Coastal Commons

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(from Vocabulary of Commons, article 26)

by Gomathy Balasubramaniam1

Culture and governance: Learning from the Pattinavar Podhu Gramam

The commons as part of community culture and identity is complex. This is for several reasons. One is the nature of life itself. The second is the nature of human beings and the societies they form. The third is the understanding of what is commons, who is doing the understanding and what does reductionism do to the idea of commons.

Fishing in the Indian context, by and large, has been the entire occupation of a single caste dominating either villages or stretches/regions geographically, unlike agrarian multi-caste structures. The single caste demography meant considerable autonomy and self governance and the communities thus are highly organised and controlled internally. The traditional community institutions are responsible for maintaining village discipline by organising/presiding over social and religious events, dispensing justice, maintaining accounts and serving as a bridge to the outside world. It resolves conflicts both within a village as well as between villages. They are also instrumental in governing (commons social, cultural and economic). It is quite clear that the fishing communities and their traditional governance institutions (especially in Nagapattinam) have shown remarkable resilience during the December 2004 tsunami relief and the subsequent rehabilitation.

Marine fisher communities down the Coromandel stretch of the east coast of India have a very sophisticated understanding of commons, both symbolically and materially. This understanding is coded into their very nature as people and communities. This understanding has evolved as a result of several reasons, primarily because the sea itself could not be bounded into parcels that could be owned. The idea of any one person or community owning the sea was ridiculous. Their entire way of life, individual, workwise and community was based on this idea.The fishing communities of Nagapattinam have come under particular pressure in the aftermath of the tsunami of December 2004. They have shown remarkable resilience in not merely coping with the tragedy unleashed by the disaster but also in negotiating with the several actors of the rehabilitation scenario. A critical cause for this resilience is the strong internal cohesion and equity of power distribution found in these villages. This internal cohesion has arisen from the intertwining of values and governance institutions with daily cultural and spiritual practices.

For the purpose of this chapter, while many of the findings of the studies on coastal communities are restricted to the Pattinavar villages in the Nagapattinam and Karaikal coasts, some of the insights about community commons, identity and culture are also relevant to the entire coast line from Chennai to Kanyakumari.

The Pattinavar Podhu Gramam (Common Village)

The Pattinavar fishing communities of Nagapattinam and Karaikal District came under critical pressure during and in the aftermath of the tsunami of December 2004. They have shown remarkable resilience in not merely coping with the tragedy unleashed by the disaster itself, but also in negotiating with the several modern actors of the rehabilitation scenario, such as the government and the great influx of development organisations.

A critical reason for this resilience is the highly sophisticated and egalitarian nature of their indigenous governance institutions and practices. These institutions are characterised by strong internal cohesion and concern for the overall community well–being. These governance systems have evolved historically and arise from the intertwining of individual values, the environment that fishers live in, indigenous symbols evolved over time to make meaning of their existence and purpose, the egalitarian distribution of coastal resources centrally focussing on commons and sophisticated and detailed methods of gathering the views of the community and conflict resolution. Many of these traditional principles and structures are still evident, though badly corroded in some stretches of the coast. These ancient governance structures are most evident in the stretch along the Nagapattinam and Karaikal coasts.

The Nagapattinam and Karaikal coastal stretch are single caste communities comprised of Pattinavars (also Chettiars), with households of other communities in the village restricted to certain functions (such as running shops). This homogeneity is unlike agrarian multi-caste structures with significant differences in rank and privilege and enables egalitarian decision making and governance. Further, Pattinavar households and communities are organised through patriarchal and patrilocal kinship groupings. All the male members of the village are pangalis (kin shareholders), sharing both livelihood and community responsibility and privilege. Conflicts between individual members are often conflicts within families and clans and therefore these fisher communities act quickly and clearly to resolve such conflicts.

Traditional governance institutions both within and between villages reflect a high degree of sophistication in their design and functioning. Each Pattinavar village in the Nagapattinam coastal stretch has considerable autonomy in self governance, and each is linked to its adjoining ones by a common fisher village chain that runs down the entire coastline. Within each village, there is a traditional caste panchayat that is responsible for governing all aspects of internal community life: cultural, economic and social; and it is this community institution that was responsible for mediating the relief and rehabilitation process in the aftermath of the tsunami.

