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Wise Coastal Practices for Sustainable Human Development Forum

Multiple use of a coastal lagoon: success and failure / Chilka Lagoon-India.

Posted By: R. Sudarshana
Date: Friday, 1 October 1999, at 11:51 a.m.


This country, India - has a very long coastline of 7,600 km and very many things happen here. There are estuaries, gulfs, bays, beaches, cliffs, reefs, islands, atolls, lagoons and almost every coastal form. People live almost everywhere and every inch of coast has someone's footstep. Some parts have a few more than what they should really have. Chilka lagoon is one such place, a place of intense human intervention, a place endowed with immense natural resources and a place that has produced immense conflicts and confusion in management. A week back, the conflicts turned into commotion, swords and guns were pulled out of closet and blood spilled on the coastal streets - all for the rights of fishing. A temporary truce has been drawn, but the serene and post card pretty lagoon claims its toll of a few lives every other year. On 5th June 1999 (Saturday), thousands of villagers have taken to streets and stopped all the south bound traffic on the east coast highway, demanding that their traditional fishing rights be restored to them immediately.


Situated on the north east coast of India, Chilka is the largest lagoon in the region with about 1200 sq.km of water. Face the map of the Indian subcontinent, follow down the east coast from Bangladesh and you will not miss this hole in the coastal land a little distance south of Calcutta - our biggest mega-city on the shores of Bay of Bengal. Chilka is a paradise of sorts, an aquatic Eden and its biodiversity is unmatched. It is a RAMSAR site, no doubt. It brims with life and every drop of this water world is precious and under stake. It opens to the Bay of Bengal by a narrow opening in its miles long barrier spit and there is very little exchange of elements between the lagoon and the sea. It has well defined sectors of seawater, brackish water and fresh water. A riverine branch that opened into the sea hundreds of years back - now drains into the lagoon with loads of silt. Chilka is very shallow with an average depth of only half a meter, but there are regions that are up to 3 meters deep. The lose silt layer in the bottom of the lagoon is several meters deep and no one dares jumping out of the boat for the fear of sinking slowly. But then, all paradises on earth have some 'touch me not' quality.

The lagoon has about 150 species of aquatic birds out of which about 100 are inter-continental migrants. The Siberian crane is one of them. About 100 species of fish are found here, important species are Mullets, Hilsa, Mystus, Lates, Sciaenids and Etroplus. Shrimps of great value like Penaeus indicus and Panaeus monodon are very abundant and so are the big crabs like Scylla serrata. Over 60 species of phytoplankton, 170 species of zooplankton, 120 species of benthos and dozens of macrophytes exist in the system.

There are around 100 villages situated all around the periphery of the lagoon and over 100,000 people live in them in all. The lagoon is the mainstay of their lives and they almost totally depend on it for livelihood. They fish in the waters, transport material across, conduct tours for tourists, arrange visits to an island temple and cater to the needs of a naval base that commands the south portion of the lagoon. There is never a dull moment.


During 1971, India and Pakistan were engaged in a war for a few weeks over the issue of liberation of Bangladesh. Thousands of Bangladesh refugees crossed over to India during the crisis and the Indian Government set up camps for them in many places. One large settlement camp for the refugees was on the northern banks of Chilka lagoon all along the river draining into Chilka. The refugees started living on the fertile river banks and free land was distributed to them for cultivation of crops. Hundreds and thousands of them settled down on these coastal plains and started agriculture intensively. Refugees anywhere in the world work hard and this community was no exception. They were provided with fertilizers, seeds, power and water at subsidised price and they grew crops very well for years and prospered. In the process, plenty of fertilizers and organic matter started leaching from these fields and made their way into Chilka lagoon.

In a matter of few years, Chilka lagoon underwent eutrophication due to excess nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium which assisted plant growth. The natural succession processes of the tropical lagoon too assisted the transformation to some extent. In the northern portions of non saline waters, aquatic weeds started growing up. Species like Potamogeton Pectinatus, Scirpus articulatus, Najas foveolata dominated the north in a matter of years. They spread at a speed of about 14.6 sq.km per year and covered almost the entire north west. Lesser groups of macrophytes like Ruppia, Eichhornia, Pistia, Halophila, Hydrilla, Vallisneria, Cyperus and Phragmites occupied even southern peripheries. By the nineties, weeds had densely occupied the north west and their transect from shoreline was at places 15 km into the lagoon. Tens of villages lost their free passage into the lagoon for fishing and transport.

