Bangladesh · Fish · Rivers

Fisher-people lead Save Mathabhanga & Churni River Campaign in W Bengal

On 10th April 2018 around 500 fishers assembled at Majhdia, a town bordering Bangladesh in the district of Nadia (W Bengal), to publicly voice their protest against killing of rivers Mathabhanga and Churni. Majhdia town reverberated with the slogan Save River, Save Fish, Save Fisher People!

The eastern side of the river Hooghly in Nadia is crisscrossed with a number of distributaries and tributaries of Hooghly and Padma rivers. This includes Mathabhanga-Churni-Ichamaty river system. These rivers, besides contributing to rich agriculture by deposits of alluvial soil and watering the same, were repositories of large fish resources. Quite naturally, the area abounds in thousands of fisher people. Once a thriving fisheries sector, the area is now facing dire threats to the livelihood of the fishers. Pollution from several sources flowing in from Bangladesh, transverse check dams (Badhals) built illegally across the river bed by unscrupulous persons to take away all the fish and silting of the river bed have reduced the fish stock in the rivers so much so that fishers are migrating out from fishing and also from the area in search of livelihood.

Committee for Saving Mathabhanga-Churni River, an organisation of local environmental activists and science movement workers has been fighting to save the river system for some time. Off late they realised that saving a river and its eco-system means saving the livelihood of fishing communities that depend on the river and the struggle to save the river becomes first and foremost, the struggle of the fishing communities.  Eventually Swapam Bhowmick and Bibartan Bhattacharya, leaders of the movement, built up fishers’ collectives under the banner of Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF). DMF leaders Debasis Shyamal and Ambia Hossain provided initial support to them. The result has been strengthening of both the base and thrust of the movement.

Fisher People’s Rally (Photo: DMF)

A demonstration of about 350 fishers at the BDO (Block Development Officer) office at Krishnaganj on 8th February 2018 was the first public move of the fishing communities. They demanded immediate demolition of the Badhals put across the river bed by miscreants, steps by the government to stop pollution flowing into the river from Bangladesh, supports to the fishing communities in terms of finance, infrastructure and social security as well as government Identity Cards for the fishers as recognition of their occupational dignity. The fishers told the BDO and the FEO (Fisheries Extension Officer) in clear terms that unless immediate action is taken on their demands they will step up their agitation.

The block FEO agreed to take immediate steps to issue identity cards to the fishers, the BDO promised to take steps to demolish the Badhals and request the government to take measures regarding the pollution coming from Bangladesh. They also gave word to look into the other demands of fishing communities and do their level best to meet those demands.

Map of Mathabhanga Churni Icchamati Rivers

The results were forthcoming.  The BDO took up the issues with concerned authorities on urgent basis. Orders were issued to remove the Badhals. Steps were also initiated to issue Government Identity Cards to the fishers.  A number of Badhals were removed. But the process was stalled through the intervention of some political leaders, hand in glove with the miscreants who had built the Badhals.

The rally and march of fishers that took place on 10th April 2018 have sent a strong warning to the authorities. It has also delivered a clear message to those who had built the Badhals. If the government fails to take effective action to remove the Badhals, the fisher people would have to intensify the agitation.

Swapan Bhowmick, Pradip Chatterjee speaking at the meeting (Photo: DMF)

Before marching to the river bank through the town of Majhdia the representatives of the fishing communities held a meeting where fishing community representatives spoke on the problems they are experiencing due to the degradation of rivers and neglect of the government, particularly the irresponsible attitude of the fisheries department.  Swapan Bhowmick and Bibartan Bhattacherjee spoke in detail regarding the issue of restoring Mathabhanga and Churni rivers with the efforts made by the organisation till date.

Possible Source of Pollution in Bangladesh Carew & Co (Bangladesh) Ltd is a distillery producing alcohol from sugar cane in Bangladesh and is located in Darshana, Chuadanga, Khulna Division, Bangladesh. It is the reportedly the only distillery in Bangladesh owned by the Government of Bangladesh. It is located inside the Darsana Sugar Mill compound and is under the authority of Bangladesh Sugar and Food Industries Corporation (BSFIC). It is the only one of the 15 mills owned by BSFIC that makes a profit, as per media reports.

The meeting resolved to heighten the movement to restore Mathabhanga and Churni rivers through the following steps:

  • Continuous sit in demonstration with hunger strike to effectively remove the check dams (badhals);
  • Move both the Government of West Bengal and the Government of India to take up the issue of cross border pollution with the Government of Bangladesh;
  • Media Conference to highlight the issue and sensitise the civil society.

It was further resolved that the government authorities will be moved with the demands of Fish Workers. Tenure rights for fishers and fish farmers as well as the right to have decent markets for the fish vendors were also raised. Right to have financial access, i.e., right to get bank loans at subsidised interest rate was stressed.

The representatives of fishing communities assembled at the meeting also resolved to spread the message of organisation to every block and fishers’ village in the district of Nadia to build up a mighty organisation of small and traditional fishers, fish farmers and fish vendors with allied workers.

Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, dmfwestbengal@gmail.com

(contact: Pradip Chatterjee, pradipdisha@gmail.com)

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