Chilika’s Fishermen Set To Battle Prawn Mafia Themselves
Despite a court order in February, directing demolition of the prawn gheris that have trapped roughly 40 per cent of the waters in Chilika Lake, no action has been taken. Now the Chilika Matsayjibi Mahasangh has vowed to demolish the prawn enclosures itself, and take the state to court for ignoring judicial directives.
It has become a “do-or-die” battle for the 2.5 lakh traditional fishermen living along Odisha’s Chilika lake. Local fishermen, for whom this largest brackish lake in Asia has been a lifeline for generations, are set to battle to free the trapped waters of the lake from illegal prawn gheris (enclosures), under the banner of the Chilika Matsayjibi Mahasangh (CMM). This comes in the wake of an Odisha High Court order in February, directing the state government to demolish all gheris on the lake.
There have been similar directives in the past, from the Supreme Court in 1996 and the recommendations of a legislative committee report in 1999. But these have done little to resolve the crisis—the fishermen’s activities on Chilika continue to be at risk from prawn cultivation.
The proposed Chilika (Regulation of Fisheries) Bill, 2011, is expected to be tabled in the state assembly during the next session. The bill has been pending for 10 years, following opposition from local fishermen. It was first proposed in 2001 and has been hanging fire since. Traditional fishermen say the bill promotes prawn culture and non-traditional fishing in the lake, further strengthening the unholy nexus between bureaucrats, politicians and the prawn mafia.
“After the High Court order, the state government had committed that all prawn gheris would be demolished by the end of March,” asserts Khitij Biswal, president of the CMM. They have been maintaining a wait-and-watch policy, following assurances by a high-level state committee, headed by the chief secretary, that the enclosures would be razed in demolition drives starting March 7. Subsequently, patrol boats were to be pressed into action to ensure that the gheris do not reappear. “But, as usual, it has been a farce,” says Murulidhar Behera, senior member of the CMM.
And so, a decision was made at the recent CMM meeting that the fishermen would take matters into their own hands, to protect their livelihood and environment. Not only would they demolish the gheris themselves, they would drag the state to the High Court for brazenly flouting its directives.
Pointing to the latest High Court order, Khitij Biswal says even the court acknowledged that the prawn mafia in Chilika was being supported by politicians and senior bureaucrats. It has specifically directed the state government to formulate a detailed Chilika policy soon, to ensure that no shrimp-culture ponds are set up within 1 km of the lake, in accordance with a 1996 Supreme Court directive. Behera says nearly 40 per cent to 45 per cent of the lake’s total area (about 800-1,100 sq km) is affected by such enclosures. The mafia has no consideration for the environment or ecology of the lake; its quest for quick profits has spoilt and polluted Chilika.
Endless stretches of bamboo embankment erected for the “pink dollar” or bagda chingri (the local name for tiger prawn) are not only ruining the livelihoods of traditional fishermen, they also wreak havoc on the sensitive ecosystem and biodiversity of this heritage site. The lucrative bagda chingris find their way from Chilika to Japan, the US, China and other South Asian countries, where they are in great demand. The entire trade is managed by groups with powerful political and bureaucratic connections in the state.
The CMM has led several demolition drives in the past, the latest being in Khurda, early this year. Hundreds of fishermen boarded their boats and destroyed nearly 10,000 acres of gheris near Nalabana and Hatabaredi. “The High Court order is nothing new for us and the so-called drives taken up by the administration are a mere eyewash. The gheris are destroyed during the day, and they re-appear at night,” says Murulidhar Behera.
He traces the problem back to September 1991, when the proposed Chilika Aquatic Farm (a joint shrimp farming project by OMCAD of the Odisha government and the Tatas) was being implemented. Then, objecting fishermen succeeded in winning the support of intellectuals and environmentalists. They argued about the environmental fallout of the project by bringing up the Ramsar Convention and the Coastal Regulation Zone Notification. The protest became an environment protection movement, compelling the Tatas to withdraw from the project. “But even after Tata left, the site was used by the mafia and outsiders for shrimp culture,” says Behera.
The fishermen demanded a total ban on shrimp culture in the lake in 1999. This led to bloody clashes between fishermen in Sorana village, Khurda district and the state police, resulting in four deaths. Still the prawn gheris continue to flourish.
