Fisherfolk at sea as conservationist tag eludes them

Puri(Odisha), Aug 24 (IANS/ 101Reporters) “We go to sea to feed our families. But the mafias use explosives to catch huge quantities of fish at one go. Yet, the police come only after people like us,” laments a fisherman from Batighar village in Kendrapada, as he tries to explain how the traditional fishing community is at a loss, though it hardly overexploits the resources at its disposal.

For years, conservationists have been exploring ways to increase the fish population along Odisha’s coast, besides protecting the breeding grounds of Olive Ridley turtles, a species recognised as ‘vulnerable’ by the IUCN Red List.

Traditional fisherfolk, who are key to such efforts, have mostly welcomed them, despite incurring heavy losses. For example, the Gahirmatha coast in Kendrapara district has a blanket ban on fishing in place as it is the largest nesting spot of the Ridleys.

Additionally, the state government has prohibited fishing within 20 km of the coast at the river mouths of the Rushikulya, Devi and Dhamra during the turtle breeding season that extends from November to May.

This affects the livelihood of tens of thousands of fisherfolk, who have to fall back on government aid for sustenance. “The incentive is meagre. Around 1,500 families get Rs 7,500 per month when the ban is in place,” Kanda Alaya, secretary, Odisha Traditional Fishermen Union, tells 101Reporters.

He says the scheme has failed to compensate for the loss incurred by the community, forcing many to migrate to cities for work.

Fisher Arabinda Swain explains how the compensation has failed. “There are several fisherfolks without identity cards. They remain deprived of the measly incentive the community manages to get during the annual ban period.”

Though fisherfolk claim themselves to be easy targets, Debasish Bhoi, Forest Range Officer, Gahirmatha Marine Wildlife Sanctuary, thinks otherwise. While denying allegations, he tells 101Reporters that “the department arrests those involved and seizes their vessels and trawlers, whenever there is an alert about illegal fishing in prohibited areas.”

Bhoi cites an incident, wherein 19 fishermen were arrested in January 2020 for illegal fishing in Gahirmatha.

Rights as paper tigers

Forget incentives, fishing communities are denied even their rights to access coastal produce in the name of conservation. “The laws are hardly being translated in the true spirit,” says Dr Geetanjali Panda, a lecturer in Anthropology at the Dharanidhar Autonomous College, Keonjhar.

She notes how the tourism department has curbed traditional fishing rights along the coasts of Gopalpur, Puri and Satapada, besides Chilika lake.

The Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, allows Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers the rights to fish and use water bodies in forest areas. This is applicable to fishing communities in the mangrove forests also. Besides, the Wild Life Protection (Amendment) Act, 2006, takes care of the rights and occupational interests of traditional fishing communities.

However, the laws remain mostly on paper. “The tourism department keeps ponds, canals, lakes, wetlands and reservoirs out of fisherfolk’s reach. To make things worse, there is no community participation in the management and protection of water bodies,” says Panda.

Under the FRA, panchayats in the non-scheduled areas should acknowledge the rights of traditional fishing communities over water bodies for their livelihood. “But this provision seems to be non-existent,” she says.

Acknowledging that majority of the fisherfolk in Odisha do not own any land, Y. Giri Rao, the director of local NGO Vasundhara, calls for the protection of traditional fishing rights. NGO Vasundhara works on forest governance and land rights of tribal and forest-dwelling communities.

CRZ proves costly

The Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) notification of 2018 puts coastal communities in the line of disaster. “They are more vulnerable to climate disasters now,” notes Kanchi Kohli, a researcher associated with the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi.

Under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986, the Ministry of Environment and Forests first issued the notification in 1991 for the regulation of activities in coastal areas. It said the coastal zone encompassed all that land with which the sea had direct contact and those portions of land on which the sea had an influence indirectly through tidal action. It is aimed at conserving the rich and diverse coastal biodiversity.

However, Kohli thinks that it doesn’t serve its purpose fully. “The latest notification gave an upper hand to real estate developers, besides promoting tourism and industry on a mass scale. With it, the local subsistence economy of fishing hamlets went for a toss,” she tells 101Reporters.

On condition of anonymity, a government official explains how the 2018 notification has brought down the regulation area to a mere 50m from the hazard line, which will significantly damage the fragile coastal ecology.

“Permission has been given in the notification to reclaim land for commercial activities, extract sand dunes and groundwater within 200 to 500m from the high tide line. Such laws only serve to quicken the pace of displacement of local communities,” he warns.

(The author is a Bhubneswar-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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