Case Study

November 1
9 mins

Resilience Amidst Turmoil: The Ongoing Struggles of Chilika Lagoon’s Small-Scale Fishers Against Aquaculture and Sea Mouth Opening

Navya Vikraman Nair and Dr. Prateep Kumar Nayak
Chilika Lagoon, located in Odisha, India. Photo by Navya Vikraman Nair, 2018.
The Chilika Lagoon, located in eastern India, is a 1100 km² brackish water ecosystem that hosts a stunning array of ecosystems and species and is a vital resource for small-scale fishing communities. However, it faces disruption from shrimp aquaculture and an opening of the lagoon to the sea. These disruptions are directly affecting environmental dynamics, altering access rights, and impacting small-scale fishers.
Figure 1. Idle Small-Scale Fishing Boats in Chilika Lagoon. Photo by Navya Vikraman Nair, 2018

Chilika Lagoon, nestled on the east coast of India, is a sprawling brackish water ecosystem that spans over 1,100 km². It boasts a diverse array of habitats, including mangroves, seagrasses, sand flats, mudflats, and estuaries. This rich environment supports a multitude of species, some of which are threatened or endangered, such as the Irrawaddy dolphin and Olive Ridley turtle (Pattnaik et. al., 2007). The lagoon has been a vital resource for local communities for generations, providing sustenance, income, and a way of life. 

The lagoon has historically been crucial for the livelihoods of traditional small-scale fishers, spread across 152 villages. In 2009, the total population in these villages was 403,356, with fisher households accounting for 36% of them. These fishers are highly dependent on the lagoon for their livelihoods. Their dependency on the lagoon is multi-faceted: 

  • Economic Dependence: Fishing in the lagoon is the primary source of income for these communities. They rely on the diverse aquatic life in the lagoon for their livelihoods, including various fish species and other marine resources. 
  • Cultural Significance: Fishing is not merely an economic activity but also deeply rooted in the culture and traditions of these communities. It is a way of life passed down through generations, shaping their identity and social structure. 
  • Nutritional Needs: The fish and other resources from the lagoon serve as a significant protein source for the communities. Fishing directly contributes to their food security and nutritional well-being. 
  • Social Fabric: The occupation of fishing is not just an individual pursuit but a communal activity. It binds the communities together, creating a social fabric that revolves around their shared dependence on the lagoon. 

The ocean defenders, represented by the Small-Scale Fishers (SSF) of Chilika Lagoon, are a population highly reliant on the lagoon for their economic, cultural, nutritional, and social well-being. They represent a vital part of the Chilika Lagoon, emphasizing the human impact and the importance of preserving the lagoon’s resources for their way of life. However, the lagoon’s ecosystem and the livelihoods of these fishers are under threat due to the expansion of shrimp aquaculture and the artificial opening of the sea mouth.

Figure 2. A map of Chilika Lagoon’s study area (Source: Chilika Development Authority).

First, the shrimp aquaculture industry burgeoned in the Chilika Lagoon in the 1980s, lured by the promise of economic growth and with support from the government (Dujovny, 2009; Kumar, 2016). Private shrimp farming corporations have increased competition for space and resources and left their mark on the environment. As these large-scale entities expand, traditional SSFs find themselves economically excluded from their once-abundant fishing grounds (Nayak et. al., 2014). The introduction of commercial shrimp farming has not only diminished the availability of aquatic resources but has also led to social marginalization. 

SSF communities, deeply rooted in their fishing traditions, face alienation as their way of life is disrupted (Nair & Nayak, 2023a). This shift has resulted in class exploitation, where powerful corporations exploit the vulnerabilities of local fishers for economic gains, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and dependence. Politically disempowered, these SSF communities lack the influence to challenge the decisions favoring corporate interests (Nayak et. al., 2014). Moreover, the environmental impact of shrimp aquaculture over the lagoon is profound. Pollution from shrimp farms affects water quality, harming aquatic life and, consequently, the SSF’s catch. This further disrupts the delicate ecological balance, leaving the community of ocean defenders with diminished resources and an uncertain future. 

