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Privatisation of CPRs and the Informal Sector

A Case of Chilika Lake

Illegal shrimp aquaculture is a thriving business in Chilika, though it is banned since 1996. The entire enterprise is based on informal relationships. Interestingly, post-2002 some Primary Fishermen Cooperative Societies entered this nexus. Using field data and secondary literature, this paper discusses the dynamics of the current developments.

I thank N Purendra Prasad and an anonymous reviewer for their comments on earlier drafts of this paper.


In 1996, the Supreme Court of India (S Jagannath Vs Union of India) banned shrimp aquaculture in Odisha’s Chilika Lake and ordered the state agencies to demolish all existing pen enclosures and shrimp ponds in its peripheral zones up to a distance of 1,000 meters.[1] The judgement marked the culmination of half a decade long movement spearheaded by the Chilika Bachao Andolan (CBA) (Save Chilika Movement).[2] Despite the ban, the non-fishermen groups continued their encroachment on Chilika for illegal shrimp cultivation, resulting in de facto privatisation of almost half of Chilika.

The lucrative nature of shrimp trade has brought fishermen and non-fishermen, locals and outsiders at loggerheads over control of the Lake’s resources. Within this milieu, ultimately the poor scheduled caste traditional fishers are losing out their customary sources of livelihood. Moreover, lack of support from formal credit institutions has increased their dependency on moneylenders, which further pushes them to indebtedness. As a pragmatic approach, post-2002 a few Primary Fishermen Cooperative Societies (PFCS), consisting of the indebted artisanal fishers, began actively cooperating with the shrimp mafia in aquaculture in Chilika.  Using the field data collected between December 2013 to January 2014 and secondary literature, this paper discusses the current dynamics of this “cooperation” and its impacts on Chilika fisheries.

The Political Economy of Aquaculture in Chilika

Chilika Lake, spread over 1,000 square kilometres, falls within the jurisdiction of Puri, Khurda and Ganjam districts. Being a brackish water lagoon, it is ideal for shrimps and many other aquatic species. Until 1980s, capturing these aquatic species was the only source of livelihood for the inhabitants of more than 112 fisher hamlets in and around this lake. These fisher groups belong to the state recognised scheduled caste categories of Keuta, Kandara, Kartia, Khatia and Tiara (Samal and Meher 2003). The upper caste Brahmins, the Karanas and Khandayats, own most of the farm and garden lands, with Khandayats being the largest landholders in the Chilika region. They are also involved in illegal shrimp cultivation in Chilika.

During 1970s, the increase in demand for high quality shrimps in the United States, European Union and Japan attracted investors to Chilika. These investors were instrumental in construction of cold storage facilities, warehouses, and shrimp/fish processing plants in Chilika. They also build direct contacts with foreign markets for their products. To get shrimps for their plants, these investors established informal relationships with state level political leaders, bureaucrats, few entrepreneurs and the locally dominant caste groups in Chilika. In cahoots with each other, they encroached upon Chilika and established large scale pen enclosures to capture shrimps. The relationship became helpful to investors, when in the 1980s the state government introduced shrimp cultivation in Chilika, as they appropriated the new system within no time.

In the last 25 years, the political economy of commercial shrimp cultivation in Chilika has gone through multiple restructurings (see Adduci 2009). Historically, the “absentee landlords” in the form of politicians and bureaucrats, the “entrepreneurs” such as seafood exporters and the “shrimp mafia” as their local cohorts were instrumental in facilitating the illegal shrimp business. Post 2002, few Primary Fishermen Cooperative Societies (PFCS) in the lake area falling under the Puri district also got involved at the production level.

The restructured production hierarchy functions at three levels, namely, village, region and state. As shrimp cultivators, the PFCS function at the village level. Different shrimp mafia heads control different regions in Chilika. Their agents act as supervisors to the PFCS. Most often, the mafia heads belong to high caste groups while their local agents are from diverse caste profiles. The top layer of this hierarchy consists of “absentee landlords”/exporters, who own the warehouses and processing plants in coastal Odisha and generally belong to the sub-caste of Karan-Brahmin.

The system resembles the putting-out system. Each year, the shrimp mafia provides a lump sum to the PFCS at zero interest rate. The PFCS use this money to pay the sub-lease fee for sairats (capture fishery sources) to the Odisha State Fishermen Co-operative Federation (FISHFED), and production and consumption loans for the PFCS members. The negotiation for cash transaction takes place between the officials of PFCS and the mafia agents, with little or no role for the villagers.

Predominantly, the aquaculturists in Chilika produce Penaeus monodon (black tiger shrimp) along with few varieties of shrimps. Cultivation is practiced mainly by building two types of enclosures (gheris in Odiya), namely, masurigheri and gheribandha. Gheribandha are earthen embankments in which brackish water gets stored. Water is recharged naturally during monsoon when Chilika swells. They are constructed illegally in sairats on lease to PFCS for capture fisheries.

