The Tragedy of Fishing Communities: A Story from Vetka Village, Odisha

The case study of Vetka village in the Bhitarkanika Wildlife Sanctuary demonstrates how resident households practise occupational diversity to overcome the loss of their primary occupation of fishing and dependence on forest products, both banned by the forest department in the eco-sensitive zone.

Fish as a source of income and diet is common in the coastal, rural regions of the world. Fish protein constitutes approximately 15% of total animal protein for three billion people across the globe, wherein the dependence of poor and middle income countries is much higher (Sumaila et al 2011). The world over, fishing is mostly practised commercially or farmed, with 90% of the fisherfolk being small-scale fishermen who use traditional methods of fishing for self-consumption and mostly sell wild-caught fish in the markets (Badjeck et al 2013; 2010). Vetka village in the Kendrapara district of Odisha is no different.

Academic literature has laid emphasis on fisheries and poverty and the problem of overexploitation of common-pool resources under an open access regime, resulting in the depletion of stocks, catch per unit and economic benefits (Bulayi 2001) along with a loss of nutrition and food security (Kurien 1991) and a rise in fishing efforts. Most studies talk about this over-exploitation of natural resources, but the linkages between poverty and fishing-based livelihoods are generally ignored (Bailey 1988), despite the fact that some studies have pointed to the linkages between small-scale fishing and poverty (Bene 2003). But when the fishing activities are undertaken inside a “national park,” the issues and linkages are quite different. The linkages and nexus between fishing, livelihoods and poverty are dynamic. 

This study is essentially aimed at understanding the relationship between livelihoods and ecosystem services (in this case, fishing) in Bhitarkanika National Park of Kendrapara district in Odisha. Bhitarkanika gained the status of a wildlife sanctuary in 1975 and national park in 1998, due to its ecological significance. The coastal belt was also notified as the Gahirmatha (Marine) Wildlife Sanctuary in 1997, in order to protect the Olive Ridley sea turtles. Ever since, there has been a ban on fishing for a period of seven months (November 1–May 31) every year, applicable to a 20-kilometre radius from the coast and enforced by the forest department to protect the endangered turtles, under the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1982 and Orissa Marine Fishing Rules, 1983. As a result of this ban, nearly 20,000 traditional fisherfolk in Kendrapara district are affected every year (Tanaya 2015). This has paved the way for constant conflict between the fisherfolk and forest officials. Every year, fishermen are arrested and boats confiscated for illegal fishing in the region. In 2014, 221 fishermen were arrested and 32 boats and trawlers were confiscated in the region (Times of India 2015).

In order to understand the different aspects of the issue, I have taken up Vetka village (situated within the boundaries of the sanctuary) as a case study for understanding the linkages between fishing and livelihoods. Vetka is a village close to the river and port. Therefore, majority of the households are involved in fishing activities. Using a structured schedule, data was collected from the village through random sampling techniques for 42 households (that is one-fourth of the total households in the village) regarding their livelihood and ecosystem, issues and problems relating to conservation and resultant conflicts in October–November 2014. This village provides us with interesting insights on how people’s livelihoods are significantly influenced and affected by the ecosystem, natural resources and existing institutions present in the village. 

Fishing as a Livelihood 

Vetka was a part of Shikarpai village until the 1960s, when it was carved out as a separate village at the end of the decade. Before independence, fishing was closely integrated with the tradition and culture of the fishing communities in this region. Fishing activities were freely undertaken by local communities, mostly for self-consumption and sometimes, for exchange/barter of goods. Traditionally, the resources (fishing) were not owned by the community and were treated as a common-pool resource.   

In the aftermath of independence and the consequent declaration of the area as sanctuary and national park, the ownership of the resources was claimed by the government and forest officials. The forest department acted as an agent of the government who would command and control these resources. Certain restrictions in the form of acts and laws were imposed on the local communities so as to stop the exploitation of resources. According to the survey conducted in the village, 22 (52%) of the total 42 households undertake fishing as their main livelihood activity. The nearby sea, river and creeks offer attractive opportunities to the locals, mainly to landless labourers, to opt for fishing as a livelihood. It is also an important source of their dietary intake. 

Further, the modernisation of fishing ushered in the introduction of new equipments and fishing gear, such as gillnets, mosquito nets, etc. However, access to these inputs was limited to the better off sections of the community, while the rest followed the traditional ways of fishing. This led many fishermen to leave their traditional deep-sea fishing and join the privately-owned big trawlers. Many of them work in trawlers as fishermen on a monthly/daily wage. Due to the presence of a port in nearby Dhamra and a jetty in Talachua (four–five km from the village), people prefer to take up trawler jobs as it is more steady with less variation in income. 

