‘There’s hardly any fish for small fishers like us’

An Indian fisherman and his family contend with a vanishing livelihood as they struggle with high living costs and debt.

An illustration of a man on a boat made of a paper receipt throwing a net into the ocean.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

What's your money worth? A series from the front line of the cost of living crisis, where people who have been hit hard share their monthly expenses.

Name: Deepan S

Age: 28 (the median age in India)

Occupation: Fisherman

Lives with: His wife, Menaka (26), who is ninth months pregnant, and their son, Mowshik (2)

Lives in: A 15sq-metre (160sq-foot) house with a single bedroom, a small hall, kitchen and an outdoor toilet, which they own in the fishing village of Pattipulam, 9km (5.6 miles) north of Mahabalipuram, a UNESCO world heritage site for its collection of 7th and 8th century Hindu monuments, in the eastern state of Tamil Nadu, India.

Monthly household income: Deepan, who is currently the household’s sole earner, makes 8,000 to 12,000 Indian rupees ($98 to $146) through fishing and 8,000 rupees ($98) from his second job as a stablehand and other odd jobs.

Total expenses for the month: About 15,300 rupees ($187). Each month, 9,000 rupees ($110) goes towards paying off debt, and the rest, 6,300 rupees ($77), is spent on living costs.

A photo of a family of three, the man on the left, the woman on the right and the child in between, being carried by his father.
Deepan, Menaka and their toddler Mowshik [Balasubramaniam N/Al Jazeera]
Deepan, Menaka and their toddler Mowshik [Balasubramaniam N/Al Jazeera]

Deepan has worked as a fisherman on the southeast coast of India since his early teens.

When he was a child, his father would drag him off his sleeping mat in the early hours of the morning to prepare their motorboat and nets for fishing before he went to school. On the weekends, he would join his father out at sea. As a boy, Deepan always wanted to sleep for a few more hours before the sun woke up the world around him. But his father would remind him that their world - the sea - was already awake.

“I [felt I] should never become a fisherman like my father, maybe a mechanic or driver, but never a fisher,” he recalls thinking as a 10-year-old. “I felt that I should not live a life where I couldn’t sleep in peace. But a few years down the line, that life chose me.

“My father lost his eyesight when I was 15, and I had no choice but to take up the only job I was familiar with – fishing,” he says.

Since then, Deepan’s workday begins at 3 or 4am when the fish are the most active and are hunting in the sea. “I have to fish for a few hours to have a decent catch,” he explains. “Then I try to auction my catch [to vendors] at the coast, or sometimes, I go to the market to sell it myself for a better price.”

As the day gets warmer, the fish move into deeper waters, so coastal fishermen like Deepan usually take a break from about 9am to 4pm. “My second shift at the sea starts from 4 to 8pm,” he says.

But, for two consecutive days in mid-March, Deepan caught nothing. This is becoming a regular occurance, and when this happens, he works with other fishermen to do a traditional form of shoreline fishing called karaivalai (“karai” is Tamil for shore, and “valai” means net). A large net is dropped into the sea close to the shore, and two groups of people hold the two ends of the net and pull it slowly towards the beach. The catch is then shared among the fishermen.

“If I am lucky, I could make 2,000 rupees [$24.40] in a day, but other days, I have come home with nothing,” Deepan says.

A stormy period

On a sunny Sunday morning, Deepan and Menaka are at home. They live in a cosy, bright-pink house with a small front yard. An old freezer box for seafood, some nets and a plastic bicycle share space with two tall coconut trees and a sleepy puppy in the sandy yard. An old jute bag covers the iron gate that opens onto the street and sea beyond. The salty smell of the ocean and dead fish hangs in the air, and from the yard, one can catch a glimpse of brightly coloured boats on the beach, waiting to take on the endless sea - the lifeline for thousands of fishermen like Deepan.

Deepan’s son, Mowshik, who is two, stands near the door decked out with marigold flowers. The toddler flashes a coy smile, then runs inside to bring out chocolates. “It was his birthday yesterday,” says soft-spoken Deepan, who smiles upon entering the hallway decorated with streamers.

As they sit on an old mat on the broken floor of their living room and under a dilapidated ceiling, the conversation turns towards loans and the loss of Deepan’s livelihood. Despite their financial woes, the couple remains optimistic that they can turn their finances around.

