Chilika: A lake in limbo

  • 30/08/1992

Chilika: A lake in limbo UNTIL about five years ago, Gambhari was a sleepy island hamlet in Chilika lake and senior Puri district administration officials were barely aware of it. So were Balbhadrapur, Alupatanam, Satapada, Panaspada and many more. All of them were merely names in the district"s revenue records. But today these villages are well-known for they have become "serious law-and-order problems" and officials have to intervene frequently to calm the restive villagers.

The reason: An ever-increasing rivalry to capture the aquatic resources of Chilika, whose area is being reduced steadily by the large mass of silt deposited in it by the feeder rivers. As the area"s population increases, the struggle to corner a portion of the shrivelling lake and its catchment area becomes more and more intense, often erupting into bloody confrontations. Even police units and frequent arrests have done little to restore peace in the 122 villages that border the lake and 150 more studding its catchment area -- all trapped in a chingudi (prawn) mania that envelops them just like early-morning mist.

Chilika lake, the largest brackish-water lake in Asia, spans the districts of Puri and Ganjam. The pear-shaped wetland is separated from the Bay of Bengal by a spit about 60 km long and with an average width of about 150 metres. The lake"s maximum length is 64 km and maximum breadth, 20 km. It forms a part of the Mahanadi delta and is fed by the Daya, Bhargavi and Nuna from the north and the Rushikulya from the south. Chilika is connected to the sea by the Palur canal.

Chilika has acquired its brackish character because seawater from the Bay of Bengal flows into it at high tide through a 35-km-long, narrow, zigzag channel, the Magarmukh. Excess freshwater from the rivers flows into the sea through the same. It is this water exchange process that gives the lake its peculiar content. The brackishness varies not only with the seasons but also from area to area, with salinity being highest near the mouth of the Magarmukh and lowest in the lake"s northern zone. Salinity is also low during the monsoon and high during April and May.

Chilika is home to a large variety of fish and plants that thrive in brackish water. It also supports a large number of migratory birds -- 153 species of them, according to ornithologist U N Dev. In fact, a 37-sq km island in the lake called Nalabana has been declared a bird sanctuary.

Among the fish species that abound in Chilika are khainga (Mugil cephalus), dangala (Liza macrolepis), vetki (Lates calcarifer), khurenti (Sparus serba) and shahala (Elutheranema tatradactylum), but dolphins and crabs (Scyllgy serrata) are also frequently seen in the lake. In all, 158 kinds of fish and prawns have been identified in the lake.
High rate of siltation Silting in the lake has shrunk its size, according to government records, from 906 sq km in 1914 to about 800 sq km, and the average depth has dropped from 2.4 m to less than 1.5 m. The high rate of siltation is blamed mainly on deforestation along the feeder rivers and on the hillsides to the west and southwest. Further pressure on the lake"s ecology is exerted by the people from about 250 villages in the vicinity.

Competition among the fisherfolk dependent traditionally on Chilika for a living is becoming more intense because more and more non-fisherfolk and traders are fishing in the lake for the high price that its tiger prawns (Penaeus monodon) and white prawns (Penaeus indicus) fetch in the export market. The traditional harijan fishing communities -- mainly the keutas, who form about 65 per cent of the local fishing population, the kandaras, the tiars, the karatias and the nolias -- are being inexorably pushed to the lake"s fringes by the richer and more powerful farmers and traders. Said a fisherman from Karimpur village in Puri district, "Our ancestors lived here and caught fish for generations. So did we until the last few years and then suddenly these upper-caste farmers came from nowhere and threw us out. Now we have nothing to fall back on and so, either we go and encroach on someone else"s area or we fight."

For instance, the upper-caste villagers of Gambhari generally are not traditional fisherfolk, but when they realised the profit potential of prawns, they decided to cash in on it. But most of the land around Gambhari belongs to villagers from adjoining Balbhadrapur. When this land was usurped by Gambhari residents, it led to a fight between them and those of Balbhadrapur, resulting in injuries to many on both sides. Today, both villages are locked in a fierce court battle over possession of the land.

Meanwhile, Gambhari villagers, disenchanted by the prawn yield from their encroached ponds, are alleged to have taken to piracy. Balbhadrapur villagers, on the other hand, constructed bunds on the main lake for culturing prawns. This has caused resentment among other villagers who allege erosion of the bunds and the obstructions to the flow of water have led to an increased silt deposits. Downstream villagers also complain the weeds that plague them surfaced only after the bunds were constructed.

