It was nearly dusk in Killai village in coastal Cuddalore district, Tamil Nadu, on a warm summer day. In a barren field lined with coconut trees and date palm, a pair of loudspeakers tied to an electric pole blared Tamil folk music. In a slow procession, men and women of all ages trickled into the empty field where a stage was set, bearing a red banner with the words “Iraal Pannaigal Edhurpu Manadu”. A meeting to oppose shrimp farming.

The villagers were residents of 15 villages around Killai who complained that shrimp aquaculture had turned their groundwater salty over the last 15 years and rendered all their drinking water sources unusable. The soil in these villages has turned so saline that groundnut and paddy, once harvested in plenty, no longer grow. The natural water holes, or oothu, from where they drew sweet potable water are now simply salt water springs.

Making matters worse, the lush Pichavaram mangrove forests that garland the backwaters near Killai – a popular tourist attraction – are dying a slow death as a result of chemical waste from the shrimp farms.

“At first we thought the shrimp farms would help in the development of our village and provide us with jobs,” said N Ravichandran, a farmer from Radhavilagam village. “Only much later did we realise that our drinking water sources would be ruined.”

The aquaculture boom

The 1990s were boom time for shrimp farming in Tamil Nadu. But the business suffered in the wake of the 2004 tsunami – which caused widespread damage to the state and resulted in over 6,000 deaths – according to Senthil Babu of the Coastal People’s Rights Movement. Major importers, such as the United States and the European Union, cut down on import volumes citing high toxicity in shrimp bred in India.

In the last few years, though, there has been a resurgence in shrimp aquaculture, Babu said. The business picked up with the introduction in 2009 of Litopenaeus vannamei or the white-leg shrimp in the country. Today, the vannamei shrimp accounts for 80% of all shrimp or prawn exports and close to half the shipment value of all outbound marine products, reported The Financial Express. Moreover, the export value of the variety has multiplied almost six times between 2011-’12 and 2015-’16, according to data from the Marine Products Exports Development Authority.

The Indian government is keen to ride that wave. In March, at a public gathering in Rajkot in Gujarat, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced plans for a Blue Revolution through welfare schemes for fishermen and coastal development. “[The] Country’s vast coast can bring revolution,” he said. “We have prepared ‘Sagar Mala’ scheme for its development and it will attract 8 lakh crores investment. It will create industrial and tourism development along coastal line.”

Residents of 15 villages gathered in Killai, Cuddalore district, on April 26 for a public meeting to protest shrimp aquaculture.

Ecological concerns

Since brackish water is ideal for breeding crustaceans and molluscs, most shrimp farms are located near river estuaries or backwaters, where the water is slightly salty. Given the estuarine location of the Pichavaram reserve forests, villages in its neighbourhood are lined with aquaculture farms.

For over two decades now, environmental concern over shrimp farming has been growing. For aquaculture, artificial ponds are made on plots of land surrounded by raised mud walls. Smalls channels lead the river water to these ponds, through an inlet valve, where the shrimp are bred. “There are several visible, blatant violations of canals being dug out from the mangrove forests,” said Babu. “Pichavaram is a reserve forest, which means that any single human activity including fishing and grazing should be regulated. But no action is being taken against these illegal canals.”

The salt water that flows into the fields is mixed with medicines to keep the shrimp disease-free, and this seeps into the groundwater and often contaminates drinking water sources. Additionally, the salinity of the top soil is irreversible and the land cannot be used for agriculture once the shrimp culture season is over, pointed out Babu.

Shrimp aquaculture is not new in India and neither is resistance to shrimp farming, which has a long history. Its formal introduction in government policy can be traced to the 1970s. In the Fifth Five-Year Plan, the Central government sponsored organisations such as the Fish Farmers Development Agency, followed by the Brackish Water Fish Farmers Development Agency, to develop aquaculture techniques and practices, fish breeding and exports. Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu, especially, saw a boom in shrimp production in subsequent years.

But, as this research paper in the academic journal Economic & Political Weekly notes, the real boom happened in the early 1990s, when shrimp farms were established on a war footing in coastal states. Big and small companies partnered with major international importers to make crores in profits. But as more investment flowed into the shrimp farming business, along with government incentives promoting this export-led model, resistance to shrimp farming rose too.

“The prawn farming boom is causing bloody conflicts, where on the one hand farmers and fisherfolk are bringing work to a grinding halt in various upcoming prawn farms; and on the other, companies with support from local rich people, police and administration, are commencing production. The Central and state governments, however, are caught in a contradictory situation. Though they are committed to the development of shrimp aquaculture projects to cater to export market, they are now considering its ecological and social aspects as well.”