A photo of a person transferring fish from one metal bucket to another.
Menaka takes stock of the day's catch [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Menaka, who comes from a fishing family in Chennai, the capital of Tamil Nadu, met Deepan, who is originally from Pattipulam, in 2012. She had misdialed Deepan and they got to talking. One conversation led to another and, over time, their fondness for each another grew. Before long, they were planning a future together.

“Our parents agreed to our wedding almost immediately, but I wanted to support my family financially until my younger sister got educated,” Menaka, who worked in the sales department of a textiles firm, says firmly.

As for Deepan, he wanted to save to build a better house for Menaka. And so they waited eight years before tying the knot in January 2020, a couple of months before the first COVID-19 lockdown.

Deepan’s parents took out loans for their wedding, which Deepan and Menaka are paying back. Meanwhile, Deepan bought a motorbike for 30,000 rupees ($366), which he is still paying off. They had hoped to clear these debts with Deepan’s fishing trips, but they hadn’t anticipated that a pandemic would overturn their lives.

“Corona changed our lives overnight,” Deepan says. “First, we couldn’t fish due to restrictions. Next, we couldn’t sell our catch in the market. We were desperate. We had to take out smaller loans to settle our wedding dues, and that was not enough, so I had to sell my motorboat and had to make do with a small rowboat.”

A man standing next to a horse.
As a side job, Deepan offers horse-riding tours to tourists [Courtesy of Deepan]

Odd jobs

Another development has cut into Deepan’s wages. Large trawlers are sweeping the ocean floor, and small operators like Deepan are increasingly left with nothing to catch. He has had to take odd jobs like pedalling around fish carts and working as a waiter in nearby hotels between his fishing hours. Among these gigs, however, he found one that he loved - working with horses in the tourist destination of Mahabalipuram.

After a hard day at sea, Deepan and his friends would often take a break at the beach in Mahabalipuram. Horse owners there would offer riding tours to tourists. Deepan initially volunteered to help a friend who had a horse, but the work soon became a passion.

“Those horses were like children, and I knew just how to connect with them,” he says. “With just my nods, the horses would charm the tourists with their leg shakes and majestic rides, and the owners were more than happy to hire me to train their horses. I learned how to train them for rides, feed them and even treat them when they are sick, and I even managed to save a pony once.”

An illustration of a graph indicating inflation with the left bar a bit taller than the right bar.
[Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Deepan dreams of owning a horse one day, so he can earn money from the guided tours while ambitious Menaka wants to set up a fabric store at home. Having previously worked at a textile firm, she says she has an eye for choosing the best cloth. Yet, the couple is also very aware of their reality.

With the pressures of paying off debts and rising living costs, the couple continuously struggles to get by. Given their debts and fluctuating income, Menaka has had to skip prenatal tests and scans in recent months to try to cut costs.

“Most of the debt is bound to be paid off in a year or two, yet the decreasing catch in the sea and rising inflation are scary,” Deepan says. “I am working on all days of the week and at every job I get my hands on. I hope that once we pay off our loans, we will be able to focus on building better lives for our children - a life away from the unpredictable sea, I hope.”

Over the course of a month from March 1 to April 1, 2023, and as part of a collaborative project, Deepan tracked his expenses with reporter Catherine Gilon.

Here are the expenses that tested his finances the most.

Expenses over one month

A photo of a house with bags of garbage on the wall outside.
The front of Deepan's house is shown with his nets ready to be taken out to sea [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]
The front of Deepan's house is shown with his nets ready to be taken out to sea [Maveeran Somasundaram/Al Jazeera]

Seafood and groceries

As a fisherman, Deepan never had to pay for fish in his life, but that has now changed. “There’s hardly any fish for small fishers like us, and so we try to buy fish from anyone who gets a good catch that day,” says Deepan, who has paid for a bowl of fresh crabs. He’ll keep some and sell the rest.

“I bought them for 200 rupees [$2.44] from a friend today,” he says. The catch would otherwise cost 400 rupees [$4.88] in the market.

Deepan says even whipping up a simple meal at home has become a costly affair with the price of staples like rice, eggs and lentils going up.

“We try to buy at a wholesale market in Mahabalipuram to cut down costs,” he says.

February 2022: 103 rupees ($1.26) for 1kg (2.2 pounds) of lentils*, which lasts about a month
March 2023: 115 rupees ($1.40) for 1kg of lentils 

A photo of Deepan holding a fresh bowl of crabs with his left hand and a single crab with his right hand.
Deepan holds up a fresh bowl of crabs which he bought from a friend. He will keep part of the catch and sell the rest [Balasubramaniam N/Al Jazeera]

Petrol and diesel

Fuel prices reached historic highs in India in mid-May last year. But even with the Indian government stepping in to slash excise duties on petrol and diesel and a subsequent drop in global crude oil prices, the price of both remains high for many Indians.

