Rights and wrongs

Print edition : December 08, 2001

Will this innovative cooperative of displaced tribal fishermen get extended fishing rights that it has so far put to good use? Or will the traders' lobby get the better of them?

THE Tawa Matsya Sangh (TMS), a cooperative of tribal fishermen displaced by a dam project, held a workshop at Suktawa in Hoshangabad district of Madhya Pradesh on November 1 and 2. Economists, activists, academics, journalists and others attended. The event highlighted the achievements of the Sangh since its formation in 1996.

Taking a pledge. The Tawa Matsya Sangh comprises 38 primary cooperatives of tribal persons whose villages were submerged by the Tawa dam reservoir.-ARCHANA PRASAD

The Sangh was formed after a struggle under the leadership of the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan, in response to which the State government accorded exclusive fishing rights to a cooperative of displaced fishermen. The federation of these cooperatives came to be known as the Tawa Matsya Sangh.

Today the Sangh comprises 38 primary cooperatives of tribal persons whose villages were submerged following the construction of the Tawa dam on the Tawa river, a tributary of the Narmada, in 1975. But the government has given indications that the lease will not be renewed once it expires on December 23.

There are indications from reliable sources that a memo from the Fisheries Department has suggested that the government hand over the marketing and procurement of fish to the Mahasangha, an apex body of the official fisheries federation.

For the first time in Madhya Pradesh, the TMS has attempted to provide an alternative means of livelihood to tribal persons displaced by a dam which was built as a part of the Narmada Project. The Tawa dam is the third largest in the Narmada Valley Project which caused the submergence of 44 villages. The local people, primarily Gonds and Korkus, were cultivators and seasonal collectors of forest produce who caught fish in order to supplement their diet. Since none of these tribal persons was formally given fishing rights in the reservoir, they were labelled poachers by the officials. After the construction of the dam they took to fishing for survival in the face of little or no rehabilitation after the submergence.

The issue of the survival of the TMS project becomes important particularly in the context of the efforts made so far to rehabilitate persons displaced by the Narmada Valley Project. Governmental efforts to rehabilitate and compensate those losing their means of livelihood and assets because of the Narmada Project have been abysmal. A recent report of the National Commission on Scheduled Castes and Tribes (1999) shows that though 3,000 people from the villages of Madhya Pradesh were rehabilitated in Gujarat, attempts to resettle them have not been successful. Some 40 per cent of those who previously owned land have not got any land from the government and in cases where some land has been provided, people complain that it is saline, waterlogged or otherwise uncultivable. But the main difficulty with the government programmes has been that they have almost no provision for landless people or tribal persons who live in forest villages. The TMS experiment, the main beneficiaries of which are people who have no rights over their lands, provides a people-oriented alternative to a government that has projected itself as one that favours gram swarajya.

An important facet of the Tawa experience is its attempt to democratise cooperative structures. G. Venugopal of the National Institute of Rural Development, Hyderabad, explained that transparency was the key with which the Sangh preserved the sanctity of the primary society as the main unit of decision-making. The adoption of such a style of functioning also has something to do with the fact that the TMS was formed with the active intervention of a grassroots organisation, which has been fighting for the right of local people to participate in decision-making.

At present the committee of directors of the Sangh consists of 13 elected members. It is the main decision-making body for the day-to-day affairs of the TMS. These decisions are implemented by three people who are familiar with accounting and managerial work. The people in these managerial posts are non-tribal persons but it should be emphasised that the main policy-making functions are in the hands of the committee of directors that consists of displaced tribal persons.This style of functioning has led to the empowerment of local tribal persons. Guliabai, a prominent leader and one of the directors of the TMS, states that people have been more aware of their rights and the ways in which they are exploited ever since the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan facilitated the formation of the TMS. The villagers of Kotmi village on the banks of the reservoir say that they are prepared to fight for their rights if the government does not extend the TMS' contract. One senior member of the primary collection society stated that the TMS was their own organisation and therefore even more democratic than the existing gram panchayats that form the cornerstone of the government's much-publicised decentralisation programme. This is mainly because the villagers feel that they can influence the decision-making process within the Sangh.

Such a style of functioning is in sharp contrast to the working of the cooperative societies that are directly under the government. These cooperatives face problems of centralisation of decision-making as well as a lack of transparency. In areas that do not have rights as in the case of the Tawa cooperative, the government of the day monopolised all fishing rights in the Tawa reservoir under the M.P. State Fish Development Corporation (that existed before the formation of the federation of fishery cooperatives at the State level). Here the support price for fish procurement is decided centrally and is more often than not influenced by the powerful traders' lobby.

