Robbed of the sea

By Ashutosh Mishra, Nidhi Jamwal
Published: Friday 15 May 2009

Bikas Biswas became a martyr for fishers after a guard shot him near Gahirmatha sanctuary in Orissa. One of his four children plays around his bust in his village (Credit: SAROJ MISHRA)Marine protected areas have put thousands of fishers out of business. It doesn't have to be so

Gaurang Saha was a prosperous fisher in Kharnasi, a seaside village on the eastern coast of India. He owned four boats, which he would rent out for fishing. In return he would get a share of the catch. The sea was full of fish, and the business good. Everyone in the village who could afford it was buying boats.

Saha is no more; he killed himself. The coast close to Kharnasi in Kendrapara district of Orissa is where endangered Olive Ridley turtles mate and nest. In 1997, the Orissa government notified 1,435 sq km of sea and coast in Kendrapara a marine sanctuary, Gahirmatha. They banned fishing there and the catch began to fall. Forest officials seized Saha's two boats when he was out in the sea. Then one day in 2004, unable to repay Rs 4.50 lakh he had borrowed from fish merchants to buy the boats, the 55-year-old consumed poison.

Today, Saha's two teenaged daughters roll bidis to keep the family going. "My daughters had to drop out of school because I could not even buy books for them," said Saha's widow Arati, sitting in her concrete but run-down house.

A few houses away a bust of Bikas Biswas sits inside a pavilion in the compound of a house. He did not kill himself; he fell to a forest guard's bullet near the sanctuary in 2006. The government gave his wife Manmohini a compensation of Rs 1 lakh. "How can I take care of four children with this?" she asked.

Lean, middle-aged Sheetal Das of Kharnasi has stopped going to the sea. He received the first blow when he lost his boat in the super cyclone of 1999. He began fishing in a hired boat, but the returns were meagre. The loss of business so affected him that he has lost his mental balance.


Core area - 725.50 sq km
Buffer area - 709.5 sq km
Fishers affected - 43,000
Marine sanctuary or suicide zone
The sea off the Gahirmatha coast provided business to over 43,000 fishers in 90 villages, mostly in Mahakalpada and Rajnagar blocks of Kendrapara. The once prosperous fishing belt of India is turning into the Vidarbha of Orissa. According to Narayan Haldar, the president of the Orissa Traditional Fishworkers' Union (otfwu), six fishers in the area have committed suicide in the past six years. All of them were unable to repay loans because of dwindling fish catch following restrictions on fishing in Gahirmatha sanctuary. Local newspapers claim the toll to be higher.

Rasmay Mandal, 56, hung himself from a tree in the backyard of his house in Ramnagar village in Mahalkalpada in 2002. Mandal had one boat but he had borrowed Rs 80,000 from moneylenders, whom he had to sell his catch. But after restrictions there was no catch. His widow Kalidasi Mandal survives on the income of her eldest son Ganesh, who out of no choice still goes out fishing in hired boats. "Sometimes he manages Rs 30-50 a day, sometimes he gets nothing," said Kalidasi, frail, standing barefoot outside her thatched house.

In Kharnasi, Basanti Saraswati vows never to let any of her seven sons take up fishing. Fishing brings nothing but misery, she said. Her husband Buddhanand Saraswati had committed suicide in 2006. Saraswati owned six boats. To expand his business he took a loan of about Rs 15 lakh from different sources. But the catch soon nosedived. "The boats lay idle; some were destroyed. He was unable to repay loans," said Basanti. The family of nine now depends on the earnings of Buddhanand's son Bismay. An engineering graduate, Bismay works in a chemical-processing factory in Saudi Arabia.

Many youths in Kharnasi and Ramnagar have migrated in search of jobs. These include Kalidasi's two sons who now work as labourers in Cuttack.
Marine protected areas in India
31 such areas have been officially declared
Down to Earth
Source A paper presented by Chandrika Sharma at a workshop organized by the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers in Chennai in 2009
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Bikas, whose brother Bidyadhar Ram ended his life by taking poison in 2005, is also planning to leave Ramnagar. Some are suffering from trauma. Forty-five-year-old Kamala Bala Das is waiting for her husband, Arun, who went missing from Kharnasi three years ago. "He had developed psychiatric problems. We took him to Cuttack for treatment but it didn't help. Then one morning he went missing," said Kamala, who has three sons to look after.

Now Orissa is planning to declare the Rishikulya and Devi river mouths near Gahirmatha, marine protected areas (mpas). This will affect another 48,000 fishers in Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Ganjam districts. At present, restrictions apply from November to May, when turtles breed and nest.

