Environment Change and Governance

Connected to the Bay of Bengal on the south, with the Eastern Ghats Mountain ranges forming most of its catchment on the north and the west, Chilika is a Ramsar Site of international conservation importance and a biodiversity hotspot in India. Rare, vulnerable, and endangered species inhabit the lagoon. It is the largest wintering ground for migratory waterfowl found anywhere on the Indian subcontinent and home to Irrawaddy dolphins and the Barkudia limbless skink. The total number of fish species is reported to be more than 225.

According to the Zoological Survey of India survey in 1985-87, along with a variety of phytoplankton, algae, and aquatic plants, the lagoon region also supports over 350 species of nonaquatic plants and over 800 species of fauna. This represents the ecological subsystem of the lagoon and offers a solid ecological foundation to the lagoon small-scale fisheries system. Chilika’s biodiversity is an integral part of sustaining the culture and livelihoods of the roughly 400,000 fishers and their families, who live in more than 150 villages. People in these villages have been engaging in customary fishing occupations for generations. The fishery consists of traditional fisher groups whose vocation is identified by their membership in certain Hindu castes: there are seven different types of fisher castes and five sub-castes in Chilika. The lagoon ecosystem also indirectly supports 0.8 million non-fisher higher caste villagers (e.g., Brahmins, Karans, Khandayat, and Khetriyas) in the watershed areas, whose occupants traditionally engaged in farming, forestry, and other livelihood occupations.

The lagoon had historically provided a multi-species and small-scale capture fishery. However, in the 1980s, the sudden boost in the international shrimp markets and increase in export prices made shrimp aquaculture a major driver of change in the lagoon. Powerful local elites encroached customary capture fishery sources to use as aquaculture farms which led to resource conflicts. In 2001 a second important driver emerged. The state government created an artificial sea mouth with the Bay of Bengal through a hydrological intervention to deal with persisting siltation problem in the lagoon. The results of the sea mouth backfired as it furthered ecological crisis by increasing the intensity of daily water inflow and outflow, and altering the saltwater-freshwater balance. The social-ecological system of the lagoon came under stress from the adverse impacts of the two drivers acting synergistically. Ecologically, habitats of most key species of fish, crab and shrimps, along with associated species such as Irrawaddy dolphins (Orcaella brevirostris) and migratory birds, were reportedly damaged. Fluctuations in the main biophysical processes led to a change in species composition and altered food webs in the Lagoon indicating an ecological crisis gradually pushing the system towards a major crisis. There were corresponding impacts on the social subsystem as well. Fish production plunged dramatically and the small-scale fish economy including its management and institutional structures began to collapse. There have been corresponding changes in the rights of the fishers to fishery resources of Chilika and the customary tenure arrangements that was recognised through annual lease by government to village fishery cooperative. Policy and civil society responses to the ongoing crisis have not yielded desired results and there are unresolved issues and complex uncertainties looming large for the future of Chilika.

NIRMAN has been working in Chilika Lagoon for over five years now focusing on strengthening the human-environment system of the Lagoon. We felt the need to work on the issues that Chilika faces after closely studying the research findings of Dr. Prateep Kumar Nayak who has been working with the fishers since 2006. The local livelihoods of fisher folks, their access rights to capture fishery sources, and ecological functions of Chilika lagoon have undergone tremendous changes. Chilika began shrimp aquaculture in the 1980s and expanded rapidly. Fishery areas that were traditionally controlled by the caste based fishers were encroached by non-fishers. Fishers lost access to many areas that were converted into aquaculture sites, which led to resource rights regime changes in Chilika. Many traditional fishers began to experience livelihood crisis’ once significant policy changes occurred that justified aquaculture and extended fishing rights to non-fishers. Decades of prawn aquaculture has contributed to the ecological degradation of the Lagoon. The deliberate hydrological intervention of changing the location of the sea mouth opening in 2001 allowed too much sea water to enter the lagoon and caused serious changes to ecosystems. The new sea mouth caused a reduction in the water depth of the lagoon, created a depletion of fish, crab and shrimp, and increased the practice of aquaculture, changing the traditional fishing practices of the lagoon. Fishers were forced to take out high-interest loans and out-migration became significantly more common.

Ongoing conflicts between traditional fisher folks and the non-fishers have alienated the traditional fisher folks from the Lagoon through the breakdown of fishing-based livelihoods and large-scale occupational displacement of traditional fishers. The local traditional fishing village institutions collapsed, providing no support to the fishers as well as their fish cooperatives. Fisher federations were weakened or completely broke down. Fishing livelihoods are no longer able to support traditional fishers.

NIRMAN collaborated with the University of Waterloo, Canada and the Chilika Fisher Federation to organize a two days’ workshop to create debate and build public opinion on strengthening the human-environment system of the Lagoon. A poetry book titled Ardhasatabdir Chilika was published which vividly depicts the natural grandeur of Chilika, every creature nurtured by it, its enchanting water, the islands, and hamlets peripheral to it, numerous migratory birds, and varieties of fishes playing in its waters. It highlights the picture of ecological foundations of fishing societies and cultures in and around Chilika. These poems stand testimony to the fact that the human and the natural environments they depend upon are highly integral and virtually inseparable.

NIRMAN also collaborated with both the University of Waterloo, Canada and the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur for a Field School on Environmental Change and Governance: Coastal Wellbeing and Ecosystem Services Amidst Rapid Change that took place at Chilika Lagoon, Badakul, India. Over the span of the 5 day field school graduate students from IIT Kharagpur and the University of Waterloo, faculty members from both institutes, NIRMAN program staff, fisher community leaders, and government marine and coastal department officials came together in order to learn and understand many concepts and approaches in coastal environmental change, human wellbeing, ecosystem services, and governance as well as to conduct surveys in local fishing villages in order to evaluate general wellbeing.

NIRMAN has also organized a number of policy workshops and discussion forums on Chilika in the last several years. Prominent among those were 1) The Future of Chilika Lagoon (2016), 2) State-level Consultation on Operationalizing the Voluntary Guidelines for Securing Sustainable Small-Scale Fisheries in the Context of Food Security and Poverty Eradication Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (2015), 3) Human-Environment relationship in Chilika (2013).

As part of our ongoing collaboration with the University of Waterloo, Canada, NIRMAN has hosted a number of graduate and undergraduate thesis students and interns over the past years. They include: Masters in Sustainability Management students, Ashok Selvaraj on ‘Social-ecological system change and adaptation: A case of Chilika lagoon small-scale fishery, India’ (2014) and Fatima Noor Khan on ‘Women and Environmental Change: A Case Study of Small-Scale Fisheries in Chilika Lagoon’; International Development thesis students Kaitlin Murray on ‘The role of forest governance in food and livelihood security: A case study of NIRMAN, Odisha, India’ and Patricia Crisan Szabo on ‘Rapid environmental change, mental health and wellbeing in Chilika Lagoon, India’; Master of Development Practice students Rebecca Armour and Rebecca Thomson as interns.

NIRMAN plans to continue work in Chilika Lagoon area through research, advocacy and information dissemination processes.

Field School on Environmental Change and Governance held at Chilika Lagoon
Chilika Field School Brochure
Proceedings of State-level Consultation...