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On World Wetlands Day, it is heartening to note that Chilika Lake has been transformed into one of the healthiest wetlands in India, but local fishers are facing a livelihoods crisis

A fisherman on Chilika Lake (Photo by Manipadma Jena)

Studies show that every rupee spent on the restoration of the Chilika Lake since 1991 has yielded INR 15 (USD 0.25) in return, making it a model case for restoration of other wetlands in India.

Chilka’s ecosystem health report card in 2016 reported that 14,067 tonnes of produce was landed from the brackish water lagoon, a 15% increase over that of 2014 and close to 10 times increase from average landing of 1,600 tonnes before its restoration was undertaken in 2001.

An overall steady increase has pushed up average per capita income of active fishers in Chilika during 2016 to INR 56,000 (USD 880), more than doubling from INR 23,000 in 2009, according to this assessment by Chilika Development Authority (CDA), an Odisha government body.

From an ecological perspective, the benefits evident since the new lake mouth dredged open toward the Bay of Bengal in 2001 have been astronomical, according to a study by the Indo-German Biodiversity Programme (IGBP) conducted jointly with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MOEFCC).

Tourism alone is generating an annual benefit of INR 3.38 billion (USD 56 million) while fisheries gives INR 1.46 billion (USD 24 million). Aquatic vegetation that regenerated in Chilika Lake post 2001 adds up in direct economic value to INR 34 million (USD 0.75 million). Local communities harvested 58,000 tonnes of aquatic vegetation for use for making mats, roofing and thatch, and as packing material for transporting fish and crabs

Over 1991 to 2000, the Odisha government has channelized INR 1.6 billion (USD 27 million) for an integrated lake basin management programme addressing various degradation drivers.

Ecosystem services

The 2016 study calculates the economic valuation of ecosystem services provided by the seasonally fluctuating 906 sq. km to 1,165 sq. km brackish water lagoon. Aside from tangible financial benefits, ecosystem valuations include benefits that are not traded in formal markets, and hence, do not generate cash flows but help formulate sustainable policies.

For example, regenerated aquatic plants and microorganisms attracted back higher migratory flocks. The wetland regularly supports 0.7-0.95 million migratory birds annually coming from Russia, West Asia, Europe, North East Siberia and Mongolia, one of the largest wintering grounds in Asia.

“The congregation of birds helps in recycling the nutrients back into the system through guano deposits. Ducks and geese add 33.8 tonnes of nitrogen and 10.5 tonnes of phosphorous (in the form of guano) to the lake, which helps macrophytes production (fish feed),” a field researcher of conservation NGO Wild Odisha told while explaining the economics of ecosystems.

Coastal wetlands are one of nature’s richest sources of biodiversity due to their positioning between land and the sea. In addition, they are a critical flood disaster regulator. But they are also an extremely dynamic ecosystem that throws up complex challenges from time to time.

Never really scientifically managed, the 1981 designated Ramsar site in ecological distress was added to the Montreux record (threatened list of Ramsar site) in 1993. After a range of interventions, primarily the new mouth opening, it was removed from the list in 2002.

Since 1991, it was besieged by river basin siltation — 13 million tonnes per year. Salinity was falling due to shoals clogging the seawater inlet channel, resulting in drastic fall in fish landings, and freshwater weeds were spreading over 523 sq. km, leaving a weed-free surface of barely 335 sq. km. Much of the northern periphery cropland was perennially waterlogged.

Shrimp barricades

But worst of all problems that remains till today was the ingress of unauthorized shrimp culture barricades constructed with bamboo poles and nets (locally known as gheri) that “silted up the lake even worse, and tall weeds now proliferate because nets finer than mosquito nets, almost as fine as tea strainers are used, obstructing incoming saline water flow,” Purosottam Behera told in Mangalajodi village located on Chilika’s northern tip.

Though the government made it illegal to erect prawn enclosures, “the prawn mafia groups have moved closer to the inlet mouth to maximize their catch,” he said. “They get long 5-year leases for such illegal and destructive lake use by bribing some officials.” Each gheri of mosquito nets can stretch as wide as 4-5 sq. km, Behera said.

Illegal prawn enclosures threaten livelihoods of small and marginalised fishers (Photo by Manipadma Jena)

“And most of these people are outsiders or non-fishers. When we protested, they would lie in wait, and when a lone man of our families would be rowing by in non-motorized canoes, they abducted him and hid him in their big boats. They would either keep the fishing net worth INR 25,000 or demand INR 10,000 for his release. This happened to my brother Dhuli Behera two years ago and others as well.”

