Govt apathy, unchecked fishing mafia forcing Odisha’s Chilika fishermen to migrate to southern states

For decades, traditional fishermen like Laxmidhar Behera, 45, of Bhusandapur village, which is connected to the lake by a small canal, have been spending each day on their small boats throwing out their fishing nets in the hope of a good catch of a variety of fish indigenous to the lake.

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Traditional lifestyles and occupations are under threat near Odisha’s Chilika lake. Rampant overfishing and lack of any regulation to protect the lake’s unique ecosystem are threatening the livelihoods of around two lakh fishermen living on the banks of the lake, forcing many of them to migrate to other coastal areas like Gujarat and other southern Indian states.

Spread over 11,00 square kilometre area and spreading across three districts —  Khurda, Puri and Ganjam — the lake falls under the Bhubaneswar Lok Sabha constituency. It is the country’s largest brackish water lagoon, known more as a bird sanctuary that attracts tourists from across the country than as the only source of livelihood for the 15,000 fishermen families living in villages around the lake.

We visited four villages - Barkul, Balugaon, Kalupada Ghat and Bhusandhpur - on the banks of the lake in Khurda district. Most of the families in these villages depend on income derived from catching, processing and selling their catch.

While each village had its own local issues of lack of basic infrastructure like sanitation, drinking water, public transport and health care, the common problems all villagers highlighted were the dwindling catch, restrictions imposed by the government like allowing fishing in only designated areas and banning gheris (traps set using bamboo and bigger nets to catch fish, especially prawns and shrimps), the threats from the fishing mafia which does not allow local fishermen to venture into the deeper parts of the lake, lack of any state-funded schemes for fishermen and the general administrative apathy towards the fishermen community.

Two fishermen community youths work on the fishing nets at Balugaon.

Two fishermen community youths work on the fishing nets at Balugaon.

For decades, traditional fishermen like Laxmidhar Behera, 45, of Bhusandapur village, which is connected to the lake by a small canal, have been spending each day on their small boats throwing out their fishing nets in the hope of a good catch of a variety of fish indigenous to the lake.

"The quantity of fish in the lake has been falling which has affected our income,” said Laxmidhar Behara. “Now, after spending the whole day in the lake, we are able to catch just 4-5 kgs. Moreover, the varieties of fish have also decreased. We don’t see the Elish variety which used to be a popular item from here.”

Traders in Kalupadaghat, a local fish market from where the Chilika fish are sent to Cuttack, Bhubaneswar and West Bengal confirmed this. “If we compare the quantity traded over the last 10 years, it has indeed come down,” said Baijayant, a trader in the market.

Laxmidhar said that with incomes  falling and no alternate source of earning available, many fishermen have migrated or given up fishing altogether. Like Muli Behera, who was forced to take up driving an autoer. “Less catch and less income forced me to start something other than fishing,” said Muli Behara. “Now many from this area are switching their profession or going to Kerala, Gujarat, Surat, Mumbai and Chennai and work as labourers or fisherman."

One study in Barakul village showed that over 30 percent of households had migrated since 2001. Sanjay Jali, a villager from Barakul told us that the number of fishermen in his village has come down drastically. "The catch from the sairat areas (near the banks of the lake) have come down while venturing deeper into the lake exposes us to threats from the powerful fishing mafias,” said Sanjay.

A fish shop of dry fish on the National Highway betwen Bhubaneswar-Khurda

A fish shop of dry fish on the National Highway betwen Bhubaneswar-Khurda

Another fisherman Mahanta Das, said “If by chance we venture deeper into the lake they do not hesitate to fire rubber bullets on us. Many fishermen from our area have suffered injuries.” It is conditions like these that forced Prasanta Behera, a fisherman from Kalupada Ghat, to decide three years ago that he’d have to leave home in order to make a living and support his family. Every year he moves to Kerala for four months to find work as a labourer. "Despite spending hours in the water I was not earning enough. Some of my friends who were working in Kerala suggested that I  join them. In 2016, I first went to Kerala and since then it has been a regular affair. I work in farmlands and with fisherman in Kerala and earn good amount; better than what I can from Chilika."

The region has been a stronghold of the ruling Biju Janata Dal (BJD), but villagers said that the five-time sitting MP from this seat, Prasanna Kumar Patsani and the local MLA, also from the BJD, have done nothing to improve conditions in the villages and its residents. Now, with elections just a few weeks away, the politicians and their parties are back to woo these villagers with the usual unkept promises. Villages are plastered with posters and flags of different parties while youths with party flags roam around in bikes campaigning for their candidates.

Glaring govt apathy

Fishermen communities are very low on the government’s priority said Ranjan Panda, an expert on climate and environment. "There are no schemes specifically for the fishermen communities to help them increase their earnings. Also, unregulated over-fishing by commercial players and other climate-related reasons have affected the livelihoods of traditional fishermen living on the periphery of the lake”.

The state government too has not come up with single comprehensive legislation in the last 25 years on conserving and regulating fishing on Chilika. "Demands for legislation on Chilika have been raised since the 1990s,” said Jaya Krushna Panigrahi, an environmentalist. "There was a Chilika Bachao Movement which went nowhere. In 1994 a panel was constituted which suggested framing a law on Chilika affairs, which has been ignored”. Even the Planning Commission in 2008 in a report had suggested legislation and other measures to protect the whole Chilika ecosystem. This report too remains on paper, as the lake and the ecosystem it supports degrade.

The Chilika Development Authority (CDA) is the nodal agency meant to manage activities on the lake and take conservation measures. CDA officials say they have attempted to tackle the problems of maintaining the lake and the livelihood of the fishermen. “I struggled a lot to remove the illegal gheries from Chilika,” said Sasmita Lenka, who till last year was the CDA’s chief executive.  “The fish mafia who were active in Chilika started threatening me, with the support of some villagers. But it didn’t bother me and I tried my best to remove all those gheries.” Sasmita added that “I believe Chilika is nature’s blessing and it is our responsibility to protect it. But some government officials were against me. I hope whatever I have done at Chilika doesn’t get wasted.”

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Sibaprasad Parida, former scientist of Regional Museum of Natural History also believes that with the removal of some illegal gheris the condition of Chilika has improved a bit. He also claimed that seasonal variations also interfere with fish population in the lake.

Now, the blame game is on, with Opposition parties accusing the BJD of failing to tackle the fishermen issues. “Their patronage to commercial fish mafias slowly destroyed the prospects of traditional fishermen dependent on Chilika,” said Odisha Congress Spokesperson Satyaprakash Nayak.

The BJD in turn is blaming its neighbour Chhattisgarh for the deterioration of the lake and plight of its fishermen. BJD Parliamentary Party Leader Bhartruhari Mahtab said in the Lok Sabha on 22 December, 2017 that “In the past few years, the flow of sweet water in the River Mahanadi has been choked by Chhattisgarh. In non-monsoon times, the flow is very little, causing higher salinity in the Bhitarkanika area and Chilika Lake, which is endangering the species in the lake."

All of which is of little comfort to the fishermen. Who this time are likely to use their voting strength to highlight their cause.

The author is a Khurda-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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