Chilika fisherfolk relieved

Chilika fisherfolk relieved traditional fisherfolk of Chilika lake in Orissa's Mayurbhanj district heaved a sigh of relief when the "Orissa Fishing in Chilika Regulation Bill' was not tabled in the recently concluded session of the state assembly. Anticipating that the bill might be tabled, at least 3,000 fisherfolk staged a demonstration near the house and submitted a memorandum to the chief minister demanding a complete ban on prawn culture and non-traditional fisherfolk in the lake; traditional fisherfolk allege the bill promotes these and, as a result, strengthens the prawn mafia. This largest brackish water lake of Asia was declared a site protected by the Ramsar Convention on Wetlands in the early 1980s.

Chilika lake is surrounded by 132 villages, housing some 1,22,339 fisherfolks. Evidences reveal that dried fish, shrimp and prawn were exported from the lake even in the 1930s. But after the government conducted successful prawn culture experiments in the area, many powerful people, not traditionally involved in fishing, jumped in to rake profits. Earlier, fishing was considered a lowly profession and traditional fishing communities like Keuta were considered "untouchables'. But 1983 onwards, a huge competition set in to grab capture areas and Chilika soon became the prawn mafia's paradise.

The bill in question was first proposed in 2001 but was held back due to opposition. Biswapriya Kanungo, a legal adviser of Chilika Matsyajibi Mahasangha, a fisherfolk's association, warns that if the government wants to stay in power, it should restore the lake's fishery resources to traditional fisherfolks' cooperative societies. He alleges that the government has encouraged trouble in Chilika by allowing export-oriented culture fishing. "...we have been fighting bloody battles with powerful and armed outsiders, who always have direct or indirect support of politicians,' complains Rabi Jena of Alupatna village, near the lake.

While a government spokesperson says the bill aims to ban culture fishing, Raghunath Jali of Orissa Matsyajibi Union (Orissa fisherfolk union) contends it will actually end up regularising the mafia's illegal acts. "Though we have strongly been fighting the mafia...we have not been able to make Chilika a peaceful place again. If the government passes this bill in its present shape, the