Strength in Numbers: Fishing communities in India assert their traditional rights over livelihoods resources

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Villagers in the Tikamgarh and Chattarpur districts of Madhya Pradesh traditionally had the right to fish the region’s ponds, but had lost control of these valuable resources to landlords and contractors. Despite encountering violent opposition, the fishers began organizing to reclaim control of the ponds. They established village co-operatives and formed a federation that gave a strong voice to the region’s fishing communities. By 2008, fisher co-operatives controlled 151 ponds, with nine run by women’s groups. In 2008, their campaign persuaded the state government to revise its fisheries policy, introducing a new law that protects the rights of traditional fishing communities and contains provisions that should help to improve livelihoods in the drought-hit region.
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  C   2. Strength in Numbers Fishing communities in India assert their traditional rights over livelihoods resources Phula (orange) and Jaikuvar pulling the net, Birara village, Tikamgarh © Rajendra Shaw/Oxfam Villagers in the Tikamgarh and Chattarpur districts of Madhya Pradesh traditionally had the right to fish the region’s ponds, but had lost control of these valuable resources to landlords and contractors. Despite encountering violent opposition, the fishers began organizing to reclaim control of the ponds. They established village co-operatives and formed a federation that gave a strong voice to the region’s fishing communities. By 2008, fisher co - operatives controlled 151 ponds, with nine run by women’s groups. In 2008, their campaign persuaded the state government to revise its fisheries policy, introducing a new law that protects the rights of traditional fishing communities and contains provisions that should help to improve livelihoods in the drought-hit region.      P  r  o  g  r  a  m  m  e   I  n  s   i  g   h   t  s      Fishing communities in India assert their traditional rights over livelihoods resources  , Programme Insights, Oxfam GB. April 2011 1 Introduction The Bundelkhand region of central India is a semi-arid plateau that encompasses six districts of northern Madhya Pradesh and seven districts of southern Uttar Pradesh. Much of the region suffers from acute ecological degradation due to topsoil erosion and deforestation, making the land unproductive. It is also one of the least developed regions in the country in terms of per capita income and literacy levels. In Madhya Pradesh the proportion of the population living below the poverty line was 38.3 per cent in 2004 – 05 (Government of India), 1  while in 2008 the male adult literacy rate (age 15 and over) was 73 per cent and the female adult literacy rate was just 48 per cent (World Bank). 2  Fishing is an important economic sector in India. Inland and marine fisheries together account for around 1 per cent of national GDP and make an important contribution to foreign exchange earnings; in 2004 these amounted to $1.36bn (FAO, 2009). 3  FAO estimates that the sector supports around 14.7 million people, with two million directly employed in full-time or part-time fishing activities and nearly four million engaged in ancillary activities such as net-making and fish vending (FAO). 4  The state of Madhya Pradesh is a significant contributor to India’s growing in land fisheries sector, with over 335,000 hectares of ponds and reservoirs. 5   The state’s annual production of fish amounts to 61,500 tonnes, and it has approximately 1,680 fisher co-operatives with 58,500 members. 6   Despite the industry’s potential, traditio nal fishing communities in Madhya Pradesh have struggled to sustain their livelihoods. In 1998, when Oxfam began working in Bundelkhand, the rights of traditional fisherfolk had been largely eroded and contractors, given access by village landlords, had gained control of the ponds. Many of the region’s 45,000 fishing families had become waged labourers, badly treated and poorly paid, and at risk of losing access to the resources that provided them with a livelihood. The state government provided little or no support for fishing communities, and local officials paid no attention to their grievances. With the support of Oxfam, fishing communities in the two Bundelkhand districts of Tikamgarh and Chattarpur began fighting to re-establish their rights over the fishing ponds in the late 1990s. VIKALP, a local NGO specializing in sustainable development, also played a crucial role in helping communities to set up village co-operatives to fish the ponds. Their struggle gained momentum as fishermen and women from other villages joined their campaign. This led eventually to local fishing communities regaining control over 151 ponds for the cultivation of fish (and of crops in the dry season) –  a huge achievement. Furthermore, the community-led campaign persuaded the state government to introduce a new    Fishing communities in India assert their traditional rights over livelihoods resources  , Programme Insights, Oxfam GB. April 2011 2 fisheries law that guarantees rights to the ponds, improves access conditions, and promises to enhance livelihoods for many more people in the region. With this support, the groups are improving both the ponds and their own levels of organization, in the process emphasizing the empowerment of women. 