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Challenging the tourism juggernaut

Hotels and emporia have crowded out the fishworkers in Puri, in coastal Orissa. But the state has been deaf to the demand for land rights of fishing communities who have traditionally used the beaches to land their craft, dry their fish, etc. Who ‘owns’ the coast, and who has rights to it? Aarthi Sridhar reports

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It’s impossible to proceed any further. The freshly laid tarmac has abruptly disappeared. It appears that the waves of the Bay of Bengal only recently swallowed up the road. Strangely, on its landward side, building construction continues undeterred by the sea’s appetite. The only people audacious enough to live this close to the sea must be fisherfolk. But ‘Sonar Bangla Hotel’? The sprawling and psychedelic Sri Dhananjaya Katha Baba Ashram? The housing colonies of the Gandhi Labour Foundation? Pretty inappropriate titles for fisherfolk residences. Nor do the un-countable clothing emporia, lodges, hotels, or restaurants jostling each other on Puri town’s congested Sea Beach Road remotely resemble fisher establishments. In fact, nothing on that road looks like it belongs to this coastal stretch of Orissa.

Sea Beach Road — A ‘pollution-free’ zone!

‘Save the Coast, Save the Fisher!’ This slogan, raised at its all-India coastal yatra, in May 2008, resurrected the National Fishworkers Forum’s (NFF) enduring demand for guaranteed land rights for traditional fishing communities. It was this rally, and a series of protests that accompanied it, that made the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF) retract its ill-conceived draft Coastal Management Zone (CMZ) Notification 2008 (replaced by CRZ 2011 since the writing of this article – eds). The NFF and its various allied unions had declared the notification a ‘sell-out’ of the coast to non-coastal and corporate interests. Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh promised the NFF public consultations to re-examine the CMZ Notification and work on measures to strengthen the frail Coastal Regulation Zone Notification -- a law in existence since 1991.

One of these public consultations was held in Puri’s Town Hall, in January 2010. Here, fisher leaders placed before the environment minister their concerns about being choked out by coastal development. Point noted. The minister and his entourage moved on.

Six months later, standing on the riotous Sea Beach Road, the NFF slogan seems anachronistic and slightly hopeless even. In July every year, lakhs of devotees descend on the town for the Rath Yatra of Lord Jagannath and his siblings. The temple effortlessly overshadows any connotation of Puri being a fishing town, and the tourist-devotees it attracts quickly colonise the amusements on offer at Sea Beach Road. This brings more of the hinterland onto the beach, squeezing out existing coastal residents. Where do the fishers go?

Three fishing hamlets are located within Puri’s municipality limits. They are populated by the Noliya people -- a fishing caste comprised of Telugu-speaking fisherfolk who migrated to this part of the coast in different stages, before the formation of the state of Orissa. Balinoliyasahi, the oldest hamlet, 150 years old, lies in the centre. About 5 km to its north is Pentakota, only about 60 years old, and to the south is Goudabadsahi. Pentakota is the largest, with a population of about 20,000 fisherfolk, while Balinoliyasahi and Goudabadsahi are home to 5,000 and 3,000 fisherfolk respectively. Most fishers here belong to the dominating Wadabalji sub-caste, said to have learnt their sea skills from the Jalari fisher caste.

Never before have I had such trouble spotting a fishing hamlet on the coast. Where on earth is Balinoliyasahi? Anka Ganesh Rao, coordinator of the Puri district wing of the Orissa Traditional Fishworkers Union, leads the way to the hamlet, navigating a labyrinth thick with hotels and shops. None of the fisher families in this hamlet possess pattas (individual land titles) and neither does the hamlet of Balinoliyasahi by itself have any collective land rights. Along with Anka Narayan Rao, president of a local organisation called the Fishermen’s Development Association, these local fisher leaders of the hamlet currently lead what was a two-decade-long engagement between the Noliyas and the Orissa government, trying to secure rights for 314 families from Balinoliyasahi.

The year 1991 is marked by the tenure of the Biju Patnaik government in Orissa -- the same political (and ruling) party that the present fisher leaders have thrown their lot behind. These leaders brandish a faded official parchment dated 1991, issued by the deputy secretary of the Excise and Revenue Department at that time, to the district collector to enquire into the claims for titles made by 314 Noliya families residing over 4.6 acres of land. According to the order, the Noliya families were to be identified and their claims settled; other Noliya families’ claims were also to be looked into. But over the years, the community’s composition has changed; many families migrated away from the coast, and others made this hamlet their home. The present leaders now continue the battle with a significantly whittled down demand for title deeds for 10 families from the original 314.

In May 2010, three months after Jairam Ramesh’s public assurances that coastal management policies would be fisher-friendly, the Orissa government’s Board of Revenue sent a clarification on the subject of allotment of land to the Noliya families of Balinoliyasahi. It stated: “As per the CRZ Notification Regulation, (sic) coastal area coming within 200 metres from the High Tide Line is to be set apart/kept reserved as a restricted zone, prohibiting construction of any building or structure or any sort of encumbrances as to make it (sic) pollution-free zone of silence.” A pollution-free zone of silence! Sea Beach Road? Not only is the interpretation of the CRZ Notification in this case incomplete and incorrect, but the authorities, so concerned about the impact of according pattas to 10 Noliya families, are evidently deaf and mute to the consequences of the tourism juggernaut rumbling along the coast.