— Economic & Political Weekly, 1994

At Radhavilagam, which has several shrimp farms, residents are in despair over the state of their water sources. M Rajakumari, a farmer who owns two-and-a-half acres of barren and uncultivable land, had to move in with her two sons in nearby Chidambaram town, where they work in the construction industry.

“Nothing can be grown on this land,” said Rajakumari. “Ever since the shrimp farmers have come, little by little the salt content in the water has grown. I have not been able to get proper yield for 15 years.”

She recalled that back in 1964, when she first came to Radhavilagam after marriage, the soil was fertile and there was plenty of water available. “Before, people from surrounding areas would travel to our village to draw water,” she said. “Now, they are not even willing to give their daughters in marriage to men in our village.”

Her sister, Vennila, said that till 15 years ago, farmers dug small, waist-deep water holes by their fields and these were always filled with sweet, pure water. “Then, there was no need for any pipes or canals,” she recalled. “Now, we are buying water cans for Rs 40 each.”

After the shrimp culture season is over, the land cannot be used for agriculture because of the soil's salinity.

Shrimp farmers perturbed

At the end of Radhavilagam village lay acres of aquaculture ponds shimmering in the afternoon sun. Near one such pond was a small shack where S Sivasamy, a shrimp farmer, took his afternoon nap on a netted cot.

Sivasamy is from neighbouring Ariyalur district but spends six months every year in Cuddalore tending to his brother’s pond. Five years ago, they leased two-and-a-half acres of land and began prawn culture for two seasons each year.

“It is a great field for gaining a good profit,” said Sivasamy, who admitted to being drawn to the business because of its high profitability. “We sell it to exporters at a good rate, Rs 500 for one kg. In a good year, your costs may be Rs 25 lakhs, but you can easily make Rs 50 lakhs in sales in three or four months.”

Sivasamy said that compared to others in the area, his farm was relatively small. Most of the shrimp farms are owned by wealthy people who live in other districts and visit occasionally. They employ technicians with scientific knowledge of aquaculture to tend to the farms, along with labourers, who are usually from the neighbouring villages. Sivaswamy said one such farm owner from Dharmapuri district had nine ponds in the area and was the most successful among them. “In a year, he made more than Rs 2 crores,” he said.

Sivasamy is aware of the bubbling resentment among villagers against shrimp farmers. He admitted the groundwater does get contiminated because of shrimp farming, but said it was not to the extent the villagers claimed. The villagers accuse the shrimp farmers of making huge profits and getting rich at their expense. “On TV, they see clips of us scooping up tonnes of prawns in our nets,” said Sivasamy. “But they do not know anything about the business and the risks involved.”

Many liken the unpredictability of shrimp farming to a lottery.

“You may have great yield one year but the next year, a disease could kill all your shrimp,” said Sivasamy.

In Thasuapettai village, Rukmini (name changed), who owns two ponds, has a huge debt that has accumulated over the last 10 years. “The villagers all think we are rolling in wealth,” she said. “But I have Rs 25 lakhs to repay in loans. They do not know anything about my problems. I cannot get out of this business until I repay the loans.”

Prawn farmer Sivasamy says villagers exaggerate the extent of groundwater contamination from aquaculture.

Gathering momentum

Ramesh Babu of the Coastal People’s Rights Movement came to hear of the severe drinking water crisis in villages near the Pichavaram mangroves during a visit to the area two months ago to organise a union for tourist boat workers. Traveling through the backwaters, his team of activists came across illegal activity by shrimp farm owners along the reserve forest. They conducted a water test and found the groundwater to be highly contaminated and unfit for use. After receiving these reports, the collector formed a committee led by the district revenue officer to address the problem.

On April 26, the Coastal People’s Rights Movement organised a meeting in Killai village to bring together villagers and political leaders to strengthen the movement against the illegal actions of shrimp farms.

“If all the shrimp farms are removed, the water in our area will be much better within five years,” said N Ravichandran, the farmer from Radhavilagam. “Before this, nobody took the initiative to tackle this problem. Now that 15 villages have come together, we are united in this fight.”

A map of villages around the Pichavaram mangroves, which are dotted with shrimp farms. Credit: Coastal People's Rights Movement

All photographs courtesy Vinita Govindarajan.

This is the first part in a series on the impact of Tamil Nadu’s booming shrimp farming business on people and the environment.