Fisherfolk Hold Jan Adalat in Chilika

On 11 December, the Chilika Matsyajeebi Mahasangha, an organisation of fisher people of Orissa held a People’s Court at Nagbhushan Bhavan against the Fishing in Chilika (Regulation) Bill 2002 introduced by the State Government. This Bill totally favours the prawn mafia and attacks the rights of fisher people. The 2 lakh, fifty thousand strong community of traditional fisher people living in and around 145 villages in Chilika have vehemently opposed what they term as the ‘Black Chilika Bill’. This Bill is a conspiracy to snatch away their traditional fishing rights which they have enjoyed since time immemorial, and to hand over Chilika to the nexus of politicians, bureaucrats and the police for the business of prawn culture. Their protest succeeded in blocking the passage of the Bill, every time it was introduced by the powerful lobby favouring the prawn mafia in the Orissa Assembly.

The BJD-BJP Government of Navin Pattanaik no doubt recalled the heroic upsurge (in which the CPI(ML) played a leading role) that followed the Soran firing incident in 1999 following demolition of the prawn gherries by the fisher people. They therefore backed out when they themselves came to power in 2003, and deferred the Bill on the plea of sending it for wider public consultation. But till today, he has not done so, and the prawn mafia’s powerful lobby backed by money-power is once again pressing for reintroduction of the Bill in a new way. Since the Government was breaking its promise of gathering public opinion on the draft of the Bill, the Chilika Matsyajeebi Mahasangha decided to take the initiative of collecting public opinion through a Jan Adalat.

In this Jan Adalat, a Judiciary Bench was constituted, consisting of two Judges, Senior Advocate of the Orissa High Court Shaktidhar Das, and the Orissa State President of All India Agricultural Workers’ Association (AIALA), Satyabadi Behera. Yudhisthir Mohapatra, State Committee Member of the CPI(ML), coordinated the whole event.

In this Jan Adalat, various prominent public figures and citizens of the State participated, such as Radha Mohan, an environmentalist and member of the present State Information Commission; Prof. Bibhuti Pattanaik, Prof. Birendra Naik, Prof. Bijoy Bohidar, eminent lawyer and Manvik Adhikar Surakhya leader Bishwapriya Kanungo, High Court Advocate Chittaranjan Nanda, Kshitish Biswal, State Secretary of the CPI(ML) and Chief Advisor of the Chlika Matsyajeebi Mahasangha, CPI(ML) leader Gananath Patro, State President of the Samajwadi Party Baisnab Parida, eminent environmentalists and social activists Prafulla Samantray and Sudhir Pattanaik, as well as various Matsyajeebi leaders.

The discussion in the Jan Adalat at Nagbhushan Bhawan Hall, packed with fisherpeople as well as citizens of Bhuvaneswar, went on for six hours. First , the Chilika Matsyajeebi Mahasangha President Balaram Das, Harijan Matsyajeebi Mahasangha President Mochiram Behera and Paramparik Matsyajeebi Mahasangha President Subhash Ghadei deposed before the Jan Adalat. They were followed by other representatives of the fisher people like Tapan Behera, Anadi Behera, Biranchi Behera and Deberaj Behera. These leaders of the fishing community pointed out that the Bill in question would not only cripple the 2.5 lakh fisher people who depend on fishing for survival, it would also mean that the Government-sponsored prawn mafias will spread their zero-net gherries all over the Chilika, destroying the environment and endangering the lake itself. They demanded that the Chilika lake be cleared of all prawn gherries immediately, and the prawn mafias be driven out, implementing the orders of the High court, Supreme Court as well as the Orissa State Assembly’s House Committee.

The various civil liberties activists, environmentalists and lawyers present also deposed before the Jan Adalat, offering analysis of the socio-economic and cultural life of the fisher people, Chilika’s environmental resources, the fishing wealth of Chilika and other aspects, and they too protested against the Bill’s attempt to legalise the encroachment of the lake by the powerful prawn mafias. Kshitish Biswal situated the Bill in the broader national context of eviction of poor peasantry and tribals from their right to land, forests and rivers.

After hearing out all the parties, the Judges of the Jan Adalat delivered their verdict, taking into account the socio-economic, environmental and livelihood issues raised by the participants. They noted that the livelihood of the fishing community was threatened, the prawn mafia was terrorising and looting the resources of the Chilika, and the zero net gherries were blocking the free passage of flood waters of rivers, resulting in floods which devastated 60-70 thousand people every year. They concluded that the Government should immediately withdraw the Fishing In Chilika (Regulation) Bill 2002; take immediate steps to demolish all the prawn gherries in the Chilika, and drive out the prawn mafia in order to safeguard the traditional right of the fishing community as well as the environment of the lake.

- Kshitish Biswal