"We are not afraid to lay down more lives for our rights"

Chilika, Asia's largest brackish water lake in Orissa, is in the midst of a controversy that refuses to die. At stake is the livelihood of hundreds of fisherfolk and the lake itself. The fisherfolk have launched a movement to fight for their rights. Not to be left out, the women of the fishing villages are firmly behind this agitation and have even formed an organisation, Chilika Mahila Matsyajibi Mahasangha (CMMM). Down To Earth spoke to its president Meena Kumari Tahal

By Mario
Published: Sunday 15 August 1999

What is the problem in Chilika?
The local fisherfolk in Chilika for many years have used traditional methods to catch fishes to earn their livelihood. The problem started when the prawn culture began in the early 1990s. Big money lured the mafia, who comprise of non-fisherfolk, and influential people such as political leaders and ias, ips officers. For some time even the Tatas showed an interest in Chilika. But their plans met with stiff opposition from the local people. Gradually, the prawn mafia encroached upon areas the local fisherfolk had used for ages. With money and muscle power, they harassed the fisherfolk and deprived them of their livelihood.

The issue took a new turn when in 1991, the former chief minister, Biju Patnaik, granted fishing rights to even the non-fisherfolk. The matter went to the high court which ruled that there would not be any prawn culture in Chilika. Even the Supreme Court gave an order which was favourable to the local fisherfolk. Despite all this, the government continues to operate in clear violation of the court orders.

Are political parties behind CMMM?
The cmmm came into existence in 1991. It is an offshoot of an organisation called the Navajagaran Nari Sangathan ( nns) . We are an independent body comprising of women from the fishing villages. We are fighting for our rights and do not act under the influence of any political party. Although there are some leaders and organisations that support us, our decisions are not influenced by anybody.

What are the activities of the CMMM?
We have branches in 156 villages. We are trying to consolidate the power of men and women in the villages. We go from village to village creating an awareness of their rights among the people. Today these rights are in danger of being taken away.

What prompted the NNS to take up the movement?
Women are an indispensable part of the whole process from fishing to looking after the house. Earlier, there was good income for the fisherfolk. But with the advent of the prawn culture and subsequently, the mafia, which is hand-in-glove with the government, we were deprived of our livelihood. This set off a process of migration and people left for places like Surat, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal and Mumbai to look for work. In times like these, women suffer the most. Not only do they have to do manual labour they look after their children as well.

What is the role of the women in this movement?
The attitude of the women in this agitation has been 'you will have to get rid of us to take away our rights.' Their spirit is the strength behind this agitation. They have, in fact, provoked the men to demolish the gheris ( enclosures for prawn farming). They do not want to wait for government action. Their involvement is very encouraging for the men-folk.

When the Tatas came to set up a prawn industry in Chilika, the women went to demolish their unit and were beaten up by the authorities. On the night of the firing, it was the women who confronted the police. One of them died in the firing. We are not afraid to lay down more lives to get back our rights.

What is your next course of action?
The government till now has ignored the pleas of our men. This is one of the primary reasons that we have come forward. We will fight along with the men and show that our men are not fighting alone. Chilika is our only source of sustenance. If Chilika is not saved, we will die along with it.

If the government fails to take decisive decision, we will take things into out own hands. We will go on our own and demolish all the enclosures that the prawn mafia has set up for prawn culture.

Have the mafia tried to intimidate you in anyway?
The threat from the mafia is always there. But we are not afraid.

You seem to be very militant in fighting for your rights.
Fighting for our traditional rights is not a criminal act. The Supreme Court and the high court have issued directives banning prawn culture and we, in fact, are implementing the court orders.

Do you think that your campaign will succeed?
We are sure that the movement will succeed. It is a very encouraging sign that a large number of people from other states have participated in our meetings.

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