7   Marginalized fisherfolk fight back The Dhimar caste of fisherfolk have traditionally enjoyed fishing rights on ponds and reservoirs (known locally as ‘tanks’) in the Bundelkhand region. Many of these ponds were built as long as 1,000 years ago. For many years, however, they were neglected and local people fished only for their own consumption. In 1967 responsibility for leasing the ponds became the responsibility of the  panchayats  (village governing bodies). While on paper fisher co-operatives were meant to have priority, over the years that followed upper-caste landlords, middlemen, and contractors realized the market potential of fish and used their influence in the  panchayats  to take control of the ponds. The terms of the leases they secured were unfair, and local fishers became marginalized, forced to provide low-paid labour for the landlords and contractors. Any attempt to fish on their own account was treated as theft, and fishers were subject to abuse and even to physical violence. In 1995, a group of 12 young Dhimar fishers in Madiya village took organized action to reclaim their traditional fishing rights. They negotiated with the  panchayat  and district authorities to take over the lease of the Achhrumata pond, despite opposition from the contractor who had previously held it. The fishers stocked the pond with fish, but then at harvest time were confronted by thugs hired by the contractor. A pitched battle ensued, which ended with the fishers’ huts being burned down.  Undeterred, the Achhrumata fishers persuaded the local police to accept an official complaint, which was seen as an important symbolic blow against the landlords. This unprecedented success, together with legislation passed in 1996, sparked a wave of organization in poor fishing communities, with other fishers filing formal complaints about attacks made on them. VIKALP ’s mission is to work with marginalized and resource -poor communities, particularly women, children, and youth, and to empower them with knowledge and skills, so that communities can achieve development and ensure food security themselves through sustainable practices of natural resource management. 8  With VIKALP ’s help, this first group of fishers  organized campaigns to encourage others to set up co-operatives and, as their self-confidence grew, fishers took over several other ponds. By the end of 1998, co-operatives had control of ponds in Mandiya, Kakuani, and Daretha.    Fishing communities in India assert their traditional rights over livelihoods resources  , Programme Insights, Oxfam GB. April 2011 3 Despite still having to fight the landlords, the experiences of these pioneering groups demonstrated the returns available if fishers were able to organize and control the ponds. However, it was also clear that changes in policy would make it much easier for fishers to retain control in the long term. In 1996 the fishers’ protests led the Fisheries Minister in the Congress Party government of Madhya Pradesh to push through ‘fish to the fisher’ legislation that granted leases to fisher co-operatives and gave  panchayats  a clearer framework for managing leases. Although contractors used ‘dummy’ co -operatives and other tricks to get around the legislation and retain their control of ponds, the new law prompted a wave of co-operation and organization among fisher communities. Box 1. Reaping the rewards of the struggle In the village of Dumduma a group of fishers took the Ganga Sagar tank on lease, despite demands for compensation by contractors for the investments they claimed to have made. The fishers negotiated the Rs. 50,000 ($1,083) demanded down to Rs. 32,000 ($693) and with great difficulty managed to scrape this sum together, along with an additional Rs. 12,000 ($260) to stock the tank with fish fry. Their first-year returns on the fish catch amounted to Rs. 300,000 ($6,500), despite the contractors extracting a further Rs. 32,000 ($693) from the group. In 1998, Oxfam began supporting the fisherfolks’ efforts. A meeting held in Kakoni attracted around 50 fishers, together with representatives of VIKALP and Oxfam, who agreed to help mobilize financial support. Representatives from co-operatives began meeting monthly, and solidarity between the different groups grew. Unsettled by the growing level of fisher organization, the landlords and contractors attempted to prevent them from meeting, making threats and attempting to create splits between co-operatives. There were many instances of nets being stolen, beatings, and abuse. By 2000, fisher co-operatives controlled 22 ponds –  though the majority remained beyond their reach. Challenges included the high cost of leases; lack of capital investment, quality fish stocks, and market linkages; and restricted rights on the use of pond beds to cultivate water lotus ( kamalgatta ) or other crops during the dry months. Even where fishers did control ponds, they often had to pay up to half of their returns to contractors to cover existing debts or to compensate them for investments in fish stocks. Continued campaigning spread the word to a further 56 villages, and in 2002 a mass meeting of 10,000 fisherfolk was held in Tikamgarh, followed by the presentation of a 14-point charter of demands to the district collector (the most senior government official in the district), who agreed to take up the matter with the state government. In May 2002 a further mass meeting of fisher representatives was organized with the collector. This resulted in the district administration taking stronger action to remove illegal contractors and to punish co-operative officials illegally colluding with contractors.
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