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Prawn Farms Destroying
The Life of Fishworkers

By Goldy M. George

05 May, 2004

"The prawn farms have ruined our lives. Since the prawn farms are built the water is poured into our farms and villages. Our crops are destroyed. Even we are unable to fish properly since they destroy the fishes due to their prawn farms. We have to put a stop to it", says I. Kasiyammal from Puttupettai.

Over 60% of India's one billion people live alone the coastline. In Puttupettai village one of the coastal region in Tamilnadu, Kuni and her friends once played pitting beaches, but now with the industry taking over the coastal areas it has been banned. The coastline is littered with bunds of prawn farms. Polluted salty water from the prawn tanks are swept into people's field's killing the soil and the crops growing there. Well became useless, the water undrinkable. Villagers are now forced to walk many miles to fetch fresh water. In some cases it must be trucking daily.

People have been always engaged in fishing prawn in a more amicable and eco-friendly way. In northern Tamilnadu itself, more than 30 thousand people are engaged in fishing. However it was not a mono-culture farming. In early 90s, viewing the huge profit and tremendous market in the western world, big corporate houses jumped into this business at a large scale. Primarily the intention was to explore the market in USA, UK and other countries in Europe. Soon breaking up of the sea water/lagoon water with the help of bunds was done to make it a more systematic market oriented business to cater to the external market. One of the crucial instances is the Thilaivilagham village, near Muttupetai in Thiruvarur district in Tamilnadu. Here there are more than 10 companies engaged in this business. It flourished and brought in western capital, as export became pillar of it. Free movement of capital is what is basically the edifice of globalization and this has deeply internalized into the fishing sector too.

Prawn farms wastes, pesticides and fertilizers are pumped back into the sea polluting the breeding zones for the fishes, upon which the people depend. With their land and water polluted people are forced to abandon their coastal villages and move into city edge slums in Kolkata, Chennai and Delhi. From Perunthottam village of Nagapattinam district itself 200 families have moved to the city edges of Chennai in search of livelihood.

Not only the people who are suffering. It is adversely affecting the coastal eco-system, as the eco-zones are fragile. India's coastal line stretches a rich biodiversity with thick mangrove forests and wildlife. This is very vital in sustaining the coastal ecology and the coastal ecology and the wildlife in such areas. In the lagoon near Muttupetai, it is the home for tens of thousands of birds. Now the forest is destroyed and forcing the birds to migrate.

Ecological studies have proved that Japan has been benefited due to this mangrove forest in the lagoon and Japan Bank of International Corporation (JBIC) has provided a financial support of Rupees 5 crore to the Tamilnadu government for the development of the forests inside the lagoon. This is in clear contradiction to each other. On one hand the government takes on money from JBIC and on the other it is promoting the destructive prawn farm cultivation.

From time immemorial the fisher people have been the defenders and protectors of the coastal territories of India from all foreign invasions and other external threats. Generally as it is known that the fisherfolk in the seacoast are very strong and lead a very risky life, even they could hunt sharks. "We have a very rich seacoast and EEZ", say Thomas Kocherry the Chairman of NFF.

The Biodiversity of fish resources and multi species are very rich. 10 million fisher people catch 30 lakh tonnes of fish every year. From the time of Independence in 1947, India has attempted to modernise its economy rapidly, inspired by the technological progress of the West. Ignoring the skills and potentialities of the large number of traditional fisher people, the government promoted foreign technologies like bottom trawling, again a war technology to discover mines at the bottom of the sea, misapplied to fishing resulting in indiscriminate, unsustainable and destructive fishing. This depleted the life resources and displaced the traditional fisher people who depend on these life resources. Deforestation due to industrialisation and other encroachments, Construction of Mega Dams, pollution of water siltation and other reclamation Shrimp Aquaculture, all these have drastically reduced fish availability and livelihood of fishing communities in India. All these ventures are taken up by the MNCs and the TNCs in the name of development.

The net result on the one hand quick profit to the big investors who can easily close down their business after the depletion of resources and begin to invest in something else more profitable and on the other hand, complete loss of livelihood and displacement for peoples who lived off these natural resources while caring and nurturing the same.

In the 1990s fishing reached the point of diminishing returns. Many fish populations have fallen to the levels from which they can no longer recover without significant reductions in the catches or a moratorium on fishing. There are simply too many boats and ships to catch a limited fish resource in the world. The first surge in numbers of fishing vessels occurred during the industrial revolution. These upwell tapered off during the two world wars, but boomed again in the 1950s through 1970s. The world's fishing fleets doubled between 1970 and 1990.

