreement to fish in the waters of countries located along the west coast of Africa.

They are very vulnerable countries. Their fisheries are very rich and they don’t have much expertise in setting up monitoring systems and keeping tab on all the kind of fishing activities, which is done by the Western industrialized fishing vessels. This is—I’m sure this is going to be a big contribution by Indian fisheries in trying to emphasize whatever agreements, which the western fishing industry has had with the less developed nations fishery, should also be categorized as subsidies. That is one of the things that India had wanted, whether it is going to be no stand, whether the non-ratification of India with respect to the WTO would be harming the less advantaged countries or not, is something we have to examine in greater depth. I don’t know whether I’m in a position to comment on that right now.

RAJAGOPALAN: Badri, since you were there, what did you pick up on this particular question?

NARAYANAN: I think one slogan that was very popularly discussed in the negotiations was that no deal is better than a bad deal. That’s the spirit of what was happening.

RAJAGOPALAN: But for whom is the question, right? Is no deal better than a bad deal also for the smaller countries relative to India? For India, it’s quite clear that no deal is better than a bad deal.

NARAYANAN: Yes. I’m talking from the Indian negotiator’s perspective and also some of the other developing countries too. Because generally if you discuss with the developed country colleagues in the WTO, they would usually say that the global south is generally not very cooperative and so on. India is an important player there. Then the reason why we are doing it is that in the past we have had if you look at the way WTO evolved over time and so on, in the past, we’ve had several instances where the rules were set in a way that they benefit the developed countries more than the developing countries. Many times the developing countries are at loss. The agricultural subsidies is a good example. That actually has prevented us from relaying the developed countries very blindly. That’s one point here.

Second thing is, again from a broader perspective, WTO as an institution, is surviving and some small progress is made every ministerial. India is a very proactive supporter of the WTO as an institution because we always talk about rules-based, transparent international trade order. From that perspective, WTO has to be there. Then globally, the importance of WTO has come down and we all talk about, we all work on bilateral regional partnerships.

In that context, to your question like what Dr. Krishnan also mentioned, we are in close collaboration and connection with the LDCs and other developing countries in many aspects, including in terms of fisheries. Every time we have any bilateral, not only trade agreement but even support and assistance and so on, we are bringing these topics into consideration there.

I think the develop countries are also very adamant in that all these things have to be together. You cannot separate them. Like you said, that would’ve been a great solution if we can separate them and say, “Here, we have the stance here, we have the stance, and so on.” That is not also happening. 

I think in this context, if you are thinking of if three of us as a group, we are thinking about the solution for the next ministerial, I think this is the right time to start thinking and come up with some innovative ways in which we can come up with maybe one agreement that everyone, one issue in which all the countries can agree together. Maybe IUU for example. Then we say that this is the multilateral part of the text, and then we can have some regional text where different countries may have different positions. I think that is very important at this stage to come up with what is acceptable for everyone.

RAJAGOPALAN: Of course, the key issue is like most WTO questions, not just fisheries, it’s this question of special and differential treatment, the SDT, right? Which always kicks in when it comes to asymmetry between developed and developing countries. I think when it comes to fisheries, it might be useful to also start parsing through what kind of subsidy as opposed to just the sum total of subsidy.

For instance, if India had designed this as an employment subsidy or as a universal basic income or something which doesn’t register as part of the fishery subsidy, then is that a weasel way out of overall subsidizing fisheries. Which we know that is the way that many other countries design their subsidy programs. The income support India is giving to fisheries is the designed much more specifically as a universal income support in other countries. I think parsing out those details is also quite helpful when it comes to this special and differential treatment.

NARAYANAN: I think from the—again, taking fellows from agriculture because I’m more familiar with the discussion there. We have this green box subsidies and so on, and we use this term domestic support in the context of OECD countries. We don’t use the term subsidies, we use the term domestic support, and we use the term transfers and not subsidies.

