- Open Access
Justice at Sea: Fishers’ politics and marine conservation in coastal Odisha, India
© Chhotray. 2016
- Received: 9 February 2015
- Accepted: 29 March 2016
- Published: 14 April 2016
The Erratum to this article has been published in Maritime Studies 2016 15:8
This is a paper about the politics of fishing rights in and around the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary in coastal Odisha, in eastern India. Claims to the resources of this sanctuary are politicised through the creation of a particularly damaging narrative by influential Odiya environmental actors about Bengalis, as illegal immigrants who have hurt the ecosystem through their fishing practices. Anchored within a theoretical framework of justice as recognition, the paper considers the making of a regional Odiya environmentalism that is, potentially, deeply exclusionary. It details how an argument about ‘illegal Bengalis’ depriving ‘indigenous Odiyas’ of their legitimate ‘traditional fishing rights’ derives from particular notions of indigeneity and territory. But the paper also shows that such environmentalism is tenuous, and fits uneasily with the everyday social landscape of fishing in coastal Odisha. It concludes that a wider class conflict between small fishers and the state over a sanctuary sets the context in which questions about legitimate resource rights are raised, sometimes with important effects, like when out at sea.
- Fishers rights
This paper critically examines the politics of a protracted conflict involving fishing communities in Odisha on the eastern coast of India. At the centre of the story is a tussle over fishing rights in the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary, notified by the Odisha state government in 1997. A key objective of the sanctuary was the protection of the endangered Olive Ridley turtle, which visits this coastline en masse for breeding from December until March. Created following little or no popular consultation with local fishers, the sanctuary has imposed a total ban on fishing. Those affected include Odiya and Bengali fishers, of different castes, who variously pursue both motorized and non-motorized fishing. The mainly Odiya owners of mechanized trawlers that come from other parts of Odisha also resent the sanctuary.
Conservation, for its advocates, is ‘self-evidently an unimpeachable political value’ (Jayal 2010: 69). Political values like rights and justice are extended in relation to the natural environment, making it just to demarcate protected areas and sanctuaries, and fence these away from human use. This viewpoint may disregard the question of justice for the people that are affected by conservation. If, as is often the case, the local communities in question are poor, marginalised tribals, or immigrants and refugees or other minorities, then the ethic of conservation is placed under even greater strain (Jayal 2010: 69).
The politics of justice in the context of conservation is fairly complex. Conservation is not simply a debate about nature versus people, but involves arguments between certain groups of people versus other groups of people (Low and Gleeson 1998; Saberwal and Rangarajan 2003). Who is speaking for which cause, which constituency do they support and what are the consequences for framing a particular environmental conflict or struggle in a particular manner are all pertinent. These questions may matter especially when there are conflicting claims to space and there is disagreement over who has priority in resource use, like in Gahirmatha.
Odiyas comprise the local population of the state, whereas the Bengalis- being referred to here- are immigrants. These comprise both those who claim to be from West Bengal and others who have travelled from East Pakistan or former Bangladesh at various points since 1947. Bengali settlers are scattered in numerous villages and hamlets of Rajnagar and Mahakalpada blocks of Kendrapara district of Odisha. Many of these are adjacent to the sanctuary and neighbouring estuarine areas. Odiyas and Bengali speak related languages, they share many cultural similarities and importantly, the Bengali immigrants here are principally Hindus, like the majority Odiya population. Many, if not all, have acquired citizenship documents over the decades.
A purposive case study approach has allowed us to investigate the subject critically, using the case study villages (Matsyapalli, Ambapalli and Narayanpur) as the empirical centre of the problem while tracing other actors ‘outwards’ through an inductive interview process. We have not been interested in a survey approach across various fishing villages as we are not trying to obtain generalizable knowledge. Our chosen methods therefore support the principal research questions: ‘How does a conflict between fishers and a sanctuary generate the question of legitimate resource rights? How is a regional Odiya environmentalism constructed, and how does it relate to the everyday social relations amongst coastal fishers living next to a sanctuary?’
Our primary research methods accordingly comprised focus group discussions (FGDs) and detailed key informant interviews with small fishers from Matsyapalli, Ambapalli and Narayanpur, who were both male and female, and a mix of Bengali and Odiya. In addition, we conducted key informant interviews with trawler operators (all of whom are Odiya), heads of fishers’ cooperatives (both Bengali and Odiya), Odiya fishing caste leaders and fish godown operators (all Odiya). We interviewed retired and current government officials, NGO persons and environmentalists. Approximately ten FGDs and forty long interviews were carried out between November 2011 and May 2012.