At a Tawa Mataya Sangh meeting.-ARCHANA PRASAD

The Tawa Sangh has not just confined itself to the democratisation of the polity, but has also contributed to the economic and ecological well-being of the area. Ever since the federation started operating in the reservoir, fish production has increased and that too in a sustainable way. A comparison of the various phases of fishing in the reservoir provides telling evidence of who the best managers of fisheries are. The figures also show that management by the TMS resulted in maximum economic benefits to the people of the area. The catch went up from an average of 125.19 tonnes between 1990 and 1995 to 327.6 tonnes between 1997 and 2001. Further, income distributed to the members constitutes 40 to 47 per cent of the gross sale value of fish. On an average every fishing household gets at least Rs.1,000 a month through the activities of the TMS - including during the two months in which no fishing is undertaken.

The Sangh realises that the economic security of the displaced tribal persons is closely linked to the ecological stability of the region. Therefore it not only provides marketing facilities to the tribal persons but also regularly stocks fish seeds in the reservoir. The amount of seeds stocked has increased to 28.92 lakh in 2000-01 as compared with the figure of 17.96 lakh during the time of management by the contractor. Apart from this the Sangh has started fish seed production in two villages and plans to start more seed production centres if its contract is extended. The general body of the TMS has also decided not to allow any fishing during the breeding season. Village residents associated with the federation will police the shores to ensure that this rule is adhered to.

The TMS has adopted social fencing as a method of checking poaching. All illegal activities and unhealthy fishing practices are checked by the primary society and if someone is caught in the wrong the whole society is fined Rs.1,000. These measures have had a positive impact on the ecosystem. Sabulal, one of the oldest of the fishermen and the current president of the TMS, notes that at least two new types of fish have been found in the reservoir since the activities of the Sangh began. The quantity of fish in the reservoir is also increasing. Fishery experts say that the weight and number of fish of seven major varieties have increased substantially.

Given this record, there is no reason why the government of Madhya Pradesh should not extend the TMS' contract. Since the government encouraged the launch of this experiment in 1996, it should now carry it to its logical end. The self-management of wetland resources by the displaced tribal persons of Tawa shows how the government's decentralisation programme may be made successful. TMS activists argue that a committee that was set up to consider the matter was biased and refused to acknowledge the achievements of the TMS. Not only is the Sangh providing livelihood security to the displaced tribal persons but they are paying regular royalty to the M.P. State Fisheries Mahasangha, The royalty payment has increased from Rs.4.47 lakhs in 1996-97 to 15.70 lakhs in 2000-2001. This three-fold increase shows that the Sangh is an asset and not a liability to the state apparatus.

DESPITE this the government seems set on halting the TMS experiment. The first objection of the officials is that non-tribal outsiders are interfering in the affairs of the TMS. However, closer inspection reveals that this argument is motivated by political considerations as many socialist youths working in the TMS are opposing the World Bank Forestry Project that is being pushed by the government despite widespread opposition. Field visits show that so far the work of these people has only facilitated the smooth functioning of the TMS and aided the dismantling of the powerful traders' network. The second official complaint is that the Sangh is not opening its membership to non-tribal cooperatives. In response to this the leadership of the Sangh says that the M.P. State Fisheries Mahasangha has registered 40 non-genuine cooperatives consisting of former traders pressing for their inclusion in the Sangh. They contend that if this happens there is the danger of the re-appearance of an exploitative trading network.

The threat of non-renewal of the Sangh's contract is real as a similar experiment in the Bargi reservoir was guillotined a couple of years ago. Will it now be the turn of the Tawa fishermen?

The government itself is a beneficiary of the work of the TMS. The Sangh has been taking on the functions of providing backward and forward linkages to the fishermen. The M.P. State Fishing Mahasangha earlier performed the functions of storage and seed production at a significant cost. Today the Sangh collects the fish, stores it on ice and sells it. The main markets where it sells the fish are Itarsi, Bhopal and Howrah. It has also started seed production.

In the process the TMS has shown a superior way of organising cooperatives of the poor. This in itself is significant as it can provide the government with a path to follow to decentralise governance in a way that is cost-effective, non-bureaucratic and corruption-free. It is important that the M.P. government rewards and further encourages this experiment. If it wants to prove its commitment to decentralisation in favour of the majority of the rural poor, particularly tribal people, then it should intervene to ensure that exclusive fishing rights are granted to the TMS.

Archana Prasad is a Fellow of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi.

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