Mired in misery, Chilika's fisherfolk continue to doggedly fight for their rights

Illegal prawn gheris now dot C (Credit: Photographs: Santosh Mahapatra)The impending Lok Sabha and state assembly polls have brought a brief respite to Orissa's 2 lakh-odd traditional fisherfolk who eke a living off Chilika lake. For, electoral compulsions have forced political parties to shelve the controversial Chilika Fishing Regulatory Bill, 2002, which seeks to grant 30 per cent fishing rights to non-fisherfolk. It is another matter that the row over the proposed legislation is bound to resurface after the elections.

The tabling of the bill during the recent winter session of the Orissa legislative assembly sparked a fresh wave of fisherfolk's protests against the sharing of the waterbody's resources. From December 17-21, as many as 20,000 members of the community gave vent to their anger by laying siege to the House while legislators were engaged in a debate on the bill inside it. Afterwards, the fisherfolk narrated their woes to legislators across the political spectrum.

The latter then reportedly convinced ruling coalition leaders of the imprudence of pushing through such a law in an election year. It is noteworthy that fisherfolk could have a bearing on the poll results in four of the area's seven assembly constituencies. On December 22, the assembly deferred the passage of the bill and unanimously decided to seek public opinion on it. The House has since been dissolved to pave the way for fresh elections in the state.

Even as the storm appears to have blown over for now, the fisherfolk are not lowering their guard. "We will continue to resist any attempt to legalise unlawful occupation of our only means of livelihood," says Balaram Das, president of Chilika Matysyajibi Mahasangh (CMM), the umbrella organisation of primary fisherfolk's cooperative societies. "How can we soften our stand after having been manipulated so often? We have seen politicians wilting under pressure from the prawn mafia," he adds. The fact is that traditional fisherfolk have been carrying on a protracted struggle, spanning more than two decades, to assert their exclusive right over this resource-rich waterbody (see: 'Adrift and isolated', Down To Earth, January 31, 2002).
Rude intrusion It was in the early 1980s that Chilika, Asia's largest brackish water lake which spreads across three districts of Orissa, was virtually taken over by non-traditional fisherfolk and the mafia. They were eyeing its rich prawn harvest. Liberalisation and further devaluation of the rupee made the export market more lucrative, and corporate houses, too, evinced a keen interest in the lake in the beginning of the next decade.

Consequently, a new lease policy that sought to give a fillip to large-scale shrimp culture was declared in 1991. Soon gheris (fenced enclosures for prawn farming) sprang up around an area of 2610.56 hectares (ha). The state government also colluded with the non-traditional fisherfolk and illegal traders to convert traditional fishing sources to shrimp culture sources. The rampant illegal encroachment and new lease policy left the traditional fisherfolk high and dry (see box: Diminishing returns). These activities wrought havoc on the region's ecology as well.

In 1992, the state government created the Chilika Development Authority (CDA) to prevent further degradation of the ecosystem and revive the waterbody. But as the situation worsened, the Supreme Court stepped in and banned aquaculture within a kilometre of the lake in December 1996. The court order was, however, implemented only in January 1998, enabling gheri farmers to maximise their gains.

Revival sans returns
September 2000 saw Chilika getting a new lease of life due to CDA's efforts. An opening to the sea was created artificially by dredging. The aim was to increase the lagoon's salinity and facilitate the flow of freshwater from nearby rivers.

The move bore fruit. Within three years, the prawn yield rose by 1211.07 per cent and fish yield by 364.55 per cent (see graph: Bitter harvest). Two hundred and twenty-five species of fish, 24 species of prawns and 28 species of crabs were documented as occurring in the Chilika lagoon in the pre-rejuvenation period. During 2000-2003, 43 fish species, four prawn species and six species were recorded as new to the region. In November 2002, the lake was also removed from the endangered category of the Ramsar Convention.

The resuscitation of Chilika lake should ideally have proved a boon for the traditional fisherfolk inhabiting 137 villages in and around the waterbody. On the contrary, it has become their bane. Mahisa village, located on an island close to the lake's newly opened mouth, is a case in point. Its 1400 residents are realising, to their dismay, that the area's fish yield has come down drastically -- from about 100 kilogrammes (kg) per day, to just 30 kg. "This is because the water current is too strong here," points out Jannardan Dalai, a resident.

Mahisa is also suffering at the hands of the prawn mafia. Out of the 990 ha under its control, more than 400 ha have been encroached upon by non-traditional fisherfolk who have erected prawn gheris. The local people's protest against this illegal occupation snowballed into a violent conflict last April. It resulted in the death of four residents. "That day, we resolved to fight till the end," says village head Bhaskar Nayak.

