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Fishing ban forces fishermen to suicide
Life has become a burden for Arati Saha of Kharnasi village in Orissa after the suicide of Gouranga, her fisherman husband - a "victim" of the save turtle mission.
Since 2000 an annual seven-month fishing ban has been strictly imposed during the turtle season, mainly to protect the Olive Ridley turtle. And this state endeavour to protect the endangered species is ironically claiming human lives, reports Grassroots Features.
Around 5,000 fishing families from 20 villages are seriously affected, having forced into poverty and starvation.
According to Narayan Haldar, president of the Orissa Traditional Fish Workers' Union, "Traditional fishermen are not killing the Olive Ridley turtle. It is the big trawlers, which have been illegally venturing out into the sea."
Though the fishing ban is for seven months, heavy rain and strong winds means fishermen cannot venture out to the sea for another two months. During these nine months no other source of livelihood exists for them. The peak fishing season is October and November and continues till April.
About eight persons have committed suicide and seven lost their mental balance in the last two years at the seaside Kharnasi and Ramnagar villages, failing to feed families and repay debts.
Without a livelihood since 2001, the marriage of their second daughter forced Gouranga to borrow Rs.25,000, said Arati. The loan burden multiplied as per village rules, but he could not go fishing due to the ban. Since then he was very depressed. Not surprisingly, Gouranga Saha consumed poison about four months ago.
Things were not always so gloomy for them. In 1997, the family had four boats costing around Rs.250,000 each. "Just two days before his death, Gouranga brought one cotton sari for me as I was managing with just two pieces of clothes," Arati cried. "He assured me everything would be fine."
Now the family's financial condition is miserable. The elder son Deepak sits idle during the fishing ban period. For two months he works as a helper on someone else's boat and earns Rs.500 per month. The younger son Debabrat is studying in a local school. Arati earns two to three rupees per day preparing puffed rice. Two daughters, Nilima and Bulbul, are engaged in rolling and binding bidis, jointly earning Rs.15 a day.
Sikha, 32-year-old from Kharnasi village is facing the same fate. Her fisherman husband, Bidyadhar Ram, hung himself with a rope. Sikha explained, "The problem started five years ago. With fishing banned for long periods, he could not earn his bread and butter." Sikha is yet to find a source of money and her two sons would work as child labourers already withdrawn from school.
In the last two years, several fishermen from Kharnasi village committed suicide as they failed to repay loans they had earlier taken from banks or moneylenders to purchase boats. Locals felt that the state government had shown little concern towards their community.
The traditional fishermen's union filed a petition with the central empowered committee (CEC) constituted by the Supreme Court of India, citing their problems after its direction of dated March 7, 2003, which enables the Coast Guard to seize trawlers operating in the restricted zone.
The 2004 CEC report suggested that innocent passage through the core area of the sanctuary be allowed only for "traditional fishermen" on local fishing vessels.
Unfortunately nothing has been done yet. Neither did the forest department demarcate the sea zone, nor did it form any committee as suggested by the CEC at the grassroots level.
"As a result, the resentment and misery among the local people increased," said Narendra Behera, Mahakalpada Zilla Parishad president.
Added Ashish Senapati, director of Project Swarajya, an NGO in Kendrapada district, "Obviously traditional fishermen should be given passage to the sea, there should be proper demarcation, and they should be covered under some special welfare scheme."
According to the District Forest Officer, A.K. Jena, the best possible intervention is ecology development.
Jyotiprakash Das, the district collector of Kendrapada, seems unaware of the suicides. He nevertheless accepts that the livelihood of the fishermen has definitely been affected and they are yet to provide alternative livelihoods.
Chief Wildlife Warden Suresh Mohanty admits they are yet to demarcate fishing and non-fishing zones because it will need a lot of funds, which the state government is not in a position to spend.
It is time the government, turtle conservationists, environmentalists, and NGOs advocating turtle conservation also thought of the poor fishermen.
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