Lessons to be learnt from Chilika

  • 30/08/1992

EVERYONE recognises the importance of forests. We have over the years set up several structures and evolved policies to try and conserve them. How effective these are is, of course, another question. Wetlands, on the other hand, remain an area of darkness. And the recent imbroglio over the Chilika lake can be traced to the fact that we don't have a wetland management policy to speak of.

Pending completion of an environmental impact assessment, Delhi has suspended work on the 600-ha Chilika Aquatic Farms, sponsored jointly by the Orissa state government and the House of Tata. This is, at best, a postponement of a problem that has proved extremely intractable.

What are wetlands and why are they important? Wetlands are water bodies -- lakes or marshes, swamps or peatlands, bogs and shallow ponds -- that are vital for ecological harmony. They help control floods and recharge aquifers and provide breeding grounds for numerous species of fish and birds. They are also extremely valuable community resources.

Today, Chilika lake, which lies on the Orissa coast 150 km from Cuttack, is under siege. Increasing amounts of silt find their way into the lake from the deforested hills nearby. But that is only part of the problem. The Down To Earth investigation which we carry in this issue highlights a significant development. There's a new mood of cynicism which seems to have settled here, like the silt. Thanks to the increasing influence of market forces, the traditional ways in which local fishing communities had managed for generations the lake's resources, have been all but forgotten in the mad scramble for quick profits. The new commonsense seems to be: get the golden egg, never mind the goose.

This is evident in the nets that are now being used, which are so closely woven that they trap fingerlings and the young prawns, along with the rest of the catch. This is also evident in the numerous bunds for prawn culture that have come up all over the lake and in the indiscriminate paddy cultivation that marginalised fisherfolk are resorting to in order to augment falling incomes due to poor catches. However, the bunds and the paddy farming will only add to the siltation problem and this, in turn, would result in less fish. According to some estimates, fish production in the area has come down from 8,590 tons in 1985-86 to 4,237 tons in 1991. In fact, things have come to such a pass that, as one scientist observed in the DTE report, communities that have traditionally protected the lake have now become a party to its destruction.

Unfortunately, this callousness towards the lake's resources is also shown by the elected government of Orissa. Biju Patnaik, the mercurial chief minister of Orissa, is pushing the Chilika Aquatic Project on the ground that it will bring valuable foreign exchange earnings to the state. But groups like the Orissa Krushak Mahasangh and the Krantidarshi Yuva Sangam, which have been fighting the project, contend that, in the short term, 25,000 fisherfolk stand to lose their sources of livelihood while, in the long term, the entire lake is under threat.

Ironically, the Chilika lake is "protected" by every rule in the book. In 1971, the Ramsar Convention recognised it as a Wetland of International Importance. In 1973, a part of it was given sanctuary status by the state government, which even went so far as to constitute the Chilika Development Authority with the prime objective of protecting the lake's ecosystem. If so prominent a lake can be exploited so cynically by vested interests, then what hope can one hold out for other wetlands in the country?

Indeed, many wetlands have become serious tension points. In Pulicat Lake, another important body of water which lies 50 km north of Madras, an ugly clash occurred on Republic Day 1989 between two groups of fisherfolk over fishing rights. Ten people were killed. More recently, Calcutta's fisherfolk were up in arms against the proposed reclamation of 300 ha of Calcutta's wetlands by the powerful builders' lobby.

The Centre's response to the problem of managing wetlands was to set up the National Wetland Management Committee in 1983. But experience tells us that the recommendations of committees are just so much paper unless the experts know what they want. If development has to be encouraged, how much of it do we want and who should be the beneficiaries of such development? How can wetlands be used sustainably? How do we get multiple communities of fisherfolk to observe constraints in the common interest? All these questions, albeit difficult, must find answers.

The one lesson Chilika has for us is that macro-level planning cannot work unless it takes into account micro-level participation. In other words, local communities must be empowered to manage their wetlands democratically. After all, it is they who are the natural guardians of these water bodies and not faceless bureaucrats or technocrats sitting in Delhi or Bhubaneswar -- nor, for that matter, a chief minister who is in a hurry to exploit his state's natural resources.