“Capitalism is a working and evolving ecological system within which both nature and capital are constantly being produced and reproduced.”- David Harvey (2004,247)
Kumta is a highly biodiverse region, which stands out for its pristine beauty and abundance of natural resources. It is also known for its traditional agricultural system, which is done on what are called ‘gazni‘ lands, to grow a salt resistant variety of rice called ‘kagga‘, unique to this region. This age old system developed by the embankments of vast stretches of shallow backwaters along the Aghanashini Estuary. These gazni lands cover about 3,500 ha in the Kumta taluk and 90% of these lands lie bordering the Aghanashini. With the use of entirely natural and organic processes, these gaznis offered a stable livelihood to many, who grew a crop that fetched quite a surplus, with limited harm to the ecology of the region.But soon outside forces, in the form of fishing contractors and canning industries, entered the arena of the backwaters with a cascading effect on the ecosystem, economy and social harmony of the region.
Picture 1: Gazni lands which were earlier used for kagga farming
In this article, we will be tracing the decline of kagga farming in the region, its social and ecological impacts, and the failed attempts to revive these traditional agricultural practices in the face of increasing land acquisition in the area to facilitate development interventions.
Traditional common property resources: Kagga farming and natural fishing
These gazni lands were cultivated under a cooperative farming system, wherein each gazni was co-owned by a large group of farmers, who took part physically in the farming process and shared returns amongst each other. By insisting on the shareholder being a worker in the gazni activities, the system removes ‘absentee landlords’ from the benefit sharing process, while ensuring that all stakeholders are appropriately benefited according to their contribution. This was a unique model of traditional management of common property resources.
People belonging to the ‘Patgar‘ community were the dominant groups that specialised in this form of agriculture, but it was also done by Namdharis, Halakkivokkals and other caste groups. The Patgars are known to possess the traditional knowledge to maintain these fields, control water flow, build and repair embankments and other agricultural operations. They took the initiative of planting mangrove trees along earthen dams, as its roots prevented erosion. Mangroves also led to increased production of fish as they increase nutrient supply in the estuary, and also because the babies of prawns and crabs take shelter in its roots.
During the tides, salt water would find a way inside the gaznis through a system of natural drainage channels known as kodis. The flow of the water through the kodis was controlled by various sluice gates, which facilitated the drainage of the fields. In the pre-monsoon weeks, around the end of May, the gates were closed after salt water was drained. Subsequent to the rainy season of June and July, gaznis would refill and then the kagga rice seeds were planted. During harvest season in November, free flow of tidal waters was allowed into the kodis with the opening of the sluice gates. After the rice was taken out, fishing activities were permitted in the gaznis through mutual understanding between the fishermen and farmers. Customarily, only 3 to 4 families would practice natural fishing in one kodi, and they never violated their borderlines. They fitted nets called gantivale, towards the mouth of the kodi, to trap the fish that would be leaving the gaznis during low tide. They also used a scooping net called gorubale, to fish inside the kodis, any time of the year, by placing it against the flow.
This form of paddy cum fish cultivation was highly sustainable. The local community management system of the estuary never encouraged exhaustive fishing, compared to the scale it is done today. The practice of planting mangroves and earthen building (rather than stones and dykes used today), minimised the human impact on these estuarine ecosystems, ensuring their sustainable use.
Government intervention in kagga fields
This system underwent a change in the 1970s when the Karnataka government took a policy decision to build permanent stone dams on the mud embankments of gajni lands, under the Kharland Development Scheme, in order to protect the fields from increasing salt water intrusion. However this move had an impact on the use of this land, leading to further ecological and socio-economic changes. This not only led to the destruction of mangroves on the side of the embankments, but also led to stagnation in many parts of the gaznis due to lesser sluice gates.These ill-drained areas soon became unfit for cultivation of rice.
Picture 2: Sluice gates at the side of gazni fields, with stone embankments
With the building of these bunds, farmers now began to auction fishing rights to contractors, on an annual basis.Traditional fishermen thus became the victims of this development as they were no longer allowed to fish in the gaznis, except for few weeks after the expiry of the fishing contract period, in June, just prior to prepare the gazni for the next crop.
This then led to a legal battle between farmers and fishermen. The decision in the district court was ruled in favour of the farmers because of their stronger lobby at the time, however it was reversed on going to the High Court. Although the High Court of Karnataka upheld the rights of the traditional fishermen to fish in the gaznis , especially in the kodis , the physical might of the more organized farmers prevented the implementation of the Court order. At this time, “the gazni lands of Agahanashini turned into battlefields between farmers and fishermen of the region” says Subhash Chandran. Ever since, there has been a conflict between the two groups, and a massive increase in contract farming, which eventually set in the decline of kagga cultivation and traditional agricultural knowledge.
Blue Revolution: Rise of aquaculture and increasing demand
With the onset of the ‘blue revolution’ in the late 1980s, there was a spurt in modern aquaculture replacing traditional agriculture in many parts of India. With the rising demands for prawns domestically (from mostly Goa) and even foreign demands (Japan was one of the biggest markets), there was a rapid expansion of this industry along the Karnataka coast. Thus large tracts of gazni lands were converted into profit making aquaculture ponds for this purpose.The lucrative monetary returns from this industry, and the fact that it is risk-free in terms of the returns attracted many gazni farmers, who preferred leasing out their lands to the contractors for prawn farming to cultivating them on their own (Bhatta and Bhat 1998).
