Biswajit Mohanty is known for his work on olive ridley turtle conservation along the coast of Odisha. He was initially an accountant and became a wildlife enthusiast through visits to sanctuaries and parks with friends. He was not aware of sea turtles until the late 1980s and became interested in wildlife conservation only in the mid-1990s. He met Belinda Wright through a former Divisional Forest Officer of the Rajnagar Division and along with her, initiated Operation Kachhapa with support from the U.S-based Barbara Delano Foundation. Mohanty became a major figure in sea turtle conservation in Odisha in the late 1990s and early 2000s. He was an active force in policy campaigns, awareness campaigns and legal cases. He has been a critic of the government, firmly believing that top-down approaches can bring about changes quickly if there is will.


KS: So Biswajit, what’s your first memory of sea turtles?

BM: When we’d go to the beach, especially in Konark and Puri, we used to see some stray dead turtles. This was after I left college, sometime in the late 1980s. Before that, I had never seen a dead turtle on the beach, though we used to visit Konark and all those places regularly.


KS: But you knew that sea turtles nested on this coast?


BM: Until the late 1980s, I was not aware that sea turtles used to nest on our coast. Slowly, we noticed that the number of dead turtles was increasing. I entered the field of wildlife conservation quite late actually – in the mid-1990s. We came across all the newspaper reports and Banka Behary Das, the grandfather of conservation in Odisha, who is no more with us, raised the issue of turtle deaths on the Odisha coast. He demanded that action should be taken. Then we got in touch with Belinda [Wright].


KS: How did you meet Belinda?


BM: I was introduced to Belinda by a friend of ours, Mr. Sanjeev Chadha. He was the Divisional Forest Officer of Rajnagar Mangrove Forest Division, of which Gahirmatha Beach is a part. In fact, we were introduced in connection with the leopard skin seizure, which we had conducted in 1996. I was the sting operator along with Sanjeev Chadha. That is how Belinda got in touch with the wildlife issues in Odisha, especially the trade part. We branched out into sea turtle conservation because of the rising mortalities of sea turtles. One year, there was a published report by Project Swarajya, Mr. Chitta Behera, who said that at least 30,000 – 40,000 turtles have died. Of course, his basis of calculation was not proper or scientific in the sense that he had counted a small portion of the beach and just extrapolated to cover the entire coastline of Odisha, which is not the correct way of doing it because we know that turtles come together at specific locations and are not spread in equal numbers throughout the coastline. Then Belinda got in touch with me and we launched this project together – Operation Kachhapa – jointly with Project Swarajya and Wildlife Society of Odisha and Wildlife Protection Society of India, and any other local groups or individuals who were interested in saving turtles.


This was in 1998. Since then, Operation Kachhapa has been monitoring the sea turtle situation, though the levels of activity have come down. We don’t do as much as we used to do in 1998, 1999, even 2000, and 2001, because at that point we realized that there was hardly any infrastructure for patrolling. We used to hire fishing trawlers and give them to the Forest Department for patrolling, both at Gahirmatha and at Devi River mouth. And we hoped that by providing the infrastructure we could make a difference. But unfortunately, things didn’t improve much. I won’t say that we have been very successful in our conservation efforts all these years.


Then the number of threats kept increasing. First, it was illegal fishing within the prohibited zones, and then the non-use of TEDs. Now there are long-term threats like loss of nesting beaches due to ill-planned ports and industries on the coast. Illumination is another big threat for the hatchlings in Rushikulya and Devi River mouths. Plus, the planting of casuarina after the super cyclone in 1999 reduced the area available for turtles to nest. The state government got huge amounts of money from the Ministry of Environment and Forests to replant the coastal shelter belt and they started planting casuarina right on the nesting beach. In fact, areas that never had casuarina earlier are covered with casuarina just because they didn’t have any other space to plant them.


KS: They did the same thing in Tamil Nadu after the tsunami. But now an order has been passed to remove casuarina from turtle nesting beaches.


