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The invisible fish hunters of the Godavari

The Polavaram dam on the Godavari will send Malladi Posi and hundreds of other inland fisherfolk along the Godavari into the swelling ranks of migrant daily wage labourers. The others displaced will at least get land for land, or compensation. These fish hunters feature nowhere in the R&R plans, because they cannot conceive of -- let alone claim -- ownership of the river and its waters. R Uma Maheshwari reports

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“Vaalu Godaari ki Godaari ivvaru kada?” (“They won’t give us Godavari for Godavari, will they?”) asks Malladi Posi of Manturu (in East Godavari district) ironically, looking straight into my eyes. “Perhaps we have to go elsewhere, looking for a river, if not Godavari,” reflects Sangani Eswara Rao of Kachluru in Tunnur panchayat, East Godavari district.

Malladi Posi and Eswara Rao are fishermen, belonging to the Palli caste, from villages along the river Godavari that are threatened by displacement by the Polavaram dam.

Malladi Posi is a ferryman-cum-fisherman in Manturu. His is the only boat that connects Manturu, which falls in East Godavari, by river to Vadapally in West Godavari from where you take the road to Singanapally or Polavaram. Manturu is one of the 276 villages that will be submerged by the multi-crore multi-purpose Polavaram (Indira Sagar) Irrigation Project.
Posi and his fellow villagers had gathered by the river one evening, late-May 2010, to discuss their imminent displacement. Posi and his friends stop their fishing activity in the Godavari for three to four months in the monsoon, to resume again by early-September. In that time they will have to survive on the income they earned during the fishing months of September and May. It all depended, of course, on the rains and the volume of water the Godavari ‘churned’ up. Right now they had another, bigger concern.

The multi-crore Indira Sagar Polavaram Dam Project intends to transfer 80 TMC (10 million cubic feet) of water to the Krishna river basin and to Visakhapatnam district in Andhra Pradesh. The project also proposes to generate 960 MW of electricity, besides providing extra irrigation to an area of around 700,000 acres in the delta region of the Godavari.

Posi and Rao’s words throw up deeper questions: For whom does the Godavari flow? Just as tribal communities seek land for land, and forest for forest, can these fishermen seek a river for a river in compensation? Is the Godavari meant only for industry or agriculture, not for fishermen/fishworkers? Whose river is the Godavari? What about those whose lives and livelihoods depend on ‘hunting’ fish (caapala veta, as they call it, rather than ‘fishing’, which would be caapalu pattadam)?

These questions highlight the plight of men and women whose lives are more closely linked with the Godavari’s flow than anyone else’s. Should the Polavaram dam see completion, these communities could lose their identity forever as they join hundreds and thousands of wage labourers on construction sites or in agricultural fields.

There is no mention of fisher communities in the R&R (rehabilitation and resettlement) statistics of the Polavaram project; in a strange paradox, they are not counted as part of the population of the ‘agency areas’. Although they have fished in these waters for centuries, subtle changes in their settlement patterns were never important enough to be recorded by census officials. When it comes to voting, however, they do seem to count, as they have ration cards…

How can a people be compensated for the loss of a river? Perhaps the calculations could begin from the losses these fish-hunters/fishworkers of the Godavari are likely to suffer.

“There can be use rights, but not property rights in relation to water,” says Ramaswamy Iyer, former Secretary, Water Resources, Government of India.

A river must be seen as a shared natural resource rather than a common property resource. The idea of property is problematic and part of a commercialised view of natural resources, with exploitation built into it. Indeed, there needs to be discussion on referring to a river or any natural resource as a common property resource, considering the inherent problems within the larger global political economy. When one speaks of rivers, pastures, grazing land as ‘property’, a whole new cycle of asserting rights through ideas of state and power begins, where the marginalised have to prove the onus of owning something they have never considered their property in the first place. The simplest example is the way fishermen build temporary shelters along the banks of the Godavari to fish for five to six months a year. Tribal communities do not question or place ownership rights over the sand and banks that may physically be part of their village. Sharing a natural resource like a river, a mountain, a forest has simply been an extension of their lives, an aspect currently being questioned in the construction of the Polavaram dam and the whole R&R exercise.

Ramaswamy Iyer adds: “The idea of CPR is indeed problematic when it comes to rivers, but it is useful to think of all water sources (rivers, lakes, ponds, groundwater aquifers) as being neither state property nor private property but as belonging to the community and held in trust for the community by the state. This is the public trust doctrine, and the Supreme Court did observe in the Spam Motels case that the public trust doctrine was part of Indian law. However, they have not consistently maintained that position in all cases. Now the Plachimada case is before the Supreme Court, and one hopes that the Supreme Court will make a definitive pronouncement on this issue.

