Fighting for the Fisherfolk

By Meenakshi Kapoor

Manisha Goswami, 32, is a young mother with a 12-year old daughter and a six-year old son. She is always bursting with energy, which extends not just to rearing her children but to the causes she feels most strongly about – the environment. As you will see, she needs her energy and dogged perseverance, because this is a story of inertia, buck-passing and one of the world’s most complex bureaucracies.

Manisha lives in Vapi, a city in the Valsad region of western Gujarat. Vapi holds the dubious distinction of being one of the largest industrial areas in Asia and has been designated as perhaps the most polluted place on the planet. The city is dominated by hundreds of small-scale chemical plants. The extreme levels of pollution have not just rendered its groundwater and rivers totally unfit for drinking, but have also destroyed the livelihoods of people who once depended on the health of local ecosystems.

The Kolak River, which flows through Vapi, is a victim of continual discharges of untreated effluent from the chemical plants. These have made the Kolak incapable of supporting any life. Manisha has a background in environmental activism and has worked with displaced fishing communities to try to force local government to ensure that the chemical industries abide by the rules over discharging waste into the rivers.

In early 2014, Manisha joined Namati’s Environment Justice Program and was trained as a community paralegal. A community paralegal, or grassroots advocate, lives in the community they serve. They combine their knowledge of the law, a range of skills such as mediation and community organizing, and their intimate understanding of the local context to help resolve justice problems and empower their clients and communities. Namati is a global NGO dedicated to building a global movement of grassroots legal advocates who work with communities to advance justice.

Manisha has been making rounds between the regional office of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB) and the chief officer in Valsad’s local government, known in India as the District Collector. Intermittently, she makes phone calls to the officers of the Gujarat Coastal Zone Management Authority in Ahmadabad. She has been doing all this in order to bring to life a body called the Valsad District Level Coastal Committee (DLCC).

A DLCC is an institution created, on paper at least, by changes made to the rules governing India’s Coastal Regulation Zone in 2011. The Coastal Regulation Zone, known universally as the ‘CRZ’, covers India’s entire coastline and supposedly regulates industrial development to protect the coastal environment. The 2011 CRZ amendment asks state governments to constitute district level coastal committees to assist it in the enforcement and monitoring of the coast.

Despite some limitations, a DLCC provides an opportunity for traditional coastal communities, including fishermen, to participate in regulating coastal development – the rules state that a DLCC should have at least three representatives from the traditional coastal communities.

Such involvement has the potential to allow other communities in Gujarat avoid the sad fate of the former fishing folk on the Kolak River. Vapi was once home to fishing communities, who were ignored when small-scale industries were allowed to set up in the town. Almost 500 chemical plants concentrated in an area of 21 square kilometers spew their discharge into the sea and rivers and have left no space for traditional occupations. The wipeout of fisherfolk from Vapi highlights the need for traditional communities’ involvement in planning and development of the coastal areas, for which the DLCCs offer a chance.

The Government of Gujarat passed an order establishing these DLCCs in October 2013. However, neither the CRZ rules, nor the order issued by the Gujarat Government clearly stated who at the district level would constitute the committees. In the absence of any clarity on the matter, almost none of the districts in the state had started forming DLCCs by May 2014. Realizing this, in May 2014, Gujarta’s Coastal Zone Management Authority wrote to the State’s District Collectors instructing them to set up DLCCs.

The Government of Gujarat ruled that a District Collector is the chairman of the DLCC, so Manisha, in May 2014, filed an Right to Information (RTI) application with her local collector’s office enquiring about the current status of DLCC constitution. She followed it up with a letter on behalf of the fishing communities, requesting that the DLCC be constituted as mandated, and making clear that it should have members from traditional industries.

A copy of the letter was sent to the Gujarat Coastal Zone Management Authority. After waiting for a month and a half, Manisha decided to visit the office of the District Collector where she was told that she should pursue the matter with the regional officer of the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB). The same rule that made District Officers the chairs of the DLCC, makes the regional officer of the GPCB, the member secretary of a DLCC.

The regional officer in Valsad of the GPCB maintained that until he got clear instructions from the District Collector he couldn’t constitute a DLCC. Essentially Manisha found that the first opportunity India’s traditional coastal communities have ever had for a say in their local environment was being held up by the kind of bureaucratic buck-passing that makes a sane person tear at their hair. It is a classic example of how tasks assigned in addition to the main responsibility of an over-burdened civil servant end up never being given enough attention.

Amongst all this, Manisha has been trying to wade her way through Government orders, bewildering acronyms and obscure internal hierarchies. She has been learning through trial and error. This learning, and hopefully her eventual success at nurturing these important committees into life, will ease the way for other NGOs and communities, who are engaged in activating DLCCs all around the country.

At the outset of her campaign, the government officers she met just assumed she wanted a place on the committee for herself. Steadily, with perseverance, she keeps making her case and continues going from one office to the other, writing and making phone calls to officials, in the hope that this crucial role for traditional communities will soon come into being. And all the while, the communication between the two government bodies – that should of course be happening of its own accord – continues to take place via a Namati paralegal.

Meenakshi Kapoor is Program Manager at Namati’s office in Delhi.