Tribals of Tawa reservoir left leader-less

Sunil Bhai; Source: Samarendra
Sunil Bhai; Source: Samarendra

Tawa reservoir in Hoshangabad, Madhya Pradesh, irrigates several thousand hectares of land. It is here that Sunil Gupta, popularly known as Sunil Bhai, rose to prominence in 1995 when he led the struggle of the tribals displaced by the reservoir.

After completing his post graduation in 1981, Sunil Bhai came to Kesla, a small village near Hoshangabad. He led and supported several people’s movements in Central India devising means for ordinary people to participate directly in creating positive social change. He founded Kisan-Adivasi Sangathan (Peasant-Tribal Association) and wrote several booklets on various aspects of Indian economy and globalization among other topics. He worked all over India on various issues related to education, displacement, dams struggle and alchoholism.

Sunil Bhai died on 21st April 2014. Several displaced families, farmers, fishermen, dalits and social activists across the country lost a leader. He led the fight of the people for their fishing rights and established India’s most successful Adivasi Fishworkers Federation in the area, a model of a “truly democratic people-led and managed enterprise emerging commercially successful against heavy odds” (1). The Federation met with state resistance and had to fight for the renewal of its fishing rights in 2006. Though it finally broke up as the catchment area of the reservoir was absorbed by the Satpura Tiger Reserve, the story is significant. 

Fishing in the Tawa reservoir

The Tawa reservoir built on the Tawa river, a tributary of the Narmada, was completed in 1974. The people who were displaced by the reservoir were compelled to shift to higher areas around the reservoir. Till 1996, the reservoir’s fishing was first managed by the state Fisheries Department and later given on lease to private contractors. While the Fisheries Department was indifferent to fishing, the private contractors used to fish unsustainably flouting fishing norms in order to maximize their profits. The contractors would bring in skilled fishworkers from as far as Mumbai to fish. The local tribals displaced by the reservoir were treated like poachers when they caught fish for meeting their domestic food needs. “The contractor hired muscle­men to police the reservoir” (2).

View Tawa in a larger map

Formation of the Tawa Matsya Sangh

In the meantime, Sunil Bhai was organizing 44 tribal (mainly gond and korku) villages displaced by the Tawa dam and another 34 by an Army Proof Range Establishment and Ordnance Factory in the area to struggle for their proper rehabilitation. A strong people’s movement cropped up and the government gave in to the people’s demand for fishing rights.

Thus, the Tawa Matsya Sangh (Tawa Displaced Tribal Fisheries Production and Marketing Cooperative Federation) was formed in 1996. It was registered under the Madhya Pradesh Co-operative Act 1960. Primary cooperatives were set up at the village level and federated at the Tawa reservoir level. The Sangh got fishing and marketing rights over the produce for ten years (1996-2005).

Fishing, being a labour-intensive activity, was able to provide livelihoods to many people living nearby who had lost their agriculture or forest-based incomes because of the reservoir. The Federation comprised of illiterate tribals with no previous experience in fishing. Soon enough, it was able to bring about an immense change in their lives.

Running of the institution

The tribals working with the Federation began taking decisions ranging from how to sustain this type of fishing, which type of fish to grow to how to market the catch as far as Kolkata and Mumbai. The Federation provided support to its members for purchasing nets and boats. It was able to control poaching without the use of force. A break of two months during the breeding season of fish was strictly adhered to by the Federation.

The institution had to face opposition from other fishworkers in the area (the dhangar and kewat caste) who wanted the Federation to be expanded. These communities had settled in the area in search of wage labour when the Tawa dam was being constructed. To prevent the institution from becoming unwieldy and inefficient the membership of the Federation was limited to the project-affected people and those residing within a radius of 3 km from the reservoir’s periphery.

In the first five years (1996-2001) of the setting up of the Federation, the “450 displaced households have been earning an average annual income of about Rs 12,000 through cooperative fishing. In the process, they have also given, on an average about Rs 15 lakhs per annum to the state coffers as royalty (ironically, royalty for the very land, which they used to once cultivate and for which they had received a paltry Rs 75-150 per acre, from the state, when it was submerged). The average annual production of fishes picked up from a mere 125 tonnes to 350 tonnes.” (1)  

Yet, the Federation lost the license to fish in the reservoir in 2006 as the State’s nodal fishery body, Madhya Pradesh Fisheries Development Corporation (MPFDC) began eyeing the rights once the activity became commercially viable. The Federation continued to operate after that also. In an incident, the Forest Department seized their boats which led to huge protests by the locals.

The reservoir was surrounded by protected areas like the Satpura Tiger Reserve, which led to regulatory control over fishing by the Forest Department. With the setting up of the Tiger Reserve, people lost the right to do draw-down agriculture (farming in the reservoir bed from water, which has receded during winter). This, despite studies which laud this initiative. A study based on actual yield indicates that “Tawa Matsya Sangh is the most efficient regime followed by the lifting and marketing contract regime” (2).

First the federation lost its fishing rights. Now they have lost Sunil Bhai, their leader.


(1) Vikas, Economic and Political Weekly, December 8, 2001

(2) Amalendu Jyotishi, Ecological and Institutional Analysis of Inland Fisheries Resource Management: Productivity in the Case of Tawa Reservoir, India, Working Paper No.115/2011

Post By: Amita Bhaduri