A UNIQUE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE

A UNIQUE STRUGGLE FOR INDEPENDENCE
 Arundhati Dhuru
Tikamgarh is a rare inland district in India, located centrally in the Bundelkhand region of the Hindi heartland in Madhya Pradesh, with a large fisherfolk community. 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. They are also famous for its Chandel period architecture. Once they met the irrigation and water needs of villages. Thousands of fisherfolks were also dependent on them. But today most of them exist only in village panchayat records. Most of them are now turned into wastelands, or used partially for irrigation needs by dominant interests in the villages. Due to siltation and total neglect once the pride of villages is now turned into dumping grounds. And fisherfolk community is the one, which is worst affected by ponds dying all over the area. Fisherfolk community have fishing rights over ponds through registered co-operative societies for which 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.
An effort was made in Prithvipur and Jatara blocks of Tikamgarh district to get them organized to improve their livelihood opportunities and to get them better bargaining position in today’s capital intensive, highly globalised competitive market economy. The community organized themselves in loose network of committees. They started collective buying of fish seedlings and selling fish. Saving groups were started which played the role of informal credit societies thus reducing the dependence on creditors. This gave ample leverage to community who started reclaiming the ponds by organizing as political pressure groups. Through organized protests they were successful in getting few favorable policy changes at state and district level.
Women from the community played an important role in this experiment. Traditionally they perform the functions of cleaning and selling fish in the local markets (marketing to towns and trading is 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 ponds totally controlled by women committees and thus became shareholders in the network. The community has saved more than Rs. 25 lakhs and are now in the process of forming federation to gain better access and control over markets, to get better livelihood opportunities.
The fisherfolk community felt that they have informal property right over ponds, which is a resource they are loosing and their livelihood and life depends on it. It was this justified sense of rightness which was the rallying point. The homogeneity and bonding of community along with women’s capacity to focus and nurture the family and community helped to strengthen the organization. The organization based on this arena of social assets was successful in providing viable option of livelihood. On about 100 ponds the fisherfolk are now politically organized 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 the organization. This was of course not very easy. The elected members of the co-operative committees had to shielded from the powerful vested interests, which included Uma Bharati’s brother, so that they were not influenced by either fear or enticement before they elected their office bearers.
               They 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. 4,000-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 which used to be freed up because of drying up of ponds   was used by upper caste or powerful people for cultivation. Now, after getting organized, 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. And most of the 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, which looks after the affairs of the organization. There is an organizational meeting on first day of every month with 1-2 members from cooperative committees for each of the pond 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 take the money from UNICEF and build more ponds for themselves, which will provide water as well as create more opportunities for fishing. They made seven new ponds from this money.
Along with strengthening the organization, efforts for obtaining more rights from the administration are still going on. Recently there was a march through the area covering many ponds to raise awareness on a number of issues. The march ended in a rally of 3000 people in Tikamgarh on 21st September, 2005 and a public meeting. The fisherfolk are demanding more rights over their ponds. They don’t want people to be pumping out water from their ponds. They want the money for the 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. The fisherfolk are demanding rights over other resources from the pond. They also want educational opportunities for their children and skill development programmes for the women so that they may further supplement their family incomes.
It is an amazing process of political-social-economic empowerment going on and the fisherfolk of Tikamgarh are setting an example for other marginalized and oppressed communities across the country to undertake their journey of independence through creative and courageous mobilization.

Arundhati Dhuru
By Arundhati Dhuru
A-893, Indira Nagar, Lucknow-226016, U.P., India
Telephone: 91-522-2347365, Mobile: 91-9415022772
e-mail: arundhatidhuru@yahoo.co.uk

(Note: The author is a consultant working on behalf of Oxfam to organize this community and is one of the two advisory members in the eleven member management committee to look after the affairs of well being of the community).

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