In considering the injustice of this particular conservation initiative at Gahirmatha through an analytical perspective of representation and framing, the paper hopes to engage directly with environmentalism, as a way of thinking about politics and society based upon an understanding of environmental problems (Sharma 2012), and the question of justice as recognition (Fraser 1997, 2000; Schlosberg 2004; Young 1990). Recognition or misrecognition depends on meanings and values, albeit partial and fragile, prevailing within social and environmental discourse (Li 2004). Taking this as a starting point, the paper contains a detailed account of diverging representations of fishers’ rights in relation to the conflict at Gahirmatha, and through it, the dynamic positions and stakes of powerful stakeholders.
The paper is organized in four sections. Section 2 relates justice as recognition to ‘environmentalism’. It discusses eco-nationalism and eco-naturalism as increasingly popular strains of environmentalism in India. It also describes the significance of regional environmentalisms within the construction of eco-nationalism in a country as diverse as India. Section 3 sets out the state’s view of fisheries development and the tensions in reconciling these with its conservation agenda. It also introduces the historical role of the state in enabling the particular regional environmentalism being described in this paper. Section 4 characterises life for the fishers living next to the Gahirmatha sanctuary, as evident from the case studies. It juxtaposes their everyday social relations against the complex Odiya environmentalism that seeks to blame Bengali immigrants for the decline of marine fisheries in the state, and seeks to expose the contradictions in the narrative being constructed. Section 5 focuses on the sanctuary itself, policing the borders of which allows a more abstract state to appear in material form. It is here, at sea, that some visible effects of such environmental thinking- however fragile and contradictory- can be observed; even as small fishers, both Odiya and Bengali, encounter state authority from within their disadvantaged position in the marine class hierarchy.
The conceptual framework to this paper is in two parts. The first briefly recapitulates the significance of justice as recognition, and discusses its relevance for assessing the effects of environmentalism in society. The second part describes environmentalism as eco-nationalism and eco-naturalism, in the Indian context, while focusing on the significance of regional imaginations of eco-nationalism. It also shows how territory, nature and people are brought together within an effective set of representations that justify particular modes of state intervention through conservation.
Justice as recognition, environmentalism and frames of meaning
Environmental justice scholarship has been marked by a long running debate between justice as distribution versus justice as recognition. Justice theorists Fraser (1997, 2000), Schlosberg (2004) and Young (1990) show us that while distributional issues—as highlighted by John Rawls- are crucial to a satisfactory conclusion, it is a mistake to reduce social justice to distribution. They argue that the politics of recognition inheres in all societies and contexts, and that justice demands substantive recognition within the political community. The concern here is beyond formal rights alone, though these matter significantly, for effective recognition within society is necessary in order to penetrate and contest marginalising discourses (Holston 2008). Moreover, the literature suggests there is a very strong relationship between justice as distribution and justice as recognition. When particular storylines get the backing of more vocal/dominant groups in society, and they enrol powerful institutions, then the outcomes may be substantively unjust (Hajer 1995 in Forsyth 2006).
Within the burgeoning literature on environmental justice, there is a keen sense of which meanings and values prevail within social and environmental discourse (Walker 2012). ‘Whose justice’ is a question that intensely engages scholars as they detect the pervasive power of particular discourses in marginalising groups. Baviskar et al. (2006) and Mawdsley (2004) have persuasively demonstrated how a ‘middle class environmentalism’ in Indian cities has adversely affected working class populations engaged in ‘polluting’ activities. Middle class environmentalism is based around a ‘storyline’ (to use a term by Hajer 1995 cited in Forsyth 2006), which constructs a peculiar narrative about environmental degradation, with predefined notions of blame to certain social groups.
Such representation or framing inevitably involve simplification, even falsification, of history and the stereotyping and classification of populations, while serving to entrench powerful interests in society. And yet, we also know that the domination of social discourses is contingent upon dynamic power relations and fluid coalitions of interests (Roseberry 1994). Going further, there are continuous attempts at producing dominant frames of meanings, but there is also a constant possibility of their fracture, contestation and re-articulation (Li 2004).
Territory, nature, people, state: Eco-nationalism as environmentalism
The ‘nature-for-nationalism’ or ‘eco-nationalism’ breed of environmentalism is about the imagination of particular territorial landscapes through the invocation of specific national cultural symbols and historical continuities. It has deep roots in India, going back to colonial times when environmental imagery became an important means of developing a national consciousness against the British. The ‘new traditionalist discourse’ has continued to propagate a nostalgic vision of pre-colonial India where ‘traditional ecology’ was balanced by self-contained communities endowed with a special conservationist ethic (Sinha, Gururani and Greenberg 1997). Other strains of environmentalism also derived from particular uses of national environmental imageries, often in strikingly different ways, like Gandhian environmental thinking which challenged the new modernist projects of development.
