Fight for the rights
the region. It is their primary source of income. Like Gagga, over 800 fisherfolk families residing in over 150 villages of Kachchh, Patan, Surendranagar, Rajkot and Morbi districts collect shrimps during the rainy season in the sanctuary. During the monsoon, a stretch of 150 sq km within the 5,000 sq km sanctuary gets submerged in knee-deep muddy water, which is conducive to shrimps.
The two communities have been demanding seasonal land rights under fra. “The unique aspect of their demand is that it is not for the land, but for the resources and that too for a particular period every year,” says Harinesh Pandya of Janpath, an Ahmedabad-based non-profit working for the rights of the Agaria and fishing communities.
While the forest department says it is illegal to collect shrimps in the sanctuary, the fisheries department continues to issue licences to the individuals every year to fish in the area. The annual licence, which costs `200, clearly states that individuals are allowed to fish in the area.
This confusion has led to rampant exploitation of the community. The fishers say that the shrimp produced in the area is organic and of good quality. “We are not allowed to sell the produce in the market. Instead, a nexus of goons and forest officials forces us to sell them the produce at a cheap price. They then make windfall profits,” says Gagga. He adds that the goons normally buy a kg of shrimps for `15 and then sell it for more than `100 a kg in the market.
The community also alleges that it pays forest officials `200 a boat as bribe and complains of regular harassment and physical abuse by the officials. “The reason we still come here every year, despite the hardships, is that this is our primary source of income. A family normally earns around `30,000 in the three months, which allows it to survive the entire year,” he says.
Bharat Bhai, a leader of the two communities, says the Agaria community, which has over 4,500 families, has to endure harassment for seven to eight months a year. “Forest officials regularly break our implements and seize our tractors,” says Mahipal Bhai Dawa Bhai, a 55-year-old salt farmer Several communities across the country are trying to gain seasonal rights under the Forest Rights Act, 2006
Community: Demand: Location:
Van Gujjar Grazing rights Rajaji National Park
Fishing shrimp and extracting salt Little Rann of Kutch
Agaria and from the community. He says that atrocities forced the community to form an association in 2001 called the Agaria Hitrakshak Manch. “The salt in the region is good for the heart because it is low in sodium and silica and high in calcium and magnesium,” says Pandya.
The leaders from the two communities say the belief of the forest officials that the communities are a threat to the wild asses is unfounded. “The communities have for long coexisted with the local wild animals and their livelihood is not dependent on the animals. In fact, wild asses seldom come to the area where they fish or collect salt because it is close to the ocean,” says Pankti Jog of Janpath. She adds that the symbiotic relationship between the communities and the wild ass has increased the animal’s population from 273 in 1972 to over 5,000 today.
Ranchhor Bhai, a leader of the two communities from Miyani village, which is on the outskirts of the sanctuary, says that harassment
Communities: Demand: Location:
Kinnaur, Gaddi, Kanait and Gujjar Grazing rights Dhauladhar Wildlife Sanctuary, Great Himalaya and Pin Valley national parks
by forest officials has reduced after the fishing community in 2013 met the then chief minister Narendra Modi to demand for rights inside the sanctuary. “But corruption remains rampant,” he says.
Udit Agarwal, district collector of Surendranagar, says his administration is pushing to provide seasonal rights to the communities. “We are considering allowing the Agaria community to collect salt from the area. We have initiated the process of consulting all the parties involved to work out a plan,” he says. C V Sanje, range forest officer, Little Rann of Kutch, says forest officials cooperate with the communities, but “we also have to protect the wildlife sanctuary”. He adds that while community leaders claim that politicians have assured them of rights under fra, nothing has been done officially. Even Kachchh district collector M A Gandhi says he is not aware of an fra demand in the region. “Issuing seasonal rights is not possible under the law. I will discuss it with my officers and look at the impact it will have on the wild ass sanctuary,” says Gandhi.