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Short-changing inland fishworkers

By R Uma Maheshwari

Caught in the interstices of caste, class and other qualifiers for compensation for the displaced, the inland fishworkers of the East Godavari fear they will be displaced by the Polavaram Dam and not compensated in any way. Where will they go?

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. If the monsoons arrive on time -- within a week or two -- Posi and his friends will stop their fishing activity in the Godavari for three-four months, 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.

The larger government plan -- to “link the Godavari and Krishna, thus 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 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, Devipatnam. Away from the din of the election campaign, in his house by the Godavari, he was knitting his 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 (pannu) 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.”

0Most 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. This 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.

There was general ignorance about fishermen belonging to the backward classes in official circles. The senior assistant I met in the office of the fisheries department at Katheru, near Rajahmundry, was not aware that the communities I was talking about were the Pallis, or Agnikula Kshatriyas. It was another matter that there is a physical ‘disconnect’ between the department’s offices in most places (such as the Katheru Fish Farm) and the fisher communities.

The fisheries department functions in three divisions of East Godavari district: Rajahmundry, Kakinada and Amalapuram. The number of fishermen families settled in 23 mandals in Rajahmundry division is 30,652 (“approximately”, according to government records); there are 7,583 active fishermen. The fishermen’s list that was shared with me was hurriedly prepared on the government’s instructions. It cites all fisheries cooperative societies as ‘girijan’ (tribal).

Ramakrishna, the senior assistant, said: “The Backward Classes Corporation can give loans for backward class fishermen. We give loans only to scheduled tribes and scheduled castes. Under the special component plan for scheduled castes, we give nets, manure and feed… We did not conduct surveys from the department’s side but took details from the revenue office and submitted the same to the government. The deputy director, fisheries, in Kakinada, is in charge of the same. The Integrated Tribal Development Agency (ITDA) looks after tribal fishermen in the tribal areas.”

Statement showing particulars of fishermen’s cooperative societies in project-affected areas under Jalayagnam, in Rajahmundry fisheries division (‘unofficially’ handed over to me)

Rajahmundry fisheries division

Source: Fisheries office at Katheru, Rajahmundry

In one or two villages in East Godavari district, communities like the Konda Kammaras have taken to fishing. When asked, they said it was because they lived in close proximity with the traditional fishworkers of the area.

Malladi Posi of Manturu also told me that there are one or two fishing boats of Kondareddis in the village and that they had learnt fishing from this community. At the same time, some fishermen have learnt the art of agriculture, for they have to supplement their incomes as agricultural labourers when fish catches decline during the lean periods. These changes in the socio-economic pattern are interesting, but they find no mention in the official records.

Then there are tribals who, the fisheries department claims, have been ‘trained’ to fish by the department. I have yet to meet any but it is interesting to note that the list with the department consists only of girijan fishermen’s cooperative societies in a place where, for centuries, traditional fishermen have fished without any ostensible conflict with tribal communities.

Many traditional fishermen have settled down with the tribals in their villages. None of them get any loans or subsidies. Whenever the Godavari floods, the officials do not even bother to come here and make enquiries. So there is no question of compensation for boats or nets lost. “How many times have we faced this? Do you think they will listen to us now (if we talk about a package for Polavaram),” the fishermen ask.

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

Infochange News & Features, October 2010