Each village is connected to a coastal collective comprised of 64 villages that is capable of acting as a single chain when called for. Both the traditional caste panchayats and the chain of 64 villages have come under considerable pressure under the influence of modernisation.

The traditional caste panchayat

The fisher panchayat currently has a certain number of people (usually 8–10) selected as panchayat members through a process of nomination by the members of the fishing village to govern it for a fixed period of time—usually a year. All the male members of the village have a right to participate in the nomination process as well as in any subsequent action that the panchayat undertakes. The actual standards for eligibility and the selection and composition of the panchayat varies from village to village. In some villages the outgoing panchayat nominates a new panchayat. Some villages also formed committees of people, usually considered elders in the village, who went out of the village gram sabha meeting to make lists of possible panchayatars—the members of the panchayat. These lists are read and collectively reviewed in the larger meeting. In one village, there is a standard rule that the ten members of the panchayat are to be selected on the same day. At the completion of their term, a new panchayat with fresh members is selected. The village could have prohibitions on selecting the same member or even members from the same family in subsequent terms, and may specify a period for which they are not to be re–selected.

Most fishing villages have clearly defined qualities that they expect the panchayatar to have. One is to be devoted to community well being over and above personal considerations and to be willing to work hard for this. The work of the panchayatar is often very demanding without any tangible benefits and even loss since the time that he uses to carry out his responsibilities is time taken from fishing and loss of income for the family. For instance, a panchayatar nominated in one village at the age of 18 for his good conduct, stepped down from his position once he married, since he had to focus on earning his livelihood for his family. Equanimity and impartiality was also highly valued. Restraint and propriety in dealing with conflict is considered an essential quality while dealing with short-tempered men who often drink. Other related qualities that were enumerated included humility in relating, emotional balance, temperance in actions and non-reactivity in charged confrontations. Good conduct was also emphasised: being truthful, having a strong ethical character, coming from a good family in the village, maturity, etc.

The internal role of the panchayat is to maintain grama kattupadu2 (bonding for village discipline), critical for community cohesiveness. This bonding was through many methods, and served specific purposes— organising/presiding over community rituals and ceremonies (religious and social) and conferring membership, dispensing justice, resource sharing, including maintenance of financial records, as well as the sustainable distribution of the marine coastal resources and fishing, to ensure equity and food security for all its members and interfacing with all external actors including the police and electoral parties.

Conferring membership and dispensing justice is a critical function of the panchayat. The panchayat had the power to pass judgements as and when required to resolve conflicts within the village and between villages. Two broad categories of transgressions and conflicts exist. The first is impropriety of action within family and community— rude/aggressive conduct in the community, conflict within families, romantic liaisons not approved by the family/community, sexual misconduct and sexual harassment and failure to respect public property or to adhere to community rules and rituals. The second was conflict in sharing of resources, particularly at sea (damage to nets or equipment, right to fishing at a particular spot, mechanised vs artisanal conflict of interests, sharing of catch, contribution to community funds). These fights could occur within the village and between villages.

The severity of sentencing depends on the nature of transgression, and the willingness of the member to own his error. When dispensing justice, depending on the gravity of misdemeanour, a series of greater intensity of punishment is evolved: private counselling, where the issue is sorted out within the conflicting parties as quietly as possible (particularly those related to the personal domain), public counselling, community reprimands, fines for compensation of damage and severing ties with the community (the less severe economic ostracism followed by the more severe social and economic ostracism and public humiliation).