All along the coastline
Gahirmatha marine sanctuary in Orissa is not the only mpa where traditional rights of the fishing community have been trampled. Along the Indian coastline, including islands, there are 31 mpas (see map Marine protected areas in India). Another 100 protected areas, like Chilika lake in Orissa, partly contain marine environment. During the 1980s and 1990s, mpas were created as national parks or wildlife sanctuaries under the Wild Life (Protection) Act of 1972 (see What is an mpa ?). But provisions of the act supporting the rights and occupational interests of communities are yet to be implemented.

Extractive activities are not allowed in protected areas, but very few studies have focused on the impact this restriction has had on people depending on fisheries. "A particular mpa may be both a "biological success" and a "social failure", devoid of broad participation in management, sharing of economic benefits, and conflict resolution mechanisms," states a 2008 study, Marine protected areas in India, by Chennai-based ngo International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

Ramya Rajagopalan of the ngo last year researched in depth two mpas in southern India--Gulf of Mannar National Park in Tamil Nadu, and Malvan (Marine) Wildlife Sanctuary in Maharashtra. In both mpas, fishing communities feel they do not have enough say in management, said Rajagopalan.

Fishers are demanding better implementation of fisheries legislation to control trawling and other commercial activities. They have also taken up management initiatives to minimize the impact of fishing, but these have not received adequate official support, she added.


Total area -10,500 sq km
Core (national park) -560 sq km
People affected - 65,000
Alienated, not included
Take Gulf of Mannar national park and biosphere reserve, India's largest marine and coastal protected area created in 1986 to conserve coral reef, mangroves and seaweed habitat. About 35,000 fishers, 25,000 sea cucumber collectors and 5,000 seaweed collectors have come in conflict with forest guards after their access to fishing grounds was restricted in 2002, according to Rajagopalan's study.

Fishers of Chinnapalayam, one of the affected 252 villages on the coast, have traditionally used non-motorized, wood-plank canoes called vathai. They would stay overnight on the nearby islands and return the next morning with the catch. However, due to restrictions on staying on 21 islands, the practice has stopped.

Organized under the Ramnad District Fishworkers' Trade Union, the fishers are demanding removal of restrictions.Said S Arulanandam of the union "Fishers who see themselves as the traditional custodians of the resources have been alienated from their traditional fishing grounds, and are positioned as beggars in relation to the use of the protected resources."

Fishers have come up with their own suggestions. They want they be allowed to fish in the protected area for 12 days in a month. They have also taken initiatives to protect marine resources. Chinnapalayam and Thoopukadu villages have self-imposed prohibition on collecting protected species, destroying coral reefs, collecting corals, cutting mangroves, catching turtles and harvesting sea cucumbers. They do not collect seaweeds for more than 12 days in a month. The villages have appointed a guard from within the fishers' community for enforcing the regulations. Violators are penalized and sometimes handed over to forest guards.

However, the forest department does not recognize these efforts. It is working on a new management plan of the national park that forms the core of the reserve, which will introduce more restrictions, said Rajagopalan.


Total area - 148.92 sq km of 42 islands, 309 sq km of intertidal zone along coast
National park area - 162.89 sq km
Industry okay, fishers not okay
In the west, Gulf of Kachchh national park and sanctuary in Saurashtra region of Gujarat is surrounded by industries, such as oil and petroleum, chemicals, cement, fertilizers, salt works, thermal power station, ports and jetties, that harm marine ecology. The sanctuary's land has also been diverted for commercial use. The Union environment ministry has cleared diversion of about half a hectare (ha) for a ship training centre. Another 24 ha have been given away to the Indian Oil Corporation, and 12.47 ha to the Gujarat State Fertilizer Company. The ministry has granted over 20 leases to salt manufacturers on mangrove areas adjoining the protected area.

"Marine and coastal protected areas should not be seen as islands of protection, with degrading and destructive activities allowed in adjacent areas," said K R Nair, fisheries development commissioner, department of animal husbandry and dairying under the Union agriculture ministry.

Fishers are at the receiving end. Since the boundary of the Gulf of Kachchh mpa is not clearly demarcated--even 27 years after its creation--fishers are often accused of trespassing, said Nilanjana Biswas, independent researcher who has studied the protected area. The management plan of the park is outdated; it was prepared in 1994.

Licence-permit raj
Sunderban tiger reserve--which includes the Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary and the Sunderban National Park--in West Bengal has an updated management plan. Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary also has an advisory committee with community representatives, unlike other mpas. The trouble lies in the complicated system of permits through which the forest department regulates fishing in the buffer area.


