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DEVELOPMENT: Violence Escalates Around India’s Largest Inland Lake

Manipadma Jena

BHUBANESWAR, India, Jun 15 2010 (IPS) - Basudev Dalai, 43, never thought that the fishing village where he has lived all his life and which has been home to generations of fishermen like him would be embroiled in violent clashes over the very source of their livelihood.

Government squads demolish illegal stake net prawn enclosures on the Chilka Lagoon in eastern India. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

Government squads demolish illegal stake net prawn enclosures on the Chilka Lagoon in eastern India. Credit: Manipadma Jena/IPS

“The stakes are so high people are even prepared to kill those they have lived with for generations,” says Dalai, a native of Alupatna village near Chilka Lagoon along the Bay of Bengal in eastern India.

A pitched gun battle and crude bomb attack early this month involving two fishing villages, long in conflict over Chilka lake’s resources, has left two dead, 40 wounded and the local economy in tatters.

Chilka is Asia’s largest saltwater lagoon and a wetland of international importance under the Convention on Wetlands, otherwise known as the Ramsar Convention, an international agreement on the sustainable use of wetlands among the member states.

Sprawled over 100,000 hectares of land covering three districts on India’s east coast, Chilka provides livelihoods to 137 surrounding villages or some 200,000 fisherfolk.

A day after the fight erupted and before police searches began, the thousand or so inhabitants of the warring communities fled to nearby villages in fishing dinghies. The assailants remain at large.

Eran Dalai, a 25-year-old native of Alupatna, says the fight started when his village fishers found their shrimp stakes and net enclosures destroyed. “Our villages had earlier engaged in violent clashes at least five times, but this was the worst so far,” he adds.

Before this month’s bloody incident, police had recorded a total death toll of 60 from similar attacks that began in 1999.

Local police inspector in-charge Debi Prasad Das says over 300 crude bombs and 200 rounds of bullets were used during this month’s attack that went on for five hours before police managed to put the situation under control.

Clashes over fishing rights in Chilka Lake have been escalating both in number and intensity, says Biswapriya Kanungo, legal adviser to Orissa-based Chilka Traditional Fishers’ Federation whose membership runs into thousands. “Skirmishes or serious encounters occur once a month on average,” he adds.

Increasing population, overfishing, depleted fish stocks, and environmental degradation brought on by a host of factors, including siltation, as well as the advent of commercial prawn farming in and around Chilka, have all taken their toll on the lake and its rich biodiversity.

The seriousness of the situation confronting the lake and its inhabitants has resulted in head-on clashes among the fishing villages.

“The number of active fishermen has increased exponentially, so have fishing boats,” says Durga Prasad Das, chief functionary of Pallishree, a local environmental organisation. “The dispossession for Chilka’s traditional fishers began when the global export market discovered its prawn potential in the late 1980s.”

As investors, reportedly including politicians, poured their resources into the prawn trade in Chilka, local non-fishers were brought in as their fronts, says Das. Between 2000 and 2008, the number of fishermen in the area jumped 40 percent from 122,339 to an estimated 200,000, according to official fisheries data from Orissa and based on a 2008 report by the India Planning Commission.

Traditional fishers – so called because they use traditional, low-tech fishing methods –complain that fishing fields have been eaten away by the rapid growth of prawn culture ponds.

Anadi Behera, general secretary of the Traditional Fishers’ Federation, says, “The seed of conflict, however, lies in the lack of clear demarcation of leased fishing waters.” Unauthorised and illegal prawn enclosures arising from an unregulated prawn industry encroach on the fishing grounds.

“We regularly demolish enclosures in the day time. Shrimps move in the night, so that by then the enclosures are up again,” says Chittaranjan Mishra, additional chief executive of Chilka Development Authority, a state body mandated to ensure the lagoon’s sustainable management.

“Until 1980s traditional methods used country boats, nets and bamboo traps. Catches were divided between fishers, boat and net owners. There was community cooperation,” says Dalai, the fisherman. Those days are all but gone.

Das describes how resource competition around the lake has driven unsustainable fishing, which is characterised by the use of motorised boats, fishing stakes and nets, gill and seine nets, even pesticide to maximise one’s fish catch.

Some 30 percent of traditional fisher families have become poorer, many of them in perpetual debt and are resorting to migration, says Das.

“Women have been hit hardest,” says Maghi Mantri, 62, who lives in Panda Pokhari village on the Chilka banks. “We used to earn well from processing and selling salted fish. Not any more”

Children are exploited as well, says Ranjan Mohanty, a child rights activist. At fish landing centres, children sort fish, shell and behead prawn. They also help prepare and guard shrimp ponds,” he says. Employing children below 14 years in hazardous jobs is illegal in India.

As fisherfolk are forced deeper into poverty, many of them have had to sublease their leased fishing fields to shrimp and prawn culturists while they poach in areas leased to other fishers, often spawning conflict.

Kanungo, the legal counsel, says fishers are forced to sublease their fishing zones as they can no longer afford the exorbitant lease premiums. They either intrude into someone else’s area or work as daily wage earners in their own leased areas now run by rich traders under a sub-lease agreement.

“Once fishery is depleted in Chilka, the rich prawn traders will move on to greener pastures. What will the son of the soil survive on?” asks Behera of the fishers’ federation.

According to the United Nations Environment Programme’s ‘Green Economy Report’ preview, released in May, 30 percent of fish stocks worldwide now yield only 10 percent of their former potential. Virtually all commercial fisheries will have collapsed by 2050 if trends continue, states the report.

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