A little tarred road branched off from the Kakinada-Yanam highway soon after Kothuru in Andhra Pradesh. It was just wide enough for a four-wheeler, snaking towards the banks of the Korangi river and the mangroves of the Godavari estuary. Initially, lush green paddy fields spread out on both sides, but soon they gave way to sprawling rectangular aquaculture ponds. In some of them, paddlewheel aerators whirred and splashed, airing the stagnant water for shrimp harvests.
Past the ponds, the road eventually led to Ramannapalem, a little village 20 km south of Kakinada. It was home to around 300 households, a mix of brick houses, huts and a combination of the two, all of which sat in a maze of haphazard narrow concrete paths. They sat cheek-by-jowl while people milled about, even in the hot afternoon, talking or going about their daily chores — washing clothes, utensils, cooking — invariably in little front courtyards or by the side of the street.
At the other end of the village was the river creek, bordering the mangroves of Coringa Wildlife Sanctuary (CWLS). A handful of makeshift piers sat at regular intervals on the banks of creek in which were moored scores of colourful boats. A strip of land acted as a buffer between the edge of the village and the river, on which grew scattered trees. In the hot afternoon sun, groups of men sat on elevated platforms under the trees, either idly chatting or playing raucous card games. The sun did not seem to bother the kids: groups of them ran around probably playing a version of catch-me-if-you-can; one rode around aimlessly on a little bicycle. They stopped to stare at the visitors, but decided what they were doing was far more interesting.
Almost at the edge of the village, in one front yard, lazy smoke curled upwards from a little enclosure. Inside were two stacks of metallic trays – one contained meticulously arranged small mullet fish, the other was filled with bright orange shrimp. Both caught in the mangroves’ creeks. Underneath burned thick logs of wood, presumably from the cannonball mangrove tree (xylocarpusgranatum/moluccensis, chenuga in Telugu), also sourced from the mangroves.
The burning wood gave off a distinct smoky smell which permeated the air and cooked the fish and shrimp, as 55-year old Kalavathi kept a watchful eye. She had been doing it for over three decades, selling the smoked fish and prawns at the markets in nearby Matlapalem as well as Amalapuram, a prominent town 70 km south of Kakinada. She was proud of her work; she plucked a steaming fish from the smoking chamber and offered it. It tasted heavenly — the flesh was soft, naturally salted from the creek and carried a smoky flavour that was delicious.
Her husband, 74-year-old Satyam was the village chairman and son, Satyam, 30, was a fisherman. Both of them had been fishing all their lives in the mangroves, a family occupation that probably went back over five generations. They knew no other way of life and talked about going into the mangroves everyday in a casual, matter-of-fact way. However, their apparent insouciance was never for a moment disrespectful. On the contrary, it came from a distinct awareness about how much their life and livelihoods depended on these mangroves.
This is a story that seemed to repeat over and over again in the whole area. Spread over 320 sqkm of which 235 sqkm was protected under the CWLS, the mangroves of the Godavari estuary were the lifeline and source of livelihood for over 40 villages, of which 24 were completely reliant on the protected area and had fishing rights, as well as limited rights to the firewood. But in order to ensure the health and sustainability of the mangroves and the creeks, the villages evolved a complex system of communal fishing many decades ago. A small rotating set of fishermen from each village go out each day to fish and the money from the catch is shared amongst the households in each village. Also, each village has a set perimeter in the creeks within which it can fish. All of this ensures that there is no overfishing or competition. “We have followed this system from the time of our ancestors,” said Vignesh (in his late 20s) from the same village, who had also been fishing ever since he could remember. “It has worked very well.”
The next morning, I got a glimpse of second part of the system. On the East coast, dawn arrived early. Even in winter. It was not yet 5.30 but the eastern skies were aglow with a blushing pink-orange hue, which was reflected in the waters of the Tulyabhaga river, a tributary of the Godavari, at Matlapalem, about 15 km south of Kakinada. In the pre-dawn greyness, colourful boats gently bobbed up and down in the serene river, the epitome of serenity, while on its banks, cacophony and chaos reigned. One of the main landing sites, the day’s catch from the mangroves had been coming in since before dawn; as each vessel came in, frenzied activity took over as the catch was sorted and went up for sale.
The damp muddy space between the banks and the highway was abuzz with hundreds of fisherfolk, mostly women sitting in parallel rows with makeshift tables made from ice-boxes on which were displayed a wide variety of fish caught from the mangroves. Both sellers and buyers were predominantly women; presumably, the men had done the work of getting out in the creeks and channels and hauling in the catch. It was now up to the women to handle the commerce side of it.
On offer were all kinds of fish, crabs, shrimp, eels and even shark pups. There were some household buyers, but the bulk of the buyers seemed to be retailers who would cart off their purchases to sell in smaller markets all over the region. This too was a scene that would be repeated in several places in the area, but with subtle differences. In Bhyravapalem, the whole village seemed to specialise in dried fish and every open space including pavements and unused stretches of roads were used for the purpose; much of this was traded in the dry fish market next to Jagannathapuram bridge outside Kakinada. And in Chollangi, an entire village lived entirely in the creek on boats – families fished in the mangroves and collected shells to be sold in the one of the markets.
But no matter which market, everyone seemed to be connected by the mangroves and the sense of community. At Matlapalem market, the women noisily haggled, exchanged gossip, made their purchases and carted it off in large plastic or aluminium basins balanced on their heads. The air was thick with the smell of fish, strong enough for the gag-reflex to kick in. But once the initial assault was over, I wandered around fascinated by what was on display but also enjoying the camaraderie, the sense of community and the easy exchanges among people who seem to go back a long way. I felt like an outsider, looking in from the fringes and excluded from the sense of fellowship. That’s until I felt a tap on my shoulder accompanied by “teesko” (take this, in Telugu). I turned around to find Kalavathi holding a cup of steaming tea towards me, taking a break from hawking her smoked prawns. I accepted gratefully; I felt I belonged, for a brief moment.