The fishing economy is based on shares and individual autonomy and the structure of village membership and entitlements is also well evolved. There are clear, detailed procedures to divide common resources within the village. The panchayat plays a critical role in managing village resources. It collects money, maintains accounts and distributes common resources for various purposes (money from auctioning catch, catch shares from boatloads, village collections, taxes for inclusion in membership) across all the villagers equitably. These systems of resource generation and use are commonly evolved. In addition to regular community expenses, the panchayats also use these common community resources to help its members tide over times of crises. In this division of resources, the panchayat includes the vulnerable (the elderly and widows) who cannot fish for their livelihoods. The shore seine is an important part of this social welfare function, where the entire village is involved in the casting of the nets, and all members are eligible for a share in the catch, in spite of their personal capacity. As one fisher stated, ‘even the very old and women have to just hold the net for them to get a share’.

The village panchayat also mediated/bridged relationships with all other external institutions and structures (including other Pattinavar villages) except during times of serious conflict requiring external intervention, and in relation to state matters like revenue, police and justice systems, conflicts with neighbouring villages of other castes and dealings with agencies of electoral politics. For instance, government schemes have to be routed through the panchayat. Again, the permission of the caste panchayat had to be sought before filing a case. When the police wanted to arrest a member of the fisher village, they had to contact the caste panchayat. All political parties are restricted from campaigning in the village, because this can cause internal rifts.

In turn, the members of the panchayat are themselves accountable to the entire gram sabha (village assembly), both ethically and financially through regular meetings. Transparency in governance is highly valued. Panchayats are required to maintain detailed records of village accounts that are open to public scrutiny, and people can question the panchayat about how the money was generated and used. Most panchayats have to show accounts at least once a year, after organising the temple festival. After the tsunami, more regular meetings have been needed, often as frequent as once a month, and after every consignment of relief/compensation.

A critical outcome of the change to the selected panchayat is the accountability of its panchayat members to the people. In one of the most united villages studied, the panchayatars comment that their work is so consistently good because their actions are closely scrutinised for errors. Their position does not spare them from being extensively questioned. A second critical emphasis is on financial transparency. The panchayat has to present accounts as and when required, as well as at regular intervals ranging from a year (before the tsunami) to once a month. At the completion of their term they are expected to show the entire accounts of income and expenses incurred during their term. These are scrutinised in a village meeting.

The geography of collective governance

Fishing communities have not only internal systems of governance, but also governance across the entire chain of villages. This governance is closely linked to the fact that for fishing communities proximity to the sea and the coast is critical. Fishing communities are oriented towards the shore line and are linearly organised along it. Unlike agrarian communities that are organised more as clusters, fishing communities are linear. Within a fishing village, households are organised grid wise into streets that run parallel to the sea shore. Also, fishing villages communicate with each other along the coast, either by landing boats or by walking long the shoreline.

Fisher villages are also linearly organised with relationships with each other. It is believed that an integrated chain of 64 original kinship villages that extended the entire Coromandel stretch from Chennai to Kanyakumari existed. These villages were bound by continuous communication and exchange up and down the sea coast, and could respond like a unit when required. Historically, this chain of membership sprang into action to preserve unity and security in times of crisis, when threatened by external agents or during internal conflicts. This chain of fishermen’s villages evolved over the centuries, and is the spine of the fisher communities down the coast.

Over the years, the number of villages has increased down the coastline, and there is no such contiguous chain recognised down the entire coast. The longest remnant of this contiguous chain is present in the Nagapattinam and Karaikal, incidentally also comprised of 64 villages. The governance of this entire village chain is both decentralised and integrated. Each village was a member of a group of eight villages that are proximal to it, and then part of clusters of increasing size: the 8, the 16, the 32 and finally the 64.

Each village had the prerogative to take critical governance decisions, like whether they permit boats from other villages to fish in their waters. For instance, while some villages completely ban such fishing, others allow each boat opportunity to fish for one day in their waters on the belief that the boat has drifted into them. This is true in determining the composition of the village panchayat also. The larger panchs (like the head village) cannot rule in this matter.

The typical procedure of seeking justice within the village is as follows: if the decision of the village panchayat was contested, the person approaches the head village of the eight village chain. The head village can also be called to settle disputes between two different villages, for example, conflict in the sea while fishing. This head village will then write letters inviting panchayatars from all eight villages and the justice will be dispensed in a common meeting. Villages are also free to choose a village in the chain to rule over internal conflicts. In this, it is not necessary to go only to the head village, though the head village maybe involved in settling the dispute. If the person still wishes to contest the decision of the eight village chain, he can approach the next higher cluster of 16, and then 32 and finally invoking the entire chain of 64 villages.