Presence of Institutions

Institutions are important for the survival and sustenance of any livelihood system or ecosystem. They provide a framework of rules and norms that people use when interacting with each other in a wide variety of repetitive and structured situations at multiple levels of analysis (North 2005; Ostrom 2005 as cited in Ostrom 2008). While the principle of exclusion is not applicable to most of the ecosystem services provided, the consumption of one individual nevertheless does reduce the resources available to others. Therefore, in the absence of effective institutions, the natural system can be destroyed due to overuse of resources. 

In Vetka, it is the forest department which dominates the ecosystem. It is the responsibility of the forest department to manage the forest and the eco-development committee (EDC) to keep an eye on and generate awareness among people about the forest and its resources. However, neither the forest department nor the EDC makes any effort to manage the forest in the true sense. Earlier, it was the responsibility of the whole village to safeguard the natural resources. There was an informal law and people were duty-bound to follow it. But due to the new arrangements in the post-sanctuary period, the villagers no longer feel responsible for the forest. 

Further, a ban on fishing during the turtle breeding season (lasting between January–May) which coincides with the fishing season in Odisha has also led to the problems of livelihood. The coastal belt of the Bhitarkanika is an ideal place for the Olive Ridley sea turtle to lay eggs. Interviews with the residents of Vetka revealed that during the time of the turtles’ nesting and hatching, the villagers are forbidden to go for fishing which causes a loss in livelihood.

Constant conflict between the fishing community and the turtle conservation community is witnessed in these areas. According to the owner of a small boat:

The fish catch has gone down due to the increase in trawlers and animals. They (forest guards) do not allow us to go in the sea during the time of nesting of turtles. But the trawlers are allowed, as they go for deep-sea fishing and our small boats are not well equipped to go deep into the sea. We have to sit at home and try for some labour work to feed our family or stay hungry. (Personal Interview 2014)

The fishermen who have small boats are at a loss, as they go for fishing near the seashore and therefore, are forced to sit at home as their nets sometimes kill the turtles who come for nesting. However, the big trawlers face no losses as they go deep inside the sea, albeit illegally, to catch fish.  

Wildlife, also, restricts movements inside the forest for fishing. As a villager explained that “going into the river creeks has become a risky affair, as you never know what you will be confronted with.” Many a times, there are crocodiles in the creeks. So the men and women are reluctant to cross the creeks for fishing and collecting fuelwood inside the forest. 

The Transition Period

In the immediate aftermath of the declaration of the sanctuary, forest officials encouraged households to plant trees for fuelwood as they lost access to the forest region of Bhitarkanika. In the initial days, the forest officials allowed the villagers to access forest resources by providing passes to the villagers in the transition period. In general, when the poorest households lose access to gathered products, such as fuelwood, honey, or wild animal meats, due to degradation or increased protection of resources, they often fail to take advantage of different livelihood schemes offered by the government as they lack the requisite skills or education. However, the outcome of changes, undertaken in a protected area, on the nearby community will mostly depend on the management strategy adopted by the forest officials (Somanathan et al 2009), both in the long term as well as in the transition period. 

The Odisha government does provide marine cards to the fishermen residing in the villages. According to the marine card, the state government provides 25 kg of rice to each affected fisher family at the rate of Rs 1/kg every month as compensation under the World Bank-funded Integrated Coastal Zone Management Programme (ICZMP). The villagers of Vetka are only provided with the marine card. However, other livelihood enhancement programmes, such as vocational training in tailoring, poultry, fishing (such as crab culture, poly culture, etc) and allied fisheries activities (fish and prawn pickle making, hygienic fish drying, etc) are not promoted. The only help that the fishermen receive is that of 25 kg of rice every month. There have been severe clashes due to this and many people still illegally enter the river and sea for fishing.   

Apart from conflicts on livelihood, there have also been conflicts for land rights. As observed during data collection, no land rights were given to the residents but they have claimed de facto rights on these lands and continue their agricultural practices. The individual is the owner of the land and thus, the land is defined as the individual’s from the point of view of the village community. However, the forest department claims rights on the land and seems interested in evacuating the whole village from the area, which has been partially accomplished. Due to which, one can see the decline in the area of the village from 499 acres in 1971 to 244 acres in 2011. Interviews revealed that many people were evacuated in the middle of the night as the forest department torched their houses claiming that the land belongs to the government. This has led to various protests and finally, the villagers were forced to migrate to nearby villages.  

Another such protest was witnessed in the year 2001. The villagers protested for two days for the construction of a river embankment (bandh) which was affecting their livelihoods but were beaten by the forest department in the process. The embankment was needed as it would prevent the salt water from the creeks from entering the fields. The forest department was not in favour of the embankment since they were of the opinion that the flow of water would be disturbed. Despite this stand off the embankment was constructed. Till date, the people are protesting for their land rights in the region. Most of them have grievances against the government for not granting them their rights and providing better amenities. 