BM: Yeah, we also have a similar order passed by the CEC – Central Empowered Committee – in 2004. But everybody is reluctant to uproot trees. I mean, once they’ve been planted, they don’t want to.


KS: So, looking back to that time fifteen years ago, what would you say was your perception of the whole issue?


BM: Well, I used to believe that if the state government pled helplessness when they said that they didn’t have money for boats and they didn’t have legal support, then basically it was a question of lack of money for a lot of things. So, we sincerely and honestly thought that if we raised funds for that and filled that gap in the support services, then enforcement would be better and things would improve for turtles. But unfortunately, it didn’t happen. We realized that it was not the lack of money, it was actually a lack of will and a lack of commitment by the department as well as the political leadership.


KS: What does that mean actually?


BM: Basically, we saw that the Forest Department was totally reluctant to accept that the seas are also part of its jurisdiction and sea turtles are a Schedule I species, as protected as the tiger and the elephant in this country. They have a very big duty towards its protection and to ensure that it comes and goes back safely. I don’t think the Forest Department ever realized the importance of these issues. And they’ve always treated themselves as a land-based terrestrial department. They had little expertise, little experience and little inclination to go out into the water or the sea and do this patrolling work.


KS: Right. But when we’ve talked to Chief Wildlife Wardens, they would always say that one of the major responsibilities of the Department is to protect olive ridley turtles.


BM: I think that is the general condition with most government departments in our state. Most of them lack accountability. We seem to latch on to the Forest Department because we focus on its work and we look into its activities almost like with a microscope. That is why we’re finding so many weaknesses and faults. But I think it’s more or less the same situation with almost all the government departments in the state. It is nothing to be surprised about because that is the way the government functions in Odisha.


For example, thousands of turtles die every year. Not a single forester is accountable – why were they killed? What were you doing when they were in your territory? So that kind of lack of accountability is the main issue. Today, the Forest Department has sufficient funds. The Indian Oil Corporation gave them Rs.100 lakhs in 2000 for turtle conservation. But instead of using the money to buy high-speed patrol boats, they just wasted the money on buying SUVs. Nobody ever pulled them up and asked what they did with the money that was given to them. And I just don’t understand how they can think of patrolling the seas with hired fishing trawlers that are dilapidated and much slower than the trawlers they are supposed to catch.


KS: Right. So, with the Forest Department unwilling to accept the marine area as its zone of jurisdiction, do you think they do a better job with terrestrial conservation? Are they better at conserving tigers?


BM: No, no, no. That is exactly what I wanted to say – that they’re equally bad in other areas. The only thing is that because all our focus is on their efforts here, we look at them on a day-to-day basis to see what they’re doing and not doing. I mean, they do a slightly better job in terrestrial areas but I still wouldn’t say that they’re good because there are also problems with elephants, tigers and other animals in the state. We’ve got huge poaching rackets going on, huge trade rackets going on, smuggling going on – they’re unable to catch the culprits and even if they do catch them, they are unable to punish them properly. Normally they don’t even file proper charge sheets. The offenders are still roaming around, out on bail, even though the case was fought fifteen or twenty years ago. So that shows the general attitude of the enforcement agency.


KS: So, let me put you on the spot over here for a minute because you said that this is not a problem of the Forest Department alone. But taken as a state, would you say that other states in the country do a better job?


BM: I have no experience, but I’ve heard that the Forest Department in Assam is very good. They take a proactive interest in conservation, especially in the Tiger Reserves and National Parks like Kaziranga. They’ve tried their best to control poaching.


KS: I’m also curious about why you think there might be differences between say, Odisha and Assam. How can Odisha go forward as a state and progress?