The entire chain was governed by a head village. In addition to the head village, there were three other historically designated villages in the collective governance structure, with specific functions. One was the chettiar (finance) village in charge of all the accounts of the village chain. The second was a sabha (secretary) village that was in charge of calling all the meetings of the entire community that the head village presided. Once the head village resolved to call a community meeting to sort an issue, they would inform the sabha village, who in turn will issue all the invitations. They would also act in cases filed against the head village.

The third was the podhu gramam. In moral authority, the podhu gramam was higher than the head village. This village is considered common, neutral ground to the entire fisher community. If the head village itself was caught in the dispute, or if the ruling of the head village is seen as partisan, then the person could approach the podhu gramam for justice. In many senses, it is like the Supreme Court. Cases that have not been solved elsewhere can be resolved here and its ruling is final.

In cases of dispute, the common village will call for a meeting of the contesting parties to be held within its grounds. The panchayatar of the common village act as witnesses, as the representatives of the common fishers and ensure neutrality. While they themselves do not actually rule in the matter concerned, their very presence is seen as indication of fair judgement. When in its boundaries, contesting parties are expected to conduct themselves peaceably. The customary common village itself claims that there has been no history of conflict within it for the last 50 years, and the caste panchayat is known for their exemplary character and conduct.

Principled governance

The evolution of the extraordinary Pattinavar governance systems is based on the values held by the members of this community, their livelihoods, their entwining with the coastal habitat and the importance of communities. The very nature of their occupation and their communities has forefronted certain individual and collective values in the Pattinavar fishers.

The foremost amongst them is the choice of marine fishing for Pattinavars as an occupation as the purpose of their lives. ‘The main duty of a fisherman is to go between land and sea’. Hence proximity to the sea is critical in their understanding of themselves.

The second is the fisher community understanding of the sea itself. This is determined by the nature of the coast and the sea itself and therefore the marine resources that they harvested from it for their livelihoods. In defining their purpose of life, fisher communities often characterised themselves as stewards of the coast and the sea, held in trust for generations of peoples. The sea itself was viewed as part of the larger nature and environment that they lived in and depended upon, an entity (rather than just the source of their resources) that they encountered every day, worthy of respect because it fundamentally supported their lives. This understanding of nature and the sea itself determined their meaning–making and actions. Historically, fisher communities did not perceive nature as something that can be owned, either coastal land or marine resources.

One aspect about the nature of the sea is its indivisibility, unlike land that can be bounded. This makes it difficult, if not impossible, to determine individual ownership and boundaries. Ownership is only restricted to the technology—the means for production—boats and nets. As a result, these fisher communities were more horizontal in their organising compared to, say, agrarian communities that are clearly delineated on the basis of ownership of land, and are closer in their nature, perspective and structure to indigenous peoples. This perception of community ownership restricted to usufruct rights used for the sea was extended to coastal land and also perceived as part of the indivisible commons of nature.

This perception of collective ownership was often used adversely against fisher community interests as, for example, when in the 1960s the revenue administration established the gram panchayat systems. With the establishment of these revenue administration units, these coastal land commons was converted into public property delineated and administered by the revenue administration, and often sold without community consent to individual land owners, or market interests.

Fishing is a hazardous livelihood, where fishers risk and lose their lives. Fishing communities living on the shore and fishing in the open sea confront danger on a regular basis and value courage highly. As one fisher said, ‘Fisherfolk (men, women and children) are the only ones who run to the seashore to watch a storm. Running away from the sea does not cross our minds’. Staying out on the sea longer and braving difficult seas are marks of bravery. In one village, a significant number of men died because they ran to the shore without understanding the magnitude of the wave in the December 2004 tsunami.