Second, the opening of a new sea mouth in 2001 radically altered the lagoon’s hydrology and water quality (Nair & Nayak, 2023b; Nayak & Armitage, 2018). The objective of creating a sea mouth was to adjust salinity, and a side effect was increased fish production. However, the new sea mouth also unleashed a host of natural and human-made disturbances, wreaking havoc on the region’s fragile biodiversity (Nair & Nayak, 2023a). Environmental impacts are far-reaching: water quality is altered by chemical discharges, seagrasses are lost, and indigenous species are imperiled by invasive species and pathogens (Nair & Nayak, 2023a; Mishra & Griffin, 2010; Sahu et. al., 2014). Changes in governance enabled both aquaculture and the opening of the sea mouth to alter the lagoon’s biophysical and ecological processes (Das & Panda, 2010; Panda et. al., 2013; Sarkar et. al., 2012).

The conflict at Chilika Lagoon is more than just an environmental concern; it represents a deep-rooted social tragedy. Local communities, particularly traditional fishing ones, are witnessing the erosion of their livelihoods, with dwindling fish stocks threatening their income and food security. These communities, previously secure in their way of life, are now faced with the challenges of a booming shrimp industry. This industry, largely controlled by external investors and government entities, deepens the divide, pushing smaller fishers and farmers to the margins. Tensions over rights and legalities not only strain community ties but also lead to widespread human rights violations. These encompass basic necessities such as access to food and water, labor rights, health conditions, and the rights of indigenous people. While the conflict’s reach spans the expansive ecosystem of the lagoon, its implications are deeply felt at the local level, primarily by those living in proximity to the lagoon. Amidst these dual crises, the resilience and tenacity of the local community shine through as they rally in defense of their rights and environment.

Within this context, the community of SSFs has led multiple advocacy efforts as proof of their courageous actions and enduring hope, as they vehemently push back against the encroachments on their way of life and the lagoon’s ecological balance. Organizing themselves into cohesive groups, these defenders have raised their voices on multiple fronts. They have engaged in legal battles, challenging the powerful shrimp farming corporations in courts of law, standing up for their rights to the lagoon’s resources. In the early 1990s, the Chilika Lagoon bore witness to a powerful counter-movement led by the Chilika Bachao Andolan (CBA) or Save Chilika Movement against aggressive capitalist development (Ray & Garada, 2018). Fisher groups, bolstered by their Primary Fishermen Cooperative Societies (PFCS), joined hands with civil society organizations (Das, 2018). By invoking the moral economy of the fishers and constitutional provisions of social and environmental justice, they vehemently protested against the Odisha government’s decision to implement sweeping changes in the existing access regimes of the lagoon, handing over substantial parts to private investors for shrimp cultivation (Dujovny, 2009). In September 1991, the fishermen initiated their protest against the implementation of the proposed integrated shrimp farm project by Chilika Aquatic Farm, a joint venture involving OMCAD from the government of Orissa and Tata (Pattanaik, 2007). This movement forced an influential Indian corporate house to withdraw from the project in 1993. The Supreme Court of India, in 1996, further bolstered their cause by issuing a verdict banning aquaculture activities in the lagoon (Pattanaik, 2003; Ray & Garada, 2018). 

Figure 3. Traditional fishers of Chilika Lagoon. Photo by Navya Vikraman Nair, 2018.

Another example of their resistance efforts is that SSF vehemently protested against the Odisha government’s decision to implement drastic changes in the lagoon’s access regimes, allowing private investors to take over parts of the lagoon for shrimp cultivation (Dujovny, 2009). Due to the support of intellectuals and environmentalists who joined the protest, highlighting the environmental consequences by referencing the Ramsar Convention and CRZ7 (Coastal Regulation Zone) Notification, the movement evolved into an environmental protection initiative (Pattanaik, 2007). Throughout the course of the movement, intellectuals, both national and international, as well as environmental groups, stood in solidarity, infusing fresh vigor into the cause. The project faced formidable opposition compelling Tata to abandon their plans (Pattanaik, 2003). 