I think it’s also a matter of terminology and definitions like you rightly said, and if we can, like Dr. Krishnan also mentioned, that if we can really make it official and in the text that all the support we are giving to fishermen are just money that transfers that we give to poor people, that’s all. It’s not about making fish cheap or something. It’s about making sure they live their livelihood. They survive, they have their subsistence income. I think that’s a great way. Dr. Krishnan, you have any other thoughts?

KRISHNAN: No, I think you’re on the right track and that is a thing that is actually misconstrued by the westernized western nations. I feel that it is just that kind of help, there is no question of these $36 resulting in influencing price discovery of local fishes in the domestic market. I feel that is not exactly the way we should look at it. Your interpretation is, I think right, I’m with you.


RAJAGOPALAN: On this, there are a couple of other political economy questions, but before I get to that, this is a very big problem in fisheries, a question of measurement in the sense that when it comes to agriculture. Even in agriculture, we have the problem of the commons. You have, for instance, in India, the biggest problem is over exploitation of groundwater and things like that, or the domestic support and subsidies that are given. There, the measurement is much easier, much clearer. Virtually every single country has excellent data on exactly what is being produced, how much support is given, both per capita in terms of each farmer but also in terms of per ton of farm produce and so on.

It seems to me that in the case of fisheries, there is also a genuine problem of measurement. Which countries are overfishing the most or what is the optimal fishing per country? How much is each country exceeding? That seems to be a little bit less clear. Am I just not reading the best reports or is this a genuine problem when it comes to fishing?

KRISHNAN: See, as far as the data collection methodology for marine fisheries is concerned, it is very streamlined, very much streamlined. In each of the fishing villages in India, the CMFRI has their field offices, and they have their investigators, their regular employees, and they make it a point to be there at the landing sites of each of these landing villages or landing centers every morning. They take account of all the landings properly, and you can find this data real time on CMFI website.

That is how the source systematically, the CMFRI has all organized the data collection work with respect to the marine fishery and for species-wise, species-wise, landing center-wise, state-wise, district-wise and national level. It is very organized. It has also won the appreciation of many of the Western countries also, the way things are being collected. FAO is using CMFRI data, it is an official data, actually. I don’t think there is much problem in that area.

RAJAGOPALAN: I guess the question I’m asking, is this true across all countries? Do we know this for every single country and how much they are overfishing relative to what they should be fishing? Do we have this kind of baseline across the board?

KRISHNAN: We have to check up the FAO database, and see how the data collection is actually made in different parts of the world and check it out. The kind of methodologies that are followed by different countries. That needs to be checked out.

RAJAGOPALAN: When I was reading the literature, it just says overfishing, it doesn’t say by how much. As an economist for me, when you say over something, the first thing question I ask is, what is compared to what? What is the optimal rate of fishing in each of these species or each of these regions or microregions and so on? That was the curiosity. Sorry, Badri, go ahead.

NARAYANAN: I’m also with you and I’m not sure whether other countries have this kind of robust system that we have as Dr. Krishnan mentioned. Even more importantly, I think, if you are talking about subsidies, I think that data is also not very streamlined for other countries. Like Dr. Krishnan mentioned, UBC has something, University of British Columbia, but that is an academic institution, so there is no official statistics like the way OECD is putting together the domestic support data for agriculture. We don’t have any such data as far as I know in fisheries. Of course, the FAO, I think, Dr. Krishnan, you’re talking about AQUASTAT, right?

KRISHNAN: Of course.

NARAYANAN: The AQUASTAT, they have this AQUASTAT data. Again, that is more about production in general, production and other aspects, but—

KRISHNAN: Subsidies.

NARAYANAN: —I don’t think they have information on subsidies. I think that’s a definition of word fishing and collection of subsidies data. These I think are not there globally.

Domestic Politics

RAJAGOPALAN: I think these are the sorts of things which over time help everyone get to agreement. Now, we’ve talked a lot about the political economy questions when it comes to the global question of fisheries. I want to focus a little bit on what’s happening within India. My first instinct when I started reading about what’s happening vis-à-vis the union government and their position on fisheries. They were absolutely refusing to budge on the question of subsidies. It was like there’s no question of budging on this.