“The concept of ‘project-affected persons’ (PAPs) goes beyond those who are displaced and includes any persons or groups who are affected in any manner by a project.

“Apart from the submergence of a certain area, dams and barrages have downstream impacts too: they reduce downstream flows and affect the river regime, its capacity for cleaning itself, its function as a recharger of groundwater, its role as the sustainer of aquatic life and vegetation and downstream communities and their livelihoods, the health of the estuary, and so on. Fisherfolk downstream would be among those affected, and any impact studies would have to include them. I think that the EIA (environment impact assessment) would have to cover this, and that the MoEF (Ministry of Environment and Forests) will go into this.”

Can the Godavari ever be ‘compensated’ then? Does she belong to Andhra Pradesh, or Maharashtra, or Chhattisgarh?

The Godavari needs to be seen as a common pool resource. Today, the state holds sole rights and discretionary powers over the river, either leasing out parts of it (as in the case of Reliance Industry’s ‘patch’ in the Godavari basin, at Gadimoga, by the estuary of the Godavari near the Coringa mangroves, for gas) or diverting a chunk of it towards another delta (Krishna) and towards future industrial development along the Andhra Pradesh coastline.

But then the question arises: Whose stake is paramount when it comes to building irrigation projects on rivers -- agriculture, industry or fisherfolk? And is the Indian state the ultimate decision-maker when it comes to rivers and forests and other natural resources?

While experts have often debated these questions indirectly or directly, the people whose daily lives are affected are never consulted in the matter of resources that should, ideally, be ‘common’ in terms of being ‘communally’ perceived and treated -- the way tribal communities perceived their land and forests until they were marked as administrative divisions in the colonial state; or fishermen/fishworkers perceived rivers (or seas as the case may be) until they were issued licences as ‘permits’ to define their access to these.


The larger government plan -- to “link the Godavari and Krishna, thereby reducing pressure on the Krishna waters; recreation facilities and pisciculture, etc” -- is bound to affect the traditional rights of fisherfolk who settle on the banks of the Godavari during certain seasons. The effects of the project on their rights to the river, once it is dammed, will at some point be under scrutiny.

Malladi Posi says: “With the Polavaram project we will lose our decades-old livelihood because water levels will increase here. We will not be able to fish anymore.” Sreenu from Manturu agrees: “We will have to forget about our traditional occupation if the dam comes up.” 

Malladi Gangadharam, another Palli fishworker from Fishermenpeta in Devipatnam (East Godavari district), says: “The dam will come even if we (oppose it). Water from the dam will drown our livelihoods. Wherever else they take us, we have to survive on the Godavari; we know no other craft. We cannot survive as labourers… Living by the Godavari is our dharma. What else can we do if they do not give us what we seek?”

I had last met Gangadharam during the state and assembly elections in 2009, at Fishermenpeta. Away from the din of the election campaign, in his house by the Godavari, he was knitting nets with his son and daughter.

His boat was the same, with its plastic sheet that worked as a sail, so were his nets that required constant repair. His son helps with this during his school vacations.

The surrounding din this time was that of Praja Rajyam Party (PRP) head, Telugu superstar Chiranjeevi, touring the districts demanding that the Polavaram dam be built immediately.

There are 30 households of Palli fishworkers in Fishermenpeta. Adadadi Rambabu says: “We came here nearly 25 years ago from Tallapudi (in the same district) when fishing became difficult there. We will again lose our livelihood once the dam is built. Be it floods or anything else, our losses are never compensated.”

Gangadharam points out that for two years, fisheries officials have not even visited to collect the usual pannu (tax). They find this ‘fishy’. The fishworkers pay an annual tax of Rs 120 that recognises them as fishermen with rights to fish in the Godavari and get compensation in the event of a mishap. In effect, they are taxpayers.

Malladi Peddakondaiah from Vadapally in Kundrakota panchayat (West Godavari) believes that “the Polavaram project essentially means no livelihood for us, either downstream or upstream. We will have to forget fishing. Water will rise up to the hills here. We will have no opportunities. Though we pay pannu and have receipts, nobody bothers about the fact that we will be affected by the dam”.

Most of the fishworkers here believe that sea fishermen have always been given relatively greater recognition, thereby government support, compared to inland fishermen who do not exist for the fisheries department except when they come to collect the annual pannu.