This threat to the very livelihood of fisher people has forced them to forge new linkages and organise to face the threats. Through a long chain of hunger strikes, sit-ins, rallies, picketing national high ways, railway lines, airports, government offices, blocking harbours etc the fisher people were able to obtain the Coastal Zone Regulation Notification. But even that is not implemented.

This struggle went on and one Mr. Jagannathan, engaged in the Sarvodaya movement for the past 55 years, has filed a petition in the Supreme Court vide 561 of 1994 against the Shrimp industries in the eastern coast of Tamilnadu. The major demands before the honourable court were (i) enforcement of Coastal Zone Regulation Notification dated February 19, 1991 issued by the Government of India, (ii) stoppage of intensive and semi-intensive type of prawn farming in the ecologically fragile coastal areas, (iii) prohibition from using the waste lands/wetlands for prawn farming and (iv) the constitution of a National Coastal Management Authority to safeguard the marine life and coastal areas.

In 1991 the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India issued a notification dated February 19, under clause (d) of sub-rule (3) of rules 5 of the Environment (Protection) Rules, 1986. Wherein it was declared that the coastal stretches of seas, bays, estuaries, creeks, rivers and backwater which are influenced by the tidal action (in the landward side) up to 500 metres from the High Tide Line (HTL) and the land between the Low Tide Line (LTL) and the HTL are Coastal Regulatory Zones. The Central Government has imposed various restrictions in the said Notification.

Intensive prawn cultivation have degraded the coastal ecology to greater extend and it has further effected the tradition fisherfolk as well as the farmers and other dependent on this for their livelihood. Even the Supreme Court in the Jagannathan case had come to this understanding with the help of different committees and experts. Fisher people relate with the sea not as a commodity, but as mother and there is a sense and relation of mutuality and caring between the mother and child. For the corporate houses it is only a commodity to be profited.

Consequently the Apex court came out with its final verdict dated 11-12-1996, in which it directed the Central Government to constitute an authority to take care of the ecologically fragile coastal areas. In its order it banned all aquaculture industry or shrimp culture within the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) as defined in the CRZ regulation and directed the states to close or demolish such industries before March 31 1997 and to file a compliance report in this respect by the authorities before April 15, 1997. In no. 6 of the order the Supreme Court explicitly pointed that "the agricultural lands, salt pan lands, mangroves, wet lands, forest lands, land for village common purpose shall not be used/converted for construction of shrimp culture ponds". Any violation or non-compliance of the directions of the Supreme Court was to be considered under the Contempt of Courts Acts.

Despite this ruling by the highest judiciary of the country, there has not been much of improvement in the situation of the people. In most of the states, regardless of the convergence of peoples' pressure on the Government and authorities, the Government and authorities have severely failed in implementing the directives of the Supreme Court. The situation in Tamilnadu remained the same. To recall, the state is deemed to enforce all directives of Apex Courts without any impediment. Even it should not be essential that the people protest for its execution.

It is to be noted that since 1978 onwards the fishworkers have been on the forefront in organising and struggling to protect the resources and the fishing community in India. The struggle for Marine Fishing Regulation Act and its implementation has been a long-standing one. It is yet to be fully realized. Though the Majumadar Committee recommended that the Parliament should enact the MFRA in 1978, under the camouflage of constitutional pretext, it has not been done even till this day. Instead of Parliament enacting such an act, the Marine Fishing Regulation model bill was sent to the states to enact the same. Most of the coastal states responded positively but it did not serve the purpose fully. The Murari Committee recommended that the Marine Fishing Regulation in EEZ should be enacted by the Parliament. It is yet to be done.

Despite the warning from the Supreme Court the prawn farms are continued. New sites have been granted permit only after the SC verdict all along the coastal areas of Tamilnadu. "The Fishery department is playing foul hand in glove with the prawn lobby; this is illegal", say Jagannathan Chairman of Tamilnadu Gram Swaraj Movement.

It appears that the mandarins either did not go into the details of the judgement or deliberately keep the industries satisfied. The money power of the prawn companies is in full swing. The law is being ignored and flouted yet no action is taken from any section of the government. This is of server concern. Now the coastal people are ready to take-up another battle. Unless the government and administration acts, the prawn wars will never end. Further the damage needs to be cleared up. People should get their livelihood back. And if industrial prawn farms are to have a future it should be set up in a controlled and sustainable way. Pudi Kuppam from Puttupettai village says, "We live on this land. The water (sea) is our mother. It takes care of us. This is our livelihood. If the prawn farms start operating it will ruin us, but we will destroy them. Wherever it is, we will not spare them. We will wipe them out". And that is not the end of the story.

Goldy M. George
Dalit Study Circle, Karbala Para, Behind State Bank of Indore, G.E.Road, Raipur, Chhattisgarh, India, 492001