Further, given that fishers encounter danger to their lives regularly on the sea, they have to depend on each other to ensure their safety, and trust between the crew of the fishing boats is critical. As a result, harmony is a critical element in the nature of their communities, and there are some instances along the coast of villages with exemplary records of unity and collective support. One of the Pattinavar villages undertakes all medical expenses incurred because of accidents and illness for all members of the village, extending up to about Rupees one lakh (Rs 100,000) in one instance. Post–tsunami, all the members of another village decided to stay together in the temporary sheds in a gesture of unity, especially to support people who had lost dear ones. By staying together, their hearts would be lightened by interaction.

Because harmony is such a critical element to the success of their endeavours, fisher communities have evolved clear and egalitarian methods of conflict resolution, to enable community unity. Considerable energy is devoted by fishers to maintain peace. During conflict between its members, the entire village acts to resolve it, restore balance and compensate damages incurred. A critical aspect of this conflict resolution is the free voicing of dissent and discussion while making decisions that are relevant to the community. Because of the relatively horizontal structures of the community organisations, individual fishers actively participate in collective decision making, and openly dissent and question community governance structures. Dissension itself is not seen as threatening, but rather a matter of normal life.

Fisher communities pride themselves on their unity and harmony. Communities are central to the Pattinavars right down the coast from Nagapattinam to Chennai. For instance, members in one Pattinavar village recounted that there has been no history of conflict in their village to date. The people of the village argue vigorously in the meeting, but all animosity is left behind at the boundaries of the village meeting hall. This pride in their community harmony and the efficacy of their conflict resolution measures might be one reason why they characterise themselves as being short–tempered and given to fits of passion, but also quick to forgive.

A related critical value that fishers cherish is honesty. For instance, one fisher narrates that getting credit is never difficult for fishermen from villages in the merku (west, referring to non–fishing villages), where their word alone serves as guarantee. This emphasis on honesty also enables an atmosphere of transparency and accountability within the community institutions. This is one reason why the actions of many community institutions in distributing the relief and rehabilitation resources post tsunami came under common community scrutiny and these institutions were held accountable to the entire community.

Fishers hold their autonomy and self-sufficiency dear. The unbounded nature of the sea and the economy of abundance determined the way that marine resources were distributed in the communities. Till the depletion caused by modern development practices in the nature of fishing in this region in the 1970s and 1980s, fishers recount that the catch in the sea was abundant enough to guarantee their basic nutrition and subsistence needs, if a fisher went out to fish. Labour, more than capital, determined community and individual income. Hence if a fisher could own a small, indigenous canoe, the harvest from his labour was enough to sustain his requirements, and that of his family and community.

Fishing as a livelihood has a certain degree of unpredictability encoded into its nature. Fishers can go for days without sufficient catch during lean times and occasionally earn a fortune in a day or a week. It is a livelihood involving considerable enterprise, risks and profits. Because income is erratic, determining individual and common entitlement becomes critical. Failure to do so can, and has, led to severe conflicts over sharing resources, escalating into blood feuds that extend over several decades. Several fishers take pride in their self-sufficiency in this enterprise, and characterise themselves as independent, and not amongst those who tie their hands in servitude to earn wages. All members of the village are equal, and only depend on the sea for their lives. To ensure this autonomy and prevent internal conflicts, fishing communities have evolved complex methods to divide the risks and profits of their labour. These methods are characterised by their egalitarian nature. Each member is answerable only to himself and is not bound by hierarchical wage relations. Each member of the crew bears a portion of the risk and is entitled to a share in the catch. The owner of the boat and nets is paid a share of the total catch for the use of his tools. Further, a share is also set aside for the village and becomes part of the village income, and can be given to the vulnerable (old people) in the village, used for community purposes such as organising festivals, pooled to buffer individual distress or community requirements during lean times.

Along with this emphasis on autonomy and self-sufficiency, fishers also emphasise generosity as integral to their nature. One of the outcomes of the nature of their livelihoods is the lack of greed. Since fishers customarily lived on daily catch and their requirements were few, they did not hoard their resources. Fishers fish and then give away that portion of the catch that they did not use or sell. Community leadership was marked by practices of generosity, building temples for the village and sharing periya valai catch, ensuring safety nets for the vulnerable persons in the community. The principle of generosity engenders sharing both to create common community resources, as well as social security measures for the weaker members of the community.