In a plural society like that of India, there are many different national imaginings at work. Sivaramakrishnan and Cederlof (2012) have proposed the concept of ‘ecological nationalism’ to express how both ‘cosmopolitan’ as well as ‘nativist’ forms of ‘nature devotion’ may be articulated in terms of nationalistic pride. This may be of two types: cosmopolitan or ‘metropolitan-secular’ which claims to work in the interests of nation-building projects, and seeks to appropriate nature for the wider ‘public’ good, and nativist or ‘indigenist-regionalist’ which generally includes a reaction to development interventions by the state or global forces for their marginalising effects on the lives of local communities (Sivaramakrishnan and Cederlof 2012: 7). Examples of the former include Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister, who expressed his vision of the imagined landscape of the Indian nation of secular modernism in relation to physical imagery like of the Himalayas or of various ‘mighty rivers’ (Sivaramakrishnan and Cederlof 2012: 30).
The latter however is distinguished for its assertions of indigeneity and claims to authenticity with respect to particular places, and various historical memories may be espoused to convey affinity with those environments. Adivasi assertions of indigeneity in parts of India (like in Odisha, in contestation against international mining projects; see Sahu 2008) may be an example. However, there is also much evidence of the misappropriation of nature, both symbolically and materially, by regionally dominant communities or particular social and cultural groups to promote their own agendas of regional control. Sivaramakrishnan and Cederlof give the example of the Roman Catholic Mukkuvar fisherfolk in Kanyakumari district in South India for their attempts to claim fishing rights through an assertion of belonging to the locality and the nation, and their support of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party in this regard (2012: 9).
In other quarters too, the popularisation of the concept of indigeneity amongst local groups has evoked concern, especially amongst anthropologists, who worry that the search for ‘cultural authenticity’ is quite pointless, and it is preferable to focus on the political strategies through which indigeneity is being articulated and claimed (Li 2000 as cited in Dove 2006). Scholars have also attacked the proponents of indigenous knowledge for over- emphasising cultural purity and continuity, and in the process, marginalising other poorer groups who may not be able to claim indigeneity defined in such ways (Dove 2006). Li has persuasively argued that ‘indigenous identity is in any case a narrow target, which is easily over-shot or undershot’ (2000 cited in Dove 2006: 194). This is not the place for an extended consideration of the contested nature of indigeneity, our limited point being that there is a seriously performative aspect to this notion, which has and can be deployed instrumentally by dominant elites for limited ends.
In India moreover, the complicating factor is also the sheer plurality of regional identities that mediate the host of possible ecological nationalisms. To borrow from Aloysius’ provocative contention, ‘there is in India, no nation’ (Aloysius 1999 cited in Sivaramakrishnan and Cederlof 2012). There are examples galore of articulations of regional identities as mediated by geography, but simultaneously underpinned by some reference to their place as citizens of the Indian state (like in Jharkhand and Uttaranchal, both of which experienced ethno-regional movements for separate statehood). Regional ecological nationalisms refer to a pristine aesthetic of nature that emanates from a particular space, even as a larger construct of India as a sacred and inviolable territory is endorsed. In this regard, it is worth highlighting the convergence between eco-nationalism and Hindu religious chauvinisms. The imagining of national landscapes as unique is central to Hindu political thought, ‘making the natural contours of the nation seem supreme’ (Sharma 2012: 30, italics added for emphasis). Hindu nationalism is increasingly shaping mainstream environmental thinking in India, with the use of various popular discourses to censure foreign domination, attack immigrants and challenge Muslims and Christians (Sharma 2012).
In fact, it may be argued that conservation itself represents a form of metropolitan-secular eco-nationalism, wherein a particular imagination of the national territory is translated into concrete state policy. State creation in turn draws on a longer historical narrative of modernity and progress, which in turn rested on a ‘fundamental reordering of society in space’ (Scott 1998 cited in Neumann 2004: 201). Colonial states across Asia and Africa legitimised sole and exclusive territorial control over all ‘vacant lands’ exclusive of those on recognized private land (Peluso and Vandergeest 2001). Indeed, ‘states come into being through these claims and the assertion of control over territory, resources and people’ (Neumann 2004: 202).
The Indian state has followed an approach to conservation precisely interpreted as ‘bounding nature’ away from human use that was popularised in the United States. This involved the creation of national parks, often involving the heavy use of state fiat and the deployment of particularly strategic ideas around science and expertise (Rangarajan 2001). India enacted the Wildlife Protection Act in 1972, and established 92 national parks and 500 wildlife sanctuaries, as well as 33 marine sanctuaries and national parks, designated together as marine protected areas (Singh 2002). Through conservation, states were reconstituting peoples’ relationships with nature under the garb of a civilising mission, and India was no exception. The setting out of strict norms of citizenry, of how people ought to behave with respect to the modern state, was also a part of this project.
