Poverty on an Indian lake of plenty

Posted: 12 October 2004

The plight of fisherfolk who live in the areas surrounding Chilka Lake, near the Bay of Bengal in the Indian State of Orissa, is evidence of the impact on poor women in particular, and the natural resources on which they depend, of globalised trade. Manipadma Jena reports from Bhubaneshwar.

Lake Chilka, Orissa, India. Photo: Women's Feature Service
Lake Chilka, Orissa, India. Photo: Women's Feature Service
Birds over Lake Chilka, Orissa, India.© Women's Feature Service
Spread over 1,165 sq km during the monsoon months and 951 sq km in the summer, Chilka Lake is home to 158 species of fish and prawn. Of these, 10 varieties of fish, two of crab and four of prawn are of commercial value. Abundant quantities of these varieties were enough to support 104,040 people of the fishing communities living in the eight towns and 137 villages (in the three districts of Khurda, Ganjam and Puri) that circle the lake. However, the livelihood of these communities has been steadily destroyed over the past two decades.

Fishing has been the traditional occupation of the people here for more than a century. Most belong to scheduled castes. And women have played a pivotal role in the dynamics of the family economy as well as that of the community. The selling of fish, the preservation of dry, salted fish eggs and small fish - particularly hilsa, mugils (broadly, mullet and perch) and shrimps which were sold in West Bengal and Burma - was handled exclusively by women. In the lean fishing months of summer, when the lake shrank, the dry bed was used for cultivating paddy or millet. The crops gave the temporarily unemployed fisherwomen a daily wage-earning avenue during the lean season.

Map of Orissa. (Photo courtesy of Ind Travel)
Map of Orissa. (Photo courtesy of Ind Travel)

Traditional methods

Until the early 1980s, fish was caught by traditional methods - in locally made boats, with nets and bamboo traps. The catch was shared between the fishermen, the boat owners and the net owners; community cooperation was evident at every stage.

But when the shrimp export market started developing, it brought in the nylon zero nets (with a fine mesh) which captured smaller fish. The shrimps were picked out and the other varieties were thrown out to die, thereby depleting stock. And then came the motor boats; they hauled in a large catch very quickly compared to the traditional methods. The motor boats were owned by businessmen outside the fishing community - some from Kolkata, and many from cities in Orissa.

The presence of motor boats, the exploitation of Chilka for large hauls of shrimp, and the reduction of the traditional catch of the fishermen - all these factors combined to affect the fisherfolk's daily livelihood. Meanwhile, the value of shrimp exports from Chilka has been climbing higher over the years - from Rs 66.1 million in 1986-87 to Rs 229.3 million in 1995-96 (1US$=Rs46). Whereas one kg of shrimp fetched the trader Rs 35 in 1980, it brought in Rs 250 in 1992 and Rs 550 in 2001.

Quick returns

By amending the fishing lease policy (in 1991) with regard to Chilka, and allowing the entry of non-fishermen - under pressure from both politicians and bureaucrats - the government of Orissa in effect allowed the shrimp "culture" in Chilka to grow. And even though the Orissa High Court (in 1994) laid down - in recognition of the rights of the fishing communities - that the "capture" (traditional methods) to "culture" (modern, exploitative) ratio of fishing in Chilka must be 60:40, the fact is that this order has been flouted with impunity. In practise, the ratio stands at 20:80, and this has inevitably resulted in the displacement of the Chilka fishing communities.

While the culture methods of fishing yield quick and rich returns, in the long term these methods are unsustainable for the livelihood of the communities and for the ecology of the lake. Acres of the lake's brackish water are barricaded by bamboo poles and zero nets or mud bunds. Inlets are closed after seedlings have been allowed to flow in with the tide. Except for the shrimp, almost 95 per cent of fish seedlings (including those of commercially viable bhekti, hilsa and Indian salmon) are picked out and left to die on the sand. At the same time, deep-sea fishing trawlers crowd the Bay of Bengal on the other side of Chilka, catching large quantities of shrimp and fish even before they can enter the lake, reducing stocks still further. As far as the fisherwomen are concerned, the market for salted dry fish is as good as dead.

Debt trap

The conversion of summertime agricultural fields into shrimp ponds has led to further problems for the fisherwomen. "Where one acre of paddy cultivation employed eight women, a 100-acre shrimp pond needs only two men to guard it," explains Dr Kishore Samal, from the Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies in Orissa.

This has driven many women and children to switch over to seedling collection. Between February and May, when tiger shrimp fingerlings are found close to the lake banks, hundreds of women and children bend in knee-deep water all day, scooping them out with mosquito nets. Their job is to catch the baby shrimps, which can fetch a family Rs 200 to 300 a day - reason enough to pull children out of school.

Wildlife activist Biswajit Mohanty alleges that every day, about 100 vehicles stocked with jerry cans of shrimp seedlings worth Rs 20 million clandestinely head back towards aquaculture farms in West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh (catching wild stock is banned in these two states). Fisherwomen say they are "cutting the branch on which they sit" but for them it is an earn-or-starve situation.

Pushed to the wall, most families in the fishing communities are also in debt. The need to repair boats or nets, emergency medical treatment, a family marriage or just food expenses during a lean season often drives families to take loans from local moneylenders whose interest rates are five times higher than the formal sector. Once trapped in debt, they also have to sell their catch to the moneylenders at a rate 10 per cent lower than the market price. According to Dr Samal, about 78 per cent of the fishermen have loans of Rs 18,000 or more to pay off. Many women have mortgaged all their gold and silver ornaments and brass utensils.

To make matters worse, the government of Orissa has made its stand clear on where economic liberalisation is headed, by passing the State Reservoir Fishery Policy in 2003. According to this policy, in the absence of bids from fishermen's cooperatives, water bodies like Chilka Lake can be leased out to registered companies and individuals. The inevitable entry of big business companies and powerful individuals implies only a further displacement of traditional fishing communities, not just around Chilka but throughout the state. The only choice for them is to continue to live on the edge or give in to total displacement - both options that lead to increasing marginalisation and poverty.

Source: Women's Feature Service, Delhi.