There is also the larger issue of their being categorised as backward castes (BCs). In colonial times, some of them stated their caste titles as ‘Agnikula Kshatriya’ in what was perhaps a case of upward mobility in caste terms; the term ‘kshatriya’ obviously worked against them. It keeps them away from benefits of the Polavaram rehabilitation package, besides making them appear as a community that is capable of moving to wherever the river takes them, thereby not in need of any special package.

(R Uma Maheshwari is a journalist based in Andhra Pradesh. She has been covering issues related to development and displacement for a number of years. This is part of her series on fisherfolk displaced by the Polavaram dam, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowship 2010)

Water as commons

 Ramaswamy R Iyer

The view of water as ‘commons’ is not universal. There are those who regard water as private property, or as a tradeable commodity or economic good subject to market forces. State governments in India have tended to assert their ownership of, or at least control over rivers and lakes. These divergences are due to the complexity and multi-dimensionality of water which gives rise to different perceptions of water

The view of water as ‘commons’ is strongly advocated by many and is attractive, but two points need to be noted. The first is that the notion of ‘commons’ (as distinguished from private ownership) is of easy application in the context of a small lake or pond or tank or other waterbody on common land; we can think of it as owned by the community. With larger waterbodies, and with streams and rivers, difficulties begin to arise in the form of ‘upstream versus downstream’ issues, riparian rights, and so on. We can still argue that the water source belongs to the community as a whole, or to ‘civil society’, and that the conflicts that arise can be resolved within that overall framework, but that benign formulation tends to break down when rivers cross national boundaries or even political divisions within a country. Whose commons is the Cauvery: Tamil Nadu’s or Karnataka’s or Kerala’s or Pondicherry’s?

The notion of commons also runs into difficulties in the context of urban water supply systems (where an agency, whether public or private, supplies water to the citizens by a
network of pipelines from its storages), or in that of the supply of irrigation water through canals from large reservoirs, whether state owned or privately owned (groundwater presents special problems because the ownership of land carries with it ownership of the water under the land, under Indian law).

However, while the idea of ‘commons’ may be problematic in such cases, we can invoke the slightly different but related concept of common pool resource (CPR) which avoids the notion of ownership but retains the elements of access, rights and control. What we are trying to do is to deny private or state ownership of water and to vest that ownership, or more accurately control and management, in ‘civil society’ (‘civil society’ in the case of groundwater would mean the users of the aquifer).

The reason for the idea of CPR is that water is primarily and fundamentally an essential life-sustaining substance and only secondarily anything else. As an essential for life, water must rank even higher than food. We can live without food for some days, but not without water. Water is really more akin to air in this respect. On this understanding, water is indeed primarily a resource of and for the community. Different actors, such as water supply agencies, commercial and industrial houses, farmers (both large-scale and subsistence), etc, may play different roles in relation to water, but these must be subordinated to the community’s prime concern of ‘water for life’ (or ‘water for life and livelihoods’, as some might put it).

In a sense, all natural resources -- water, forests, land -- must be regarded as CPRs. At the same time, we have to avoid the famous or notorious Garrett Hardin bogey of ‘tragedy of the commons’. The right answer to that conundrum is community management. This is easily conceivable in the case of common lands, local ponds, small lakes, etc, but is more problematic in the case of big rivers or lakes or groundwater. But possibilities of community management need to be explored and institutional arrangements devised even in such cases. However, the state too has certain roles to play in relation to water, particularly in relation to larger waterbodies, rivers, and so on, and must be enabled to play them (constructively, and in cooperation with civil society).

How then, can we reconcile the idea of water as CPR and that of the sovereign power of the state? The answer to that lies in the public trust doctrine. Under this doctrine, the state is perceived not as owning the water resources of the country, but as holding them in trust for the community (including future generations). As a trustee, the state will of course have to be empowered to legislate, regulate, allocate, manage, and so on, and all this must involve a degree of control. However, the role of sovereign as trustee, unlike that of a sovereign simpliciter, is not inherently confrontational and may permit a constructive relationship between the state and civil society.

It must be noted that the characterisation of water as commons or as CPR, and the declaration of water as a fundamental or human right are two different statements; one does not follow from the other. We need both statements, and must work out a proper relationship between them.

 (Reprinted from Common Voices 4, published by Foundation for Ecological Security)

(Ramaswamy R Iyer is the former Secretary of Water Resources, Government of India, and is currently Honorary Research Professor at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi)

Infochange News & Features, March 2011