The prawn enclosures extend between 400 acres and 1,500 acres along the lake’s shores, blocking huge areas of water. They restrict space in the lake and prevent the natural growth of fish. Shrimp ponds utilise high-protein feed and drugs, severely polluting the water, Behera adds. Further, the lake’s brackish water, which is conducive to the growth of tiger shrimp, is trapped in ponds for 120-150 days and is only periodically replaced. The salt seeps into the surrounding cultivable land making it saline and robbing it of its productivity.
Salinity is a dominant feature of the lake’s ecology. Chilika has acquired its brackish character because seawater from the Bay of Bengal flows into it at high tide, draining fresh water into the sea. It is this exchange of water that gives the lake its unique character.
Chief executive of the Chilika Development Authority Dr AK Patanaik concedes that the prawn gheris pose the biggest threat to Chilika. The gheris hinder tide migration and the free flow of water, resulting in loss of grazing grounds for juvenile fish. The worst-affected is the lake’s shoreline, adversely impacting fish spawning and mullet fishery, explains Patanaik. He expressed the hope that the proposed regulation will give the CDA powers to eliminate the illegal practice.
Among the three districts that lie along Chilika, nearly 85 per cent of illegal gheris thrive in Puri. Krishnaprasad block in the district is the worst-hit. Endless stretches of bamboo embankments have sprung up in the lake around Taltola, Nuapara and Titham villages.
Babuli from Taltola says his community has a 5,000-year-old history of sustainable fishing practices in Chilika lake. “But today the prawn mafia has made our entry into the lake for fishing impossible. We are compelled to do everything but fish—the work we are born to do,” says Suryokant, a fellow villager. Attempting to fish through the gheris, a group of three fishermen admitted that they had managed to catch barely four-five fish all day.
“This has drastically reduced our catch. Earlier, a group of three-four fishermen going out into the lake could easily bring home 300-400 kg of fish. Today, we come up with only 3-4 kg after an entire day’s work,” he says. This has forced local fishermen to look for alternative sources of livelihood, as migrant labourers in neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
Analysing the so-called “prawn rush” in Chilika today, Odisha’s Revenue Minister Suryanarayan Patra says the problem dates back to a controversial lease policy in 1991 that divided the waters of Chilika for “culture and capture”, paving the way for non-fishermen to enter prawn cultivation. In the face of the worsening situation, the Supreme Court upheld the traditional rights of fishermen in and around Chilika and imposed a complete ban on aquaculture in the lake within a 1,000-metre periphery, making prawn gheris illegal.
“The need of the hour is to pass legislation in the assembly prohibiting illegal prawn culture. The Chilika Regulation Bill, tabled in the assembly in 2002, has been pending since then,” Patra says.
“If the government wants to stay in power, it must restore the lake’s fishery resources to traditional fisherfolk cooperative societies,” Behera warns. He alleges that the government has encouraged trouble in Chilika by allowing export-oriented culture fishing. “We have been fighting bloody battles with powerful and armed outsiders, who always have direct or indirect support from politicians,” complains Rabi Jena of Alupatna village, near the lake.
Meanwhile, even as the fishermen battle the illegal prawn gheris and encroachments, the state revenue department points to the clandestine nexus between certain fishermen’s cooperatives and the gheri lobby. Officials state that some local cooperatives are known to be hand-in-glove with the prawn lobby. Lured by lucrative returns, cooperatives are sub-letting their leases to outsiders. “It would not otherwise have been possible for the latter to make such rampant intrusions into the villages,” they say.
This influential group of encroachers, the mafia, with support from local politicians and senior bureaucrats—all of whom enjoy a stake in the prawn business—attempt to pass off as local villagers. Officials note that on many occasions, illegal prawn cultures have passed into the hands of absentee landlords, many of whom are “important politicians or their relatives, reputed bureaucrats, and moneyed people who apparently have a lobby in the government,” they say.
According to them, the root of the problem lies with the state government’s tacit “commitment” to promoting prawn culture in Chilika. Indeed, there has never been any attempt to demarcate zones for prawn cultivation and capture fishing in the lake. (Infochange)
By Kalpita Dutta