Krishnan, you’ve already provided a lot of context on how this is not even the same thing as subsidies in other parts of the world. This is basically just some subsistence support, but I thought the other reason perhaps is that we have an election coming up very soon, and we know that the union government, which is of course led by the BJP, it is not as strong in the coastal states as it is in the interior states.

If we talk about the state government level, BJP has clear majority governments in Goa and Gujarat. It’s in a coalition government in Maharashtra, Odisha and so on, but right now in Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra, these are big coastal states. We don’t have strong representation of the BJP there. I know they want to break in, and they’re literally the second in the running in West Bengal.

Again, when we talk about the 2019 elections at the parliamentary level, BJP, of course, did reasonably well in Gujarat, Maharashtra. In Karnataka, it came first. In Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, literally zero seats, and in Odisha and West Bengal came in second. 

Do you think if the MC13 had been a year ago or maybe a year later, [laughs] away from the Indian election cycle, there would’ve been more of an effort to re-categorize the support and have a clearer idea of we’re going to give some income support to fisheries, but not fishery subsidies? Something along those lines, as opposed to this very adamant stand that we’re absolutely not budging on this. Is this a campaign move that has been put forth? 

KRISHNAN: See, as far as the opinion of the different trade unions and of the fishers along coastal India, they were all having the same opinion that the kind of situation that is there in the Western countries has to be completely stopped. There is no question of whether one particular party is doing well in one particular area of the country and not doing well in another part of the country. The opinion across the fishing communities all along the coast have been the same. I think Dr. Badri can elaborate.

NARAYANAN: Of course, we are not political scientists, so—

KRISHNAN: [laughs]

NARAYANAN: —we have elaborate on the actual BJPs strength and so on. One thing that I think that happens in the WTO when it comes to the Indian delegation there, having been in the government, one thing I can say is that a lot of the stances we take in the WTO are very well considered and they have a long history of continuity for both good and bad. I’m not saying that it’s right or wrong, but I’m saying that it’s not necessary that what they do there is in alignment with what BJP is thinking or what even the Prime Minister is thinking. This is all more things that are brought from generation to generation of bureaucrats, and there is a continuity there.

Particularly when it comes to elections, and if you try to compare with these kind of things in WTO very specific things with the elections, I think that will be the last thing in the minds of the negotiators, because they don’t have much of an impact. These things take time to percolate down into the level of elections. I think that there is very limited reason for elections being an important role here. I think when it comes to other things like agriculture and so on, I think definitely there is some element of election, but again—

RAJAGOPALAN: Domestic politics, yes.

NARAYANAN: One thing we can say is that we have been very consistent in whatever the good or bad stance which we can debate about, but the stance has been consistent. We have not changed, but it’s done anything. I think even if this had happened next year or the year ago, I think our responses have been the same and what Dr. Krishnan said is even more enlightening. He is talking about how the trade unions are thinking, how the people on the ground are thinking, and it’s in line with that.

I think that’s what we would say given our limited knowledge of political science, I think. Deeper understanding of what happens in negotiations among our civil servants, bureaucrats and so on, I think we are a very consistent country in that sense. Not like many other countries who can change their stances depending on the political party, depending on the ground realities and so on, but we are more static in that regard. We stick to our stance for a long time.

The Future

RAJAGOPALAN: One last question which is, how do you see the future panning out? Badri, you already mentioned that India is known more for its consistency than change when it comes to these kinds of negotiations. What is going to happen in the future? Is it that by the next time that these questions come up for discussion India’s already further along the way and it changes its stance on a few things, or are you expecting to see some kind of bifurcation of the agenda such that we can start parsing through the asymmetries between developed and developing countries better, there’s going to be a change in the kind of agreement required? What does the future have for this global agreement on fishing?

NARAYANAN: Well, maybe I can divide this into two, like what is desirable and what might actually happen.