Livelihood Diversity and Dependence on Ecosystem 

Apart from fishing, the village women are involved in agricultural activities and the children in rearing of livestock. The women and children are also involved in (illegally) collecting fuelwood from the forest with the average hours spent on gathering fuel being about four to five hours per day per household. They collect between 15 to 25 kg of wood and use it for day-to-day activities. Some even sell it to the neighbours for a meagre Rs 6/kg. As all the channels of the river overflood it becomes difficult for the people to go into the forest. Sometimes, the water levels rise above chest height and make it scarier, as crocodiles infest the waters. Many villagers have been either hurt or killed by wild animals while collecting wood. Further during monsoon, they also sow their fields which make it difficult for the villagers to collect dry animal dung as fuel. The villagers have to give the forest guards money or liquor to gather fuelwood. Sometimes, the village guards beat them for fuelwood and at the same time, confiscate their collection of fuelwood. They have nowhere to complain as they know that they are stealing from the forest, but they have no other alternatives because they need fuelwood to prepare meals. The jungle not only acts as a source of fuelwood but also acts as a source of dung for those who do not have animals since the forest acts as a grazing land for the villagers. 

The other important forest product is honey. Villagers still collect honey illegally during the months of February and June and it involves a lot of effort and risk. According to a respondent,

During the honey season, we (a group of three–five) go to the jungle for collecting honey. We can hardly go for five to seven times in the season which will fetch us somewhere between 50–70 kgs in total. It is a whole day’s job. This is enough for us for the whole year and sometimes, if we get some extra honey then we sell it to the nearby village or in our neighbourhoods for a meager cost. If the forest officer catches us, we give him some money or sometimes we give him a bottle of liquor so that he does not register our case in the diary. They take money from us to take care of their livelihood and not thinking about our means. (Personal Interview 2014) 

The honey fetches them a meagre Rs 120 per kg and cannot be sold so easily in the market due to the ban on entry into the forest. The villagers, in order to sell it in the nearby markets, have to be extra cautions or s/he might end up giving money to the forest guard as a kind of bribe. But generally the honey is kept for self-consumption and not sold in the market. 

Apart from the above, fruits and leaves for making mats are still being taken from the forest for consumption. Finally, the forest acts as a grazing land for livestock. As there is no common property land due to the increase in population resulting in conversion of common land to agricultural land, villagers are forced to depend on the forest for fodder. During the period of farming and harvesting, the villagers go to the jungle to collect fodder for their animals.

As a result of the diversification, the fishing community depends on the whole ecosystem for their sustenance. This helps them to have a stable livelihood. However, the ban on fishing has led them into a vulnerable position. 

Decline in Natural Resources

As Vetka is a fishing village and each and every individual household is directly or indirectly involved in fishing activities, this has contributed significantly to the increasing pressure on fish stocks; thus, resulting in a decline in fish catch. This village earned its name from the fish Bhetki (Latescalcarifer), which was in abundant supply in this region. But in the process of time, due to overpopulation and over-utilisation of resources, this village has lost this local variety of fish. Despite the fact that it has been spotted and caught in the creeks and river by a few locals, the general availability has gone down to nearly zero. The use of modern fishing nets, as fine as mosquito nets, leads to the death of even young fish which causes a problem in regeneration. The populations of fishing communities and numbers of fishers have increased at a pace greater than the growth rate of natural fish population leading to overuse of resources. The increase in the number of trawlers, the illegal use of forestland for shrimp cultivation, the use of finer nets are a few reasons which lead to change in the resources. Many fishes like that of bhetki, balia, reba, tupsi and others have slowly declined over the years. The villagers also blame the increase in numbers of crocodiles and water monitors for the decline in fish and adverse impacts on their private ponds.

During an interview, a respondent mentioned that:

The crocodiles and the water monitors lizards gets inside our private ponds and eats all the fish in which we have invested and the forest department does not do anything. We cannot guard our small ponds all day as we have other jobs to do. (Personal Interview 2014)

Lastly, the mangroves ecosystem is also declining. Mangroves enhance the productivity of marine and estuarine fish, prawns and crabs which contribute to the growth of the fishery ecosystem. Mangrove areas also support a range of interconnected food webs, which directly sustain the fisheries. With the decline of mangroves, there is also a decline in the fisheries. According to the survey, nearly 60% of the people suggested that there is a deterioration/change in the ecosystem. 


The villagers in the village survive due to the livelihood diversity and presence of the forest. The villagers need to be properly compensated for the loss of livelihood by the new conservation regime and alternative livelihood options provided by the ICZMP should be made available to the villagers, so that they can earn their own livelihood and live with dignity.


This article is a part of the author’s doctoral research at the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore. The she would like to thank her supervisor Syed Ajmal Pasha, members of her doctoral committee M V Nadkarni, R S Deshpande, M G Chandrakanth and B P Vani, panel experts and other esteemed referees for their valuable comments and support.   


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