By Ashutosh Mishra
Bhubaneswar: Forest officials recently arrested 22 fishermen and seized three trawlers at Gahirmatha marine sanctuary for violating the ban on fishing. The 1360 sq km sanctuary, the only one of its kind in the state, is out of bounds for fishermen round the year. They cannot fish within 20 kms of the coastline in the sanctuary area, the restrictions having been imposed chiefly keeping in mind the safety of the endangered Olive Ridley turtles who arrive on the Odisha coast in large numbers around this time of the year and nest on the beaches.
During the turtle breeding season that extends from November to May, the state government also imposes a general ban on fishing within a demarcated area of the sea. This limits the operation of fishing boats and trawlers to a great extent and directly impacts the livelihood of lakhs of fishermen, especially in the coastal districts like Kendrapara.
Slamming the ban as irrational and particularly unfair to the smaller fishermen whose boats and nets, they argue, cannot pose any real danger to the turtles, fishing community leaders have been urging the government to relax the restrictions, if not lift the ban altogether.
Odisha Matysyajivi Forum president, Narayan Haldar has on several occasions in the past criticized the ban on two specific counts—one that it is too long ( seven months to be precise ) for the comfort of traditional fishermen and the other that the livelihood compensation offered to them during the period is grossly inadequate. Haldar had argued that the solatium of Rs.2000 being paid to the fishing community members in Kendrapara was like a drop in the ocean considering their needs. He was also unhappy with the allocation of rice being made to the ban-hit fishermen. He wanted a much better and generous compensation package which has apparently not happened so far.
The fishermen, thus, feel obliged to violate the ban and keep venturing into the restricted zones risking arrest and seizure of their vessels. In areas like Mahakalpada there have been incidents of fishermen dying in firing by forest patrols in the Gahirmatha sanctuary. In the seaside villages of Kharnasi and Ramnagar several fishermen have committed suicide out of sheer frustration.
Fishermen have held protests over the issue and also taken it up with their national leaders but the government is yet to listen to them. Government officials argue that protection of Olive Ridley turtles is an overriding concern and the drive to save them cannot be decelerated at any cost.
Fishing community leaders, on the other hand, are convinced that there is scope for the ban to be rationalised and made less severe as the nets of traditional fishermen, who go out to the sea in small boats, are unlikely to harm the turtles. “The real threat to them comes from big trawlers. The government should take them to task and allow the small fishermen to make their living. They should not take the rap for the fault of others,” said a fishing community leader reiterating the appeal for smaller fishing craft being allowed to operate freely in the sea round the year. One hopes the government takes a fresh call on the issue after taking the realities of fishermen’s livelihood into account.
(DISCLAIMER: This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are author’s own and have nothing to do with OTV’s charter or views. OTV does not assume any responsibility or liability for the same)