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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 49, New Delhi, November 20, 2021

Understanding of the Island society through the paradigm of fish market | Radhakanta Barik

Friday 19 November 2021, by Radhakanta Barik


by Prof Radhakanta Barik *

There has been some studies on the island in Ocean but very limited study has been conducted on the Island in the river. (Gloria Pungetti 2021) Some studies are available in the island of Brahmaputra by geographers which are very much relevant for our study. (Nikhil Roy and others 2020; P Kokoky and others 2003) They have examined the erosion in each flood of the island which affects the villagers but here in Odisha the erosion has affected the island. Island is under the study in the branch of the river Mahanadi that is Devi. This island is a part of Niali and Naugaon Blocks of Cuttack and Jagatsinghpur districts. Here we are studying the constraints imposed on individual action by the geographical factor as well as the social and economic factors. We are studying these factors through the fish market and its operation in the island. Human freedom stands for selling fish as it is only thing plenty available in the island as rivers surround it. Political freedom in terms of constitutional guaranteed is almost absent here. Economic freedom is absent here because of lack of infrastructure and public transport.

In the village of 200 families only three families had capability of buying fish. Today all the families do buy fish which create heart burning in these families. They grumble so much that things in the village are not going well. Today poor and marginal have come up to express their views which they could not do before. Access to income, education has changed the social environment. As a young labourer says that in the village the real problem is this that three families are unable to bear our questioning capacity. This brings the question of Development as freedom which sustains human capability of each belonging to lower class and lower castes. Prof Sen’s point that development as freedom is turning true in the case of villages of Odisha. This is an island of twenty two villages in the river Devi. These villages used to have regular flood. During the flood there was monopoly price and the landed and moneyed families control the price of rice and others goods produced locally. But they buy the fish collected by the fishermen at throw away price. In the village we study we found that two families buy all the fish and price is fixed by them. It is buyers’ market and sellers do not have say. This reflects in the social relationship. These three families used to have servants for their household activities. The price is fixed by them. In 1990 a servant was paid just Rs 10 per year. Imagine in such a situation most of the families did not have a voice and they did not have freedom. In the village where Macdam used to live with two hundred acres the villagers did not have voting right till 2004. We live in such a dark area and dark age. Livestock economy has brought occupational change that a job of cowherd does not exist anymore. People don’t keep Bullocks. They don’t keep ploughmen. No halia, no kothia,no Chakar . These three occupations have vanished. No bonded labour. Everybody is a free labour.

How monopoly price works in our region. Let me elaborate it. Fisherman put almost eight hours and collects fish and sells it to three families of the village.In some village’s one family. There is no market for fish in the area. He cannot go to the local market which is fifteen KM away. It is flood prone or water logged area where going to the local market takes almost one day. He applies his rationality and takes a decision not going to the local market. He hands over the fish to these families who fixes the price at their whims. This is called monopoly price. Once monopoly price fixed then the fishermen are forced to sell them. There is no fish shop or no sells man to sell fish. There is no market rationality in the fish market. Per instance the fisherman spends his night in buying the fish despite doing his work in the field. His labour is not getting calculated in fixing the price although he collects the fish from the river a community property. He does not keep for his family and sells everything to these families. He is happy that he adds a little bit to his daily wage which is fixed.

Who controls the grain trade in the island? It needs to be probed. Here the flood affected almost 16 villages located on side of the rivers. They lose the crops totally. Once they lose the rice crop they run to the villages where rice crop is saved. In these villages only two or one family controls the grain market. Here they have monopoly price over the grains which they fix at the higher than the market price. As the farming community does not have any alternative to fall upon for the acquisition of rice they go depend on the rich and powerful for collecting rice. They maintain monopoly price for grains which is higher than rice market. They sell the rice at higher price and they make speculative profit while the flood is there. Flood remains four to six months. In these months there is speculative price which is above the normal price they collect in normal time. These families make profit out of grain trade which is more than the average profit.

