12 / 1997
The Government of Bangladesh introduced its present waterbody management policy in 1986. It is meant to provide access to waterbodies (locally called jalmohals, haors and beels)only through leases to fishermen’s co-operatives.
But, according to the poor fishermen themselves, rich moneylenders (mahajans)have hijacked the whole programme. In connivance with the police and local officials, these powerful interests have become the de facto leaseholders of these waterbodies.
According to a survey by a local newspaper, `The Daily Star’, Bangladesh has about 10,000 waterbodies of various sizes, totalling around 2.83 million hectares of the country’s perennial waters.
Fisheries play an important role in the economy of Bangladesh, contributing nearly four per cent of the country’s Gross Domestic Product and about 10 per cent of export earnings. Nearly two million people (or about seven per cent of total employment)work full-time in fisheries-related activities.
According to Brian O’Riordan of the Intermediate Technology Development Group, an estimated 1.3 million people are engaged in fishing and fish culture, and a further ten million people work during the seasonal floodplain fishery.
It was during the martial law regime of Ayub Khan that the jalmohals first came under state control. Until then, they were under local landlords who would tax fishermen for using the waters. Although the fishermen organised to fight for their rights during the late 1960s, only after Bangladesh’s independence did the government abolish the old auction system. In its place it introduced regulation of access through co-operatives. But these were no match for the power of moneylenders.
There is a strong and inevitable link between the fishermen and the moneylenders. Since bidding amounts for leasehold rights are high, the fishermen’s co-operatives are forced to approach moneylenders. These are influential people who, often enough, engineer splits and factions within the co-operatives to gain control over them.
Since 1986, when the new policy came into effect, most waterbodies are controlled and regulated by the government’s Ministry of Land. The policy aims to replace leasing with open auctioning and ultimately, a licensing system.
Yet, as experience has showed, reforming the system is riddled with difficulties. Identifying genuine fishermen is not easy. Nor is the regulation of catch by inexperienced officials. Also, the fishermen are greatly hampered by the lack of marketing infrastructure. Further, the laws of co-operative enterprise, including the means of appeal, are heavily against the fishermen.
With most co-operatives functionally weak and disorganised, the real fishermen find that they are now effectively barred from their own fishing grounds.
A typical case is that of the Bengla-Charabahda jalmohal. At one time, this fishery used to support the people of 15 villages. In April 1991, the government leased out this 2,400-acre waterbody for three years in return for 805,600 Taka in annual revenue.
But the leasing policy permits only the 120 members of a particular co-operative society to fish there. Similarly, the Ghotra-Uttara river, which flows into this waterbody, has been segmented and leased out to other societies. The smaller co-operatives found themselves unable to compete in bidding since the royalty amount was suddenly raised four-fold over the previous term’s level.
But even when they formed a consortium to win the bid, one moneylender encouraged a rift in their ranks, say the local fishermen. The moneylender’s group wanted to maximise profits by fishing twice during the lease period. According to `The Daily Star’, in the skirmishes that followed, one villager was shot dead and several others injured.
Intimidation and coercion by the moneylenders’ musclemen are now common, complain the fishermen. One fisherman said, "We can fight the robbers and looters who try to take away expensive nets and other fishing gear, but we are helpless against the "legal robbery" by the mahajan’s men supported by police".
Fishery management measures must be formulated keeping in mind local social and economic realities. In a society riddled with inequalities, as in Bangladesh, special efforts must be made to ensure that the possible beneficial effects of any management measures are not subverted by entrenched vested interests.
The other aspect that needs to be kept in mind is the fact that communities have traditionally used inland water bodies to meet their requirements for fish, water for irrigation and livestock etc. Communities have enjoyed free access to these resources. The fish caught in inland rivers, ponds etc. has contributed significantly to meeting nutritional needs of the people in these areas. It has provided a source of cheap, easily available protein. In addition, income from fishing has contributed to the incomes of both part-time and full-time fishers. Limiting access to such inland water bodies will, therefore, have negative social and economic repercussions.
The challenge lies in improving the management of these water bodies, while, at the same time, maintaining the access of these communities to such resources, thereby minimising adverse social and economic impacts. It is necessary to better organise the marginalised segments and help develop their organisational, technical, managerial and economic capacity. Efforts to create co-operatives, without providing adequate back-up support for capacity building, are unlikely to succeed.
Artículos y dossiers
Samudra Editorial Team, Traditional access denied in. Samudra Report, 1993/11, 8; Reports by Masud Hasan Khan in the 1993 issues of the newspaper, The Daily Star