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Opinion - Leader Page Articles

Saving Tawa

By Mihir Shah & Nivedita Banerji

Vested interests amongst the bureaucracy do not want the Tawa cooperative to become a mirror for their incompetence.

YEARS BEFORE the current agitations broke out in the Narmada Valley, a few large dams had already been constructed on the river. Tawa was one of them. The 172-km Tawa river is the longest tributary of the Narmada. Construction of the Tawa dam began in 1958 and was completed 20 long years later in 1978. Forty-four Adivasi villages were submerged in the reservoir created by the dam.

The incredible thing about those displaced by the Tawa dam was that many of them had already been uprooted from their homes by an Army firing range, an ordnance factory and the Satpura National Park, set up in the same region. Many families suffered double or even triple displacement. Resettlement of project-affected persons was not an issue on the national agenda in the 1970s. Fishing in the Tawa reservoir began in the mid-1970s, initially under direct Government control. The idea that local displaced Adivasis could be involved in fishing was beyond the imagination of the state. Fish workers were brought from other parts of Madhya Pradesh and even Maharashtra and Bihar. Local Adivasis were rendered both landless and jobless. They settled in the upper reaches around the Tawa reservoir. Gradually, they too picked up fishing techniques, but without any legal rights they were reduced to poaching from the reservoir.

In 1994, after a none-too-happy experience of nearly 20 years, the Government decided to withdraw from direct fishing in the Tawa. Following an auction, a contractor from Bhopal gained exclusive rights to Tawa fishing. The coming of the contractor-era proved a kind of turning point. The contractor spread a reign of terror through his army of musclemen. Local Adivasis were not even allowed to eat fish, let alone catch or market it. Cheap labour was brought in from outside and the boats and nets of local people were seized and destroyed.

Around the same time, 17 Adivasi villages in the adjacent Bori Wildlife Sanctuary (which spreads on both sides of the Tawa reservoir) were asked to vacate their homes to make way for the Tiger Project. The patience of the local people was at an end. Under the leadership of the Kisan Adivasi Sangathan, the displaced and to-be-displaced Adivasis launched a series of protests. After a prolonged agitation, the newly elected Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, decided to grant exclusive fishing rights to cooperatives of local displaced Adivasis. In December 1996, a five-year lease agreement was signed between the Government and the Tawa Matsya Sangh (TMS), a federation of cooperative societies of the displaced people.

This was a quite unprecedented decision by a bold and imaginative politician. Never before had people been trusted to manage their own resources in this manner. These were people who had no knowledge or experience of fishing. These were, after all, Adivasi farmers who had lived in close proximity to the forest. And they were being asked a very big ask. They were to not merely catch fish. They were also to carry out collection, weighing, storage, packaging, transportation and marketing of fish. And also keep proper records and accounts, as per the provisions of cooperative law.

What is really extraordinary is that these devastated but determined people did all this and more! In the last five years, the performance of the 21,000-hectare Tawa reservoir has been among the best in all major reservoirs of Madhya Pradesh, whether in terms of payment of royalty to the Government, production, productivity, employment, income distribution or release of fish seedlings. And this has been achieved along with a remarkable record of sustainable fishing practices, imposed through intricately worked out social fencing arrangements.

Tawa has been an incredible success story of transparent, decentralised governance and community management of natural resources. Despite this the Tawa trail-blazer has run into rough weather. When the five-year lease for the reservoir came up for renewal in December 2001, the Government imposed a new set of conditions that could jeopardise the whole effort. The Government wants fish workers to pay a royalty of Rs. 6 per kg. This amounts to a 40 per cent tax on an average price of Rs.15 per kg of fish. This is more than the rates of taxation even for the highest income groups in India. These poor, displaced Adivasis have already paid Rs.77 lakhs into the State coffers in the last five years. To tax them further is grossly unfair. The Government wants that anyone who was not directly engaged in fishing for 100 days in the last year be automatically disqualified as member of the cooperative. Completely overlooking the fact that many TMS members are engaged in various functions vital to the survival of the cooperative — packaging, transport, marketing and accounts. This is precisely what makes it such a unique success story. Removing these people would destroy the very basis of the cooperative. Many conditions of the new lease appear to undermine the autonomy of the cooperative federation, something the Madhya Pradesh Government has always claimed deep commitment to.

Quite understandably the TMS has refused to sign the agreement and since December 2001 the matter hangs unresolved. Two former members of the Planning Commission, Rajni Kothari and L. C. Jain, have now taken the initiative to set up a Citizens' Commission on Tawa to find a way out of the impasse. Apart from the two of us, the Commission has as its members, Jean Dreze, John Kurien, Rajendra Singh and Yogendra Yadav. The Commission held a public hearing near the Tawa reservoir in May 2002 and has been holding consultations with the Government and the TMS. We have suggested that if at all royalty is to be imposed, it should be dedicated as a Welfare Fund for the fish workers. In our view, being a registered cooperative, the TMS is bound to function within its own bylaws, approved by the Registrar of Cooperatives. As such, there is no reason for the Government to impose additional conditions that undermine cooperative autonomy. Many of them, such as restrictions on appointment of advisers, would in any case not stand scrutiny in a court of law. As for membership, the best way is to adopt the nationally accepted definition of fish worker — "men and women labouring in the processes of harvesting, processing and marketing fish" — with the additional proviso that only those displaced by the Tawa dam or those residing within 3 km of the reservoir be allowed to become members.

The nature of the new conditionalities reveal the political economy underlying them. All other major dam reservoirs in Madhya Pradesh are under the Government's Matsya Mahasangh. From its own reports, the performance of this body makes for very poor reading. Clearly, vested interests among the bureaucracy do not want Tawa to become a mirror for their incompetence. If an agreement is not reached by the time the fishing season re-opens on August 16, 2002, the fish workers will lose the Tawa reservoir, which too will revert back to the Government. Will Digvijay Singh act with speed, sagacity and vision to save the pioneering Tawa experiment for which he justifiably claims credit? Or will he allow Tawa to become one more case in point for his detractors, of discrepancies between claims on paper and performance on the ground?

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