In fact, conservation produced a peculiar construct of a national citizen with responsibilities but no rights. People were expected to live responsibly around parks, foregoing or greatly curtailing their resource use in the interests of nature, which the conservation paradigm artificially divorces of human beings. Yet they did not have commensurate rights, like the right to be informed following the notification of a national park or sanctuary, and the right to represent their claims (Jayal 2010). There have also been more overt cases of coercion, like through the infamous patrolling approach of ‘guns and guards’ followed by the forest department officials to keep people out of parks. Yet, very often in practice, either the forest department has limited capacity to patrol effectively or forest guards are complicit in villagers’ entering the park area in return for money, which may be benignly obtained or extorted (Baviskar 2003).
However, it should be stated that while conservation practices may reflect a dominant metropolitan-secular eco-nationalism, to relate all forms of eco-nationalism to concrete state policies is not always very straightforward. Especially with multiple plural competing regional eco-nationalisms, some of which may be overtly ‘indigenist-regionalist’ in flavour, the connections either with official state practices or dominant social norms cannot be easily assumed. In this paper, we show how the creation of a sanctuary sparked off a series of livelihood constraints amongst small fishers, raised questions about legitimate traditional fishing rights, and elicited a reaction involving the constructing of a uniquely regional Odiya eco-nationalism. The rest of the paper explores various aspects of this social discourse, its contradictions and fragility, as well as the role of the state in both facilitating as well as mediating such a discourse.
In this section, the paper moves on to a somewhat more detailed consideration of two aspects of the state, and the role it plays for the case at hand. In the first part, we consider the principal aspects of the state’s policy for fisheries regulation in Odisha, and the particular regional resonance of wider national tensions between fishing and marine conservation. In the second part, we comment briefly on the historical stance of the Indian state towards the entry of refugees and immigrants following the great partition of 1947. We also refer to some particular controversies that have erupted in these coastal parts of Odisha regarding immigration from Bangladesh, and the role assumed by the state in Odisha in this regard.4 It is hoped that this discussion will contextualise the role of the state in enabling the particular regional environmentalism being described in this paper.
State policy, turtle conservation and marine fishing
The Olive Ridley turtle is a critically endangered sea turtle species that visits Odisha between December and March each year. Turtle conservation has engaged both official policy as well as non-governmental advocacy since the 1970s. However, as this section shows, turtle conservation is tied in with the larger problem of regulation of marine fishing, which in turn, is an extremely contested terrain given the diversity of interests within the marine fishing sector. Moreover, while the state has been criticised by conservation groups for not doing enough to protect the Olive Ridley, it has equally come under attack by fishers groups and fisheries officials for not dealing adequately with issues of fishing productivity.
Widespread reports of turtle mortalities in the 1970s triggered off a massive response of state protection at the national level. In 1976, the endangered status of this species was sealed with its inclusion into Schedule I of the Indian Wildlife (Protection) Act or WLPA, 1972, and the Forest Department stopped issuing licenses for the collection of turtle eggs in Odisha. National and international scientific research played a critical part in this process, as did environmental campaigns that led to the deployment of the coast guard to Gahirmatha by Prime Minister Gandhi in 1982. Heavy policing contributed to a marked decline in illegal turtle trade in Odisha by the 1980s (Sridhar et al. 2005).
Besides WLPA, the Odisha state government also enacted the Odisha Marine Fisheries Regulation Act (OMFRA) in 1981, and introduced other subsequent regulations to curb destructive fishing practices that hurt turtles. Under OMFRA, the state government tried to set standards for ‘sustainable fishing’ by introducing different fishing rules for the different types of craft, as well as limiting the number of mechanized fishing boats. Only ‘non-mechanized traditional fishing boats’ were to be allowed within 5 km of the shoreline throughout the coast of Odisha, and all larger mechanized vessels could only operate beyond 10 km from the shoreline (Sridhar et al. 2005). For the purposes of this paper, we use the widely popular meaning of a mechanized boat to refer to that ‘where fishing is done mechanically (like trawlers), as opposed to a non-mechanized boat, where the actual fishing is not done mechanically (these include motors in motorized boats, which are used only for locomotion)’.5
In 1994, the state government issued biennial orders prohibiting fishing in Gahirmatha and these were reissued periodically. By 1997, Gahirmatha had been declared a marine sanctuary under Section 26 (1) of the WLPA, with a core area measuring 725.5 sq. km and a buffer zone of 709.5 sq. km. This meant that absolutely no fishing was permitted in the core area at any time. Few or no consultations with local people preceded the sanctuary’s notification on September 27, 1997, sadly echoing other experiences of state led conservation elsewhere in the country (Saberwal and Rangarajan 2003).
The government proactively adopted measures to protect turtles at other key nesting sites (mouth of Devi and Rushikulya rivers further south of Gahirmatha), and prohibited mechanized fishing within 20 km of the high tide line between 1 November and 31 May each year. There is a blanket ban on fishing anywhere along the Odisha coast from April 15 to May 31 in view of the fish breeding season. The government has made the use of turtle excluder devices (TEDs) compulsory for trawlers under Section 29 (B) of OMFRA (Wright and Mohanty 2006).