Picture 3: Prepared aquaculture pond at the Bargi gazni in Kumta taluk
However, the success of the aquaculture industry was short-lived, since the financial benefits failed to trickle down to the poorest and vulnerable coastal communities. The arrival of such intensive aquaculture soon went past its stage of euphoria, as it led to the destruction of the mangroves, pollution of backwaters with use of chemical and factory feeds, which also led to diseases in the prawns and subsequent damages to the shrimp farms and ecosystem. Many contractors thus also withdrew as they lost capital through such ventures. Serious concerns were raised about the long-term sustainability of the gaznis since the lands once managed traditionally and sustainably either became low-productive or unproductive, leaving the farmers in jeopardy. As a result, farmers are now seriously thinking about ways to sustainably manage the gazni lands.
Impact and current situation: Tragedy of coastal commons?
While aquaculture was considered to be a lucrative option, which has only increased over time, it did lead to some severe livelihood impacts, for the kagga farmers and the fisherfolk, leading to an augmented economic transition that followed.
Today, this age old practice of kagga farming is depreciating, with almost all gajni fields converted into aquaculture ponds or not being used at all. Availability of kagga seed is now extremely scanty. There are very few gazni fields in which kagga farming is being done, such as Manikatta and Brij gaznis, but the dwindling market and demand for it makes it harder for the farmers to continue. Once these stone bunds broke down due to the impact of the tides, the government made no efforts to repair the bunds and gates that maintain the water and salinity level. This led to further land alienation and conversion, leading kagga farmers to search for alternative sources of livelihood. Over time, the knowledge regarding this cultivation, and the motivation to revive it died down, with the newer generation being enticed with higher education and better jobs in the cities, rather than continuing with traditional rice cultivation which requires a bit of maintenance and initiative.
Picture 4: One of the few remaining samples of kagga rice, preserved by CR Naik
A few researchers have stated that the gajni bund system also resulted in the decline of fish in the backwaters, to the extent of 75% (Keramane & Naik,2006). Men from most fishing families of the estuaries these days work as labourers in the sea-faring fishing boats of Karnataka coast and neighbouring states. However many fishermen continue to fish by attaching nets to the end of sluice gates attached to gazni fields.
Picture 5: Gantivale nets attached to the end of sluice gates, to catch fish when water stored in gazni lands are drained out.
With the entry of contract system in the Aghanshini backwaters of Kumta coast, the plight of the fisher-women of the gajni villages became serious. In the past, as fishing was done by families, women also did fishing with the godubale and used to sell fish in the nearby villages.With fishing rights in most of the backwaters being leased out to contractors, these women were severely affected. They are now dependent on the small amounts of money brought in by the men of the household. However women of most fishing families who live closer to the river gather bivalves (shell fish) for sale for purpose of domestic consumption. Today, due to various activities that are incompatible with estuarine ecology, such as unregulated sand mining in the area, even the shell fish availability has begun to diminish.
Picture 6: Women collecting bivalves during low tide.
There have been few attempts to revive kagga farming recently. MS Swaminathan Research Foundation worked on creating seed banks, and providing subsidies to the remaining kagga farmers in the region. ‘Save our Rice Campaign’ has worked in the area, as a part of its movement on reviving rice cultures and sustaining rice ecosystems.
Some measures are being taken by the reamaining kagga collectives to preserve this form of indigenous rice cultivation.These collectives imposed fines on kagga farmers for not growing kagga varieties of rice. Individuals in the area, like CR Naik, head of the Manikatta Gazni Farmers Assosciation, have been continuously testing different strategies from sending petitions to the state government and even the National Green Tribunal. However, there has been hardly any response from the government towards repairing these bunds, despite the fact that it was government intervention that led to its decline.
Picture 7: A barren gazni field which is no longer used for kagga farming or acquaculture.
In an article on Kagga farming by Aparna Pallavi, she quotes Hanumantha Pattagar of Lukkeri, who complains that the agriculture department does not provide them with kagga seeds. “The department asks us to adopt improved rice varieties, such as Suvarna and Sona Masuri, but these do not grow in brackish water,” he says. Currently, this area is considered to be a fishing area by the state government, and thus the Agricultural Department considers the repair of the bunds to be outside its jurisdiction. The state has thus intervened in this area (or chosen not to intervene) without an understanding of the socio-economic and ecological conditions of the area and the nature of estuarine farming.
With the possibility of a heavy duty port being built in the region, the question we need to ask is, will the proposed model of capitalist development that the port represents, lead to a new phase of accumulation, and a transformation of the land, that may cause further social upheaval? That is something only time will have to tell. But until then, there is a need to value and revive traditional agricultural systems like gazni farming, and thus propose an alternative to the increasing intrusion of the neoliberal forces in the area. The communities in Kumta are not ready for another tragedy of what remains of their coastal commons.
1.Salagrama, V. (2014). A Livelihood Based Analysis of in Aghnashini-Gangavalli, Uttara Kannada, Karnataka, India. GIZ report.
2. Naik, B.K., T. Seetaramshetty and N. Naik (1998). Economics of Prawn Cultivation – A Case Study of Uttara Kannada Coastal Belt in Karnataka State, Karnataka Journal of Agricultural Sciences, XI (1): 274-76
3. Keremane, B.G & Naik, B.K. (2006). Economics of Gajni Farming under Different Farming Systems in Coastal Floodplains of Karnataka, India. Journal of Social and Economic Development.
4.Pallavi,A. (2014, Jan 15). Kagga in Peril. Down to Earth. Retrieved from: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/kagga-in-peril-43130
5. Bhatta, R. and M. Bhat (1998). Impacts of Aquaculture on the Management of Estuaries in India, Environmental Conservation, XXV (2): 109-21.
Special thanks has to be given to MD Subhash Chandran, head of Indian Institute of Science field station at Kumta. Most of the details in this article are from interviews and sessions with him, on this issue.