If nothing is done, we fisherfolk will perish

Bhajani Behera of Arakhakuda village, feels the lake is doomed unless the government mounts rescue operations quickly. He should know, because he has spent 65 years of his life fishing in the lake for a living.

By Uday Shankar
Published: Monday 31 August 1992

ARAKHAKUDA is a fishing village in Brahmagiri block of Puri district and its residents have been fishing in Chilika lake for generations. What makes Arakhakuda significant is that it is the last village on the Magarmukh channel that links the lake to the Bay of Bengal. Hence, the villagers know at first hand the changes that have come about in the lake system due to human interference as well as natural processes.
The villagers complain that salinity is decreasing, the lake is getting shallow, there are more people fishing now and the fish catch is dropping. Bhajani Behera is 65 and one of the 4,000 fishermen of Arakhakuda, whose livelihood depends on a healthy Chilika. Should the lake die, their days as fishermen would end as they "do not have the skill to go to sea".
Behera gave up fishing only recently because of age and failing health and handed over his nets and canoe to his children. Now, he works at weighing the fish brought ashore to be sold to the traders. Behera gets 50 paise for every 1.2 kg of fish weighed. The extra 200 gm is because traders complain that fresh fish have too much water in them.
Behera spoke to Down To Earth about the future of Chilika and its fisherfolk. Excerpts:

What are the traditional occupations of the men and women of Arakhakuda and neighbouring villages?
Most of the men fish in the lake. There are some Noliyas (a Telugu-speaking community), who fish in both the sea and the lake. Our women look after the household and collect fuelwood. Now, some of our men have taken to catching prawns, but we do not breed them in ponds like the rich traders and farmers. Our people at best put pens and bamboo nets in the Magarmukh channel in the evening and prawns and fish are trapped in these nets.

What sort of work do the village women perform traditionally?
When I was young, the men would go out in boats to catch fish in Chilika, while the women did the domestic chores. The women often accompanied the men to the forest side of the lake to collect twigs and leaves for fuel. In one day they would collect enough fuelwood to last them about a week and they would go out again the following week. In their spare time, the women sold sukhua -- dried prawns -- in the village markets.

Now, everything is changed and the women no longer sell sukhua because it is too expensive.

What do you now do for fuelwood?
The forest on the other side has all but disappeared. Even the ones that are there are not open to us anymore. Big people come now with tractors to take away all the wood.

But we cannot manage without fuel and so we now have to buy it from these people, although it costs a lot. If we still want to collect twigs and leaves from the forests, we have to give some money to the government officials, otherwise they'll chase us away. But our women still go to collect fuelwood, although they have to travel much more now. At the end of the day, however, they are able to collect much less than they could in the old days. That is why those who can afford it prefer to buy wood now.

Do the village women still sell sukhua?
No, no! Who can afford to waste prawns like that now. Whatever you catch, traders' representatives are at hand to buy. Prawns have become so expensive only the rich can afford them now. We rarely get to eat prawns now because everything is sold to the traders.

But can't you keep some for your own consumption?
How can we eat something that is so expensive? A kilo of good tiger prawns sells for Rs 270 these days. Besides, most of the fishermen have taken loans from the traders to buy boats, nets and so on. So, if you have not repaid the debt and their people catch you with prawns, you've had it.

Was it like this in the old days?
In those days, besides making sukhua, we also ate them. There was no mad rush then in the prawn trade and it was Chilika fish that was much sought after in Puri, Bhubaneswar and as far away as Calcutta. Fishermen used to be quite well-off then, because only we from the fishing castes would catch fish. The catch also used to be substantially higher than what it is now and this meant that some fisherfolk would be away on the lake for two months at a time. They would cook on the boat and carry drinking water in containers because there was no time to come home each day and go out again the next day. You see, we did not have motorised boats in those days.

In those days, traders' representatives would roam the lake in their collection boats, which had weighing facilities and blocks of ice. The fishermen would sell their catch to them and get back right away to work. Finally, at the end of the fishing season, the fishermen would all come home with a neat pile of money.

Given the number of concrete buildings to be seen here, it would seem that fisherfolk earn a lot of money and are well-off even now?
No, no! Please do not go by the concrete buildings. These buildings in the villages here belong either to the Noliyas or to those who are into prawn farming. Chilika fishermen are poor and whatever little they earn goes to repay their debts.

Why is this? Has the fish catch come down?
Yes, the fish catch has come down very much. This is because more and more people are fishing in the lake now and the lake is also becoming shallow and less saline now. I remember that 20-30 years ago if you put a drop of lake water on your hand, it would leave a residue of salt. Now it is no longer so, because the mouth to the sea is getting choked by sand deposits. There is also silt coming down the rivers on the other side, but this does not create much of a problem near the Magarmukh mouth as it settles down long before then.

Should the mouth be dredged, as the government intends, to allow more sea water to come into the lake?
The government can do whatever it wants, but I think Bijubabu (Orissa chief minister Biju Patnaik) is indulging in child's play. How can he deepen the mouth? Sand will be deposited here once again. Besides, the mouth of the lake is constantly shifting. Elders in my family used to say the lake was far away from where it is now and I myself have seen the mouth's location change three times. About 75 years ago, the mouth was about one mile up from where it is today. Suddenly, that mouth closed and a new one opened, which closed in turn and now the mouth there is the third one. This may also get closed one day and there will be another mouth to the Chilika.

This is also one reason for the fish catch going down. The fish, which used to come from the sea after laying their eggs there, do not come in so frequently now partly because of the shallowness of the lake and partly because of reduced salinity. Now Bijubabu has dredged this part (referring to the experimental dredging done near the village) and see, the excavated sand has been left here in the middle of the channel. All this is going back into the channel. So, what is the use? Instead of doing these things, I think they should clear the other end of the channel (on the side of Chilika lake from where the Magarmukh channel begins) and do something to stabilise the mouth.

Like what?
I don't know. Perhaps, putting stone embankments on both sides of the channel near the sea so that sand is not deposited. The government should know whether this will work. All I know is that something should be done fast so as to remove the imbalance caused by incoming tidal waters.

Why is it so important to do something?
If nothing is done, then where do we go? The Noliyas will go to the sea, the farmers will go back to cultivation and the traders will have a lot of money, but we fisherfolk will die. Our livelihood depends on prawn and fish fingerlings coming from the sea to the lake. If this movement stops, we are finished.

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