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A battle for fishing rights

Print edition : Sep 23, 2005 T+T-

The Chilika lake continues to be the bone of contention between traditional and non-traditional fishermen, while the State government sits over a Bill seeking to delineate the rights of the two groups.

PRAFULLA DAS in Bhubaneswargheries

LIFE in the 137 villages inhabited by families of traditional fishermen in and around Asia's largest brackish water lagoon, Chilika in Orissa, has been full of uncertainty and misery for more than two decades. The conflict between traditional and non-traditional fishermen continues, with the State government failing to take a clear stand on the issue of fishing rights.

After a series of protests at the local level, the traditional fishermen and their representatives now stage demonstrations in Bhubaneswar whenever the Orissa Assembly is in session. They fear that their rights will be curtailed further in the years to come if the controversial Chilika Bill, which was cleared by the State Cabinet in 2001, is passed without amendments. However, those in power seem to have little concern for passing the Orissa Fishing in Chilika Regulation Bill.

What worries the traditional fishermen is a clause in the Bill that promises to reserve 30 per cent of the fishing area of the lake for non-traditional fishermen. They fear that in case the Bill retains this clause, the non-fishermen groups will get the legal backing to continue to encroach upon the fishing grounds.

Thousands of traditional fishermen from the Chilika lagoon area held a rally in front of the State Assembly recently to protest against the introduction of the Chilika Bill in its present form. "We are against the Bill because it will deny us sole fishing rights over the Chilika and favour the non-fishermen and the prawn mafia," said Balaram Das, president of the Chilika Traditional Fishermen's Federation.

Das feels that by allowing fishing rights to non-fishermen, the State government would be indirectly promoting illegal prawn farming, thereby defeating the very purpose of the proposed legislation. "This would threaten the livelihood of the traditional fishermen and cause damage to the fragile ecosystem of the Chilika," he said.

The government, however, has failed to take a clear stand on the issue of fishing rights. Although Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik has time and again said that the demands of the traditional fishermen will be looked into, his government has not been able to re-introduce the Bill in the State Assembly primarily because those in power do not want to antagonise the non-traditional fishermen by amending the Bill in favour of the traditional fishermen.

CHILIKA, designated a Ramsar site (a wetland of international importance as per the Convention on Wetlands signed in Ramsar, Iran, in 1971), is an assemblage of freshwater, brackish water and marine ecosystems. It is a highly productive aquatic ecosystem with an estuarine character that supports rich and diverse fishery resources. Its ecosystem was under serious threat because of siltation, the shifting of an inlet to the Bay of Bengal, the choking of a mouth connecting to the sea, rapid growth of freshwater weeds, decrease in salinity regime and increasing anthropogenic pressures. This had resulted in a loss of biodiversity and productivity. Decrease in fish landing had an adverse impact on the region's marginalised fishermen.

The situation has since improved with hydrological intervention - the opening of a new mouth. The intervention has also enriched the fish stock. However, the unregulated fishing activities in the lagoon has had an adverse impact on the sustainability of such fisheries resources in the lake. "The current fishery activities need to be regulated effectively with the enforcement of the provisions in the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1982, and the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Rules, 1983," says Ajit Patnaik, Chief Executive of the Chilika Development Authority, which was created in 1992 for the restoration and development of the lagoon.

Serious conflicts have arisen between the traditional and non-traditional fishermen since the early 1980s, when the lake was virtually taken over by non-traditional fishermen and the mafia. With the demand for prawns going up in the domestic and international markets, even corporate houses such as the Tatas made a beeline outside the State Secretariat to seek permission to invest in prawn culture in the Chilika.

A new lease policy was introduced in 1991 and soon gheries (barricaded enclosures for shrimp culture) sprang up in the lake. The authorities also joined hands with the non-traditional fishermen and illegal traders to convert traditional fishing sources to shrimp farms. The new policy resulted in the encroachment of fishing areas, thus affecting the interests of the traditional fishermen.

As culture fishery required heavy capital investment, many primary societies of traditional fishermen leased out fishing areas to resourceful persons, including politicians and bureaucrats. However, this proved suicidal as the prawn mafia grew in strength and threatened their livelihood sources. This spawned litigation and prawn politics, and bloody clashes became the order of the day in and around Chilika. The situation reached a flashpoint when the police resorted to firing in 1999, killing four members of the traditional fishermen community. Clashes between the prawn mafia and traditional fishermen have claimed at least 50 lives over the past 10 years.

Clashes of interests apart, the lake's ecology is in danger owing to the illegal prawn farming over vast areas of fishing ground. The gheries block the water channels, affect the migration of fish juveniles and cause the loss of grazing ground for fish. They also act as silt traps and accelerate siltation.

The illegal shrimp culture takes place mainly along the shoreline, which is the most productive area of the lagoon. The Supreme Court and the State government banned aquaculture in the Chilika in 1996, but the prawn farming continues thanks to the inefficiency of the district administrations concerned. At present, more than 10,000 acres (4,000 hectares) of the lake is covered by prawn culture gheries.

According to Ajit Patnaik, the unauthorised aquaculture has meant that the highly productive and sensitive shoreline ecosystem is altered by artificial enclosures. The nursery and the feeding areas of fish, prawn and crabs are also adversely affected.

The poaching of juvenile tiger prawns to seed the gheries also leads to serious ecological consequences as juveniles of other species are caught in the nets and killed. The net and the barrier prevent the free flow of sediments and also circulation.

THE State government had tried to get the Chilika Bill passed between March 2002 and February 2004. However, in the face of strong opposition from the traditional fishermen, the Bill was sent to a Select Committee on Chilika for a review. The panel's members made as many as 17 visits to the fishermen's hamlets and submitted their findings with suggestions for a few amendments. The traditional fishermen rejected the recommendations.

Lalatendu Bidyadhar Mohapatra, an influential Congress legislator and a supporter of the non-traditional fishermen, is critical about the resource sharing done on caste lines. "The traditional fishermen cannot be given sole rights for fishing in the lake just because they are fishermen by caste. People belonging to other castes who live in and around the lake too depend upon the lake's fishery resource to eke out a living," Mohapatra says.

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