In the absence of any local or state regulatory machinery, money and muscle power determine who will have access to the lake and its periphery and this has opened the way for rich traders and moneylenders, often working in cahoots with local officials like tehsildars. In the past, fisherfolk would borrow from moneylenders to buy boats and fishing nets or even to conduct religious and social ceremonies or finance someone who has fallen ill. Now, indebtedness has been rising sharply in the last few years, thanks to the high-risk and capital-intensive nature of prawn culture. Said Ramu Behera of Karimpur, "The problem of indebtedness is not so acute in our village. Nevertheless, there is none in the fishing community of my village whose loan commitments are less than Rs 20,000, and some owe debts that amount to lakhs of rupees."

As Chilika fisherfolk can often repay their loans in just one profitable season, their credit rating is high, says Simanchal of the United Artists Association, a voluntary agency active in the area. Simanchal noted further that as one of the conditions for these loans is that the borrower will sell his catch to the mahajan or his, the mahajans are keen to advance loans to fisherfolk. In this way, the mahajans not only ensure a regular supply of fish and prawns but also are able to dictate the prices.

With money being easily available, there is much conspicuous consumption and it is not uncommon to find small village shops stocked with a variety of aerated drinks. A shopkeeper in Karimpur said he found his stock of soft drinks had ready customers among the villagers, who used it usually to flavour alcoholic beverages.

Deterioration of Chilika has dealt a crippling blow to traditional social systems of the area that were instrumental in maintaining the local ecological balance. Said Ranganath Behera of Jaguleipada village and head of a fisherfolk"s cooperative covering 30 villages in Kanas block of Puri district, "The biggest problem is that fisherfolk"s cooperatives, which regulated fishing activities throughout the lake, have collapsed during the last 10-15 years as new groups began to exert pressure on the lake"s resources. Earlier, only about one-third of the people in a fishing village were catching fish. But now, almost the entire village goes to the lake because the catch is getting smaller each day."

Behera also disclosed that village groups from the lake"s catchment area are moving closer to the lake and, besides farming, are also catching fish and prawns. This was not possible in the past as all land within the lake was leased out by the state revenue department to the central cooperative of fisherfolk, which is the apex body of about 125 primary fishing cooperatives. The lease had to be renewed periodically, but as the village cooperatives were assured of the same fishing territory each year, the members ensured there was neither over-fishing nor any activity that would jeopardise the fish catch.

The cooperatives were also able to enforce environmental discipline, because all those fishing in the lake were given fair representation in the cooperatives. The members also could seek financial assistance from their cooperatives instead of moneylenders and traders. The central cooperative helped its members market their harvest so a better price for their catch was assured.

Today, most of the primary cooperatives are defunct and even the central cooperative no longer has exclusive rights to the revenue department"s fishing leases. In fact, lake areas and revenue land in the catchment are being leased out with increasing frequency to individuals and members of non-fishing communities. For instance, Mudirath and Keutkudi of Karimpur say they have been "dispossessed" of a 133-acre plot (No. 42 in outer Chilika) which had been leased for the past three years to the Jogamaya Fishermen"s Society (JFS), a cooperative body encompassing three villages. The JFS got the lease in 1989 on payment of Rs 84,000, which it had to borrow from traders; no loans were available from either the cooperative or government institutions.

This year, the lease has gone to a non-fishing combine of upper-caste Hindu farmers and traders. Not only has the new lessee started constructing bunds for prawn culture, but it has also encroached so near to the villages that the women have complained to a non-governmental organisation, Council for Professional Social Workers (CPSW) that they don"t even have sufficient open space to answer nature"s calls. Furthermore, the villagers say, they have no place where they can fish even for their own consumption.

Similarly, fisherfolk in Siandi, so far heralded as a model of prosperity through community participation, are in dire straits now because their 700-acre fishing area in Krushnaprasad block has been leased out this year to farmers of Rambha village, who are reportedly working in collusion with a prawn trader of the area.

The major problem with such lessees is that they attempt to get as high a return as possible in the shortest time and do not hesitate to resort to means that imperil the lake"s fish population. They have no compunction about using nets, known locally as "disco" or "zero" nets, which are woven so closely that even fish fingerlings and post-larval prawns cannot escape and this will tell heavily on the availability of fish and prawn in the coming season. The lessees, however, are happy because fingerlings and post-larval prawns fetch handsome prices from those wanting to start fish farms elsewhere. "This is something that we fisherfolk would never do, because we know that such greed can finally bring only misery to us," observed Behera.

Farmers, on the other hand, have a different story to tell. "We do not like to fish, but we were forced to give up farming because our crops failed year after year during the last decade and even those with substantial landholding found it difficult to make ends meet", said an upper caste farmer from Sanora village on the Daya river, about 25 km from Chilika.

