Breaching the dam

Fellowship stories

Lisa Smith

09 February 2016

“Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.” So goes the saying. Take away his fishing rights, tear his nets, threaten his family? This was the reality faced by the Katkari tribe when the local public lake was declared ‘out of bounds’ by a commercial fishing company. Suddenly, their ancestral fishing rights counted for nothing and their very livelihoods were at stake.

I met Deepak Mukane, from the Katkari community, in 2015, after a five hour drive from Mumbai on a hot, dusty spring day. A Quest Fellow during 2009-10, he’d turned himself into a first-rate advocate for rights and entitlements and now he was busy mentoring Eknath, a new Fellow, who was continuing Deepak’s work. Together, they have already helped an incredible 14,500 people in Maharashtra’s Satara district, and they’re working hard to organise four more fishing societies around the neighbouring Kanher and Dhom dams.

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How did this extraordinary achievement come about?

Deepak began his Fellowship by training more than a hundred fishermen to lodge claims on government schemes offering housing grants and food rations to marginalised tribes. Two years later, his Advanced Fellowship taught him the deeper research and advocacy skills he needed to tackle the threat to his community’s livelihood. By studying the dam regulations, he discovered that the Katkari could, indeed, fish locally if they formed an official tribal cooperative. To take advantage of this, he navigated the bureaucracy of registration – and saw off numerous threats and bribes along the way.

Local press coverage was key in building local support for the Katkari’s campaign, and during my visit I was shown a carefully preserved, thick binder of press clippings, resulting from Deepak’s media work. I can’t read Marathi, the local dialect, but the enthusiasm of my hosts made it abundantly clear what an incredible undertaking this had been. That day in the village, as I sat amongst the Katkari, I could almost touch the extraordinary sense of pride buzzing in the air. I was surprised to see that Deepak was missing from the room. Thanks to his advocacy success, he’d gained in confidence and managed to get a job at the local post office! (This made him something of a local hero – it’s everyone’s dream, because tribal people are rarely hired for this kind of job). He showed up an hour later as the group – about a hundred of us – were still talking excitedly about advocacy, water, women’s education and making a better community. About being better men, better fathers….

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To round off the day, our band of LQ and CORO team members went for a hard-earned drink. In the dusky light of a roadside cafe, Deepak told us how moving it had been to hear everyone talking about these vital community issues. At that very moment, he’d realised what he’d achieved. He’d given the community space and they’d claimed it for themselves. He’d taught his people – who’d previously known only oppression – the power of non-violent action. He could see that a sense of leadership had emerged which didn’t require him to be the sole motivator. On that day, listening to Deepak’s reaction, I saw what we do made tangible – it literally unfolded before my eyes. This is what the Fellowship meant, that day in Satara district.