Rushula Cheruvu (Jal)

Case Study on Fisherman Communities in India

Case Study on Fisherman Communities in India

Fisherman communities in India before were largely caste based, and these communities’ formed cooperatives which were duly recognised by the Government. But in the South-Indian state of Andhra Pradesh, the Andhra Pradesh Scheduled Areas Land Transfer Regulation (APSALTR) Act of 1959 (amended in ’70) allows only tribals possession on land and other natural resources in Scheduled Areas.

This current case study, in which SAKTI has been actively involved since the early 1990s, unfolds in the Scheduled Areas of erstwhile Mahaboobnagar District of Andhra Pradesh. On July 16, 1994, the State Fisheries Minister, Sri. Malladi Swamy, communicated with the State Forest Minister, Sri. P. Jagan Mohan Rao, highlighting a Government Order (G.O.Ms.No.24) issued on February 1, 1982 by Forests and Rural Development Department, Government of AP. This G.O. allowed non-tribal fishing cooperatives to operate in the Nirmal Forest Division of Adilabad District for a period of three years. Citing this precedent, the Fisheries Minister urged the extension of the same facility to the Fisheries Union of Kondanagula in the Scheduled Areas of Mahaboobnagar District [1].

Following this letter, the ‘Fisheries Union of Kondanagula’, a non-tribal fisherman cooperative society that was operating in the Mahaboobnagar District, submitted an application to the Divisional Forest Officer (DFO) to lease out ‘Rushula Cheruvu’, a huge lake spanning approximately 150 acres, for rearing fish. This lake was located in the buffer zone of Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR), which was India’s largest ‘Protected Area’ spread across Scheduled Areas of four different districts of erstwhile AP, including Mahaboobnagar. Upon receiving this application, the DFO requested clarifications from the Assistant Director – Project Tiger. The DFO questioned whether leasing out 'Rushula Cheruvu' lake was permissible, acknowledging that although the lake is situated in the Reserve Forest (RF) and buffer zone of NSTR, the application for leasing might be considered since livelihood of weaker sections of society is at stake [2]. The Assistant Director – Project Tiger submitted this information provided by DFO to the Field Director – Project Tiger (NSTR) for favour of information [3]. The State Forest Department (SFD) eventually considered the request of the ‘Fisheries Union of Kondanagula’ and recommended to the government to allow the said society to continue fishing in ‘Rushula Cheruvu’ without affecting the lives of wild animals in the forest, and the said proposals were sent by SFD to the Minister of Forest, Government of AP on January 25, 1995.

In the subsequent years, non-tribal fishing cooperatives persistently engaged in fishing activities across multiple water bodies within the Scheduled Areas of Mahaboobnagar District without effective supervision. This unrestricted fishing particularly extended to areas specifically designated as Nagarjunasagar Srisailam Tiger Reserve (NSTR).

At this point, with hunting restrictions in place and increasing limitations on tribal movements within forests, SAKTI recognized the necessity for forest-dependent tribal communities to diversify their livelihoods. Consequently, the organization proposed fishing as a viable alternative livelihood for the Chenchu tribe, who are a hunter-gatherer tribal community predominantly residing in Scheduled Areas covering NSTR. The Chenchus are known as 'the Jungle Folk of the Deccan' for their profound understanding of the forests of Eastern Ghats they call home.

In the following years, various representations were made by Chenchu villages to the Office of Project Officer, Integrated Tribal Development Agency (PO – ITDA), requesting assistance in getting fingerlings from Fisheries Department that can be released into water bodies located in proximity to Chenchu villages. On August 16, 2000, the PO – ITDA after referring to the various applications, accordingly directed the concerned Village Tribal Development Agencies (VTDAs), Agriculture Extension Officers and Accounts Officers, to do the needful in procuring fingerlings and transporting them to 14 different water bodies in the Scheduled Areas covering NSTR, including ‘Rushula Cheruvu’ [4].

However, when Chenchus belonging to Billakal village went to drop fingerlings in ‘Rushula Cheruvu’ which had been their community water resource for decades, they were stopped and threatened by non-tribes from entering the area. The non-tribal fishing co-operatives backed by local politicians had already occupied ‘Rushula Cheruvu’ in contravention to laws governing Scheduled Areas of Andhra Pradesh. Soon, the dispute between Chenchu villagers of Billakal and ‘Fisheries Union of Kondanagula’ escalated to the point where people from both sides gathered at ‘Rushula Cheruvu’ in large numbers, creating a tense and fragile atmosphere that could have led to rioting and causalities. In a letter dated April 4, 2001, the DFO blamed the PO – ITDA (NSTR) for creating this law-and-order problem by financing fingerlings for Chenchu villagers without prior consent from SFD [5].

Meanwhile, to help the aggrieved Chenchus, SAKTI submitted a representation to the Office of the Commissioner, Tribal Welfare Department (CTW), Government of AP, stating that non-tribes in Scheduled Areas of Mahaboobnagar District are allowed to fish in water bodies that are part of community forest resources of the local Chenchu villages. On 5th January 2002, the CTW instructed the District Collector of Mahaboobnagar that non-tribal fishing cooperatives cannot operate in the Scheduled areas of AP, and it is violative of the provisions of APSALTR Act of 1959 (amended in ’70) [6].

A similar representation was submitted to the District Collector by Chenchu villagers of Billakal on February 6, 2002. This representation alleged that non-tribal fishing co-operatives engage in unauthorized fishing, use of harmful chemicals, and indiscriminate killing of wild animals by laying traps, in the areas surrounding ‘Rushula Cheruvu’. The Chenchu villagers requested for urgent intervention to curb the interference of non-tribal communities in their Scheduled Areas [7].

Even after representations from CTW and Billakal villagers, the inaction of the District Collector in this matter prompted SAKTI to back Nimmala Krishnayya, who was the President of Billakal village, to file Writ Petition in the High Court of Andhra Pradesh, directing the concerned officials to see that non-tribals do not enter the vicinity of Rushula Cheruvu to fish, hunt etc. The High Court while responding to this petition issued status quo order to the respondents (i.e. District Collector, DFO and Fisheries Union of Kondanagula), by directing them to not allow anyone other than tribals in the Scheduled Areas of Mahaboobnagar District [8].

Ultimately, on October 1, 2007, the Court disposed the case stating that, according to APSALTR Act of 1959 (amended in '70), transfer of any right in immovable property in a Scheduled Area to a non-tribal is void, and so question of any non-tribals fishing in Rushula Cheruvu does not arise. The Court further stated that the Chenchu’s right to fish in Rushulu Cheruvu is doubtful until the government issues further clarifications in this regard [9].

On October 3, 2007, after a representation from the Sarpanch of Billakal village, the Secretary for Tribal Welfare to the Government of AP gave clarifications to the District Collector of Mahaboobnagar District, Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (Prl. PCCF) and PO – ITDA (NSTR), stating that, the recently enacted Recognition of Forest Rights Act (RoFR) of 2006 explicitly protects the traditional rights of the tribes, and the current guidelines allow for the allocation of fishing rights to Cooperative Societies of Scheduled Tribes in Scheduled Areas [10].

Consequently, on June 12, 2008, the Assistant Director of Fisheries, Mahaboobnagar District approved and registered Scheduled Tribe (Chenchu) Fisherman Co-operative Society at Billakal village along with the said Society’s Bye-laws [11].

Encouraged by this gesture of the Secretary, Tribal Welfare, GoAP and State Fisheries Department, the Chenchus residing in the neighbouring villages also started applying to the District Collector for forming village-level fisherman co-operative societies. On October 25 & 27, 2010, Chenchu residents of Yerr