They’re called “pink dollars” not just because of their shape, but because of the money that they bring in. Tiger prawns – a delicacy in most parts of the world, and one that people are prepared to pay for.
But they’re causing environmental havoc in Chilika, Asia’s largest salt water lagoon, adjoining the Bay of Bengal. Because of excessive prawn farming in the area, the livelihoods of nearly 250,000 traditional fishermen residing along the coast are being threatened.
Despite the fact that Chilika was the first Indian wetland area recognised to be of international importance by the Ramsar convention, the lucrative nature of prawn farming has proved to be irresistible to the powerful groups connected to the state government. The tiger prawns have high export value, making their way to the tables of consumers in Japan, China, South Asia and the U.S. So the size and scale of pink dollar farms have grown rapidly over recent years, and had an enormous impact on this unique region.
Nearly 40-45 per cent of the lake’s total 800-1100 square kilometers have been effectively “fenced off” by bamboo embankments needed for prawn farming. But the enclosures stop normal tide migration and the free flow of water. This in turn reduces the feeding grounds for the fish in the area. AK Pattnaik is with the Chilika Development Authority. He says that the enclosures have the worst impact on the shoreline, where spawning of various species of fish such as mullets are affected.
No natural growth
The Orissa High Court, which has jurisdiction over Chilika and its surrounds, recently directed the state government to demolish all enclosures from the lake. In fact there have been several legal directives about the enclosures over the last decade, yet they dominate up to 1,500 acres along the shoreline of the lake.
“Such unending stretches of enclosures squeeze the natural space of the lake,” says Binodini Behera, wife of a traditional fisherman from the coast. “Then where is the space for the natural growth of other fish, on which we thrive?”
The prawn Mafia
It’s not just the enclosures either; the industrialized prawn farms use high protein feed and drugs which fatten up the tiger prawns, but also lead to severe pollution of the lake wate.
An estimated 250,000 traditional fishermen are solely dependent on the lake for their livelihood. And they’re clearly losing the battle with the “prawn mafia”.
“Even the court has acknowledged that the prawn mafia in Chilika Lake was supported by several politicians and senior bureaucrats,” points out Murulidhar Behera from the organization, “but they have no consideration for the environmental and natural balance of the lake”.
Behera has seen the change happening in front of his eyes: “Earlier, 8-10 years ago, a group of three or four fishermen going into the lake could easily bring home 300-400 kilos of fish, but today they come back with only three or four kilos even after an entire day's hard work.”
No more fishing
The dwindling resources of Chilika have forced the local fishermen to look for other work. Nearly 40- 45% of traditional fishermen have left the lake of where their forefathers have lived for generations, and they’ve become anonymous migrant labourers in the neighbouring states of Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu.
The situation has become desperate enough for desperate measures. The Chilika Fishermen’s Organisation (CFO) are now planning to tear down the enclosures themselves despite inevitable repercussions. At an earlier agitation, at least one person was killed when police fired into a crowd of protestors.
“Chilika has been our lifeline for generations,” says Babuli Behera, secretary of the CFO. “We are now going to go in our boats and go for demolition drives on our own,”