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Fish and a philosophy

Nov 22, 2012

A cooperative in the Indian state of Kolkata shows the way for urban sewage management.

Nearly two decades ago, a group of fishers did the unthinkable inside the Calcutta High Court. During the hearing of a case, in which they were the petitioners, they offered hot fried fish to judges and lawyers present in the courtroom—not to influence the judgement but to protect the dignity of their catch at stake.

The fishers’ cooperative, leaseholder of a wetland, had appealed against an eviction notice issued by its owner, Calcutta Port Trust. After all, they had toiled for 30 years to convert the port’s abandoned dumping ground into a fishery and a sprawling patch of green. The port trust wanted the land back, arguing that the quality of fish farmed in the industrial and domestic sewage water is suspicious. Armed with fried fish and a report from the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), certifying that the fish is safe for consumption, the fishers obtained a stay order against eviction. But the threat persists.

Last year the port served the cooperative another notice to pay Rs 77 crore as lease rent. The fishers cannot afford the amount and are unsure if the results of their hard work, that began half a century ago, will stay with them.

Redemption of a dumpyard

Around 1942, their families migrated from Howrah district after the Damodar river, where they would fish, lost navigability. Then the waterlogged lowland on the south-western edge was owned and used by Calcutta Port Trust to dump garbage. In search of traditional livelihood, they formed the Mudiali Fishermen Cooperative Society (MFCS) in 1961 and leased 250 hectares (ha) from the trust. The money for bidding came from the corpus created by the founder members by saving 25 paisa a day; the shortfall was met by pawning family jewellery.

“The area lay abandoned and was frequented by hardened criminals,” says Samir Rang, a society member. “There was a dump site for animal carcasses and people did not dare to pass by even in daytime. The land was unusable for the port authorities and, therefore, they readily agreed on the lease.” What followed in the next 50 years is worth the several doctoral theses written on the success of MFCS. The leased wetland, which now spreads over 82.5 ha, boasts of fishing worth Rs 60 lakh per annum. Over the years members have diversified into commercial goat and duck rearing, fish breeding, horticulture, manufacturing paddle boats, managing a boating complex and renting out picnic spots—earning an additional Rs 50 lakh a year. The cooperative has planted over 100,000 trees—a careful mix of nitrogen-fixing plants like sababul (Leucaena leucocephala) for fish feed; dust- and chemical-absorbing plants like neem and akand (Asclepias calotropis); and fruit-bearing trees.

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