Despite these steps, turtle deaths continued to escalate through the 1990s, and were widely attributed to ‘a surge in mechanized fishing, unsustainable fishing practices and deliberate violations of the law’ (Wright and Mohanty 2006: 290). Prominent environment groups criticised the state for this situation. Operation Kachhapa (OpK), the prime turtle conservation initiative in Odisha (formed under the aegis of the Wildlife Protection Society of India in 1988), was especially concerned about ‘overfishing’ being sponsored by the state. In March, 2002, OpK filed an affidavit to the Odisha High Court against the government for having issued ‘about 6000 fishing licenses - to about 900 trawlers and 5000 gill netters - against the official OMFRA quota of 1080’ (Wright and Mohanty 2006: 292). OpK estimates that 16,000 fishing boats operate along the Odisha coast, of which about 8000 are large mechanized fishing trawlers and gill netters.
In contrast with the narrative pursued by environmentalist groups is that of an unlikely alliance of state officials and many local fishers, who take the view that fisheries policy in Odisha has not been ‘productivist’ enough. A retired fisheries official viewed that adoption of multiple restrictions (sanctuary, seasonal fishing bans and trawler excluder devices) was an ‘overreaction’ to exaggerated environmentalist agendas.8 Unlike other coastal states like Kerala (Sinha 2012), the Government of Odisha is generally criticized for neglecting marine fisheries (Sampath 2005), and with little or no investment in off-shore infrastructure, promotion of fishing cooperatives and the ‘modernisation’ of indigenous craft and gear.9 The government has not invested adequately in deep-sea fishing (with no deep sea trawlers till date) or exploited the full potential of the Exclusive Economic Zone. Many fisheries officials consider that the overfishing alleged by environmentalists stems from overcrowding of near shore waters by vessels of all types, which is a deeper problem requiring a systematic response. In particular, small fishers and trawlers are equally indignant about the transgression of foreign vessels into Indian territorial waters. However, more recently, there is a recognition in the state of the stagnation in marine fish production, and of the need to adopt measures for modernisation and shore based infrastructure development besides the exploitation of deep sea fisheries.10
The Indian state, refugees and the 2005 controversy in odisha
The subject of refugees is an extremely contentious one in post-partition South Asia. Both the great partition of India and Pakistan in 1947 as well as the war of liberation of East Pakistan that saw the creation of Bangladesh in 1971 produced large scale movements of people. These have repeatedly raised difficult questions around citizenship and the rights of refugees. Interestingly, India has neither ratified the 1951 Convention on Status of Refugees nor the Protocol of 1967. Yet, right since the days of the Constituent Assembly—tasked with formulating the Indian Constitution- the debate on who should be legitimately regarded as a refugee and accorded protection has been repeatedly had (Jayal 2013).
Historian Joya Chatterji writes that in the two decades after the partition of India and Pakistan, millions of Hindus crossed over into India, especially in the ‘turbulent wake of the Noakhali and Tippera riots in 1946 and the Khulna riots of 1960’; nearly another two million left ‘after the theft of holy Muslim relics from the Hazratbal shrine in Kashmir in 1964’ (Chatterji 2007, 111). The so-called refugee crisis intensified in 1971 when Bangladesh was formed, with a steady influx of both Muslim and Hindu refugees. This has continued steadily thereafter, triggering off profound unrest in especially affected states like Assam. A powerful student agitation against the ‘swamping of Assam by foreigners’ from 1979 to 1985 led to the signing of the Assam Accord with the central government. The government prescribed that ‘a) all those who had migrated before 1966 would be treated as citizens, b) those who had migrated between 1966 and 1971 could stay provided they put themselves through an official process of registration as foreigners, and c) all those who had migrated thereafter were simply illegal immigrants’ (Jayal 2013: 64).
‘for every person of Indian origin (if either of his parents or grandparents was born in undivided India) that came into Assam on or after the 1st day of January 1966 and the 25th day of March 1971, and has ordinarily been resident in Assam, and has been ‘detected as a foreigner’ by a Tribunal constituted under the Foreigners Tribunal Order of 1964, would need to register himself or herself in accordance with the rules made by the Central Government on this behalf. His or her name would need to be deleted from the electoral rolls, and such a person would have 10 years from the date on which he/she has been detected as a foreigner the same rights and obligations as any other citizen of India, including the right to obtain an Indian passport’.11
No such provision was made for anyone entering after the cut-off date in March 1971. At a human and personal level, such a politics of citizenship has been extremely debilitating for the thousands of immigrants, forever exposing them to expedient questions around authenticity.
