UNTIL the other day, the Oriya hamlet of Siandi was held out as a shining example of progress amidst decline and of community cooperation amidst strife. But all this is history -- and today, everything that made this tiny village on the Chilika lake a cut above the rest seems only memory. Siandi is gripped by the prawn mania -- the malady that has infected most parts of this precious wetland's area. And the village's problems are the result of their success in prawn cultivation.
"The biggest source of income for the Noliya fisherfolk of Siandi is a 280 ha plot in the lake, which they held on lease and, where they have been practicing prawn culture for the past three years," explained Simanchal, a member of United Artists Association (UAA), which has been instrumental in revitalising the fisherfolk cooperative in Siandi, which even broke local tradition by admitting upper castes as members. But, this year the state revenue department has divided the plot, leasing 120 ha to a group of 70 non-fishing families, 80 ha to the Chamunda fisherfolk cooperative from the neighbouring Rambha area and leaving the people of Siandi with only crumbs.
The Siandi fisherfolk resent being deprived of what they consider their "natural right" to the entire plot and are contemplating filing suit against the revenue department. Said Simanchal, "We know this will only result in antagonism and prolonged litigation for the people, some of whom have recovered recently from years of bondage and misery. But many of the villagers think that legal action is the only way."
Siandi's woes seem to stem from its new-found prosperity. In 1989 the villagers used assistance from UAA and British Charity Action Aid, to acquire fishing gear and an old boat that could carry eight persons and make community fishing possible. The villagers agreed that the returns were to be shared equally by all the families. From the outset the villagers were successful and in just the first few days, their prawn catch fetched them Rs 22,000, of which they spent Rs 12,000 to free eight of their number from bondage to moneylenders in neighbouring Khirashi village.
Indebtedness is a major problem for the villagers of Siandi, many of whom have been forced into bonded labour for taking loans, at times of no more than Rs 1,000. The villagers found even repaying the loan was complicated as the moneylenders would accept repayment on only one day in the year -- Dola Purnima which occurs just before Holi. If payment was not made on that day, the loan would remain outstanding and the villager would be condemned to another year of bondage.
"The release of the eight fisherfolk from their contract came as a shot in the arm for the UAA, which was very involved in the struggle," noted Simanchal. "The villagers realised that many things they had considered impossible, could be achieved if only they were willing to join hands." UAA then persuaded the Siandi fisherfolk to spend Rs 12,000 of their 1990 earnings on canoes, nets and other fishing paraphernalia for the newly freed fishermen.
Then, in a bid to improve their economic status the Noliyas of Siandi negotiated an agreement with the non-fishing Kshatriyas of the village and turned their 280 ha of wetland into a prawn culture farm. This act proved fateful for the Noliyas because their success led to others casting covetous eyes on the prawn farm and the profits accruing from it. When the lease on the Siandi plot came up for renewal this year, the bidders included traders from the Rambha area, about 25 km away, who were reportedly acting in collutsion with the most prosperous of their members, whose near monopoly of the prawn trade in the area was being threatened by the Siandi cooperative. Block officials, however, insist they divided the plot as it was the only way to accomodate as many of the applicants as possible.