Odisha’s Chilika lake breathes as govt removes illegal prawn bunds
Ravaged by two decades of illegal prawn farming, Odisha’s Chlika lake is breathing free again after a sustained drive by the government to eliminate the prawn mafia.Updated: Feb 04, 2018 08:22 IST
Asia’s largest brackish water lagoon Chilika Lake in Odisha has just got a fresh lease of life on the back of an ongoing government drive to eliminate illegal prawn farming that was choking one of the world’s finest biodiversity hotspots.
For two decades, greedy businessmen with political connections strung fine-mesh nets hooked to bamboo and wooden sticks that trapped Chilika’s famed prawns as well as other marine resources. The illegal prawn farming was slowing killing the sensitive eco-system.
The nets, locally, called gheris, erected for the lucrative culture of Bagda Chingri (local name for tiger prawns), set the cash registers ringing for the businessmen while ruining the livelihood of two lakh traditional fishermen along the Chilika coast.
Now for the first time in two decades, a demolition drive by the Odisha government that began last June seems to have unclogged the lake’s waters by tearing up miles of fine mesh nets.
With barge-mounted excavators dredging through the Chilika shoreline for months together, more than 85 per cent of the prawn gheries are now gone.
“The lake is breathing free now,” said Suresh Mohapatra, additional chief secretary, Odisha forest and environment department, who during his term as district collector of Puri 20 years ago had tried clearing the illegal gheries without much success.
The lake spread across Puri, Ganjam and Khurda districts is among the world’s most amazing biodiversity hotspots having over 300 varieties of fish and over 130 Irrawaddy Dolphins which are now considered endangered species. It also plays host to over 8 lakh migratory birds that fly thousands of miles every year from Siberia and the Caspian Sea.
Fishermen had alleged that since the early 1990s, the lake’s ecosystem was being steadily eroded as politicians belonging to Congress and now Biju Janata Dal abetted the local prawn mafia who steadily encroached upon the fertile shoreline and created their own prawn farming ground for breeding tiger prawns that fetch anything between Rs 500 to 1,200 per kg.
But both political parties deny any connection with the prawn mafia.
“I categorically deny involvement of any Congressmen in the prawn gheries. In 1999, when I was a minister in Giridhar Gamang cabinet I personally fought against the prawn mafia,” said Prasad Harichandan, Odisha Pradesh Congress chief.
BJD spokesperson Sasmit Patra also ruled out his party’s involvement saying, “As far as I know no BJD leaders are involved.”
The shoreline of the lake is the most fertile ground where phytoplanktons (microscopic marine algae), the food for the aquatic grow. As the prawn mafia created their own mini lakes with mesh nets, the prawn juveniles they reared there grew in size devouring most of the phytoplankton resulting in rest of the fisheries starving.
“The rising profits due to prawn gheries led to their mushrooming over the lake. From just about 5 sq km in 1989 the gheries spread over 175 sq km till last year. Apart from hampering natural growth of fish, it hindered free flow of water and accelerated the process of silting,” said Sushant Nanda, chief executive of Chilika Development Authority.
Though gheries were being cleared earlier, the collusion between local officials and the prawn mafia meant that the mesh nets were up within hours of an ‘official raid’.
Frustrated over its failures, the government last year dusted up the 37-year-old Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1981 that had a provision of authorizing a government official for clearing the illegal gheries. The government authorized the chief executive of the CDA to clear the gheries with the help of police and other departments.
The demolition team did meet obstacles and at one village of Puri district abutting the lake, the prawn mafia used crude bombs late last year to scare them away. But the demolition drive has had an excellent run so far clearing illegal gheries in over 151 sq km area while officials are on course to clear the rest of the gheries over 25 sq km in about a month’s time.
“Unlike previous years, the mesh nets have not come up again quickly,” said a local official.
Local fishermen who had tough time fishing due to the prawn mafia, are overjoyed.
“We are also able to fish peacefully. Earlier, henchmen of the prawn mafia used to thrash us if we came near the prawn gheries,” Bhikari Jali, a fisherman of Chandraput village of Khurda district said, adding that the fishing catch has gone up in the last 3-4 months. District Fisheries Officer of Khurda, Khetrabsi Behera added that the prawn catches have gone up by 20% in the last few months.
Environmentalists say removal of the gheries has led to a visible change of the lake’s ecosystem. “We can see sponges in the lake which were not visible earlier. The migratory birds were earlier confined to the Nalabana bird sanctuary, but this year they were spread all over the lake. Besides, the Irrawaddy Dolphins are being spotted in parts of the lake where they were never seen. This would help Chilika get the tag of world heritage site,” said environmentalist Biswajit Mohanty.