The subject of ‘illegal immigrants’ has been a deeply emotive one for many Indians, who feel bitterly towards politicians of all political parties for using immigrants as easy vote banks. The Illegal Migrants (Determination by Tribunal) Act or IMTD Act of 1983 created an Assam-specific exception to India’s law on foreigners, which normally requires individuals in question to prove their own citizenship status. Under the IMTD Act, neighbours could simply file a complaint against suspected illegal immigrants, and the matter would then be decided by a tribunal. The Act was partly meant to prevent a witch hunt against illegal migrants, but also had the professed aim of making it easier to detect and deport illegal migrants (Kapur 2012: 152).
However, the IMTD Act was not received well in Assam, and a writ petition was filed in the Supreme Court claiming that the Act had ‘made it “impossible for citizens who are resident in Assam to secure the detection and deportation of foreigners from Indian soil”’ (Sarbananda Sonowal 2005 cited in Jayal 2013: 64). Though the IMTD Act was eventually struck down, the law on citizenship continues to reflect the issue of illegal immigrants from Bangladesh. In particular, a 2003 amendment to the 1955 Citizenship Act modified the provision of citizenship by birth to exclude from it such persons born in India as have one parent who is an illegal immigrant at the time of their birth (Article 3 c ii).12
The state of Odisha received a steady stream of Bengali refugees from former East Pakistan in the 1960s, as well as subsequent decades even after the formation of Bangladesh. Interviews in our case villages revealed that several people arrived here from the government refugee camps that had been established in various places, such as the hot and dry parts of central India (Kudaisya 1997). They came here because they were attracted by the familiar coastal habitat to which they were accustomed back in Bangladesh. Others came in course of their journeys through India looking for work, having arrived in West Bengal, and then gone on to Paradeep, a port town in Odisha.
The areas immediately by the sea were covered with dense forest and were unpopulated. We heard a number of accounts about how villages and settlements around here grew organically, with the gradual clearing of forest land. In those early years, Bengali refugees were ostensibly welcomed by absentee Odiya landlords to cultivate their lands. We were told that the revenue department had initially awarded pattas or land titles to a small group of refugees, but most others had negotiated small homesteads through informal payments and bribes to revenue and forest officials over time. Not everyone has a land patta. A number of respondents openly admitted to arriving here in the 1980s and even later. They shared painful memories of Muslim atrocities meted out to the Hindu population long after the formation of Bangladesh. Those who came later on merged with previous settlers, and like them, went on to acquire a range of identity documents associated with citizenship. These ranged from certificates of landlessness, voter cards, ration cards, BPL (below poverty line) cards and so on.
Such grassroots processes of acquiring documents are typically associated with the vote bank politics concerning groups of immigrants. In coastal Odisha, it is well known that Bengalis have been patronised by a now deceased state legislator (or MLA). Much loved by the Bengali population, this politician was routinely criticised by his opponents. Some even argued that it was he that had influenced the illegal construction of a jetty at Matsyapalli, in violation of OMFRA, nearly 40 km away from the sea. It is also these micro-level interactions that run in parallel to national level restrictive pronouncements; the chasm between the ostensibly neat categorisations in law of ‘legitimate refugees’ and ‘illegitimate migrants’, and the far messier reality is plain for anyone to see.
There had been no other specific interventions or policies by the state government in Odisha with regard to immigrant Bengalis in these coastal parts. In 2005 however, with little warning, the state government produced an order, following a high court directive, for the identification of 1551 illegal immigrants, who have ostensibly entered India illegally after 1971, or born to parents that were born illegally. ‘Quit India’ notices were issued to this effect by the Kendrapara District Collectorate to persons on the list, scattered across several coastal villages with Bengali settlers, included Narayanpur and Ambapalli. The immediate context to this appears to have been the strict 2003 amendment to the Citizenship Act that excludes children born of ‘illegal immigrants’ from Indian citizenship. We interviewed the District Collector of Kendrapara for more insight into this, but, in response, we were merely told that ‘infiltrators’ had entered India without the prior permission of ‘competent authorities’. We were also not given any further details about the precise enquiry that led to the production of such a list. The wider politics of the case have been examined elsewhere (Chhotray 2016); and it suffices to mention here that the episode and subsequent reactions revealed various fascinating processes at work, which we will refer to in the next section.
In this final section, the paper returns to the ever pressing matter of the sanctuary and what its restrictions actually mean for the fishers that negotiate its boundaries daily. The paper contends that it is at sea, where fishers, both Bengali and Odiya, and of all sizes, encounter authority. The state passes into material form, in the form of ‘guns and guards’, and there is an opportunity to witness the injustice of conservation that is already well documented.
In Gahirmatha, the injustice of curtailed access is magnified as fishers, both Bengali and Odiya, consider that the state is cynically disinterested in finding a rational solution to the ‘impasse’ of seemingly irreconcilable interests between fishers and conservation. They make two points: one, a yearly ban to fishing is not necessary at Gahirmatha because turtles nest between January and March, and there is no need to keep fishers out in November and December, which are the key months for hilsa fishing, and two, the only passage to the open sea (beyond 20 km of the restricted sanctuary area) is through the sanctuary (at the Barunei river mouth at Hukitola). They want the state to renegotiate the rules of access through the sanctuary, and especially smaller fishers want to be allowed to fish near shore during the peak season.
