Op-Ed: Of Settlers and Their Fishing Woes

By Ashutosh Mishra

Bhubaneswar: Rivers, creeks and prawn enclosures dot the rural landscape as one moves beyond Rajnagar towards Talchua in Kendrapara district. A sizeable section of the local populace consists of Bengali settlers who are expert boat makers and fishermen. Long back when they decided to make this region their home they cleared the forests to set up their modest dwellings and caught fish in the creeks. They also took to prawn farming in a big way supported by the local shrimp mafia.

These fish eating settlers have a big presence, sizeable enough to impact the outcome of any election, in panchayats like Krishnanagar, Talchua, Baghmari, Rangani and Keruapal. The citizenship of some of these settlers, who perhaps came here from Bangladesh, remains a matter of debate. But there is no denying the fact that politicians of varied hues have cultivated them as vote-banks over the years. Having seen many ups and downs the settlers, too, realize their importance at the time of elections.

The lifestyle of these settlers in Kendrapara is entirely different from that of their counterparts in districts like Malkangiri and Nabarangpur. The difference is mainly on account of the typical geography of these regions. While sea is a dominant factor in Kendrapara, the two other districts mentioned above are landlocked tribal hinterlands.

Given the long coastline of Kendrapara district fishing is the most important activity of the Bengali settlers who set up their homes almost invariably close to the sea. So fishing and prawn farming come to them naturally. It has its advantages and disadvantages as well.

For example in areas like Mahakalpada the settlers are engaged in a tug of war with forest and fisheries department officials over the ban on sea fishing to protect the endangered Olive Ridley turtles. In villages like Kharnasi and Ramnagar there have been clashes over the issue in the past. There have been instances of fishermen being killed in the Gahirmatha marine sanctuary where the authorities have clamped a year- long ban on fishing. Cases of fishermen committing suicide in Kharnasi and Ramnagar out of sheer frustration have been reported in the past.

Fishing community leader like Narayan Haldar describe the ban as irrational. “ Most of the fishermen in this area have small boats which cannot kill the turtles which, more often than not, die after being caught in the gillnets of big fishing trawlers. Sometimes they are also die after being hit by the propellers of the trawlers. Hence ban should be clamped on these trawlers and not the boats of small fishermen,” says Haldar.

While demanding immediate relaxation of the ban, Haldar also lambasted the authorities for the scant compensation being paid to the fishermen whose livelihood has been hit by the ban. “ They are being paid a pittance. The compensation amount must be increased,” argued Haldar.

Unfortunately, however, these fishermen have failed to turn it into an election issue. Asked why don’t they boycott the polls if the government refuses to lift the ban on sea fishing to protect the Olive Ridley turtles their answer was it does not serve any purpose. “ It is much better to vote but for a candidate who is sympathetic to our cause,” said one of their leaders.

(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.)