There are small players in grain market who do not sell grains but they rent out grain known as the dedha that payment of one half of rice after four months. This makes poor farmers suffer a lot as they do not have the bargaining power but interest in kind is much higher than the monetary transaction. Though rich do not ignore the dedha business but they concentrate on trading the grains. This is a vicious circle which keep the farmers in their net from where it is difficult to come out. It is two hundred years old profession.

In the winter time crops grow better in the flood prone areas as land fertility increases because of the flood. This is the season they grow the pulses in the rabi season. Price for selling the biri or kolath is already fixed by the merchants. They buy these pulses at the lower price and sell those at high price. These merchants invariable these rich people who control fish market and grain trade. In the process the majority of farmers lose their income and get pauperized. Pauperisation makes them powerless and have no voice in decision making process.

In the locality there were only two big money lenders. Small farmers used to go to them to get loan at 25% interest.There were smaller players in credit market and it is interesting to note here that those primary school teachers used to lend money at higher interest rate than 25%. They used to pay to the women in distress and workers in distress specifically for their health needs. Once there was an incident over the conflict between moneylender cum teacher who demanded a higher interest rate and woman farmer got indebted to him.After payment also the teacher demanded more money otherwise he would not release the ornaments as collateral. It seems that small informal money lenders demand higher interest rate whereas big money lenders demand at 25%. They create problems for the farmers but rarely. Once a farmer paid his loan back to the money lender but after the payment of all money he filed the case over non payment of money in the court. This created confusion as the court creates fear in the minds of rural masses. He sold his land and paid once more. The money lender had interest in farmer’s land. In the locality the money lenders had monopoly over the credit market.
Those control the fish market, grain trade and money lending function like the state in the locality. In the early 1950s a love scene led to murder. Here the biggest money lender cum grain merchant got involved. His sister involved in love affairs with the person who was working as the manager of rice huller of her husband’s place in Kakatpur. He followed her and both stayed in the same house of local rich for months but in the end it was felt by her brothers that her lover had been hiding in their house. This resulted in heinous murder of the young man but no harm done to the woman. Police men came from the Police station which was 25 KM away. Their investigation did not lead to any result not even those who committed crimes. This island lived in awe of the person and they did not stand as witness to the case. Police felt frustrated regarding the case and wrote that whenever the information would come and they would investigate further. This explains the presence of the state through the local rich person and state did not have any autonomy. The island found many crimes and murders and never punishment happened.

The 1957 Panchayat Raj Act of Odisha gave legitimacy to these three four powerful families having feudal cum money lending interests. Although there were popular anger against these families in the early stage but the BDO of Niali came down here and nominated them as the Sarpanchs.In the beginning there were two Panchyats and then it was divided into three. In two cases the post of Sarapanchs went from grand father to son to grandson. In one case he invested the money as a contractor and made huge money and invested in urban land and hotel business. Other two invested in contract works with the Blocks and later became big contractors. Their control over the island turned into family fiefdom.

These three families start in process of primitive accumulation which never get disrupted with the coming of Independence. It continues till 2000 as many small tenant families lose their land to them and they get pushed out of their villages and sahis. In most of the villages here the lanes for landless families came up. It is interesting to see the physical settlement of the village where there are clearly demarcated lanes for the poor and landless families. This is the process of pauperization which does not believe in family or kinship but ruthless exploitation of their own relatives and make them landless.

Politics in the region has been shaped according to those who control the fish market, grain market and land not by constitution of India. This is the only place where Universal Adult Franchise does not work. People are not allowed to vote. One person enters into the polling booth and castes votes for all. This has been happening till 2004. Those have been contesting the election supported this action. Kanungo brothers used this powerful people in favour of them to win the assembly election. The villages where one person buys the fish then the voting pattern is this and where the fish is bought by two or three families then the factions of the village work according to parties. It is strange but true and that democracy requires some preconditions to survive which do not exist in the island villages for sixty years.