Another example of resistance efforts took place in March of 1999, when fishermen in Chilika launched the ‘Do or Die Movement’ against shrimp farming in the lagoon and presented nine demands, including the demolition of shrimp enclosures (gheris) by April 15, 1999 (Samal, 2002). When the government took no action, the fishermen themselves tore down around 1,500 acres of shrimp gheris by April 24, 1999. They further protested by blocking the national highway for five hours on May 27, 1999. The movement escalated on May 29, 1999, with fishermen demolishing 11 shrimp gheris covering 1,000 acres in various locations (Samal, 2002). During this action, police arrested fisher leaders. Later that night, a confrontation between the fishermen and the police ensued, resulting in police firing and the tragic loss of four lives ((Samal, 2002; Pattanaik, 2007). Consequently, the government of Orissa suspended shrimp farming leases in Chilika in June 1999 (Samal, 2002). However, despite the ban, illegal and unauthorized shrimp cultivation continues in the lake, orchestrated by criminal elements. The persistence of illegal shrimp aquaculture, facilitated by a compromised fisheries control system, posed continuous threats. In the face of these challenges, through collective organization, legal battles, and unyielding resolve, SSFs continued to fight for their rights and the preservation of their ecological heritage. 

Chilika Lagoon stands as a symbol of both beauty and struggle. Its decline mirrors a global dilemma of balancing economic development, ecological preservation, and social justice. The small-scale fishers and local communities on its shores are tasked with safeguarding not just the lagoon’s biodiversity but also the essence of life for the communities that call it home. Their fight is not just for Chilika; it’s a battle that is echoing in communities along the world’s coasts and oceans.


Vikraman Nair, N., Kumar Nayak, P. (2023). Resilience Amidst Turmoil: The Ongoing Struggles of Chilika Lagoon’s Small-Scale Fishers Against Aquaculture and Sea Mouth Opening. The Ocean Defenders Project. Online at https://oceandefendersproject.org  


Das, L. K. (2018). Social movements–judicial activism Nexus and neoliberal transformation in India: revisiting save Chilika movement. Sociological Bulletin, 67(1), 84-102. https://doi.org/10.1177/0038022917751979 

Das, M., & Panda, T. (2010). Water quality and phytoplankton population in sewage fed river of Mahanadi, Orissa, India. Journal of Life Sciences, 2(2), 81-85. https://doi.org/10.1080/09751270.2010.11885156

Dujovny, E. (2009). The deepest cut: Political ecology in the dredging of a new sea mouth in Chilika Lake, Orissa, India. Conservation and Society, 7(3), 192-204. https://doi.org/10.4103/0972-4923.64736.

Dujovny, E. (2009). The deepest cut: Political ecology in the dredging of a new sea mouth in Chilika Lake, Orissa, India. Conservation and Society, 7(3), 192-204. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26392977

K., Kumar, A., Ghosh, S., & Mohanty, R. K. (2013). Streamflow trends in the Mahanadi River basin (India): Linkages to tropical climate variability. Journal of Hydrology, 495, 135-149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhydrol.2013.04.054

Kumar R. (2016) Lake Chilika: Sustainable Fisheries Management Case Study. In: Finlayson C. et al. (eds) The Wetland Book. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-007-6172-8_203-1

Mishra, S. R., & Griffin, A. L. (2010). Encroachment: a threat to resource sustainability in Chilika Lake, India. Applied Geography, 30(3), 448-459. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apgeog.2009.12.001

Nair, N. V. & Nayak, P. K. (2023a) Uncovering water quality and evaluating vulnerabilities of small-scale fisheries in Chilika Lagoon, India. Frontiers in Marine Science, 10:1087296. https://doi.org/10.3389/fmars.2023.1087296 