The second type of gheris are the masurigheris or pen enclosures. An average size pen enclosure in Chilika varies from 1.0-1.27 hectares. The expenditure to build and maintain one masurigheri with 80 nets, each net is 50m in length and 54 inches in width, 4,000 poles of bamboo/Casuarina tree, shrimp juveniles, shrimp feed, fertilisers, pesticides and labour wages comes to approximately Rs 8-10 lakhs per season.

Recovery of money from the PFCS is undertaken through the buyback policy. At the time of field work, mafia rates for 20, 30 and 40 counts of shrimps per kilogram were Rs 750, Rs 550 and Rs 450, respectively. Here, one count was equivalent to one shrimp. In fact these rates were not fixed, and respondents mentioned that these quotations were on the higher side. Based on their experience, respondents indicated that the profit made after the shrimp sale was barely above the loan amount.

The distribution of the loan amount within PFCS is skewed, as the officials appropriate a major portion. In order to ensure that there is no diversion of shrimps to the open market, the mafia maintains a tight control (including physical violence) over the primary producers.

Privatisation and Informalisation

Shrimp aquaculture in Chilika was never an open activity. During the 1980s, in the name of poverty alleviation, a part of the lake was earmarked for this process by the state government. Legally only the PFCS were entitled to engage in it. In 1991, when the state government invited the Tata group for intensive shrimp aquaculture, the official rhetoric of poverty alleviation took back stage. The state government enacted a legislation in the same year dividing Chilika Lake into “60% for capture” and “40% for culture” fisheries. The culture fisheries sources were further divided in the ratio of 60:40 between fishermen and non-fishermen, respectively. This reorganisation paved the way for the non-fisher caste groups, for the first time, to legally engage in aquaculture in Chilika.  But the ensuing agitations under the banner of CBA created a huge uproar, and finally led the Supreme Court to ban aquaculture in Chilika.

In 2002, the state government’s attempt to legalise culture fisheries via Fishing in Chilika (Regulation) Bill, 2002 and circumvent Supreme Court ban failed, due to agitation by the fisher groups against the bill. Since then, there has been no auction of fishery sources for aquaculture in Chilika (Samal and Meher 2003).  However, this has hardly affected illegal aquaculture going on in Chilika.

Resistance, Then and Now

It is not that there are no protests against these illegal encroachments. From 1991 till 2001, Chilika Matsyajibi Mahasangha (CMM) organised agitations against illegal aquaculture in Chilika. The state government’s attempts to legalise aquaculture and provide legal cover to non-fisher castes were also thwarted by its mobilisations. However, legal victories of CMM did not change the ground realities in Chilika. Illegal aquaculture continued to flourish while dispossessing traditional fishers in ever greater scale.

Moreover, with a few PFCS in Chilika entering shrimp aquaculture in nexus with the shrimp mafia shows the limitations of CMM’s fishermen versus non-fishermen discourse. The same fisher groups, who practice illegal shrimp culture also participate in meetings and agitations related to encroachment of lake waters by “outsiders”. This has created cleavages within the fisher groups and rendered these agitations toothless. Meanwhile, the export firms and the “absentee landlords” have effectively distanced themselves from the point of focus of these conflicts.  


The ban on shrimp cultivation in Chilika came as a boon to the locally dominant castes/classes along with the export firms. Some of the members of PFCS also benefitted and prospered. While this ban kept the state regulatory agencies and large corporate capital at bay, it gave the export firms de facto monopoly over Chilika resources. This resulted in an “accumulation” economy for a few, replacing the subsistence economy for many. Although the fisher groups were never rich, they never had to resort to casual labour in order to meet their basic needs. Entering the urban informal sector as daily wage labourers, has become their only option today.


[1] In 2011, the Odisha High Court also passed a judgement to demolish enclosures in Chilika, but to no avail.

[2]CBA was a broad alliance of fishers, fisheries workers, students, civil society groups and peasants from in and around Chilika Lake. At a wider level it articulated the social and environmental fallouts of shrimp cultivation in Chilika. The point of convergence was for the ousting of Tata led joint venture with the Odisha state government. The proposed firm was to establish an integrated shrimp cultivation cum processing unit, named Chilika Aquatic Farm Limited (CAFL). For this the state government agreed to allot more than 600 hectares of Chilika area in Panasapada village. In 1993 CAFL was scrapped.


Adduci, M (2009): “Neoliberal Wave Rocks Chilika Lake, India: Conflict over Intensive Aquaculture from a Class Perspective”, Journal for Agrarian Change, 9(4): 481-511.

Samal, K C and S Meher (2003): “Fishing Communities on Chilika Lake: Comparative Socio-Economic Study”, Economic and Political Weekly, 38(31): 3319-25.


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