On April 26, as farmers from 15 villages surrounding the Pichavaram forests in Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district gathered for a public meeting against polluting shrimp farms, M Kuttiandisamy sat in the airy front porch of his house in Killai village watching his granddaughter play. The leader of the fishing community had received an invitation to the event, but wanted nothing to do with it. “This is not our struggle,” he said, echoing the sentiment of residents of four fishing villages in the region.

The reluctance to participate in the growing movement against unregulated, unlicensed shrimp farms – accused of contaminating the groundwater and soil in the region – does not mean the fisherfolk support the aquaculture business or have benefited from it. On the contrary, the last 15 years witnessed frequent and violent altercations between artisanal fishermen and shrimp farmers, which drained the fishing villages of their wealth and mental peace.

“We are just getting past our terrible experiences,” said Kuttiandisamy. “We do not need any more struggles now.”

Threat to livelihood

In the late 1990s, rich businessmen from towns like Cuddalore, Salem and Dharmapuri started buying tracts of land from the fisherfolk at abnormally high rates. These lands were later turned into shrimp farms. According to Kuttiandisamy, the value of an acre of land back then was Rs 10,000 but the shrimp farmers were ready to pay Rs 50,000. Many villagers, thus, sold their lands.

“When they began to set up the farms in 2000 itself, some of us warned the shrimp farmers that their activities would ruin our livelihood,” Kuttiandisamy said.

Sure enough, the fears of the fishermen came true with the toxic chemical waste discharged by the shrimp farms after every farming season finding their way to the backwaters of Pichavaram. Many fishermen contracted skin diseases while laying their nets or pulling them out of the water, said Neethi Mani, an environmental activist and fishing community leader. There was also a drastic decline in the fish population while several varieties of prawns, crabs, snapper, pomfret and mullet disappeared altogether. In addition to the toxic effects of shrimp farming, hot water discharged from a nearby industry damaged the ecology of the area.

The fishing communities of the four villages – Killai, Pillumelu, Chinna Vakyal and Pattaraiadi – petitioned the Cuddalore collector and sought action against the shrimp farms. “We even met the collector and asked him for help,” said Kuttiandisamy. “He told us that he would help us, but the shrimp farms only grew in number.”

M Kuttiandisamy and other fishing community members have not forgotten their own struggle against shrimp farmers and what it cost them. Credit: Vinita Govindarajan

Desperate measures

Tired of waiting for official action, the fishing villages decided to take matters into their own hands. They sought the help of farmers in other villages in Pichavaram to join them and support their efforts. “Nobody helped us then,” said Kuttiandisamy. “They all thought shrimp farming would give good employment to people and benefit their village.”

The fishermen decided that destroying the aquaculture ponds and poisoning the yield was the only way to teach the shrimp farmers a lesson. Pakkirisamy, a resident of Killai, said they got the idea for such drastic measures from the Communist parties. But the shrimp farmers and the police came to know of their plans.

One evening in 2002, close to 100 villagers gathered for a strategy meeting. Soon after, they blocked all roads leading to Killai with palm trees while around 40 women stood guard at the entrance, facing off against a contingent of armed policemen. When one sub-inspector tried to enter the village, the women caught hold of him and tied him up. “The one thing I am most proud of is the bravery of our women,” said 79-year-old D Rajaraman, another village leader.

Around midnight, the fishermen headed out to wreck the aquaculture ponds. And within an hour, chaos ensued. The police arrested over 70 men and 40 women and jailed them. The rest of the fisherfolk, including Kuttiandisamy and Pakkirisamy, ran to neighbouring villages and did not return to Killai for over two months. Pakkirisamy’s wife was jailed for two months.

Slow recovery

After the unrest subsided, the villagers began the tedious process of bailing out their family members, neighbours and friends. They had to present two ration cards as jameen or surety for every person who had been jailed. “Once we bailed the people out, we had to go to different courts to follow up the cases,” said the activist Neethi Mani. “Even now, a few villagers have cases pending.”

In the years that followed, the villagers continued to pay the price for that one night in 2002. Traveling to courts, hiring lawyers and filing appeals all cost a lot of money, which came from a common village treasury. “We must have spent more than [Rs] 50 lakhs over the years for this,” said Kuttiandisamy.

Their efforts did pay off. A few shrimp farmers who belonged to their community shut their farms as they felt it was not worth angering the villagers. Today, only two shrimp farms still function in the vicinity of the fishing villages. “The water is much cleaner than before in this part of the river,” said Neethi Mani.

The years spent dealing with the aftermath of their struggle against the shrimp farmers not forgotten, the fishermen have decided not to involve themselves with the ongoing protests. They have also not forgotten how the same farming villages that are protesting today had refused to support them back in 2002. “Why should we go out of our way to solve their problems now?” is the common refrain in the fishing community.

This is the second and last part in a series on the impact of Tamil Nadu’s booming shrimp farming business on people and the environment. You can read the first part here.