Sanora is a vivid example of what is happening in about 150 non-fishing villages in the area. Sanora"s 75 households consisted of prosperous farmers, who were forced to give up farming by frequent inundation of their land by the Daya during the past decades. Gradually, all but 26 of the families took to fishing in Chilika. In many instances, members of these families have gone as migrant labour to other states. Even subsistence is now difficult, said a Sanora farmer, as the river floods their fields during the monsoon, which was not the case 25 years ago. Now, Sanora farmlands remain waterlogged until as late as December-January and so there is little scope for cultivation before the rains set in once again.

Harmingful farming
Some Sanora families, who consider fishing a socially inferior profession, also have moved to the lake, but they farm the lake"s silted periphery after the monsoon waters recede. Such farming has only added to the tension in the area because those fishing at the mouth of the Daya and Bhargavi rivers and adjoining areas complain this is adding to siltation and, even worse, fertilisers and pesticides used to grow high-yielding rice varieties -- usually Taichung -- are harming the fish. Behera says figures show the volume of the fish catch in the area has dropped sharply. Some instances have been recorded of fisherfolk with surplus money investing in agricultural land as insurance against a poor fish catch.

All these activities have vitiated the whole resource use pattern of the lake and its catchment, and fisherfolk and non-fisherfolk alike are striving to exploit the lake"s resources in every possible way.

Said R N Das, a senior scientist in the state environment department, "People have realised that indiscriminate prawn farming and siltation have greatly reduced the life of the lake and, hence, they want to take out as much from the lake while it is still possible to do so. But in the process, the very communities who had protected the lake traditionally have become party to its destruction."

But even productive exploitation of Chilika is vanishing as deforestation on coastal side and in the hills to the southwest has accelerated siltation and made it increasingly difficult for villagers to procure fuelwood. Traditionally, women used to accompany their men when the latter went fishing. The women would be dropped in forest areas along the lake to collect fuelwood and would be brought home in boats in the evening.

Now, it has become difficult for women to collect enough fuelwood because the forests have receded from the shore. Hence, a trading class in fuelwood has developed and fuelwood and timber are stockpiled on the banks for villagers to buy. Social workers contend deforestation is intensified because local fuelwood is being exported to far-off areas and large piles of wood ready for transportation are a common sight on the western and southwestern sides of Chilika.

The total volume of silt carried into Chilika today is an incredible 13 million tonnes a year, according to B N Acharya, senior scientist responsible for Chilika in the state environment department. He said at this rate Chilika won"t survive for even one decade because river discharge into the lake has reduced due to silt at the river mouth and the flow of saline water from the Bay of Bengal has lessened because of sand accumulation at the berm mouth.

R M Senapati, former secretary of environment who had initiated a pilot project to dredge the Magarmukh mouth near Aakakhuda noted that the repercussions of sand accumulation at one end and silt deposits at the other end of the 35-km Magarmukh channel are serious for the entire lake. The circuitous canal is the crucial link in maintaining the salinity of the lagoon, which lends it a distinctive character. Now, the channel"s width has shrunk from one mile in 1780, according to state government records, to barely about 100 metres in some places and even then it is so badly obstructed at many points by fishing nets and bunds that only one boat can pass at a time.

State government records indicate all this has taken a heavy toll on Chilika. Fish and prawn in the brackish water move to the sea to lay eggs and the young then sneak back into the lake through this channel. But the channel"s increasing shallowness and fishing nets obstruct the movement of the fish and prawn and the results are evident -- fish production has come down from 8,590 tonnes in 1985-86 to 4,273 tonnes last year. Villagers along the Magarmukh also complained the hectic movement of boats, many of them motorised, scare fish and prawn away and the shallow depths often keep fingerlings and juveniles away. Villagers of Arakhakuda complained trawlers operating in the sea close to the lake"s mouth have also affected the breeding of fish.

Another serious problem is the spread of weeds to most parts of the lake because of silting and insufficient drainage. The weeds proliferate in the rivers and get washed down to the lake during the monsoon. The weeds were kept in check in Chilika by the salt content of its water, but with a sharp drop in salinity -- from as much as 20 parts per thousand to near zero at some places -- there is nothing to prevent their rapid multiplication. The weeds, in turn, have increased silt deposit by choking the flow of water.

But not everyone is unhappy with increasing siltation of the lake, says Das. He noted that some silt and weeds are necessary to support the local ecosystem. Dev argued that officials must be cautious in removing silt and weeds from the lake, as more than three-fourths of the birds that flock to Chilika can stay only in waters that are "ideally less than 0.5 metres" (in depth). Also, many weed varieties are food for the birds, particularly ducks, which are by and large herbivorous.

