The future of the Tawa Matsya Sangh (tms), a cooperative of fisherfolk operating in the Tawa reservoir in Madhya Pradesh’s Hoshangabad district, is firmly on hold. On December 23, 2006, their licence to fish in the reservoir expired, and since then all hell has broken loose. The reservoir was created when a dam was built on the river Tawa, a tributary of the Narmada river, in 1974. tms, comprising tribals the dam had displaced, was formed as a platform demanding their right to fish in the reservoir; tms has managed fishing there since 1996.Despite the expiry of the licence, and non-renewal, tms fisherfolk continued to fish in the reservoir.
In early January, 2007, the forest department at Sakhota Naka intercepted two tms motorboats and 60 kg of fish. “When we approached the forest ranger, he asked for Rs 5,000 as penalty. We said we don’t have that much money; instead, 5,000 fisherfolks can sit on dharna here,” says Guliabai, a tms leader, of Kesla village.
“On January 25, 2007, thousands gathered in protest. Republic Day witnessed a flag-hosting ceremony and we asked for our boats back.” Then women commandeered two boats of the forest department at Sakhota Naka, and another two at Tekapar. A police complaint was lodged against them, and when a posse turned up, tribals captured two police jeeps.
A police force surrounded villages but the fisherfolk continued with the dharna, at Daudi village, and did not return the boats. The police force had to retreat, and the forest department gave up. They returned the boats on the night of January 28, 2007; fisherfolk reciprocated two days later. “The forest department also took our fishing nets when they captured the Sangh’s boats,” says Maniram Dhurve, of Manna village. “They have not returned these. Neither do they allow us to fish. The net cost Rs 300 a kg. Mine weighed 8 kg. My brother is physically challenged. We don’t have help.”Dhurve’s distress is not symptomatic of tms.
The latter, often touted as a model fishery regime, approached the Central Empowered Committee (cec, a body the Supreme Court set up to advise it on forest-related matters) on February 2, 2007, to seek relief and the right to fish. A hearing was held on February 8, 2007.Caught pincer-liketms is caught in a regulatory pincer. On the one hand, there is the Madhya Pradesh Matsya Mahasangh (MPMM), the state’s nodal fishery body, which shows no signs of renewing tms’s licence. The agency, responsible for granting inland fishing rights statewide, is itself eyeing the resource-rich reservoir. tms fears if the nodal body wins the case, it may restrain tms from a bid, despite the co-operative’s huge success in the last 10 years. “On December 14, 2006, we approached the Supreme Court for fishing rights in the reservoir. The matter is sub-judice, so I can’t comment much on the performance of tms. Extending fishing rights to tms is not in my hands, it is up to the government to give them the rights after the Supreme Court passes judgment,” says Kanchan Jain, managing director, mpmm. On the other hand, there is the matter of the forest department’s jurisdiction over the reservoir, via the Wildlife (Protection) Act 1972. Over time, various areas around the reservoir were declared protected; then came a proposal to carve, out of these protected areas, the Satpura Tiger Reserve.