The predictable response of state officials is that the yearly ban is not only for Olive Ridleys but for the health of the marine ecosystem on the whole, and fishers have other avenues to do fishing. Forest department officials also talk of an alternative route to the sea that is not through the sanctuary. While this suggests a disjuncture of knowledge between the state and fishers, there are other factors that have eroded mutual trust. Typically, fishers complain that they are stopped as they are returning through this passage, often with fish caught outside the sanctuary, and their goods seized by lower level forest guards, even as they have no other route. With this motive, forest officials generally issued no receipts for fines charged. Senior forest officials dismiss this story by squarely blaming fishers for cynically stealing from the sanctuary out of greed. Fishers of all sizes insinuate that the state has a vested interest in allowing the status quo to continue. Trawler operators too reported that forest officials tried to extract a much higher penalty than the value of seized fish. Allegedly, forest officials did not follow the recommendation of the Central Empowered Committee, which was constituted upon the orders of the Supreme Court in 2004, to ‘auction’ all seized fish from the sanctuary in the presence of trade union representatives.23
Complying with as well as enforcing the law is difficult at sea. While denying any intention of transgressing sanctuary boundaries, fishers of all sizes resort to the familiar argument about technological lapses. Small fishers say they do not have GPS systems, while trawlers claim that their GPS systems often fail. And yet, trawlers are more effective at fishing inside the sanctuary and getting away quickly. There is a very strong sense of injustice amongst smaller fishers that do get caught. The marine class system can thus have very palpable consequences at sea, especially with respect to the enforcement of sanctuary boundaries by the state.
Enforcement of the law is difficult and risky for the state. Trawler crews have been known to use intimidation tactics at forest guards (Wright and Mohanty 2006), even throwing dynamite on occasion. State officials complain that the police are of little help during these ‘encounters’ as they are unfamiliar with the sea. There are regrettable consequences for both sides. In March 2003, three forest guards were reportedly ‘abducted’ by two gill net boats and one guard was pushed aboard and died. In 2005, a small fisher from Matsyapalli was shot dead by a forest guard, and a public controversy erupted here over how the government had ‘tried its best’ to project the dead man as a ‘Bangladeshi pirate’. The Sarpanch told us how the villagers refused to cremate his body until the government had withdrawn the charges, which it did, and also paid a substantial amount of ex-gratia payment to the family of the deceased.
This tragic incident contains a powerful illustration of how an abstract and nebulous environmentalism can sometimes produce extremely serious effects. This is in fact a very sensitive subject, and one that the Odisha state government generally refrains from publicly escalating. As one forest official said, “Forest people and coast guards check papers at sea, registration papers, proof of ID, fishing licenses, and they all show that the fishermen are residents of Odisha. No doubt they are not Odiyas, but it is not the case that only Odiya people will live in Odisha. It cannot be’.24 The same issue elicited a very different reaction from the environmentalist from the OpK: ‘You see, I have got experience of working in that area, since 2005–6, personally going along with the forest department and patrolling boats in the sea. So many times during seizure of boats, they will say that they are from local Odisha villages, and yet, they will not be able to produce a single document and all of them will be speaking in Bangladeshi dialect, which is different from that of Midnapore (in west Bengal).’
And once again, the ‘politics of authenticity’ that so often constitutes indigenist-regionalist imaginations of eco-nationalism, as the one described in this paper, appears. The discourse itself is facilitated by a particular kind of historical role adopted by the state, but it may also mediate the various contingent acts of the state’s multiple actors.
In this paper, the notification of a marine sanctuary accompanied by wider economic pressures create the context in which questions are raised about legitimate resource rights. The setting is the arrival of Bengali immigrants into the Odisha coast and the transformation of the fishing landscape here through the onset of marine fishing. The paper substantively describes how a historical context of resistance to the incoming Bengalis by Odiya caste fishers is magnified through contemporary economic constraints and the restrictions imposed by the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary, giving way to the construction of a distinctive regional Odiya eco-nationalism. This particular environmentalism emphasises the prior rights of indigenous Odiya traditional fishers and highlights the destructive influence of illegal Bengali immigrants. The paper also draws attention to the particular role of the Indian state, especially in its laws and policies towards immigrants and refugees, in enabling the making of such an environmental discourse. Importantly, the paper shows that this environmentalism is constituted by various different disparate voices that lack any unified position or even politics.