The state’s prevarication on according titles and conferring land rights and entitlements to fishing communities is an outcome of unsolved puzzles. Who ‘owns’ the coast, and who has rights to it? Is it not common property and open to all? The confusion and multiple opinions on this subject have led to legislations that attempt to either regulate or legitimise activity on the coast without attempting to clarify the position of fishing communities and their rights. Only the CRZ Notification did this to some extent by recognising that there were traditional rights and customary uses of the beach space by fishing villages. However, even this law was not clear on rights over beach space, access rights, or even the extent to which expansion within settlements could take place. This has led to improper assessments as to whether or not fishing settlements could be permitted within 200 metres of the coast -- as seen in the case of Balinoliyasahi, a hamlet that existed well before this law or its guardians were even conceived of.   

The beach and the coast are embedded in the socio-economic and cultural lives of traditional fisher communities, which explains why they often tolerate the tempestuous coastal weather, cyclones and storms. Despite the supercyclone of 1999, almost all fishing settlements are located in the same spot -- right on the coast. Only recently, certain factors are driving communities to seek hinterland spaces to relocate to. Lack of availability of land or beach space to facilitate the growth of the settlement is a big constraint. Sea erosion in the southern Orissa coast of Ganjam has also caused some families in Kontiagad hamlet to consider a government offer of relocation to the hinterland. But the large majority of traditional fisherfolk, especially of the Noliya community that operates beach landing craft (not mechanised boats that need harbours), require the beach space for the operation of shore seines, for landing fish catch, for auctions, drying fish, storing boats, mending nets, and an endless list of activities sure to flummox the average tourist who visits a beach twice a year. The hotel owners of Puri are not unfamiliar with fishing activities -- just intolerant.

The British leased and granted many of the coastal lands under the Calcutta Presidency to residents of Bengal. It is from their successors that K Prasad, the peddamanaslu (village elder) from Pentakota, has managed to procure land and titles for some of his people. He owns the sole operational ice factory in the village and has built Pentakota’s only community hall in the name of his late father. He traces the sequence of harassment they face matter-of-factly: the fishers haul in the fish and begin spreading them; the hotels complain that the place smells to the district collector; the police threaten the fisherfolk; the fishers vacate the area. They then wait a while, watch, and return. “Where else can we store or dry fish if not on the coast?” Balinoliyasahi fishers have already been told to relocate their boats and nets a few kilometres away from their landing sites. Even the present fish landing site is a new one; the old favoured one has been colonised by petty shops under a sea of blue tarpaulin.

The last brick of tourism construction is laid at the foot of the Pentakota fishing hamlet. Unlike Balinoliyasahi, although crowded, it is large and sprawled out along the coast like so many Noliya settlements on the Orissa coast. K Prasad heads the Pentakota struggle for land and explains that they have been demanding about 30 acres of land in the nearby ‘jungle’ -- casuarina groves planted by the Orissa Forest Department. He explains: “The families located in the first two rows of houses near the shore have agreed to move. They will live in multi-storeyed constructions in the hinterland. People do not want to live so close to the sea now, after the tsunami. There is no land here anyway. Whatever it is, people will move only if the leaders ask them to. Our leaders are tough, that is why Pentakota is strong.” 

Pentakota is one of India’s 3,202 marine fishing villages, home to 3.52 million marine fisherfolk, according to the latest CMFRI census. Since Independence, no state government has thought it necessary to accord the fishing community rights over coastal lands or even access-based rights. On the contrary, there are proposals for coastal industrialisation and non-coastal activities which have the blessings if not a push from each government.

If coastal areas are common property resources, then surely anyone can use them any way they please. This facile assumption is as incorrect as it is tempting to accept. Coasts and beaches are considered ‘traditional commons’ governed by rules of communal use and governance, although with a high degree of diversity from hamlet to hamlet. A diversity of management practices are followed by fishing communities over coastal lands and offshore waters along the east coast of India. In some villages, there are no fines for sharing coastal lands; in others, strict penalties are imposed on boats from other villages landing or fishing within a village’s area. Therefore, while there may not have been exclusive ownership of land, there definitely was a sense of belonging to it, and vice-versa.

Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom’s work on the commons shows that the notion of common property resources (CPRs) is poorly understood in general, and any misinterpretation impacts the very survival and identities of communities traditionally dependent on these resources. Puri’s Sea Beach Road is a fitting example of this, and the reason why its fishers resist being jostled out.

V Vivekanandan, convener of the National Campaign for Protection of Coasts, headed by the NFF, knows first-hand the diversity, depth and degree of complexity that accompanies the simple term ‘rights over commons’. He emphasises the need to make a distinction between land rights and land titles and deeds: “Land titles or pattas are becoming necessary for a range of government schemes, and the demand for pattas is legitimate. In many villages in Tamil Nadu, patta or no patta, there is no question of the state displacing fishing communities, some of which pre-date agricultural villages and which trace their establishment to the time of the Chola dynasty. The demand for pattas by fisherfolk varies between states and really depends on the precariousness of their existence. Land rights are broader and include the settlement and common spaces associated with villages which are now threatened. That has always been the NFF’s demand.” Unmistakably, a more political demand.

The letter from the Board of Revenue to the collector on the Balinoliyasahi land titles case ends with a warning: “This aspect (of according titles) needs further examination in view of escalating safety and security concerns along the coast of the country.” A fisherman from Puri paraphrases this for me: “We are Noliyas, not Oriyas. That’s what they think. They don’t say it, but it’s in their hearts.”

(Aarthi Sridhar is a trained social worker and environmental researcher-activist. She heads the Dakshin Foundation. This article was researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowships 2010)

Infochange News & Features, March 2011