NARAYANAN: What is desirable is what we discussed, we already discussed. Clearly, the market the agreement into different sub agreements and say that these are the things in which we don’t have any problem. The whole world should agree, which is things like IUU particularly. 

Other things on subsidies, clearly we say that these are the things which the global South India particularly and the other countries also are providing income support for fishermen that should not be considered as subsidies. Whereas the measurement of subsidies and overfishing in other countries should be put in place. These technical detailed nuances should be developed.

In this kind of thing, India can play a proactive role to develop some of these things, develop a consensus among the developing countries and also the developed countries making them agree on things that are important for us and so on. This can happen on the background before the next ministerial we can start working on. Usually what happens is the last few months of the ministirial, we all work very hard and try to get things done, but I think this is a very long process. It’s better to begin right now, so this is desirable. Dr. Krishnan can add more on this. 

What may actually happen, I am afraid we may get into a very similar situation like what we had now in MC14 because there are other issues also. This time, the main progress was the moratorium on digital transmissions got extended till next year. That’s topic for another discussion another day, but basically that has been the main thing now apart from LDC graduation giving them five more years of transition period. Then some discussion with dispute settlement and so on.

There is so much cracks in the WTO now, like the dispute settlement mechanism, the appellate body where the US is stubborn that this cannot be reconstituted and so on. Many other things are there, so fisheries is definitely an important part, but then my feeling is that there’ll be some very minuscule progress made in some other priorities. Then we’ll declare success that, okay, this ministerial has been concluded successfully. I think that’s what might happen. Fisheries I think may not progress much beyond this. Dr. Krishnan can elaborate.

KRISHNAN: Yes. See, I would like to touch upon the future that fisheries has in the domestic sector and all domestic within the country. I feel that fisheries sector in India is moving in the right direction. Only the unexploited resources in our EEZ are being targeted even by the PMMSY. Sustainability has always been the foundation of all the initiatives that has been taken by the government. Satellites based technology besides based monitoring system are being adopted for curbing IUU fishing. Very quickly it is happening and also for targeting. 

Fish finding technologies are also being adopted in order to reduce the cost of fishing. Private sector startups that are moving into marine fisheries and with the help of ISRO are moving into such niche areas of protection and providing current information of location of schools of fishes in our own EEZ to the domestic fishers.

There is also intramigration which I was telling you about before we started our discussion. Intramigration in fisheries education has enabled the fishers who are out migrating to urban areas, and tech savvy, educated and financially stronger startups are entering the marine fisheries sector. That is a very important point I feel. That is a positive kind of development that is happening in the fisheries sector. Technology applications and governance in aquaculture is also improving very much. It’s developing at a very fast rate.

Institutional rearrangements are happening and the accountability of the export-oriented organizations or institutions which are managing the export orientation of certain species like our own MPEDA. Their accountability is also being looked into. The growing market for lab-based fish market. That is a very important thing that is happening in India because 30% of India is vegetarian.

Moreover, what is happening is that not on all days the people who regularly take fish consume fish. Therefore, they have holidays for certain months. They have holidays for some religious days and things like that. Increasing fish consumption is not so easy. With the development of this lab-based fish, meat industry could also provide some support for maintaining the sustainability of fisheries in the country.

This kind of development that is the Indian plant-based meat is projected to rise at around 26%. There are certain companies which are doing quite well. Even though Israel and Singapore are the leaders in this segment of the industry, India is also catching up soon. I feel that there is quite a lot of opportunities in this particular sector. The role of corporate through CSR like Tatas and Lupin laboratories. They’re all into fisheries now, and trying to chip in with the money that they can spare for fishery development. Overall, the future of fisheries in India looks bright both for exports as well as for domestic markets. 

RAJAGOPALAN: This is a very optimistic note to end on. Thank you so much for doing this. It was a pleasure to have both of you on the podcast. I really enjoyed reading your paper and hopefully things pan out the way you’re telling us they will.

KRISHNAN: Hopefully, hopefully.

NARAYANAN: Thank you. Thank you so much, Shruti.

KRISHNAN: Thank you so much. Thank you.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app