When I realised that the venue we had picked for the second public hearing at Gupti village was the same where Hon’ble Minister Jairam Ramesh conducted his meeting before his decision on POSCO, I didn’t know whether I should be happy or worried. But I realised what a big advantage it was when we started mobilising people and inviting them for the hearing. All I had to say was, “It’s the Jairam Ramesh place,” and they would instantly know where to come! For that Mr Ramesh, do accept my heartfelt gratitude.
In one way though, our meeting was much more successful than the minister’s. His meeting 200 villagers while we had 300 fishermen. SCORE!
This time around our panellists included rural livelihoods expert and fisheries expert from the ICZM project state office, fisheries and forest department officials, leaders of the national and state fishworkers’ union and representative from the local MLA’s office.
This consultation proved to be quite different from the one at Khairnasi simply because in this village the monies for pursuing an alternative income generating option had already been disbursed to the fishermen through their self help groups (SHGs). Some of the members of these SHGs explained their experiences ranging from getting the money to how and where they wish to invest it. They highlighted the need for flexibility in implementing this program and simplifying the process of disbursing the money. They said that the fishermen should be allowed to pursue any option that they want as long as it is not detrimental to the environment.
I was listening to all these people talk in rapid Oriya and trying to understand and translate it into English in my head and take notes at the same time. While all this was happenining I realised how much sense it makes to simply meet the beneficiaries of a program or a scheme because almost everything that the fishermen raised was reasonable. It was no surprise then that the panellists agreed to their recommendations. There were disagreements as well and some excited yelling too, but that is exactly what a public hearing is all about.
In fact, it struck me then, that had a consultation of this kind taken place when the Orissa government was about to declare Gahirmatha marine sanctuary, it could have saved years of incessant livelihoods versus conservation conflict. People and communities dependent on forests and oceans or other natural resources are also their fiercest sentinels. Our survey shows that more than 90% of the fishermen understand the importance of the marine park and are aware that it keeps the fish stock stable. I do believe that it’s not too late and Gahirmatha still has a fair chance of becoming one of the model marine parks in India.
For now, we are busy collating all the opinions that we heard at the two consultations and adding it to our survey findings. We aim to put it all in a report and then release it around mid-July. Hopefully, this will prove to be an effective tool for conservation management in this country. Stay tuned.
Image: © Greenpeace/Biswaranjan Rout