Deccan Herald, March 18, 2006
The police-goon nexus, the shrimp mafia and other exploiters may thwart her efforts, but Nilu Rani Patra still fights for the rights of fisherfolk in Orissa.
Nilu Rani Patra, a peasant woman with very little formal education, has been working for over two decades towards the empowerment of women, fishworkers’ rights and to protect peace and human rights in coastal Orissa. She is best known for motivating villagers, including several women, to force the government to scrap plans for a missile base in her home district, Balasore.
Nilu’s involvement with women’s rights and fishworkers’ rights began with an encounter with the Institute for Motivating Self-Employment (IMSE) – a radical social action group operating in the states of West Bengal, Jharkhand and Orissa. The NGO has been working among the fish workers and poor peasants in the coastal areas for more than two decades. It had set up a programme that aimed to emancipate women in Nilu’s village.
Nilu saw the miseries of the fisherwomen and also the disastrous impact of artificial shrimp monoculture on the coastal habitats in her own daily experiences. She participated in an in-depth action research programme organised by IMSE to gain deeper knowledge on the issue.
Armed with this knowledge, she initiated an intensive dialogue with the women in her village. This process was a catalyst for the mass movement organised by mahila samitis (women’s groups) spread across 100 villages.
Nilu nurtured these mahila samitis into strong women’s organisation who now raise their voice against gender discrimination and have established their right to land, water and forest. The samitis come under an umbrella organisation – the IMSE Mahila Samiti – to combine their efforts.
Nilu has often brought to the notice of the authorities and her people that the Supreme Court of India had banned such shrimp culture up to one km from the high tide zone on the seashore.
But the problem persists. The shrimp monoculture has evicted thousands of poor peasants and fishworkers from their homes and hearths, and deprived them of a livelihood, in the last few years. Conversion of agricultural land and land under salt production to shrimp farms is a common practice. These farms also often block off free access to the seashore for villagers.
In coastal India, farmers have been practising traditional rice and shrimp rotating aquiculture. However, over two decades ago, this kind of farming has been replaced by the more intensive shrimp monoculture.
Naturally, the big commercial interests that are behind these shrimp farms guard their interests zealously and unscrupulously. Several times, Nilu was attacked, tortured and harassed by the police-goon nexus supported by the shrimp mafias. Finally, she had to leave her house for a couple of years and work underground. Her family members were also forced to desert their home and take shelter in a distant relative’s house. However, even while she was in hiding, Nilu continued to organise the people to resist the ruthless oppression of the shrimp mafias and landed gentry.
Nilu has also played a commendable role in organising the common people in general, and women in particular, against the wanton imposition of a missile base in Bhograi-Baliapal block in the district of Balasore. During the early 1980s, Baliapal, a very fertile part of the state, was selected by the government for a missile base. Over 100,000 people from 132 villages were to be evicted for the missile base. But the people decided to resist this decision and launched a unique protest. They did not allow any government officers to enter the whole area of several hundred square kilometres. The people created physical or human barriers and kept vigil day and night.
Nilu was attacked by the police several times during her involvement with this movement, but she stood firm, leading the others by example. The government finally withdrew the plan to set up the missile base. In recent years, the Baliapal agitation is considered a true example of how people’s power can resist even a powerful government’s draconian actions.
Nilu has a unique knack for communicating with rural women and creating a wave of enthusiasm among them. She is married to a marginal peasant and has two children. Although her financial situation is far from sound, she is not bogged down by the travails in her own life. Her selfless work and dynamism has worked as a spark, igniting a fire among the people to break centuries-old traditions and stand up to the exploiters.
[Women’s Feature Service and Sangat]