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Troubled water of Chilika

Madhumati no more sews her husband’s net, nor she hums the tunes that fisherwomen used to while drying the catch. She has been evicted from her lake and her tradition that is not only her livelihood but her identity. Madhumati belongs to the traditional fishermen community of Pathara that have a 5,000 year old history of sustainable fishing practices in Chilika Lake. Rampant prawn mafia has made her entry into the lake for fishing impossible.
Similar is the condition of 132 fishing villages with a total population of more than ten million exclusive of the surrounding habitation which has about 237 villages. According to the Directorate of Fisheries Statistics 2000-01, about 30% of the fishing village populations are active fishermen and many others depend indirectly on fishing. They form a rare group of traditional fishermen unique to the eastern coast of Bay of Bengal. The communities are characterised by the specific way of fishing they practice. Madhumati now works as a daily labourer in INS Chilika like many more people from the surrounding villages of Chilika such as Soran, Nairi, Pathara and others. She rows to the academy everyday with a handful others, sweltering through the unpredictable water of Chilika to clean, cook and work in the gardens. They do everything except fishing ~ the work they believe they are born to do.
The traditional fishermen are Harijans – the ‘untouchables’ and hence they occupy lowest social position in the society. The seven sub-castes of fishermen are Keuta, Kandara, Tiar, Nolia. Niary and Gokha. Kondras are the lowest of the sub castes. Tradition fishermen are displaced largely by the upper caste outsiders. “Amaku kom labho miluchhi, ame chhoto jatiro loko…” says Madhumati.
Allegations of illegal practices in the prawn trade in Chilika ~ Asia’s largest brackish water lake ~ have been confirmed by a five-member committee set up by the Bhubaneswar High Court. The committee was set up after writ petitions was filed by three primary fishermen cooperative societies against the government policy of leasing fishing patches in Chilika, which they said had led to “mafias taking control of the prawn trade”, and resulted in marginalisation of the traditional fishermen.
The committee head, Mr GS Das, said: “At the heart of the problem lies the state government’s commitment to promote prawn culture in Chilika.” The panel noted there was no attempt to demarcate within the lake zones for prawn culture and capture fishing and this allowed encroachment by organisations engaged in prawn culture whose stakeholders were landlords, many of whom are “important politicians or their relatives, reputed bureaucrats, and moneyed people who apparently have a lobby in the government”.
In 1991 “lease policy” was proposed by the state government which divided the whole fishing sources of the lake into ‘Capture’ and Culture’ and allowed the non-fishermen of the locality to involve themselves in ‘Shrimp Culture’ in the Lake. Chilika Aquatic Farms Limited (CAFL)-a joint project by the government of Orissa and Tata was implemented.
Chilika Banchao Anadolan against the TATA’s project and other illegal prawn cultivators paved way two years later for Orissa High Court’s affirmation of the rights of traditional fisherfolk in Chilika, ban modern prawn culture and directive to the state government to demolish all illegal prawn gherries. Eventually, Tatas moved their operation away from the lake in 1994 and the lease policy was revised to define ‘capture’ and ‘culture’ sources and a role to Fishery Department. But the revised lease proposal did not make any significant change over. The National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, Central Board for Prevention and Control of Water Pollution, Dr. K. Alagarswamy report came out with recommendations to save the cultural source. And thus, the Supreme Court of India issued a historical judgment against aquaculture in Chilika based on these reports. The Court held that the intensified shrimp farming culture by modern methods is violative of constitutional provisions and central acts, especially the Environment Protection Act. Therefore it cannot be permitted to operate. Orissa legislative assembly constituted a sub-committee to look at shrimp culture in Chilika Lake. The committee allowed the practice of leasing out some portions of Chilika Lake for prawn culture. The “Chilika Macchhyajibi Mahasangha” started a campaign to implement Supreme Court orders and fulfill their demand. The organisation also gave a 24-hour ultimatum to demolish all prawn infrastructures, which lapsed on May 29. After the deadline they themselves destroyed about 11 illegal prawn farms.
However, the committee headed by Mr Das stated that cooperatives have been illegally letting out their own subleases to outsiders, and says such leasing is now rampant in Chilika. There is evidence that 42 of the 49 cooperatives had let out their subleases to outsiders. Nonetheless, the committee has suggested “a massive combing operation” to stop encroachment by prawn cultivators.