BM: The main difference would be made by the Ministry in charge of the Department. The unfortunate part is that over the last ten to twelve years, we never had a good Forest Minister in the state. There is no one to pull up the officers when they don’t do their jobs properly. And I don’t believe it’s a question of lack of money or lack of manpower or infrastructure. Everything is in place; the system has just fallen apart. It is not functioning because of a terrible lack of accountability. Nobody’s held up. For example, the Principal Chief Conservator [of Forests] is supposed to carry out field inspections of DFOs and Circle Officers like Conservators, at least. He should inspect at least two Circle Officers every year and at least four DFOs in a year. Recently, I filed an RTI application to find out how many inspections had been done. I came to know that there was not a single inspection done in the last ten years. That kind of lack of supervision exists. So, it has to start from the top. We should see to it that we have a good Minister, who would take a personal interest in the Department, like a Central Minister, like Mr Jairam Ramesh, who monitors the working of his department on a minute-to-minute basis. Similarly, if we had such a setup in the state, then I think things would have been totally different. And he would be the person who could be approached by conservationists like us. When we have a problem in the field we could have pointed out that this is what the Department is not doing. And he could have pulled them up and made sure they did their jobs.


KS: Right. But in terms of the turtle issue itself, what was your perception of the problem back then?


BM: Yeah, we knew that this was caused by the trawlers, because, as a child I remember in the late 1970s, we never saw trawlers on the coast. You would only see trawlers when you went inside a port, like Paradip or some other port. But from the early to mid-1990s onwards, we saw trawlers while standing on the coast, which was not the situation before. We could see fishing very close to the shore, and the turtles dying in large numbers. That was then proved by the studies conducted by the Wildlife Institute of India when they mapped the Odisha coast and did the mortality counts. So I could connect the deaths of the turtles with the huge level of fishing near the shore. And in earlier days, we never had so many trawlers on the Odisha coast. In fact, Paradip port had a total of 30 to 35 trawlers till as late as 1982 –1983. After that, trawler numbers went up and a lot of people bought old trawlers from Andhra Pradesh when fishing declined there because of overfishing, and people sold off their trawlers at very cheap rates.


KS: When was this?


BM: In the early 1990s, they got a lot of trawlers from Andhra Pradesh. And even now, in the last ten years, we know that a lot of trawlers from other states fish outside the jurisdiction zone in nearshore areas. Even trawlers from Bangladesh come and fish here. It becomes a free-for-all here because the waters are quite rich and they get a good catch, which is not possible in the neighbouring states like West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. So that is what attracts them and this becomes a problem for turtles.


KS: Yeah, but did the trawlers feel that they had a right to fish in those waters?


BM: Yeah, the trawler community in Odisha has always been very irresponsible in the sense that they never thought that some areas are reserved for the country fishermen, and some space has to be kept aside for traditional fishermen. Even after the Odisha Marine Fisheries Regulation Act, 1982 was passed, which is the same Act as in other states, none of the trawler fishers ever made a single effort to comply with that Act. They continued to fish in nearshore areas. Even in meetings and interactions they always say, “The sea is an open area. Just like a farmer is entitled to plough his land and harvest crops, similarly we have got rights to fish in the sea anywhere we want and catch whatever fish we want”.


KS: But the relationship between the trawlers and the government and the trawlers and the local community must also have changed over time…


BM: Earlier actually, there was no conflict. The conflict started after the mid-1990s when trawlers started coming to the nearshore areas for fishing. They always used to fish in the deep waters, beyond 15 or 20 km. Apart from this being a congregation site for the olive ridleys, it is also reserved for country fishermen. They’re not able to cast their nets because the trawlers come in and tear up the nets. Often there are fights; these poor fishermen lose their boats, and they get beaten up. The government has unfortunately been reduced to being a silent spectator. They’re supposed to be the regulators; they’re supposed to be the policemen of the sea. They’re supposed to enforce these no-fishing zones as well as ensure that the traditional fishermen get their rightful share of fishing. And that is actually a sustainable way of fishing that would have enabled Odisha’s fishing community to eke out their livelihoods.


KS: But this is along the entire coast, right?


BM: Yeah, except for the Gahirmatha Sanctuary. As per the CEC orders, traditional fishermen are allowed to fish even in the congregation zones in Rushikulya and Devi River mouth as long as they don’t use any motorised boats.


KS: So, is there a community of traditional fishermen along the coast?


