ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Caste Panchayats and the Regulation of Fisheries along Tamil Nadu's Coromandel Coast

This paper considers the ramifications of non-state panchayat action in the field of marine resource management. First, it investigates how fishermen panchayats are involved in regulating access to and usage of fish resources. Secondly, it examines the mechanisms of regulation. Finally, it discusses the likelihood that similar structures have emerged in other occupational settings.

Legal pluralism in India is a well-documented fact. Upendra Baxi, a prominent sociologist of law, argues that “we have to accept at the outset that there are systems of people’s law in India as there are systems of state law” (1982:329, emphasis in the original). Alongside the colonial law system he finds a rich diversity of dispute-resolution institutions based on social entities other than the state. One of the most notable of these are caste panchayats.1 

Mandelbaum (1970: 294-315) distinguishes two functions of caste panchayats: the redress of ritual lapses connected to norms of purity and defilement, and the settlement of civil disputes. In the past, these topics have stirred substantial academic interest. The depletion of natural resources in India has, however, provoked new questions on panchayats’ role. Several prominent Indian cultural ecologists [Gadgil 1985; Gadgil and Iyer 1989; Gadgil and Guha 1992; Gadgil and Malhotra 1994] contend that collective management of common resources is actually grounded in the fabric of Indian society, and that the caste system plays a crucial role in that management. It is quite reasonable to suppose that caste panchayats take a part.

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