While the paper has been interested in revealing the construction of such a discourse, it has been equally keen to analyse its uneasy juxtaposition with the reality of fishers’ lives and social relations. It explores the limits to Odiya environmentalism, as described, through fieldwork where Bengali fishers widely reject the accusations levied, and most Odiya fishers do not lend credence to these either. It draws from the important demonstration of Odiya-Bengali solidarity after the terrible ‘quit India’ directives of the 2005 state order. These discussions further underpin the central point of the paper that, in fact, the main line of struggle being witnessed is between small fishers and the state, within the wider economic context and the pressures of the sanctuary. The paper develops this point at some length, drawing out the common economic constraints faced by small fishers, both Odiya and Bengali, and their low position within the marine class hierarchy. But equally, even as these basic conflicts are re-enacted at sea, the paper shows that there are moments when such environmentalism can have profoundly serious and tangible effects.
Finally, the injustice that conservation policies may contain for local communities is a well-known theme within the wider scholarship. In this paper, we have also spoken of how conservation itself can be interpreted as a dominant way of visualising the proper use of nature, through metropolitan secular projects for national improvement backed up by concrete and often oppressive state interventions. In addition, there may be multiple indigenist-regional narratives around resource use and resource rights that map on to particular notions of regional spaces nested within a larger nation, imaginings of which are not unified either. In this paper, the particular contours of a regional Odiya eco-nationalism connect with ideas of territorial sanctity and the abhorrence of ‘infiltration’ by immigrants, as systematically incorporated into successive laws and state policies. In a larger sense then, the paper seeks to draw critical attention to the injustice of misrecognition, through misrepresentation and framing that environmental discourses might engender, although its precise effects may vary from one context to another.
All villages names have been changed to preserve anonymity.
A gram or village panchayat is the lowest unit of the three tier system of elected local government in India.
Map courtesy Sudhanshu Behera. Prepared with Arc GIS Software, 2011.
Refer to Gupta and Sharma (2008) for an interesting perspective on how state restrictions impact upon cross border movements of coastal fisherfolk in South Asia
Interview with Retired Deputy Director Fisheries, Cuttack, April 2012.
http://www.odishafisheries.com/website/production/fish/sector.htm (Accessed 6 Jan 2016).
http://www.odishafisheries.com/website/production/fish/sector.htm (Accessed 6 Jan 2016).
Interview with retired Deputy Director, Fisheries, Cuttack, April 2012.
Interviews with fishers at Matsyapalli village, April 2012.
http://www.ndtv.com/india-news/odisha-unveils-roadmap-to-boost-fish-production-1207287 (Accessed 6 Jan 2016).
The Citizenship Amendment Act 1985. Text paraphrased from http://lawmin.nic.in/legislative/textofcentralacts/1985.pdf (Accessed 6 Jan 2016).
Focus group discussion with women in Matsyapalli village, November 2011.
Implemented through the Fisheries and Animal Resources Development Department, this component aims to provide alternative livelihoods options to 80 fishing villages comprising 600 self-help groups (SHGs) and more than 9000 families in both coastal stretches. The sarpanch of Matsyapalli gram panchayat told us that there ought to be about 300 SHGs in Kendrapara district, but approximately 60 SHGs had been formed (at the time of the interview in 2012). He also reported that money came to each SHG through phased instalments, which was ‘demoralising’ for members.
Interview with environmentalist, Operation Kachhapa, March 2012.
http://eprints.cmfri.org.in/3331/1/Special_Publication_No_32.pdf (Accessed 6 Jan 2016).
http://investodisha.org/download/Odisha_Fisheries_Policy_2015.pdf (Accessed 6 Jan 2016).
Gill nets are vertical net panels (about a km or two in length and around 15–20 ft deep), propped up by weights against a wall. Trawl nets on the other hand are meant to scrape the bottom of the sea, though mid-water trawling is also practised in certain parts.
Interview with retired Deputy Director, Fisheries, Cuttack, April 2012.
Interview with Behera, self-styled leader of the Kaibartas and prominent environmental campaigner, Paradip, April 2012.
Conversations with fishing net knitters, Paradip, April 2012.
Interview with Secretary, OTFWU, Cuttack, April 2012.
Interview with ADF Marine Fisheries, Cuttack, April 2012.
This paper is based on research funded by the NERC-ESPA research project ‘Just Ecosystem Management: Linking Ecosystem Services with Poverty Alleviation’ (2010-12). I would like to acknowledge the guidance and support provided by Thomas Sikor in his role as Principal Investigator on this larger research project. I am deeply grateful to Rajib Biswal and Sudhanshu Behera for their invaluable assistance in the field, without which this study would not have been possible. I would like to thank my colleagues at the Global Environmental Justice Group at the School of International Development UEA for their intellectual camaraderie, and audiences at the Development Studies Association Conference in London (2012) and the MARE Conference in Amsterdam (2013) for their critical comments on this paper. All limitations of the paper are of course entirely mine.
Open AccessThis article is distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons license, and indicate if changes were made.
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