Chilika Fisherfolk Block the Chilika Bill

Do or die – that was the slogan of the Chilika traditional fisherfolk while marching for the State Assembly gherao on August 9, 2005 , to save their fishing rights over the Chilika lake. They were more than ten thousand in number. Their mood was militant. Their main demand was the withdrawal of the anti-fisherfolk ‘Black Chilika Bill’ which was going to be introduced in the Orissa State Assembly on that day. The Bill was not being introduced for the first time. Earlier it was introduced in 2002 and 2003 but powerful mass movement stalled the Bill. The BJD-BJP coalition, which was trying to get the Bill passed, has an overwhelming majority in the Assembly. They would have succeeded in passing the Bill in the interest of the prawn mafia and corporate houses but for the strident opposition built up by the fisherfolk.

In the presence of some MLAs and political leaders who had come to address the rally, the fisherfolk declared: “If the government goes ahead to pass this Bill, we, along with our families, will come to the streets and block the roads and trains in the state capital with lakhs of people”. Seeing the huge mass turnout, Chief Minister Mr. Navin Patnaik called the leadership of the fisherfolk, discussed with them elaborately, and instructed the Revenue Minister to defer the Bill.

The Chilika Matsyajeebee Mahasangh, the organization of the traditional fisherfolk in Chilika, has been working in close association with CPI(ML) Liberation. They have been fighting against encroachment of Chilika waters by corporate houses for prawn cultivation. Under Party’s guidance, in the last 20 years, the Mahasangh has fought against the Tata Aquaculture Project and against the powerful nexus of prawn mafia, local politicians, corrupt bureaucrats and police to save their traditional fishing rights which they have been enjoying since time immemorial. Their traditional rights are even recorded in British surveyor JH Tylor’s survey report. The fisherfolk demolished the illegal prawn gherries of the prawn mafia on May 29, 1999 , for which they had to face an organized police attack and in the police firing five fisherfolk, including one woman, became martyrs and 90 people were severely injured. The Orissa government became very unpopular. A judicial enquiry commission was set up with a sitting High Court judge. Several officials, including one district collector and one superintendent of police, were suspended in the face of powerful popular outrage.

Meanwhile, three chief ministers changed. But the prawn mafia was at work again. Under its pressure, the government was trying to introduce a Bill which allowed private corporate houses to carry on prawn cultivation in Chilika waters. This threatened to evict the traditional fisherfolk and deprive them of their fishing rights. The traditional fisherfolk in Chilika depend solely on their fishing in Chilika. They are landless and have no other source of income. In the 1980s, when the demand for Chilika prawn increased in foreign markets, some small exporters entered Chilika for collection of prawn from the traditional fisherfolk at low rates. Then they set up their projects for modern prawn cultivation in Chilka. When the fisherfolk raised their voice against these illegal projects encroaching their traditional fishing areas, the owners of prawn projects connived with the local politicians, bureaucrats, police and mafia.

A powerful movement developed against the project of Tatas under the leadership of Chilika Matsyajeebee Mahasangh In the face of a strong resistance, Tatas backed out abandoning their project. But the local mafia has become more powerful and more dangerous. In collusion with some IAS and IPS officers and politicians they are extending their hi-tech prawn projects and harming the interests of traditional fisherfolk. The traditional fisherfolk filed a case in the Orissa High Court to assert their traditional fishing rights.

On November 23, 1993 , the Orissa High Court gave a ruling affirming the rights of traditional fisherfolk in Chilika. The Court also banned modern prawn culture in Chilika and directed the state government to demolish all prawn gherries which were illegal. In 1996, the Supreme Court also gave a judgement banning prawn cultivation in Coastal Regulatory Zone (CRZ). The Orissa State Assembly House Committee on Chilika also decided in favour of banning modern prawn culture in Chilika. Under pressure from the powerful mass movement of the fisherfolk, the Orissa Chief Minister, in the presence of the leaders of the fisherfolk, issued instructions to all district collectors to demolish the prawn gherries of the mafia. But till date no collector has acted on this instruction.

Meanwhile, under pressure from the mafia, the government brought in the Chilika Bill to circumvent the above decisions of the courts against the prawn mafia. Thanks to the present upsurge in the movement of the fisherfolk, the Bill now stands blocked. The Matsyajeebee Mahasangh has also announced a gherao of Puri Collectorate on September 27, 2005 . They have declared that if the administration did not demolish the gherries then the fisherfolk themselves would demolish them as they did in 1999. Preparation camps for collectorate gherao and prawn gherries demolition were organized in Nagbhushan Bhavan, the CPI(ML) office in Bhuvaneshwar. Three committees have been formed to mobilize the masses and politically educate them. They are moving with leaflets and posters. Mike propaganda will be started from September 22.

– Kshitish Biswal