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Tourism adds to Godavari fishermen's woes

By R Uma Maheshwari

The non-tribal upper caste landowners of Khammam district in Andhra Pradesh are welcoming the Polavaram dam project since it offers them compensation, and the promise of ‘development’ and tourism. The tribal fishermen on the other hand, find that the tourist launches plying the river by the score are destroying what little remains of their livelihood

Kaigala Satyanarayana, a non-tribal upper caste landlord, runs what could be called an illegal tourist resort in Kolluru, in Khamman district. It is on tribal land, in a Schedule V area. With support from Andhra Pradesh Tourism, Kolluru is being touted as an ‘eco-friendly’ resort. It is made up of huts on the banks of the Godavari; electricity is supplied by generator and Kondareddis from the village offer cheap labour. The food, however, is cooked in Rajahmundry because Satyanarayana believes urban tourists do not like tribal food! 

With the commencement of the Polavaram dam project, tourism has picked up all along the Godavari river. Today, a ‘syndicate’ of about 20 tourist boats operates on the Papikonda circuit; all are owned by non-tribal upper caste men. Every day, a different boat is pressed into service so that each owner gets a share of the business. Satyanarayana confirms: “When the Polavaram project was proposed, Andhra Pradesh Tourism people encouraged us to start this. I started with six huts in the first year. Many tourists came. Gradually, it has become 40 huts now.”

Tourism caters to a set of urbanites, most of whom do not understand the flow of the river, or the seasons when even the fish in the river rest, or the difference between summer and winter breezes that blow across the villages. Contraptions called ‘tourist launches’ spew tonnes of diesel, leftover food and even excreta into the river which, for many tourists, could as well be just another stagnant pool at Hyderabad’s water park, where water is little more than a ‘theme’.

Satyanarayana’s visiting card reads: ‘Bamboo huts in Papi Hills, Kaigala Satyanarayana, Kolluru, Khammam district’. No mobile phone signals reach here; there is no electricity, no television, no music system. Tourists love the peace and go trekking through Kondavagu stream, Pamileru (from Sileru hills), etc. They are provided snacks, tea and dinner. In winter, they light campfires. They are charged Rs 600 per head, per night, including breakfast and lunch. Andhra Pradesh Tourism collects the money; accommodation and food is Satyanarayana’s responsibility. “The tourism department pays us later,” he says.

About his family history, Satyanarayana says: “We are originally from Tadepallygudem. But my father had land here. He was trading in auctions with the forest department. He was a great believer in Perantapally Swamiji (who started a tribal cooperative many years ago in Perantapally; there is an ashram there which is visited by many tourists. He died in the early-’70s). His name was Kaigala Rama Rao. We have been here for 65 years.”

Satyanarayana says the dam project is important. It will boost irrigation and provide electricity. “My cashew orchards will drown, of course. But I feel many will benefit, even if a few lose out. So I do not mind. The Godavari has changed; there is less water these days in the river. It is possible that in future there will be even less water. But storing water in a dam will always be beneficial. Maybe it will save some water for future use…”

The difference between the responses of non-tribal upper caste landowners and tribal and dalit communities to the Polavaram project is striking. One of the main reasons for this is the large amount of compensation money that has flowed into the pockets of the landed.

Every morning, the tourist boats leave Jeedigupa, moving towards Perantapally and Papikondalu. The fact that these boats wreck the nets and fishing prospects of the fisher communities is nobody’s concern.

At Tuthigunta (Tuthigunta panchayat, West Godavari district) I met Votala Durga Rao, whose father came here from Chintapally Lanka (Mummudivaram, near Amalapuram) many years ago. Durga Rao was born here. He says the fish catch is smaller as the number of tourist boats increased. On Saturdays and Sundays, at least 10-15 boats ply here; on other days one or two. During the winter months (November till early June), scores of boats go up and down the river.

“That is the time we have problems because, ideally, that is the time for fishing. When I was younger, there were only a few others fishing here, and fishing was very good. Now we have to contend with the tourist boats. It is affecting our vocation (vrutti). We complained to the fisheries office at Kovvuru about our nets being destroyed by tourist boats. They did not give any compensation. We also went to the MRO office at Polavaram. But nobody listens to us.” 

