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Arundhati Dhuru

5 December 2005

Tikamgarh is located centrally in the Bundelkhand region of the Hindi heartland in Madhya Pradesh, with a large fisherfolk community. It is a rare inland district in India. There are total of 1395 ponds in all in this district as per government records, with 612 ponds being under fishery and 100 being irrigation ponds. The region is also famous for its Chandel period (9th Century) architecture. Originally, the ponds met irrigation and water needs of the nearby villages. Thousands of fisherfolk have been dependent on them. But today most of the ponds exist as such only in the village panchayat records. Some have become wastelands and due to siltation and total neglect, are used as dumping grounds. Other ponds are used partially for irrigation needs by dominant interests in the villages. The fisherfolk community that had originally relied on the ponds became the worst affected.

Surprisingly, the region is now witness to an organised assertion of the fishing community and this has led to a revival in the economic fortunes of the fisherfolk. The most recent public meeting was on 26 September, attended by around 3000 people. The fisherfolk community had been feeling that they have informal property rights over ponds, which is a resource they had been loosing even though their livelihood and life depended on it. This sense then became their rallying point.

The fisherfolk community has fishing rights over ponds through registered co-operative societies for which the state government issues a license on the recommendation of village panchayats. But most of these societies are controlled by vested interests. The powerful lobbies of villages act in the name of fishermen and most of the fishermen work as labourers earning pittance. They are dependent on these vested interests for loans, fishing nets, seedlings and during lean periods and as they do not have access to markets they end up getting much less than due to them.

In Prithvipur and Jatara blocks of Tikamgarh, fisherfolk have organised themselves in a loose network of committees to improve their livelihood opportunities and to get a better bargaining position in today’s capital intensive, highly globalised competitive market economy. They started collective buying of fish seedlings and selling fish. Savings groups are playing the role of informal credit societies and are reducing dependence on creditors. This has given ample leverage to the community who started reclaiming some ponds by organising as political pressure groups. Through organised protests the fisherfolk were successful in getting few favourable policy changes at state and district level.

Women from the community are playing an important role. Traditionally they perform the functions of cleaning and selling fish in the local markets, with marketing to towns and trading done by men. Women started their separate savings groups and excelled in them due to their inherent capacity to focus within family and community. They became owners of some ponds totally controlled by women committees and thus became stakeholders in the network. The community has saved more than Rs 25 lakhs and is now in the process of forming a federation to gain better access and control over markets and to get better livelihood opportunities. (1 lakh = 100,000)

On about 100 ponds, the fisherfolk are now politically organised in the name of 'Achrumata Machuwara Sangathan' to determine their own destiny. On 56 ponds the co-operatives elected to manage the ponds are controlled by this organization. This was of course not very easy. The elected members of the co-operative committees had to be shielded from the powerful vested interests, which include a well known politician, so that they were not influenced by either fear or enticement before they elected their office bearers.

The fisherfolk are buying their seedlings from as far away as Howrah and selling their produce at far away markets in Gorakhpur. During the last 4-5 years the income levels of fisherfolk families have gone up in the range of Rs 4000 - Rs 20,000 per family. The turnover in 2001 was Rs 77 lakhs and on an average it is Rs 30-35 lakhs per year. Earlier the land available due drying up of ponds was used by upper caste or powerful people for cultivation. Now, after getting organised, the fisherfolk have established their right over this land too and get an additional income from farming. Last year, for some families, the income from agriculture was more than from fishing.

The fisherfolk like to call this struggle of claiming their due rights over ponds and being in control of their own business as a struggle for independence. 58 years after the country became Independent, some communities are getting a taste of what it means to be independent. Many other communities around the country have yet to go through this process. They are still awaiting their chance of getting a taste of their independence.

What is unique about this struggle at Tikamgarh is that it is taking place without the help of any established political party or any well known social or political activist leading it. It is the common fisherfolk, with a literacy rate of 2% in their community, who have achieved the miracle all by themselves.

There is a management committee of eleven people, with only two of them from outside as supporters in advisory role. There is a meeting on first day of every month with 1-2 members from cooperative committees for each of the ponds attending it. Sub committees have been formed to take care of fishing net, sales, women’s issues, accounts, organizational matters and office-administration. The amount of maturity that the organization has acquired can be gauged from the fact that when UNICEF offered money for installing hand pumps in the area, the committees decided that they would rather use UNICEF money to build more ponds for themselves, to provide water as well as create more opportunities for fishing. They made seven new ponds from this money.

Along with strengthening their organisation, the fisherfolk are making more efforts to obtain more rights from the administration. Recently there was a march through the area covering many ponds to raise awareness. The march ended in a rally of 3000 people in Tikamgarh on 21st September, 2005 and a public meeting. The fisherfolk don’t want people to be pumping out water from their ponds. They want the money meant for maintenance of these ponds to be directly transferred to their co-operatives. Presently, there is a lot of embezzlement of these funds. They want the middlemen to stop siphoning off resources meant for them. They also want educational opportunities for their children and skill development programmes for the women so that they may further supplement their family incomes.

A process of political-social-economic empowerment is going on at Tikamgarh. The fisherfolk are setting an example for other marginalised and oppressed communities across the country to undertake their journey of independence through creative and courageous mobilization.

Arundhati Dhuru
5 Dec 2005

Arundhati Dhuru is a Lucknow based consultant working on behalf of Oxfam with the Tikamgarh fisherfolk community. She is one of the two advisory members in the eleven member management committee mentioned in this report.

Citizen Direct is India Together's channel for publishing reports from citizens who have detailed information about specific civil society concerns and matters, by virtue of their participation, association, or independent observation. These reports are therefore as witnessed and understood by the authors themselves; India Together accepts no liability or responsibility for them.   More

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