But, a socio-economic survey carried out by the Bhubaneswar-based independent research institute Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies found that the per capita income of non-traditional fishermen was Rs 5919 as against the Rs 4136 earned by traditional fishermen. So far as the returns from culture source are concerned, non-traditional fishermen earned 67.92 per cent while traditional fishermen received just 22.12 per cent.
As the international price of tiger prawns spiralled, the stakes for these non-fishermen became formidable. The huge profits, however, have been accompanied by large-scale environmental degradation. Shrimp culture uses high protein feed, and shrimp ponds are highly polluting. Abandoned shrimp ponds cannot be converted to other uses such as agriculture. Shrimp gheries, or bamboo enclosures, also disrupt tidal flushing and reduce levels of oxygen and salinity in the water. This leads to a reduction in the natural growth of fish and creates problems for traditional fisherfolk. As no other seedlings can grow here, gheries reduce fish stocks. In fact, the quality of shrimp seedlings in gheries measuring more than 22,000 acres in the leased area, and around 20,000 acres of encroached area in the lake, has declined, as have fish catches. And the recent introduction of pens has meant that even more parts of the lake have been enclosed. Therefore, extensive prawn culture in Chilika has had a serious impact on the ecology of the lake, in turn further reducing traditional fishery sources for capture fishery.
Today there is considerable competition between the various lobbies ~ fishermen and non-fishermen, authorised and unauthorised shrimp culturists, locals and outsiders ~ over the aquatic resources of the lake. With the increasing dominance of the business mafia, powerful industrial elite, shrimp merchants and politicians, law and order has also broken down. Revenue officials play a key role, manipulating areas earmarked for leasing, or leasing un-leased areas to unauthorised culturists at a price. This means that even the efforts of senior technocrats to abolish shrimp gheries are being subverted by revenue officials at the tehsil level. Traditional fishermen entering these areas are now being treated as encroachers, leading to violent conflicts between the two groups.
The resistance movement in Chilika has emerged basically out of conflicts over access to natural resources, or occupational displacement. The 14,000 acres earmarked to non-fishermen for shrimp culture, encroachment of around 20,000 acres, mostly by non-fishermen, and declaration of a portion of the lake as a bird sanctuary by the government have adversely affected the socio-economic condition of most traditional fishermen. Balaram Das feels that by allowing non-fishermen fishing rights; the state government is indirectly promoting illegal prawn farming, thereby defeating the very purpose of the proposed legislation. He feels this would “again threaten the livelihood of the traditional fishermen and cause irreparable damage to the fragile ecosystem of ‘Maa Chilika’”.
What really worries the traditional fishermen in the regulation Bill is the clause that promises to reserve 30% of the lake’s fishing area for non-traditional fishermen. In other words, primary fishermen and non-fishermen societies will be entitled to sub-leases on a 70:30 basis, for all practical purposes. While this may seem like a tilt in favour of traditional fishermen, the clause, in fact, virtually sanctions illegal encroachment of the lake’s waters by the prawn lobby and gives non-fishermen groups a legal position in the whole fracas.
Biswapriya Kanungo, legal advisor to the Chilika Matsyajibi Mahasangha alleges that the government has deliberately fomented trouble in Chilika by allowing export-oriented culture fishing in the lake. Despite official assurances that the Bill will lead to a ban on culture fishing, the fishermen contend that it will end up regularising the illegal industry.
“Chilika Maati payin, aame jibana debu”. Like many other people’s movements across India, this one too is reaching breaking point, with the fisherfolk prepared to die to protect their rights to life and livelihood. Chilika showcases how intensive exploitation of resources brings people into severe conflict.
Chilika is the largest brackish water lake in Asia and also the second largest lake in the world. Based on highly productive ecosystem, rich biodiversity and socio-economic importance, Chilika was designated as a Ramsar site in 1981. It has also found its position in the list of wetlands selected for intensive conservation and management by the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MOEF), Government of India. The Nalaban Island within the lagoon is notified as a “bird sanctuary” under Wild Life (protection) Act in 1987. Some rare, vulnerable and endangered animal species listed in the IUCN (International Union of Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources) inhabit the lagoon area for the whole or at least part of their life cycle. It supports the largest congregation of aquatic birds in the country, particularly during the winter. Satapada is a place in this wetland, which hosts famous dolphins.

Soma Basu

Fishermen cast net in Chilka lake
A dolphin seen in Chilka
Soma Basu

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