Cultural symbols and governance

Till date, many of the common resources (including land, catch and fishing gear) of the fishing communities are governed using common cultural norms and values, for the most part, in a participatory and equitable manner. These governance systems of the commons were linked historically with the temples that abound in these villages. The temple is the central community space and the collective values of the communities are embodied in the temple. For instance, it is considered incorrect to speak the untruth in the temple. Therefore the accounts and minute books of the caste panchayats are stored in the temple. During relief distribution, all the relief material that arrived in the village was stored in the temple and distributed from there.

Temples are also central in determining membership wherein the birth, marriage and death ceremonies are marked by temple rituals. Individuals of the village indicate their membership by contributing to the temple festivals, its construction and maintenance. Incomplete temple constructions are treated as symbols of irreconcilable conflicts within the village and signs of shame within the community. Even villages with serious conflicts and fractures still organise the annual thiruvizha (festival) where the deity often goes out of the temple around the village, and sometimes plays in the waters of the sea. These annual festivals are believed to be critical for the community well being, and failure to organise these festivals is a failure of governance of the community.

Till date, in many of the Pattinavar villages, the temple land is held collectively by the customary panchayat, and its administration is a function of the village governance. In some instances, temples also own community land bestowed upon them. In many instances temple and village community land are interchangeable. The very origin of the fisher community coastal governance was through the bestowal of stewardship of the goddess temple associated with marine fishing.

The narrative on how the head village of the 64 villages was chosen is very telling about this intertwining of cultural identity, values and the commons. It is said that the Chola king had built a large temple for Neelaatchiamman, one of the Shakti incarnations, who is particularly generous to fishers. At that time, there were 64 fishing villages along the coast. The king felt that the maintenance of the temple and its property—the coastal land, and the governance of all the villages— should be vested in a village that showed selflessness, courage and unity. The king had a big puja (prayer ceremony) and called the heads of all the 64 villages to it.

In this meeting, he announced that he was seeking to appoint one village as the head of the coastal villages, and that this village would be responsible to take care of the Shakti temple as well as the governance of the entire fishing community chain. Four villages came forward in this meeting: Karaikalmedu, Kilinjalmedu, Nambiar Nagar and Aryanattuturai. To select one amongst the four, the king laid down a severe test of faith. One member from each village had to descend into a boiling vat of oil. Whoever survived this through divine grace would then qualify for the custody of the temple. The heads of the village returned to their villages to consult the other members, hesitant to ask any of their village members to undergo this terrifying test.

In Nambiar Nagar, one of the villagers was renowned for his devotion to Siva. He came to hear about the king’s test and volunteered to undergo it. His only concern was for his three unmarried daughters. Recognising he was the one most likely to pass the test, the grateful village promised that they would take care of all his daughters. When the date for the test came, he was the only one to appear before the king. When the vat of boiling oil was brought before him, he remained completely serene and prepared to immerse himself in the oil. At this point, the king stopped him stating that he had shown adequate evidence of courage and faith to pass the test and that there was no reason for him to actually immerse himself in the oil. Thus the custody of the temple was given to the village and it became the thalai (head) village of the 64 fishing villages.

Along this coastal stretch, some of the most evolved, spiritual philosophies have co-existed side by side in people’s lives, including the Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry besides ancient Hindu temples, mosques and churches. One reason for this cosmopolitan world view is that unlike their tribal counterparts who often live in remote natural environments, the marine fishers have continuously interacted with others, particularly for trade—to sell their fish and buy other essentials. For instance, the sufi saint Nagoor Andavan invoked by all Pattinavars in times of danger for protection in spite of their religious identity. All fishers pray to Mother Mary as the Cosmic Mother. Again, conversion to other religions is tolerated, though not encouraged. Along the coast in every Pattinavar village, there are three to four families who have changed to Christianity for several reasons material and emotional, and on a lighter note, because one can eat fish on all days of the week rather than having to fast on certain days.