Those who control the fish market in this area exploited women belonging to working class and small farmers. One of them exploited one hundred women otherwise their land got grabbed by him and created trouble in their lives. It is political power in the panchayat made them ferocious and they evicted the small farmers and acquired their land and made one patch next to the canal for getting free water without payment. Many tenant farmers lost their land. They live in fear next to his farm house. This is happening in modern India as police and MLA and officials support their actions. This is the form of manorisation of the locality where manor came into existence after acquiring huge land and used the land for commercial exploitation with the bonded labour.

Sometime back the area is connected with bridged roads which bring a radical changes in the political economy of the area. Fish market has been democratized as every village has one or two shops and people gather there to collect the fish. The monopoly of fish by some families has gone which creates heart burning in these families. Every day they abuse the changes happened here. Fishermen do not give special privilege to these families. He sells in open market at the market price. There is no monopoly price over the fish. This ends the rule of few families who claimed sometime back of their royal origin. Once in the block office three families fought over the issue of royalty. Two claimed that they inherit royalty for generations and they questioned the third one. The third one got furious and abused them by telling ‘We belong to royal blood for centuries. “ These families are called as per tradition prevailing in the area. Each is called as brother uncle or aunt cutting across the castes. With the feudalization these families claimed as the local kings and they are being called by some as Raja Saheb. With the democratization of fish market their royalty has disintegrated.

Fish market is grown in the island and there is no monopoly price and the families used to control the social political and economic ladders of the local society have collapsed but the memory haunts them and they blame the common folk regarding for the failure of monopoly price. The political democracy started functioning today after the bridged roads have come up. These houses for some time now do not control the panchyats. They children move around as vagabonds and their nobility has collapsed as no girl is ready to give in marriage to these families. As they control land but no productivity of labour is there. Today’s economy is based on the organization of agriculture economy on the basis of productivity of labour not the amount of land.

Schools played in transforming the local society. In 1950s two middle schools came up which sent students to high schools nearby towns. In 1970 two high schools came up in the island. With education youth did not bother about the domination of these aristocratic families. In 1973 Summer one of them used to abuse people of the village and told that the Schools have played havoc in their reputation as others are not ready to accept their authority. “ We have been screwing you and your mothers till today but these schools have brought new consciousness which giving new status.” Education plays an important role in empowerment of the people of the locality. As Sen argues in Human Development that literacy creates empowerment of people which turns true here.

The comfort of the rich depends on the abundant supply of cheap labour which is correct in the island society. Plenty of labour was available; as most of them lost land to the rich. They turned in providing labour to their agriculture and livestock economy. There was an iron law of wage fixed here for two hundred years that the rich used to pay one gauni rice in the present price it comes around Rs50 per day which virtually kept them hungry. Their cruelty lies in keeping them hungry and servile.In conversation to the landowner who abandoned agricultural activity recently told me: “ The labour was working in my field and getting fish at free of cost and today he is demanding proper wage and no free fish for me. I cannot request the labour for the work for which I abandoned the agricultural operation and gave land on rent.” They used to send their little children as the servants in these landowning families just for food and in 1990 a person working as the cowherd in the landowner’s house paid Rs10. The landed elite were small and enjoyed their lives because of availability of plenty of cheap labour.

Rise of wage changed the face of society and economy. People of this area used to cross the river in the morning to collect the wage of One Gauni Dhan and come back in the evening. The wage turned into monetary terms which started changing every year. It reached at Rs 350 three years back and after that it is constant. Economy got transformed into modern economy and agriculture demanded the use of the advanced technology. Tractor replaced the bullocks and bullock carts. Today one hardly finds the bullocks with the cultivating families. Wage labour gave freedom to work in anywhere where work is available and they do not work as the attached labour. Cultivating families do not require servants for looking after their livestock economy. It has vanished and today women invested in hybrid cows which do not require the grazing. Cowherds and Halia have vanished from the rural scene. Halia was the most important person in agricultural operations and he needs to be ablest youth and without his presence no cultivation. Today Halia has got replaced with the person who comes with the tractor to cultivate. Tractor replaced successfully the bullock cart and economy is no more bullock cart economy and it can be called tractor economy. Technology helps in improving the productivity of labour. Wage of labour has turned into an important topic for the cultivating families and they very often lease out their land. Leasing is more done in favour of lessee and sharing rent has gone from fifty fifty to 25% to landlords and 75 to the tenant farmers. Rise in income makes them empowered as Human Development happens.

