Dying for a lake

Four fisherfolks were killed in police firing in Chilka Lake when they were protesting against prawn farming in the lake on May 29

Published: Wednesday 30 June 1999

"i am proud to die for the rights of the fisherfolk." These were the last words Bacchanidhi Behera uttered before he succumbed to a police bullet in the firing in Orissa's Sarano village in Khurda district on the night of May 29-30.

Chilka Lake is Asia's largest brackishwater water body and the waters have for years been a cause of tension between the two rival groups -- Chilka's fishing community and those involved in prawn culture. The firing is the outcome of the growing control of state and private business interests over natural resources, so vital for the survival of the poor fisherfolk.

The firing took place when fisherfolk tried to prevent the police from taking into custody members of the Chilka Matsyajibi Mahasangh, an organisation of the fisherfolk. In the ensuing clash, four people were killed and over 25 injured when the police, who were called in to quell the disturbance, fired on the mob. It is significant that the chief minister of Orissa, Grirdhar Gomang, publicly admitted that he was kept in the dark about the midnight raid, said Khitish Biswal, a cpi (ml ) activist. Gomang announced an ex-gratia payment of Rs one lakh for the families who died in the firing and Rs 20,000 for the injured.

The fisherfolk allege that prawn culture is taking away their only source of livelihood. The protests began on April 24. About 4,000 fisherfolk entered the lake on boats and demolished over 600 hectares of gheris (fencing) belonging to those practising prawn culture in the Kirshna Prasad area of Khurda district. On April 28, the administration retaliated by destroying 40.5 hectares of gheris belonging to the poor fisherfolk. They did not touch gheris belonging to the better off fisherfolk. When the fisherfolk tried to resist, the police resorted to a lathicharge, injuring nearly 100 people, 40 of whom were women, says Rashmi R Jena, a member of the All India Students Association.

"On May 28 we held a press conference and demanded that the government demolishes all the gheris within 24 hours," said Anadi Behera, secretary of the Mahasangh. The Mahasangh warned that if the gheris are not pulled out, the government would be responsible for the consequences. When the 24-hour deadline ended, the fisherfolk led by the Mahasangh, boarded several boats and went on a demolition spree. The administration reaction came at midnight, when after a meeting, all the office-bearers of the Mahasangh were sleeping inside their office. "At 12.40 am the collector and the sub-collector of Khurda, circle inspector ( ci ) of Balugaon and a tehsildar came with three platoons of police," said Behera. According to him the ci came to the office and said that 'babu' would like to have a talk with them. "We told him that the 'babu' could come to the office for the meeting. On this, the ci sent a platoon of police who beat us up and threw us into a van. The news of arrest spread to the near-by villages. Fisherfolk blocked the path of the police convoy and demanded that we be released," said Behera.

According to him, this was followed by a sudden lathicharge. Then the police teargassed the crowd and started firing. One person died on the spot, while two succumbed to the injuries when they were being taken to hospital. The fourth person died two days later at a hospital in Cuttack.

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