Right to fish

  • 14/01/2002

The Madhya Pradesh government has made a landmark decision to allow villagers around the Tawa reservoir to retain their fishing rights. Not only will this enable locals to carry on fishing activity at the reservoir, it will also allow them to continue marketing their catch as well. Impressed by the Tawa model, the Digvijay Singh government is also set to devolve powers to fishing cooperatives all over the state.

While this was on, Orissa mooted a legislation regulating fishing in the Chilika, Asia's largest brackish water lake. Through this, the state government hopes to keep at bay prawn culture activities and thus "save the lake's fragile ecosystem'. And, expectedly, a major uproar has been unleashed with battles lines drawn between traditional fishworkers and the so-called "prawn mafia'.

Fishing rights has never been an easy issue. It is at best a convoluted one, with lots of grey areas. But what needs to be realised is that one must work to keep conservation and development on the same side of the fence: that there are numerous examples of communities having worked to preserve their areas by evolving novel methods to sustain their resources.

Moreover, reservoir fishery has so far escaped attention even though it constitutes a major chunk of revenue generated by this sector. In all water conservation efforts, when we talk of tanks and ponds, the focus is mainly on agriculture, sometimes solely so, and not on their fisheries potential. In any case, when one does talk about fisheries, one talks of ocean or at best river fish. Never about reservoir fishery, including tanks and ponds. But to be able to tap this potential, the people must be involved. It is important that the ownership rights of people are first established and clearly demarcated.

There is no scientific evidence suggesting that fishing harms the ecology of any region. Rather, if it is regularised and managed by the people, it could end up benefiting the surrounding area by reducing pressure on it.

The Tawa decision has brought into sharp focus the positive effects of devolution. But can it be a model for other such controversies, including the Chilika lake? In this, the Madhya Pradesh government has taken an important step ahead. It is only hoped that other states take the cue from this. It is also hoped that setting up of cooperatives, as some states are considering, do not hold people to stake but ends up as a real people's movement.

As some experts put it, the issues are now more about legalities than rationality. Why can't laws be amended? Why can't people be left to manage their resources? People are after all the best managers of the precious natural resources.

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