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Whose river is the Godavari?

By R Uma Maheshwari

Why is there no mention of fisher communities in the relief & rehabilitation statistics of the Polavaram Dam? If tribal communities can seek land for land, and forest for forest, can the displaced fisherfolk of the Godavari seek a river for a river? Part 2 in our series on the fisherfolk being displaced by the Polavaram Dam

Read Part 1 of this series

“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.

Sangani Eswara Rao with his family

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. 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/fish workers? 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 (relief & rehabilitation) 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/ fish workers 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 (1).

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 Polavaram dam and the whole R&R exercise.

Ramaswamy Iyer adds (2):

“1 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.

“2 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.

“3 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 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/fish workers perceived rivers (or seas as the case may be) until they were issued licences as ‘permits’ to define their access to these.

According to Elinor Ostrom: “The resource units or benefits from a common pool resource include water, timber, medicinal plants, fish, fodder, central processing units, and connection time. Devising property regimes that effectively allow sustainable use of a common pool resource requires rules that limit access to the resource system and other rules that limit the amount, timing, and technology used to withdraw diverse resource units from the resource system,” (3).

This does not seem to be the case as far as allocation of use of Godavari waters is concerned, especially when it infringes on the livelihoods of fisher people. And what happens when a major chunk of this common pool resource is diverted for a single/singular economic activity, say industry, especially when it results in the destruction of livelihoods based on that common pool resource? There is no legally binding provision on the state in this regard, or a space for communities such as fish workers to seek legal redressal.

Ostrom points out that “property rights define actions that individuals can take in relation to other individuals regarding some ‘thing’. If one individual has a right, someone else has a commensurate duty to observe that right. Schlager and Ostrom (1992) identify five property rights that are most relevant for the use of common pool resources, including access, withdrawal, management, exclusion, and alienation. These are defined as:

Access: The right to enter a defined physical area and enjoy non-subtractive benefits (for example, hike, canoe, sit in the sun).

Withdrawal: The right to obtain resource units or products of a resource system (for example, catch fish, divert water).

Management: The right to regulate internal use patterns and transform the resource by making improvements.

Exclusion: The right to determine who will have access rights and withdrawal rights, and how those rights may be transferred.

“Alienation: The right to sell or lease management and exclusion rights (Schlager and Ostrom, 1992).” (4)

In our case, unfortunately, all these are vested with the state.

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

1 Ramaswamy Iyer, Towards Water Wisdom: Limits, Justice, Harmony. Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2007, p 227
2 In a personal email communication/exchange on the idea of CPR to the questions: How does one look at the Godavari river (or any river) as a common property resource? In the event of displacement of those who depend on the river, has there been any history of compensation for fishermen? In what way does one bring in the idea of CPR when it comes to a river, which is altogether different from land or forests in terms of boundaries and ‘ownership’ regimes?
3 ‘Private and Common Property Rights’, Encyclopaedia of Law and Economics, Vol II, Civil Law and Economics, ed Boudewijn Bouckaert and Gerrit De Geest, Cheltenham, England: Edward Elgar, 2000, p 338. Available at -- e-library
4 Ibid, p 339  

Infochange News & Features, October 1, 2010