Chilika Bank$, which got the Livelihood Award at the Vataravan Film Festival 2009, tells the story of Chilika Lake and its people through the eyes of a banyan tree on its banks
Nature evokes poetry. Its beauty makes people break into song and music. And yet, it is human greed that finally overpowers nature and destroys all the beauty associated with it. That’s the underlying theme of filmmaker Akanksha Joshi’s captivating 58-minute documentary on Chilika lake near the Bay of Bengal. The film provides a gripping account of how uncontrolled human intervention has turned the lake, which was a sustainable livelihood resource, into a mere waterbody that tourists can dip their feet into.
Honoured with the Livelihood Award at the CMS Vataravan Environment and Wildlife Film Festival, held in New Delhi between October 27-31, 2009, Chilika Bank$ tells the story of the lake and the people who stay around it through the eyes of a banyan tree. The tree, standing on the banks of the lake, gently whispers a tale of globalisation and of changes in the lake and her ecosystem since export of prawns to the US, Europe and Japan began in the 1970s.
Chilika is a vast lake where almost 50 rivers and rivulets merge with water from the sea, making it a rare mix of saline and fresh water. It is Asia’s largest brackish water lake and has a unique biodiversity that includes a number of endangered flora and marine fauna species. Against the canvas of a narrative spread over four decades, each character argues fervently in his own favour -- the fisherman, the businessman, the politician, and the prawn mafia.
The only one who stands in favour of the lake is the tree that has been witness to over four decades of ecological change -- the 1980s when the lake was over-fished; the 1990s when aquaculture began in a big way, further endangering Chilika’s ecology; and 2001, when, in order to prevent the imbalance of salt and fresh water in the lake, a controversial ‘artificial sea mouth’ was opened -- a decision that added to the livelihood threat of the fisherfolk and Chilika itself.
Joshi weaves in the independent stories of various people who are in some way or the other associated with the lake. There is Balram, for example, who abandoned his traditional profession of fishing in favour of driving an autorickshaw to ferry tourists to the lake.
Then there is Ashok who, unable any longer to meet the expenses of his family, decided to migrate to the city to find work. This, despite the fact that not too long ago the lake was rich with fish and prawns -- to such an extent that the fishermen along its shores not only had “four meals of fish a day”, they were also able sell some fish. Then there are the bureaucrats who have their own ways of circumventing truth and logic, as also the activists who have been fighting a losing battle to save the lake and the people who depend on it.
Chilika Bank$ deals with the issue of the lake’s depleting resources through several channels -- decline in the number of prawns, setting up of illegal prawn farms that have done further damage to the lake, the government’s unplanned drive to turn Chilika into an eco-tourism destination, the ‘manufacture’ of a dream village that is anything but utopian, the ‘hidden’ mafia’s control over the prawn trade, and a gradual decline in the number of migratory birds.
A word about the director: Akanksha Joshi is an independent documentary filmmaker and photographer. She likes to think of herself as a ‘story-listener’, reflecting the stories she hears of injustice, brutality and pain as also of beauty, courage and honour. Her work ranges from short films made for television -- on the 1947 refugees, the Bhopal gas tragedy, the 1984 Delhi riots -- to long documentaries. Her video film on the river Ganga addresses the global issue of climate change through culture-specific symbolism; it has been enthusiastically received across India’s cities and villages apart from regular telecasts on national television.
For highlighting the issues surrounding Chilika, Joshi was honoured with the Karmveer Puruskar, National Award for Social Justice and Citizen Action by the confederation of NGOs, ICONGO. Passengers (2003), a critically acclaimed film made during and after the 2002 Gujarat riots, was one of her first films. The film explores various phases of violence. Joshi later went to Gujarat to profile the continuing struggle for justice and found hope in the many stories of compassion she heard. She presently lives in Delhi.
Speaking about Chilika Bank$, the filmmaker says: “There are too many issues around the lake and I felt that it was time to demystify them and show people what actually is going on out there. I chose a lyrical approach because the lake is truly a beautiful place and would have remained so had it not been for human interference to such a large degree.”
Chilika is the largest lagoon along the east coast of India. Given its unique characteristics, it is the wintering ground for over 1 million migratory birds. The highly productive lagoon ecosystem with its rich fish resources sustains the livelihoods of more than 0.15 million fisherfolk who live in and around it. The size of the lagoon varies from 1,165 sq km to 906 sq km during the monsoon and summer respectively. A 32-km-long narrow outer channel connects the lagoon to the Bay of Bengal near the village of Motto; recently, a new mouth was opened by the Chilika Development Authority.
Chilika is the home of the elusive and threatened Irrawaddy dolphin found in various large rivers, bays and estuaries in South and Southeast Asia. Although this species was once abundant in the lagoon, today it is only seen occasionally. Fishermen confirm that dolphins used to occur at the lake mouth but are now found only in the deepest part of the lake.
The film points out how the long-term survival of this species is under threat. The three most important factors affecting the dolphin are: the apparent drastic decline in fish numbers, siltation, and decline in water quality.
Still, tourists come here in droves to sight dolphins, and, as one of the locals interviewed in the film says: “Very often we point to a submerged buffalo that rears its head up from the water and say that it’s a dolphin!”
Chilika Bank$ has been produced by the Public Service Broadcasting Trust, New Delhi.
(Huned Contractor is a freelance journalist and filmmaker based in Pune)
Infochange News & Features, November 2009