Thus, while the reduction of the lake"s average depth is causing concern among some, others are against any conservation measures because of their obsession with birds. Yet others would welcome a shrinking of the lake for purely selfish reasons. As a senior official in the environment department explained, "a dried-up Chilika lake means about 900 sq km of land to grab".

In fact, it is this inability to view the lake"s value in totality rather than in terms of benefits it can bring to isolated groups, that is emerging as the biggest threat to Chilika. Even the government is guilty of a sectarian outlook. Its use of the lake and its catchment in the early 1980s for the economic rehabilitation of the rural poor led to a mad rush to take up prawn culture (see box: An amazingly successful experiment). Though siltation in the rivers and in the western and southwestern sides of the lake has increased largely because of deforestation, the government has responded with only sporadic plantation in the hills.

Forests in the Hardamula Ghat area, for instance, have almost totally disappeared during the last 20 years. Dev said the decline began with a government decision in 1959 to go in for teak plantations in the area. It gave timber traders an alibi to decimate existing forests and equally unhappily, the teak saplings did not survive because of an unfavourable climate.

What is surprising is that the Orissa government lacks a comprehensive lake management plan. Its only guide to conservation measures is an action plan formulated after a 1988 seminar on Chilika identified four major problems -- increase in siltation, choking of the Magarmukh area and connecting channels, shrinkage of the lake area and rapid spread of weeds. The seminar recommended the urgent establishment of a management information system for the acquisition of authentic scientific data. But little was done about this. Critics of the plan, however, point out that none of the seminar participants had any expertise on Chilika.

One heartening feature concerning Chilika is that a number of NGOs are active in the area. However, they are handicapped by the lack of a comprehensive lake management policy taking into account the economic needs of the local population. Said Manoj Pradhan of the CPSW, "Because no scientific perspective is available, often the NGOs are groping for solutions. Occasionally, such steps are taken that may not be fully suitable for the lake."

It is in this context that both governmental and non-governmental agencies are looking forward to the assistance proposed by the Canadian International Developmental Agency (CIDA) to develop an integrated resource management plan through community involvement. According to environment secretary H S Sarkar, the CIDA proposal envisages, among other things, a comprehensive ecological study of Chilika. He said the state government has yet to accept the proposal and is seeking a sum much larger than Rs 50 crore that was originally proposed. Nevertheless, the CIDA offer has initiated politicking by vested interest groups for a cut of the pie. Pressure groups are already seeking to mould the proposal as per their own desires. There are also reports of senior officials pursuing even narrower and personal interests.

The CIDA offer is also seen as godsend by many state officials because it will give "the impression of some work going on in the area" and they can take credit for it. In fact, there is so much talk in the Chilika area about CIDA that most villagers think of the Canadian proposal as the only solution to all their problems.

"Our biggest handicap is that we do not have reliable data. Even the assessment of silt input in the lake is not fully reliable and there has been no impact assessment study made of the various commercial activities going on," said a senior official who did not wish to be named. However, even without the requisite data, the state government has allowed commercial activities, such as the joint Tata-Orissa government venture for prawn culture. There has also been no effort to regulate the proliferation of ponds in the brackish-water catchments, even though this has created serious problems like waterlogging, disruption of drainage channels and scarcity of grazing areas.

Sarkar explained the government position: "We have not yet reached a stage which can be called over-exploitation of the lake and so how can we stop economic activities? Have they been stopped anywhere? Can anyone cite any example of prawn culture being discouraged?"

Thrust on economic growth
However, there are some environment department officials who contend prawn farming and other economic activities should be regulated strictly so that there is balanced use of the lake"s resources. But these officials plead helplessness because chief minister Biju Patnaik, who recently took charge of the environment ministry also, is firm that Chilika must play an important role in Orissa"s rapid economic development. In fact, Patnaik split the ministry of environment and forest and took charge of the former because he was convinced that environmental concerns are impeding the state"s development.

Such being the attitude of the state government, it is the hey day of those who want to make merry while the lake is still alive. And, even those who want to save the lake show little caution for scientific assessment as is borne out by the experimental dredging undertaken a few months ago.

Like all wetlands, Chilika is in the late stages of natural transformation to terrestrial land. "This a natural process and hence cannot be stopped," Acharya explained. "Because of the intrinsic environmental and resource value, all we can do is to ensure that the transformation of this wetland is not accelerated due to callous human intervention."

Nobody disagrees that unbridled ravaging of Chilika will mean the loss of the lake forever. The moot question now seems to be: How soon will this happen?