Total area - 9,630 sq km
Core area - 1,700 sq km
Families affected - 103,814
Last year, a Kolkata-based non-profit studied the fishing practices in the reserve. The study by the Society for Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action found the forest department had issued boat licence certificates (blcs) to 914 individual boat owners in 1980 for fishing in the protected area. Since then no certificate has been issued, though over 103,800 families in 24 Parganas North and 24 Parganas South districts depend on fishing activities in the reserve.

A fisher needs three documents for fishing in the protected area A blc certificate that has to be renewed every year, a seasonal pass for fishing between August and March issued annually; and a permit for fishing or trading in fish. The permits are issued for 42 days. Often fishers forget to renew permits and are fined.It is mandatory for fishers to carry the three documents on each fishing trip within the permitted area.

As if this system was not complicated enough, the department has come up with three categories of violations, each stranger than the other prosecution report/charge sheet cases, compounded offence report and offence detected offenders not found. Fishers are unable to comprehend offences and fines the forest department levies.

Legal tangle
Why is mpa management in India in such a mess? Rajagopalan points out the trouble lies in the legal regime that covers protected areas. Both state and central governments can legislate on the subject of forests and wildlife protection. The main Central legislation relevant to the designation of protected areas is the wildlife protection act of 1972, which was amended in 2002 and 2006. "The act provides no definition of mpas. All mpas in the country are either declared as sanctuaries or national parks," she said. "They are designated for conservation of an ecosystem, and not for fisheries management."

Rajagopalan claimed there is also a conflict between the forest and fisheries department. As soon as an area is declared protected, the forest department takes over. No wonder the Centre's Marine Fishing Policy of 2004, which aims at augmenting the marine fish production of the country and ensuring the socio-economic security of the traditional fishers, does not talk about mpas and their management.

Nilanjana Biswas, who studied the Gulf of Kachchh, claims the 1972 act was designed for the conservation of terrestrial areas and has a forest focus. It is based on the principle of physical exclusion of human beings from protected areas. This exclusionist framework ignores fishing communities' dependence on the sea for survival. It also fails to address the problems of a dynamic marine environment involving the movement of water and water-borne pollutants, she said.

Recent amendments to the act tried to address fishing communities' concerns. The 2002 amendment directs state governments to settle the rights of affected persons within two years of the notification of a sanctuary or national park. "To settle the rights of fishers one first needs to know what legal rights they have. In India, the legal rights of the fishing community on territorial waters have not been specified, so how do you settle them?" asked Rajagopalan. Only in the Sunderbans forest officials have recognized the rights of some fishers by issuing boat licence certificates. The 2002 amendment also directs constitution of advisory committees with representatives from the fishing community for better management of sanctuaries. Except in the case of Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary in the Sunderbans, such committees have not been set up.

Non-demarcation of mpa boundaries has accentuated the fishers' troubles. It becomes near impossible for a person to prove in court where he was in the sea. "Boundary demarcation is an exhaustive and expensive exercise, and state governments are not equipped for the task," said Rajagopalan.

The fishing community is demanding a comprehensive legislation like the forest rights act of 2006. It recognizes the rights of the scheduled tribes and other traditional forest dwellers over forest land. The fishers also claim that effective implementation of state-level marine fishing regulation acts that restrict trawling and purse-seining--catching schools of fish near the ocean surface by circling them with a net--will go a long way in conserving marine resources.

Strike a balance
Community-sensitive conservation is possible. Brazil has done it. Communities in the South American country are in the forefront of demanding, and setting up, sustainable-use marine reserves. They are using protected areas to safeguard their business against shrimp farms and tourism projects.

Back in India, organizations like otfwu are demanding striking a balance between turtle conservation and fishing. "Our organization has on its own banned nets that harm turtles. But we also expect the government to be rational. The turtle protection area ought to be reduced," said Haldar, the union's president. He wants the 1,435 sq km protected area to be reduced to 15 sq km.

And compensation? Plans remain on paper. As per the 2004 calculations of the joint director of fisheries in Orissa, fishers affected by the ban in the turtle zone were losing Rs 47.20 crore annually. Haldar recommended compensating at least 60 per cent of the loss. The forest department is not even ready to discuss the proposal. Meanwhile, both fishers and turtles suffer. While officials put the turtle casualty figure since November last at 5,000, Wildlife Society of Orissa's secretary Biswajit Mohanty claimed nearly 10,000 have been killed.

Olive Ridley turtles certainly deserve a better deal in Orissa, but people like Haldar insist this should not be done at the cost of fishers. "We have as much right to survive as turtles," said the union president.

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