Behera said that although they have lost much of their fishing grounds to the prawn mafia, after conflicts, a few of them using firearms, now they stay quiet. “They have money, muscle and reach, we cannot fight them,” he said.

Livelihood crisis

Despite Chilika’s fortunes having turned, the fortunes of poorest of Dalit traditional fishers like Behera in stark contrast are worsening.

When Surjya Dei married into a modest fisher’s household in Mangaljodi village over 40 years ago, they had one boat, but they never lacked for food, fish and rice being the region’s staple. She learnt how to expertly process salted-dried fish from her mother-in-law. “Today there is no spare fish to salt,” she told

Usually four fishermen go in a boat and they are lucky if they get 16 kg of marketable fish, each bringing home his share of just 4 kg. “Earlier so much fish was hauled in, those that remained unsold, not so fresh, we women would dry these and they sold very well.” Surjya Dei said. “The quantity of dry fish produced in Chilika villages is barely a fourth of what was produced when I came as a bride.”

The 60-year old now buys fish at the wholesale fish market in Bhubaneswar city, 60 km away, retailing it by the roadside for four days a week. With that she repays a loan of INR 1 lakh she incurred for a surgical procedure that went wrong, leaving her with recurring stomach pain.

Bandita Behera, a mother of two, is similarly in debt. While the interest mounts, she has not been able to pay off a loan of INR 300,000 to finance her son’s studying for a diploma in mechanical engineering. Her husband’s combined income from being a birding guide in winter and fishing in monsoon is a lakh of rupees annually. “It is very difficult for families here to give even two children a decent education,” she said.

In Mangalajodi, Surjya Dei’s 38-year-old son has started a fried snacks lean-to on their front balcony. His wife prepares the ingredients and when Surjya Dei is not selling fish in the city, she too cooks and serves customers.

“Nearly 50% of the population has migrated to Chennai and Bhubaneswar. Women too who never went now do,” Purosottam Behera, who himself was in the southern city for 10 years since 2005, told “I came back as I could not endure the heavy manual construction labour, day after day. I am getting old now.”

Surjya Dei at her son’s snacks shop, which he started when fishing was not enough to sustain the family (Photo by Manipadma Jena)

At the jetty at Alapur village west of Chilika, as the sun sets into the dark cobalt blue water, Madhab Das is rows at a smart clip to reach the fish landing jetty before dark. The voice carries clear and he uses his bamboo oar to slide close to the jetty. As India Climate Dialogue inspected his meagre catch, Das said he has to go out almost 10 km further into the lake than he needed to a decade back.

Sometimes he with a group of four is gone for 3-5 days. A trader would reach them each day with food and water and fetch back the day’s catch. “It is traders who make the profit from our catch because we don’t even know what price he sold these for,” Das said. “But he gives cash loans when we are in need; there are days when there’s no rice to cook.”

Too many boats

“Even boats have increased 10 times in numbers. Fisher families that are doing well have five boats in a family of five brothers. Traditional non-fishers, communities that made boats, rowed commuter boats, farmed or even made puffed rice, everyone wants in on fishing,” Das told In 2007, government surveys counted 5,600 boats, 40% of them mechanized, which have increased exponentially since.

In an earlier study, Prateep Kumar Nayak expresses concern that two drivers are altering the ecological sustainability of the lagoon. His first concern is the explosive growth of shrimp aquaculture, which since the 1980s has destabilized Chilika’s traditional practices of access, usage rights and changed the rules of the game in the lagoon’s fish economy. The second concern, says Nayak, is the sea opening in 2001, which owing to its biophysical process, has impacted the fishers’ livelihoods.

Sixty-four per cent of the working population in villages around Chilika depends on fishing and fishing-related activities, according to government sources.

Since the 17th century, Chilika fishers established a unique and complex system of resource partitioning and community governance. It was based on caste, and a rich understanding of the wetland’s ecological functions. Access was based on groups catching fixed species in demarcated places, using specific fishing gear. Seasons too played an important role in this highly sustainable practice. But now this system is destroyed as small fishers get increasingly pushed to the margins of Chilika’s economy.

In his 2017 study, researcher Nayak finds that due to falling fish catch, on 10 days in a month fishers take small cash loans to feed their families. Close to 97% of them are in debt.


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