Threats to the governance institutions

Even while the sophistication of the Pattinavar governance system is to be lauded, this system is under serious threat, both from internal fractures and external challenges arising from modernisation. Modern democracy, with its emphasis on numerical equality and disregard to indigenous people’s institutions and wisdom has eroded existing hierarchical and autocratic power relations embedded in traditional systems. For most part, development research and action concerns have highlighted and worked with these inequities. For instance, the Pattinavar governance systems completely exclude women from public decision making spaces other than those related to marketing of catch. This in turn has created opportunities for new ways of gender relating that is more equitable.

Most caste panchayats do not entertain women in their hearings, leave alone include them in their membership. In recent times, there has been some significant change in the decision making of the communities, partly because of the SHG movements, wherein women can come together to discuss collective matters. One instance of this gender discrimination was evident in the tsunami relief and rehabilitation when old women, particularly widows, were completely left out of the village member enumeration in the beginning. Traditionally, only families with sea–going males are included in the membership of the village, its decision making and entitlements to village shares. In some villages, widowed women are included and receive a portion that a village member is entitled to. For the most part, these women earn their livelihood by selling dried, salted fish that they buy from the fishers and had lost all their wares in the tsunami leading to abject poverty.

Another internal stress engendered by modernisation is the conflict between trawler owners and artisanal fishers arising from mechanisation of fishing technology supported indiscriminately by the modern state. The introduction of mechanisation in the villages has also forefronted economic inequity in villages, particularly amongst those who can afford to buy a trawler and those who cannot, transforming the more egalitarian share system economy into a more hierarchical economy. Mechanisation radically changes the fishing technology used, making it more capital intensive (requiring heavy investment in stock storage and fuel), as well as depletes marine environments drastically with its indiscriminate and intensive fishing. Trawlers usually stay out on the sea longer, sometimes for a week, requiring higher capital investment compared to a canoe and use large nets that drags on the ocean bottom to draw in schools of fish from deeper seas. They not only sweep the sea clean of fishing shoals, but also destroy fish breeding seabed, and destroy fingerlings caught in the nets. Mechanisation also concentrates wealth, increasing economic power of some people within the community. This in turn has posed serious challenge to the existing traditional governance system. For instance, Nambiar Nagar has been replaced by Akkrampettai, a village that has a significant trawler owner lobby with financial power, as the head village of the 64 village system. Within villages, this conflict of interest has adversely affected governance where, in highly mechanised villages, 3 the panchayats often represent trawlers rather than artisanal fisher interests.

Development approaches based on the modern emphasis on professed objectivity to intervene in this context lacks complete sensitivity to the indigenous worldviews, resulting in suppressing and distorting indigenous wisdom. They have little knowledge about the complexities of the institutions and cultural practices of these communities. While addressing some of the challenges of the Pattinavar communities face, such as the differences between mechanisation and artisanal fishers, or gender discrimination, they often apply standard frameworks, developed in agrarian or other contexts.

Such insensitive modern development interventions to remedy these internal fractures often aggravate the challenges faced by these communities rather than rejuvenate them. For instance, any understanding of the gender discrimination within Pattinavar villages has to be contextualised in the peculiar and stringent gender division of productive roles that exists amongst fisher folk. Fishing in the sea, all over the world, is a male occupation and traditionally the fisherman when he returns from the sea to the shore considers his duty to his family done. Fisherwomen are in charge of auctioning/marketing the catch and processing it. They also manage the household income, including handing out expense money to their menfolk. Women have their own market and shop organisations run on the same membership principles as the caste panchayat. Traditionally, Pattinavar fisherwomen enjoy greater mobility and financial authority than women in agrarian communities. The real threat to fisherwomen’s position in the Pattinavar community is likely to arise from mechanisation, when the fishing economy shifted from village shorelines where women had control, to distant harbours for trawler fleets. Women in these new contexts, where the capital investment in fishing operations is much higher, are no longer in charge of auctioning and marketing fish.