Island society looks at poverty and hunger needs an elucidation. As a part of psychology they look at hunger is related to poverty. One is a victim of poverty as the misfortune falls on him or he. As a part of collective psychology they look down who remain hungry. Those families suffering from pangs of hunger come to the shop in the late night to collect rice on credit. Here one can say that those having access to food come to the centre of the village and talk about those do not have access to food. They do not share the sufferings nor show piety and compassion to them. They show indifferent attitude towards them. It is a failure of collective psychology. One survey shows that 60 percentages of people could not tell regarding their food stuff for a period of six months. During the flood they suffer from hunger and during heavy rains they suffer from hunger. Children instead of asking food from mum they put their legs into the chulia and found there was no fire and then they drank water and sleep without food. It is a collective failure of our island society. With the rise in wage they do suffer from hunger as they used to live in poverty because of low wage. But the public distribution system has improved the status of people in terms of health and they do not suffer pangs of hunger. Rich blames the government whereas the real anger against the poor having food today. Modi government is against the welfare state and its policies for the poor. Access to food has gone down which pushes India into 101 position out of 117 countries in Hunger Index.

Society in Island brings out some important lessons for understanding of human history. That individual gets subordinated to the social and economic structure here because of the nature of isolation. Individual action is not guided by his personal interest but his or her freedom is getting subordinated to powerful individuals. They do not make personal choice as there is no such capability with these people in making choice. It is a structural relation in an island which makes the individual subordinated these powerful actors. Here we examine these powerful actors working in an isolated economy. Wage of a labour has been kept so low that his family is being compelled to send their children to these powerful actors’ houses as servants with lowest wage. Fishermen cannot sell their fish in the open market but to these powerful actors at a price fixed by the buyers not sellers or market price. We take this as a model to understand this island society in a dynamic sense.

Fish market is a paradigm to explain the social forces in a dynamic manner. This society is structured one surrounded by the rivers where fish is the only marketable commodity is available. Fisherman does not belong to any specific caste here. From Brahmin to dalits all get involved in the process to earn their livelihood. Caste hierarchy does not work here as social forces in terms of economic power dominate the social scene. Although the fishing work is the occupation of the Dalits. Here a closed society makes opening through education. In 1940 s most of the villages have primary schools. In early 1950s the locality had two middle schools. In 1960s there are two High schools.

Education provides the children to realize their potentiality. With the education some of them move out and get employed. Cutting across the castes they turn urbanized. Access to the urban society makes them aware of their basic rights. Education improves human capability but they collectively act only when wage starts increasing. With the rise in educational level and rise in their income they question the authority of these small number of families who control their fish market. Today the fish market is an open one where sellers and buyers meet without any control from these families. But interestingly the power politics start working over the fish market. It gets closed on Tuesday on the occasion of Hanuman which is not being worshipped here and nor any body is a follower here. How powerful people work in a subtle manner to influence the fish market for creating ideological space for the entry of BJP into politics here. This is an interesting and intriguing view of the situation.

* (Author: Radhakanta Barik retired as a professor from the Indian Institute of Public Administration, New Delhi)


  • Gloria Pungetti 2021
  • Nikhil Roy and others 2020; P Kokoky and others 2003)
  • Sen and Dreze Development as Freedom
  • Sen and Dreze 1989 Hunger and Public Action, Oxford, New Delhi
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