Karri Bhagyam’s grandfather came here from Chintapally, all the way by river in his boat, many years ago. Today, Bhagyam has a home in Kundrukota and a voter card as well as a ration card.

When I met Durga Rao and Bhagyam, they were both sitting by their makeshift thatched-roof hut, close to the river. Bhagyam said: “Previously, there were only a few launches (bigger boats that ferry passengers and a few casual travellers), and only a few tourists. Today, the number of tourist boats outnumbers launches. The tourist operators make at least Rs 1 lakh per day; tickets are priced at Rs 450-500 per head and the boats carry at least 300-400 passengers every day.”

Bhagyam and Durga Rao go fishing from 10 pm to 2 am, and from 7 am to 8 am the next day. At around 3 pm, they lay their nets again and wait. After fishing for about three to four hours, they sit in their thatched-roof shelter by the river watching dusk settle; and also the tourist boats returning with passengers.

At Manturu, Malladi Posi is joined by Patabattula Nageswara Rao, Kottabattula Kondaiah, Gopi Pandu, Malladi Adinarayana, P Seenu and Dokkada Bapiraju. Each has something to say about tourism. “There are as many as 60-70 tourist boats here.” “We lay our nets at night to avoid the tourist boats, but nowadays they also return from the Papikonda trip this way at night, which was not the case earlier. And their boats tear our nets. We lodged complaints at the Devipatnam police station several times, but nobody cares. They do not give us a receipt for our complaints. So there is no way to follow them up.”

There is another point that must be noted: most of the regular passenger launches that were meant for people to cross over, and were the only means of transporting luggage in some places, have been converted into tourist launches.

While fishermen/fishworkers have a ‘resting time’, there is no such thing for tour operators. There are tour boats on the river every month, even when water levels have dropped. The only thing that changes is the anchoring spot. The Papikonda hills tour never stops.

This persistent activity is impacting the river, fish in the river, and the many lives tied to the river. 

At Vadapally (Kundrukota panchayat) Suri Babu says: “There are at least 200 people per boat, depending on the size of the boat. During the Sravana months (September-October), 50-70 tourism boats ply the river. There is not a day’s rest. We keep waiting in the night for them to leave, so we can lay our nets. When the Godavari rises, we stop our fishing activities. During pedda Godavari,they take some of our boats to help people cross over… Officials (from the fisheries department) come only once a year to issue licences and collect pannu (tax); never in between to find out whether we have any problems. There are no voluntary organisations or NGOs working for us. So our problems have no way of being recognised.”

At Kachuluru (East Godavari), Sangani Eswara Rao’s is the only fishworker family in the entire village. Of course, now his son has joined him, and he has a family, which makes them two families. He too says: “Problems have increased due to touristlu (tourists). Fish are not laying eggs anymore. The Godavari has become so dirty; all the dirt (chatta) is being thrown into the river by tourists every day. The water is polluted now. We spoke to the collector (East Godavari). For some time the touring boats stopped -- for a month -- but they have resumed. Four tourist boats ply here every day, except Sundays. On Sundays, there are nine or 10 boats a day (in this season). Our nets get torn, our boats are hit. My boat was hit once by one of their boats. We went to the police station in Devipatnam and complained. We received Rs 1,000 from the tourist boat owner. But let me tell you, all this is happening mainly because of the Polavaram barrage (Polavaram dam). It was not this bad earlier.”

Back at Manturu, Dora Babu is busy slicing onions and vegetables and giving instructions to his two assistants for the day’s fare -- a full-plate Andhra meal -- for the boat that will arrive that afternoon. None of them are locals, most are from Amalapuram and Rajahmundry. They begin cooking at 8 am; the tourist launch comes at around 2 pm to pick up the food, packed neatly in huge steel boxes for the passengers who will eat it in the boat. And most likely throw the leftovers into the river!

(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 4 of her series on the fisherfolk displaced by the Polavaram dam, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowship 2010)

Infochange News & Features, November 2010