Such clashes between the prawn mafia and traditional fisherfolk have killed 50 people over the past 10 years. In a stinging indictment of the state government, the Orissa High Court (HC) observed in 1993: "The root cause of conflicts, which have enveloped (the) entire (region), (is) the revenue department.... The department's faulty policy decisions and malfunctioning have destroyed the harmonious relationship among the people.... (The) state has become a combination of vested interests, viz. politicians, prawn mafias and government officials."

Bibhu Prasad Tripathy, a senior environmental lawyer, says: "The mafias, which function at the behest of politicians and bureaucrats, are making the most of the sudden increase in fish yield." The total annual income from the lake is approximately Rs 81.95 crore. However, unofficial estimates peg earnings from illegal prawn culture at around Rs 200 crore. Today, about 8094 ha are under illegal prawn cultivation in the region. Amid this scenario, the state government initiated a move to legalise encroachments.

Bill of contention
Between March 2002 and February 2004, two abortive attempts were made to get the contentious Chilika Fishing Regulatory Bill passed. The bill was cleared by the state cabinet in December 2001 and introduced in the assembly three months later. At that time also, fisherfolk raised objections to the move. Subsequently, the bill was sent to the Select Committee on Chilika for review. The panel members visited fisherfolk's villages 17 times and mulled the proposals for 18 months before making a few amendments. Sadly, its suggestions, too, seem to favour the prawn mafia.

The panel did not seek a change in the controversial clause that gives 30 per cent fishing rights to non-traditional fisherfolk. This sharing arrangement has been rejected outright by the fisherfolk community. They contend that customarily and on the basis of historical resource-sharing decisions, fishing is the sole preserve of traditional fisherfolk.

According to HC records, a fact-finding team reported that the ratio of fisherfolk to non-fisherfolk has already altered from 75:25 to 60:40. CMM general secretary Tapan Behera expresses concern: "When rights haven't been granted to non-fisherfolk, they control 40 per cent of the fishery sources. Once their presence is legalised, the very survival of fisherfolk will be jeopardised."

To compound matters, the select panel widened the definition of traditional fishing methods by including prawn culture in it. The bill defines the latter as a technological addition to the traditional method. Fisherfolk feel that the amendment would, in effect, lead to a violation of the restrictions imposed on aquaculture by the apex court.

The bill envisages a structure, which requires the Orissa Fish Federation to grant a three-year lease to primary fisherfolk's cooperative societies. Each village is to be counted as a unit and the lease drawn out in proportion to its population. But traditional fisherfolk have demanded that the lease period be extended to 10 years. Their view is that any investment they make for a shorter duration may not prove cost-effective.

Another proposal of the bill pertains to the CDA acting as the overall supervisor. The authority will also have to conduct annual environmental impact assessments and submit its reports to the state government. In addition to this, the CDA has been empowered to demolish illegal construction in the Chilika fishing zone. Stringent action is proposed in the new draft bill if any violation is detected. This includes a prison term of up to seven years and a fine of Rs 50,000. A multi-disciplinary team -- comprising officials of CDA as well as from the departments of revenue, fisheries and forest -- would be formed to ensure enforcement. Fisherfolk, however, want a community-based organisation to be in charge of implementation.

Games politicians play
The chairperson of the select committee and the state's revenue minister, Biswa Bhusan Harichandan, claims: "The interests of both traditional and non-traditional fisherfolk have been kept in mind. This is the best option." Fishery consultant to CDA Surya Kumar Mohanty apprehends further violence, particularly over the 30 per cent clause. The government must ban prawn production in the lake because this is what attracts the mafia, stresses Mohanty.

Behera warns: "We may be forced to adopt a hostile approach if this insecurity persists." Lalatendu B Mohapatra, a legislator belonging to the opposition and reportedly the owner of a large prawn business, is equally aggressive: "Over 2 lakh non-fisherfolk who live in the middle of Chilika also depend on fishing. They, too, will launch an agitation if their rights are overlooked."

Kishore C Samal, professor of economics with the Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies, an independent research body, laments: "For politicians, the fisherfolk are nothing more than a fringe group." Significantly, former chief minister (CM) Biju Patnaik of the then Janata Dal had, before coming to power in 1990, promised the traditional fisherfolk that he would protect their interests. He had also given an assurance that he would free the lake from the clutches of the Congress, which wanted to lease it out to an industrial group for the Integrated Shrimp Farm Project. But it was under Biju Patnaik that the state government formulated the lease policy encouraging non-fisherfolk to start aquaculture in the lake. Since 1990, five CMs -- including the incumbent, Naveen Patnaik -- have taken over the reins in Orissa. But none of them has dared to take steps to remove the gheris from Chilika. No wonder traditional fisherfolk are blas about the outcome of the ensuing polls. Behera sums it up wryly: "We have lost faith in our political leaders."

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