BM: The traditional fishing community south of Puri is mostly the Noliya caste, which comes from Andhra Pradesh. North of Puri, there are mostly Odia fishermen, especially those who fish in the creeks and estuaries. And then we have some migrant Bengali fishermen, who are not traditional fishers but call themselves traditional because they arrived only after the 1970s. They came and settled here after the Bangladesh war of 1971 which saw a huge exodus to India. And most of them used to eke out their livelihoods earlier by using non-powered boats, small boats. But now most of them own big gill netters. Some of them own trawlers as well. Sometimes they call themselves traditional fishermen, although strictly speaking, I won’t say that they’re traditional because they have not been fishing here for more than 20 – 25 years.


KS: Right. But if they were using the same kinds of nets that most of the other fishermen used, would that be ok?


BM: If you look at the history of fishing in Odisha, before 1980, there was no sea fishing. The traditional fishermen used to fish in estuarine areas and creeks. They never used to cross the river mouth and go into the sea. But after the mid-1980s, there were the Bengali fishermen, the migrant fishermen, who settled mostly in the Bhitarkanika and Mahanadi delta areas, they started mechanising their boats and started going to sea to fish. That started the mechanised fishing practice. And that was followed by other fishermen. Most of the erstwhile traditional fishermen are now actually fishing using engines. There are very few who don’t use engines.


KS: Do you think the fact that they don’t have a long history of association with the coast influences the way they’ve used resources or their lack of concern for turtles?


BM: The local fishermen, even those who are using engines now like the beach-landing craft- the Noliyas and other Oriya fishermen in estuarine areas, have a long-term interest because they are fishermen by caste and this is their profession. Most of the trawler owners are not from the fishing community, they are pure businessmen. They’ve just invested in a trawler for the profits and they engage a crew who also may not be from the fishing community – they can be from some other caste, some other community. So there is a huge difference in attitude. The trawler fishermen believe that they’ve bought their trawlers and they have to get a return on their investment so that they can repay their loan within three to four years. And they don’t care about what happens to the fish resources and what happens to the coast. But on the other hand, I found in my interactions with the local fishermen, the traditional fishermen, that they’re very concerned about the coast. And they would like to see that fishing is sustainable.


KS: What about the crew on the trawlers? My understanding is that very often fishermen from the community who are no longer able to sustain themselves go and work on the trawlers.


BM: Yeah, actually it would be around fifty-fifty.


KS: So, some of them are fishermen who’ve given up their own boats. Is that right?


BM: Yeah. Some of them are small fishermen and they have not been able to survive, so they get into this. Most of them are not paid based on a fixed wage. They get a percentage of the fish catch. So, they can get good returns if they work hard. They’re just paid their food costs, and whatever they catch is shared between the owner and the fishermen.


KS: How is the trawler industry doing?


BM: It is not good at all because most of them have just gone for commercial prawn trawling. And they just concentrate on shrimp and of course, anything else that ends up in the nets. In my opinion, they could have formed cooperatives, they could have joined together and taken out deep sea trawlers and gone into the deep sea for big fish – tuna and other fish – which foreign trawlers are actually catching from Indian waters. They would have made a good amount of money and avoided conflict with the traditional fishermen. But as I told you, they were extremely short-sighted. They were just interested in making quick profits and getting rid of the trawlers after paying back the loan so that they could do some other business.


KS: But if the margins are so small, they’re unlikely to ever adopt Turtle Excluder Device, right? Because even if they lose 5-10 per cent of their catch, that might be the entire profit.


BM: Yeah, the trawling industry margin is very low. If you go to any fishing base in the state, look at the state of the trawlers. That will give you an idea of the industry, and how it is doing. Most of them are in a very dilapidated condition. There won’t be an energetic crew. They know it’s a struggle for livelihood. Many times, they go out for days and come back without being able to recover even the fuel costs.


KS: So, will the trawler problem solve itself? Will the trawler industry just decline in another few years?