On March 31, petrol in Chennai cost 102.63 rupees ($1.25) per litre ($5.68 per gallon), and diesel was 94.24 rupees ($1.15) per litre ($5.23 per gallon), which is expensive for Deepan, who requires petrol for his motorbike and diesel to run a rented fishing boat.

“Every time we step out either for a medical test or for selling our fish, I have to spend 100 to 200 rupees [$1.22 to $2.44] for fuel expenses. In these three years of wedded life, we hardly go out for leisure,” Deepan sighs.

Fuel costs have hit his fishing prospects too. Before the pandemic, he used to pool together money with friends to go deep-sea fishing in a motorboat.

“With diesel prices retaining their lockdown-high, I prefer to go on my small rowboat now, and that means I have to stick to fishing near the shores,” he says. “Thereby, my catch becomes much less.”

February 2022: 101.40 rupees ($1.23) per litre of petrol ($5.64 per gallon)*
March 2023: 102.63 rupees ($1.25) per litre of petrol ($5.68 per gallon)

A photo of a child in a little tricycle with a dog behind him.
Mowshik with his bike and puppy named Tommy [Balasubramaniam N/Al Jazeera]


With a two-year-old at home, Deepan has to buy at least two packets of milk every day for his family, which includes the puppy, Tommy, whom their toddler brought home from a friend’s house.

“It puts us down by 74 rupees [$0.90] per day. Towards the end of the month, we do opt for black tea, but milk remains our necessary evil," Deepan says.

Little Mowshik waltzes in and hugs his mother. He points to her pregnant tummy and babbles. Deepan breaks into a smile. “And, yes, with a baby on the way, milk will become even more indispensable,” he says.

In India, milk inflation in January was 9 percent. Industry experts say the increase was a result of higher prices for fodder, which rose 29 percent in January, according to the All India Wholesale Price Index.

February 2022: 60 rupees ($0.73) per litre ($3.32 per gallon)*
March 2023: 74 rupees ($0.90) per litre ($4.09 per gallon) 

An illustration of prices rising in the past year.
[Jawahir Al-Naimi and Muaz Kory/Al Jazeera]

Gas cylinder

“We dread the day the cylinder runs empty in our kitchen. It costs us a whopping 1,118 rupees [$13.64] per cylinder, and it hardly lasts for two months,” Deepan says. As of March 1, a cylinder of liquefied petroleum gas was priced at 1,103 rupees ($13.45) in Delhi and 1,118.50 rupees ($13.64) in Chennai.

Menaka says she makes optimal use of their precious gas. “I used to use gas to heat water for my son’s bath, but now, we try to heat water with firewood along with our neighbours,” she says.

February 2022: 965 rupees ($11.77) per cylinder*
March 2023: 1,118.50 rupees ($13.64) per cylinder 

*Last year’s prices sourced from Deepan and Menaka and the Indian Oil Corporation

A photo of a man (left) playing with his child (right).
Deepan plays with his son Mowshik inside their sparsely furnished home [Balasubramaniam N/Al Jazeera]

Six quick questions for Deepan:

1. What is one thing you had to forgo this month? I wanted to buy a new shirt for my son on his birthday, but we couldn’t afford to.

2. What is the hardest financial decision you have had to make this month? We were able to take the prenatal scans during the third and fifth month of pregnancy. We have not been able to afford scans [which cost about 3,500 rupees, or $42.70] after that and have been postponing Menaka’s checkups for this month.

3. What has been the most worthwhile expense from this month? I bought a cake and some chocolates for my son Mowshik’s second birthday. Last year, I was not at home, so this was the first birthday we celebrated as a family, and Mowshik really enjoyed being the centre of attention as he cut his cake amidst the little ones from our neighbourhood.

4. When finances get tough, what advice do you have? We always try to make do with what we have at home. When going through a tough phase, always postpone buying new things unless they are an absolute necessity.

5. What is your biggest money worry? With one more child on the way, I hope to get out of debt soon enough to take care of my children in the best way possible.

6. What is the saving hack you are proudest of? Every penny matters. We save the change [1 rupee and 2 rupee notes] we get in a small box and use the pool only for emergencies like unexpected medical expenses. It is always better to have an emergency stash.

Read more stories from the series: What's your money worth?

Source: Al Jazeera