The traditional fishing grounds of some fishermen communities were poached by others and a large fishery mafia started operating in the waters. Government, research organisations and NGOs differed on methods of managing the system. Some wanted weeds to be totally removed but some suggested that they were the nursery grounds for fishes, especially the Mugil cephalus which migrates from the sea for breeding. Confusion and confrontation ruled the board rooms for years while piles of scientific data collected by different researchers contradicted with each other. Some suggested that we open the barrier spit and allow the sea water to flood the lagoon like they did in Venice hundreds of years back. Others objected to this and pointed at the water level difference between the sea and lagoon. Ornithologists opposed the idea tooth and nail fearing that migratory avian fauna would disappear. Hundreds of documents, theses, research papers, action plans and agenda papers were generated but an integrated wise idea never emerged. Nothing was physically changed in the lagoon due to lack of consensus and the fear of social protest. While the Government constituted a development authority for the lagoon, communities organised themselves in associations, societies and even mafia groups to organise their activities. Equitable natural distribution of resources became a thing of the past and resource exploitation became sectoral. The gap between rich and poor grew big. While in the '80s we saw well fed children in the villages, in '90s we saw child labour. When my wife completed her Ph.D thesis on the lagoon, she dedicated it to "the children of my daughter's age who washed my plates in the hut restaurants around Chilka lagoon".


During the early '90s, the wisest thing to do on the coast in India and south east Asia was to get into the business of aquaculture. There was a boom of shrimp culture and everyone fell in line. The Marine Products Export Development Authority (MPEDA) provided licences and subsidies, Central Marine Fishery Research Institute (CMFRI) provided technical know how, Department of Space made satellite survey for aquaculture site selection, Universities offered masters degrees in aquaculture/mariculture and people invested in shares of public enterprises set up for marine product generation and export. Commerce commanded the wisdom. Mangroves were felled, agriculture fields were converted in the coastal regions for shrimp farming and wetlands were modified as stocking ponds. Shrimp became 'aquagold.'

At this stage, Chilka lagoon was a precious property that could not be saved. The Government allotted leases for fish farmers to grow shrimps in the lagoon. It was only obvious that legal and illegal areas came under the practice of shrimp culture in the lagoon. Over the years, more and more areas were occupied and the natural geography of the lagoon changed in many places with artificial bunds and structures. Juveniles and shrimp seeds were collected in large numbers from the lagoon and were stocked in these culture ponds for growth. The whole natural balance changed enormously. Natural density of shrimps in the lagoon reduced, wastes from the culture ponds entered the lagoon, due to imbalance in Eltonian food pyramid - fish stock declined, fishing area reduced due to weeds and ponds and the mafia grew in power. Coastal communities were disturbed socially, occupationally, economically, culturally and temperamentally. The Supreme Court of India brought out an order that no aquaculture activity should occur within 500 meters from the tide line in the country, but as the lagoon had no tides, there were technical difficulties in implementing the order here.

People took to streets. They demanded that the shrimp farms be immediately closed and traditional fishing grounds be restored to them. In the last two weeks, agitation and conflicts have grown to great proportion and there has been even a police firing killing people. The entire state of Orissa in which the lagoon is situated is tense due to this conflict of coastal fishery. Even as you all read this story, the conflict is at play and street fights are occurring.


1. It is very difficult to be wise.

2. Too many cooks spoil the broth. Research duplication yields conflicting results.

3. Decisions on coastal resource management must be taken through participatory approach, especially using stake holder communities.

4. Closed coastal systems change faster than the speed of transformation of dependent societies. If not synchronised, disastrous situations may emerge.

5. Study of dynamic coastal systems must be done with rapid reconnaissance tools like satellite sensors, so that near real time manipulations in dependent societies can be attempted.

6. Honour traditional rights of people on the coast. Don't allow situations where they have to demand for it.


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