BM: I don’t think people are building new trawlers because, officially, the quota is full. The government of Odisha has already announced the licensed quotas, it’s already a thousand plus. So they won’t get any fishing licenses. And now, with stricter laws and enforcement and regular monitoring by the marine police, it will be very difficult. We have got marine police stations now.


KS: So why did all that happen?


BM: The marine police is a fallout of the Mumbai bomb blasts. The Government of India directed all the states to set up marine police stations and check the entry of outsiders.


The Fisheries Department is making efforts because of this outcry from turtle conservation groups in the last few years. Also, there were protests by the traditional fishermen. They’ve been protesting to the Fisheries Department regarding the exclusive fishing areas that are reserved for them.


KS: So in a sense what you actually said in the beginning about not making a difference is not strictly true because some things have happened.


BM: Of course, one difference is that the world now knows what the situation is in Odisha. And there is a lot of media pressure on the trawlers, the state government agencies and the Government of India as well. You could say that casualty rates have not gone up, that it’s remained at the same level. If nothing had been done by turtle groups all these years, then the state would have completely given up patrolling and turtles would have died in much larger numbers.


KS: Yeah. In 2000-2001, I remember you had these wandering minstrels to spread awareness about turtle conservation. As you’ve been saying, the traditional fishermen also had the same interest as the turtle conservationists, right? They also wanted to protect those resources and there was a conflict with the trawlers. Why do you think that a stronger alliance was not built between conservationists and traditional fishermen right from the beginning?


BM: Actually, that is one of the failures of the turtle conservation movement. The traditional fishing community in Odisha never had good leaders, unlike Tamil Nadu, Kerala and West Bengal as well. I wish we had someone like Debnath [a local leader in West Bengal] in Odisha who could have organised them and made them demand their rights. If they had organised properly, then things would have been totally different. They could have brought about a lot of change. Besides, their interest and ours coincided. We also wanted them to fish in that exclusive zone so that trawlers don’t enter that area. I think another reason is that there are three communities which can be called traditional fishermen – one is the Odia fishing community, the other is the Bengali migrant community which has settled down in the Mahanadi delta and Kendrapara district, and finally, we have the Noliya or Telugu speaking community. So, because of this difference in linguistics and history, there was no single leader who could inspire confidence in all of them. There were always three leaders, and maybe they didn’t always see eye to eye. They would have done a great job if the community had been homogenous like in other coastal states.


KS: So, leading from that point, in the last two or three years there’s been some sort of attempt for the local groups and the fishing communities to at least talk to each other through the OMRCC (Odisha Marine Resources Conservation Consortium).


BM: In fact, the objectives of the organisation were very good. We hoped that they would make a difference. They started in a good way. In the first one or two years, they were able to get everybody on a common platform. But I don’t think there was enough follow-up. Because the major player is actually the government. So, though a few government officers were present in the first few meetings, there was no follow-up at the highest level. And, as I told you, that is the most difficult part. Now, if OMRCC could have followed up on those meetings and resolutions and minutes passed by the members of traditional fishermen demanding enforcement of the no-fishing zone exclusively reserved for them, and if this message could have been taken to the Chief Minister, things may have been different. But it never happened because the last mile follow-up was not there.


KS: Right. I think it’s still not there.


BM: I mean, we were very happy to see that OMRCC was formed as a platform for regular interactions with all the local groups. But it fell through because of this lack of coordination, and lack of follow-up with the highest levels. Also, the coordination of OMRCC was being done from outside the state, because nobody stayed here permanently to oversee operations.


KS: Yeah. It continues to serve as a platform where these groups can interact with each other. But you’re saying that going from that interaction to getting the state to act on it is something that has not happened.


BM: In Operation Kachhapa, we focused exclusively on turtle protection. We didn’t look into other issues like the rights of fishermen. Though we were interested, we wished somebody else would look into those issues, and do what was necessary to ensure that they got their rights.


And now we have to take up the issue of ports because there’s no use in talking about turtles if all these ports come up. That’s a huge issue now and we’re just looking at the future of turtles going under the water literally.


KS: I couldn’t agree with you more, Biswajit. Thanks so much for your time and thoughts.