It is a remarkable victory for the fighting fisherfolk of Chilika, in the phase of privatization, liberalisation and globalisation. They have been fighting over the issue over the last two decades, and now they have forced the Navin Patnaik government through their uncompromising struggle to ‘defer’ the “Orissa Fishing in Chilika (Regulation) Bill”. This bill aims at providing 30 per cent of the lease in fishing rights to the so called non-traditional fisherfolk – the prawn mafia. Chilika, the Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon, has witnessed many bloody battles in the past against those who try to usurp the rights of traditional fisherfolk and a score of lives have been lost.
The bill was to be introduced in the Orissa Assembly on 20th December 2003. Traditional fisherfolk in and around Chilika, in tens of thousands held a siege of Bhuvaneshwar for four days from 17th to prevent this bill being passed. This movement is led by the “Chilika Matsyajibi Mahasangha”, in which the CPI(ML) also has some influence. Massive demonstration, mass dharnas and blockade of rail and roads were oganised. They were prepared to face any consequence to check this pro-mafia Government from passing this Black Bill.
This unprecedented mass movement, like an upsurge, created pressure on the opposition as well as on the ruling Government. Consequently, the entire opposition in the State Assembly opposed the Bill when it came for discussion. Surprisingly, some of the ruling party MLAs also opposed the Bill, threatened by the mass upsurge.
In this embarrassing situation, the BJD-BJP Government having a thumping majority in the State Assembly was forced to defer the Black Bill under the plea for sending it for public opinion. It is a rare case in the Orissa State Assembly history, for a Bill be deferred at the passing stage under the pressure of powerful mass movement. It seems the Chief Minister himself apprehended a serious law and order situation including violence in the Chilika area, in the event of discussing the Bill in the Assembly.
It is the question of life and death for the traditional fisherfolk who have been living there for centuries. Since time immemorial they have been enjoying the fishing rights over the lake, paying nominal revenues. Even during the colonial rule, the then British Surveyor J. H. Taylor in 1880 recorded their complete fishing rights over the lake. Very recently under the Khalamunh Primary Fishermen Co-op. Society Vs. State Government and Others case in the year 1993, the Chief Justice Hansaria of the Orissa High Court observed that “The non-fishermen in the neighbourhood villages of Chilika do also enjoy a traditional right to the fishing to the lake though on a limited scale may not be fully correct in as much as we do not read any traditional right of the non-fishermen fishing” (Para-44). And there he also admitted that “The fishermen living in and around Chilika do enjoy a traditional right to the fishery sources of the lake” (Para-28).
The traditional fishermen enjoyed their fishing right over Chilika peacefully up to 1984. But, the heavy export demand for Chilika prawn gave rise to a number of prawn mafias in the area. In nexus with the state government these mafias gradually started encroaching into the fishing areas of traditional fishermen, terrorizing them with their muscle power and fire power, and spread wide their zero nets and prawn gheries.
Adding to their woes the private corporate sector represented by Tata started a prawn procurement and export business in the area. Experiencing high profit in the quality prawn from Chilika, prawn culture was introduced with the immediate blessings of the then Congress government during 1986. Tatas got a lease of 600 hectares of land in a key place inside Chilika, violating all the legal norms including environmental laws. Thus entered the Tata Aquaculture Project. Biju Patnaik, who then was in the opposition, opposed the move and promised to drive out Tata once he was voted to power. However, after coming to power in 1991 he kept his “promise” with a new agreement expanding the contract area with the Tatas! He pioneered the dividing of Chilika between fish-capture and prawn-culture. This encouraged prawn culture and prawn mafias in Chilika to violate all the legal aspects of traditional fisherfolks’ fishing rights, including Chilika environment, thanks to advent of liberalization.
Their livelihood threatened by the encroachers, the fisherfolk could not just sit and watch. They launched movement against both Tata and the Biju Government. The Chilika Matsyajibi Mahasangh was organized. In September 1991, they held a mass demonstration with over 8,000 people before the State Assembly at Bhubaneswar. Their demands fell on deaf ears. In February 1992, the enraged traditional fisherfolk destroyed the prawn culture farms of Tata Aquaculture Project. Under the pressure of a continuous and powerful mass movement of the fishermen, the Central Government’s Environment Department did not give environment clearance to Tatas and consequently they had to withdraw the project.
However, the mafias became more powerful with the blessings of one after the other Government that came in Orissa. The dominating mafia gangs have close links with political parties, bureaucrats and police officers. This mafia nexus, with the underhand support and knowledge of the Government created havoc in Chilika, terrorized poor fishermen at gun-point, encroached their lawful fishing areas and spread prawn gheries. This fact is acknowledged by the observations of Chief Justice of Orissa High Court, Hansaria in Khola Munch Primary Fishermen Cooperative Society case, during November 1993. In his judgement he observed that “The mafias are playing havoc today in the lake, as they have become the real monarch and determine the fate of poor fishermen. It is learnt that they are armed with deadly weapons like guns, revolvers, AK-47 and bombs. They symbolize encroachment and all acts of illegalities in the lake area, terrorize the local people and want to have a grip over the fishery sources…” (Page 63 and 64) He also observed that most of the mafia gangs are operated by large absentee landlords from Puri, Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. Many of the these absentee landlords are “important politicians or their relatives and bureaucrats of standing and moneyed people who apparently have a lobby with the Government, what can be more revealing, painful and distressing”. In addition he has also commented on the Governments inaction against the mafias.
Even Orissa State Assembly’s House Committee (1997) accepted that “Prawn culture indirectly cast serious impact on the living conditions of the fishermen who depend on the waves of the mother Chilika to eke out their livelihood such encroach ultimately leads to exploitation of poor fishermen”. But the Government did not care either to implement the Court’s orders or the directives of its own committees. Nevertheless, the deferment of the “Orissa Fishing in Chilika Bill” has come as a shot in the arms of the traditional fisherfolk. Their stuggle to defend their livelihood rights will continue.
-- Khitish Biswal