Nair, N. V. & Nayak, P. K. (2023b). Exploring Water Quality as a Determinant of Small-Scale Fisheries Vulnerability. Sustainability, 15(17):13238. https://doi.org/10.3390/su151713238

Nayak, P. K. (2014). The Chilika Lagoon social-ecological system: an historical analysis. Ecology and Society, 19(1). http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-05978-190101

Nayak, P. K., & Armitage, D. (2018). Social-ecological regime shifts (SERS) in coastal systems. Ocean & Coastal Management, 161, 84-95. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ocecoaman.2018.04.020

Nayak, P. K., & Berkes, F. (2010). Whose marginalisation? Politics around environmental injustices in India’s Chilika lagoon. Local environment, 15(6), 553-567. https://doi.org/10.1080/13549839.2010.487527 

Nayak, P. K., Armitage, D., & Andrachuk, M. (2016). Power and politics of social–ecological regime shifts in the Chilika lagoon, India, and Tam Giang lagoon, Vietnam. Regional Environmental Change, 16(2), 325-339. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10113-015-0775-4

Nayak, P. K., Oliveira, L. E., & Berkes, F. (2014). Resource degradation, marginalization, and poverty in small-scale fisheries: threats to social-ecological resilience in India and Brazil. Ecology and Society, 19(2). http://dx.doi.org/10.5751/ES-06656-190273 

Pattanaik, S. (2003). Development, Globalisation and the rise of a grassroots Environmental Movement: the case of Chilika Bachao Andolan (CBA) in Eastern India. Indian Journal of Public Administration, 49(1), 55-65. https://doi.org/10.1177/0019556120030107

Pattanaik, S. (2007). Conservation of environment and protection of marginalized fishing communities of lake Chilika in Orissa, India. Journal of human ecology, 22(4), 291-302. https://doi.org/10.1080/09709274.2007.11906037 

Pattnaik, A. K., Sutaria, D., Khan, M., & Behera, B. P. (2007). Review of the Status and Conservation of Irrawaddy Dolphins Orcaella brevirostris in Chilika Lagoon. Status and conservation of freshwater populations of Irrawaddy dolphins, 41. Available online at: http://www.iucn-csg.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/03/wcswp31.pdf#page=4 (accessed May 23, 2022).

Ray, S., & Garada, R. (2018). Boat automation and fishery livelihood: a case of Chilika Lake in Odisha. Environment, Development and Sustainability, 20(5), 2399-2414. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10668-017-9995-8 

Sahu, B. K., Pati, P., & Panigrahy, R. C. (2014). Environmental conditions of Chilika Lake during pre and post hydrological intervention: an overview. Journal of Coastal Conservation, 18, 285-297. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11852-014-0318-z

Sarkar, S. K., Bhattacharya, A., Bhattacharya, A. K., Satpathy, K. K., Mohanty, A. K., Panigrahi, S., & Forskningscentrum, U. M. (2012). Chilika lake. Monographiae Biologicae, 53, 10-26. Available online at: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ajit-Mohanty-3/publication/233983795_Chilika_Lake_-_A_Ramsar_Site/links/02bfe50ebff15c0c58000000/Chilika-Lake-A-Ramsar-Site.pdf

Samal, K. C. (2002). Shrimp culture in Chilika Lake: case of occupational displacement of fishermen. Economic and Political Weekly, 1714-1718.


Coastal Erosion, Declines of Biodiversity, Degradation of Ecosystems, Disruption of Marine Foodwebs, Fish Abundance and Productivity , Local communities, Small-scale fishers , Aquaculture , Legal and policy interventions, Public protests and demonstrations, Research and documentation , Criminalization, Economic marginalization, Political marginalization , Environmental Human Rights, Environmental injustices, Food Security, Human Rights, Inclusive Governance, Lack of Economic Benefits, Social and Cultural Impacts, Tenure and Access, Traditional and SSF livelihoods

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