Asia-Pacific, Environment, Headlines

INDIA: Fishers in Survival Battle With Turtles

Manipadma Jena

BHUBANESWAR, India, Feb 25 2011 (IPS) - A growing number of endangered olive ridley sea turtles have been getting killed in Eastern India’s coastal state Orissa by mechanized vessels defying a fishing ban on one of the world’s largest turtle sanctuaries, Gahirmatha.

Recurrent natural disasters undermine livelihoods of the rural poor in coastal Orissa. Credit: Manipadma Jena

Recurrent natural disasters undermine livelihoods of the rural poor in coastal Orissa. Credit: Manipadma Jena

While the government said “no more than 800” were killed since November last year, environmentalists counter that the casualty count of these tiny turtles is actually 5,000.

The problem illustrates the situation that confronts Orissa and other coastal states in India. Environmental and wildlife protection is a major concern, but so is providing sustainable livelihood to the coastal poor. Add to the mix shore-based infrastructure and industrial development and the result is a three-cornered tussle that is worsening by the year.

“We are all for the safety of turtles but the interests of the fishermen must also be kept in mind,” said Narayan Haldar, president of the Orissa Traditional Fish Workers’ Union, summing up the predicament the state faces.

At least 40 percent of Orissa’s 480-kilometre coastline is off limits to fishermen from November to June. There is the seven-month fishing ban that is a part of measures to conserve Orissa’s marine sanctuaries. And then there is an additional two months when fishermen are warned against venturing out to sea because of recurring low-pressure systems on the adjacent Bay of Bengal.

“These areas are seeing a drastic reduction in income, large-scale out- migration, clashes over fishing zones, and even suicides,” said Trilochan Das, another fisher group’s leader.

“As fishermen thus sit twiddling their thumbs nine months in every year, cheaper freshwater- cultured fish from the neighbouring state of Andhra Pradesh has overtaken Orissa’s fish market,” Haldar lamented. “The government must rationalize the annual seven-month fishing ban in a vast area of the sea and offer alternative livelihood options to the fishing community.”

This knotted issue confronting fishers and the fisheries administration as well as environmentalists and developers is now being addressed.

The Federal Ministry of Forest and Environment recently initiated an Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project (ICZMP) funded by the World Bank and being pilot-tested in four areas since June 2010.

These four pilots, one at the national level and one each for the three States of Orissa, Gujarat and West Bengal, are designed to address the intensifying three-cornered coastal tussle, a challenge further exacerbated by frequent natural disasters and climate-induced risks. The pilot lessons here would be used for future ICZMPs in other coastal states in India.

While environmental issues, improvement of livelihoods and protection of coastal communities are ICZMP’s priority, “de rigueur is community participation in all decision making processes; mainstreaming gender, poverty and equity, too, are top of the list,” said Ajit Kumar Pattnaik, Project Director of Orissa’s ICZMP.

The total project cost is 286 million dollars or 1330 crore rupees. Of this amount, 49 million dollars are concentrated on two reaches of Paradip- Dhamra and Gopalpur-Chilka, which constitute 14 percent of Orissa’s coastline.

More than half of the State’s disadvantaged or ‘dalit’ caste population resides in the 641 marine fishing villages along Orissa’s coast. Sixty of these villages will benefit from the pilot project.

The selected coastal areas are richest in ecological and economic resources and have been the most vulnerable to exploitation. While Chilka Lake is one of the largest brackish water lakes in the world, Bhitarkanika, which houses the Gahirmatha wildlife sanctuary, is the second largest mangrove ecosystem in Asia.

Allied fish farming activities like crab fattening, sea bass or composite fish culture, scampi or fresh-water prawn culture are being promoted in the 60 villages as alternative livelihoods to make fishers less dependent on fishing. These activities are also aimed at reducing fishing pressure on the beleaguered ecosystems.

To replace the traditional making of salted and dried preserved fish that used to be the exclusive preserve of fishers’ womenfolk, the programme provides hygienic fish drying yards to women self-help groups. Diary and goat rearing are other alternate livelihoods.

Women self-help group leader Satyabhama Das, who is 60 years old, participated in an earlier regional stakeholders consultation and expressed reservations, saying, “Such fishers groups formed earlier were not supported properly. No real protection was provided against crocodiles, and the really needy people should be supported, not those with local clout.” The Bhitarkanika mangrove area is a crocodile habitat.

Integrating heritage and eco-tourism with rural community livelihood is yet another option already taking shape.

Four of the 14 multi-purpose cyclone shelters that ICZMP will build will be located in Puri district. The shelters will provide safety to men, livestock and basic assets during disasters, and will be used as nodal points for coordinating rescue and relief operations post-disaster.

The ICZM addresses the key environment and social challenge that Orissa, Gujarat and West Bengal currently face – the loss of biodiversity and marine ecosystems as more coastal land is diverted for major industries and development infrastructure like ports, harbours and jetties. Lately, the shortsighted construction of upstream hydrological structures for irrigation and industrial water supply in Orissa has choked fresh water flow crucial to maintaining the required salinity for mangroves’ survival.

Coastal fragility is further exacerbated by increasingly destructive and exhaustive fishing practices. As coastal population and infrastructure grow, impacts of natural disasters such as cyclones, storms and floods take a costlier toll. The worst of these was the killer cyclone in 1999 that cost Orissa ten thousand lives.

Till now, governments have sought to deal with the situation through regulations, which clearly are inadequate and lack convergence between departments working towards similar goals. ICZM is structured to integrate various agencies, not just target communities, in its formulation and implementation.

In Orissa, for example, government arms working on the common ICZM platform include fisheries, water resources, archaeology, culture and tourism, and the wild life wing. Also included are the State disaster management authority, coir co-operatives, State pollution control board and the municipality of Paradeep, Orissa’s coastal industry hub.

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