Taking a cue from the villagers protesting increase in the water levels of Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar dams, about one lakh fishermen have threatened an agitation over their demand for direct fishing rights in dams located along the Narmada river in Madhya Pradesh.
Narmada Ghati Machua Andolan, a body of over one lakh fishermen displaced and affected by the dams built in Narmada valley, said government policy has affected their livelihood. At present, the state government holds auction and awards contract to highest bidder to catch fish from dams like Indira Sagar, Omkareshwar, Tawa, Barna, Bargi, Sukta and Matiyari. The contractors in turn engage fishermen to catch fish from the dams and pay royalty to the state government.
“For centuries, fishermen have been catching fish from rivers, water bodies and selling them. But now fishermen have become bonded labourers of the contractors,” said Narmada Ghati Machua Andolan founder Sadashiv Bhanwariya.
State government grants compensation to farmers affected and displaced by dams in cash or kind. “But the fishermen don’t get any compensation. Rather, our livelihood source is taken away from us,” said Mangat Verma, who represents fishermen in Mandleshwar.
“We are ready to pay royalty to state government, but auctions should be stopped,” said fisherman Sagar Verma. He travels about 90 km from his native Maheshwar to reach Indore to buy fish from wholesale market and take them back to his village for sale. Verma, 23, said he comes to Indore because all the big dams are with contractors who engage fishermen at their whims. “We will starve if we depend on them,” he remarked.
Fishermen who have lost direct fishing rights have three major concerns. First, contractors have hired fishermen from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal to catch fish in dams and thus neglected locals. Second, through them, contractors catch more fish than the daily quota fixed by government and earn a neat profit by selling the extra haul of fish to neighbouring states. Third, goons nurtured by these contractors beat up local fishermen on petty pretexts. This is done to instill fear so they don’t protest and reveal any wrongdoing.
“Government supports contractors some of whom are liquor barons. Police don’t register FIR against contractors’ gun-toting goons even if they kill local fishermen. Beheaded body of a local fisherman was found near Indira Sagar dam last year, but the police didn’t act,” Bhanwariya alleged.
The only success Narmada Ghati Machua Andolan, a non-registered body founded in 2007, met is to end the auction system for Maheshwar dam. The state cabinet has allowed fisheries co-operative society to catch fish there. “We want similar fishing rights in all the MP’s dams. We are planning a mega agitation for this,” Bhanwariya said.
When HT put up this issue before state fisheries minister Ajay Vishnoi, he said, “The state government has begun to end the auction process (Maheshwar). As for other auctions, we cannot withdraw agreement midway because contractors will take us to the court. Let their term (five years) get over. We will act if we receive complaints about contractors beating local fishermen.”
The contract is renewed every year and can be ended if breaches are found, Bhanwariya said, refuting the minister’s contention.