Again, the lack of sensitivity to the peculiar perspectives that Pattinavars have towards fishing and to other fishers has aggravated the conflict that exists between mechanised and artisanal fishing interests. For instance, one of the important foci of rehabilitation work that emerged in the post tsunami context was organising artisanal fishers into labour associations. However the term ‘labour’ can be misconstrued in the Pattinavar fisher context. The assumption made was that artisanal fishers and trawler owners were bound by only economic transactions, particularly wages, similar to other agrarian or factory contexts. In reality, Pattinavars see fishing as an enterprise where every crew member has a share in the profit or loss of the enterprise, rather than that of an employer / wage earner relation. Further, both trawler and canoe owners were related through complex kin and cultural networks, and the same fisher who fished as part of a canoe crew could fish as part of a trawler crew. In both instances, he was entitled to a share of the profit and had to incur a share of the risk. The critical determining element in this system was that each fisher retained the autonomy to go as a crew member in artisanal fishing boats as well as mechanised fishing. The real source of the conflict lay not in the individual fisher alone, whether artisanal or trawler, but in the larger systemic issues endangered by exploitative and competitive interests and challenges of sustainability.

The core challenge that the Pattinavar fishers face is the dismissal of their vigorous and live intelligence about themselves and their occupation, as well as the environment that they depend on, by modern development paradigms. At the heart of this dismissal and contempt is the premise that empirical scientific knowledge based on ‘objective’ truth is all that is required for meeting the challenges that they now face. People who hold this indigenous knowledge have been rendered powerless passive recipients of knowledge rather than active contributors in dialogues. Clearly there are critical links between cultural-religious symbols, governance of commons and property rights, including land, and the egalitarian, democratic and inclusive functioning of the community governance institutions themselves to people’s well being. These links are often forged by living stories and myths to inform individual values and action that personalise knowledge through emotions and experiential learning to create meaning and wisdom about human existence and purpose.

For instance, values of selflessness and generosity, essential for social security and sustainable use of the coastal environment, are coded in myths and legends of the community. The value of selflessness is exemplified through the legend of one of the Nayyanar saints hailing from the fishing community. It is said that Adipattanayyanar—one of the 63 Nayyanars of Tamil tradition—was a fisherman who lived in Nambiar Nagar (the traditional head village of the Nagapattinam and Karaikal fishing communities). This saint loved Lord Siva so much, that he would offer the first share of the catch to the god and release it back in the sea. He continued this practice both during good and bad times. A time arrived when there was no fish in the sea, and his family went hungry. The saint still continued in his practice of giving the first share to the god. Then, Lord Siva decided to test him, and sent a gold fish to his net as his first catch. He wanted to see if adversity and greed would make the saint forget his practice. However, Adipattanayyanar remained unaffected by the gold fish and returned this too to the sea invoking the name of the god. Pleased by this unwavering devotion, Lord Siva appeared to him and blessed him, whereby he became one of the Nayyanars.

Modern development paradigms do not recognise the importance such living stories have in enabling the spirit of generosity and lack of greed within Pattinavar fishers. Instead, they often punish those who display such behaviour. One of the consequences of the arbitrary distribution of relief and rehabilitation entitlements by varying agencies resulted in punishing honesty displayed by fishing communities. For example, one villager recounts that his village had suffered significant damage during the tsunami but no one had died in it. When relief and enumeration agencies reached them, they redirected to the relief to their neighbouring village, where people had lost lives. This act of generosity backfired on them, since subsequent enumerations and relief did not reach them at all because they were no longer considered eligible. Again, after the tsunami, some panchayats changed their members to include those who were willing to prepare incorrect enumeration to get additional compensation. Even though honesty was a highly valued quality in leadership of the community, this was seen as being ineffectual while dealing with the rehabilitation actors and shrewdness in acquiring compensation became an eligibility criteria.

Self reflexivity and relevance

What continues to be remarkable about the Pattinavar governance systems is their spontaneous responsiveness to the demand of modern development and their resilience in adapting to the modern context repeatedly, by reflecting on their own nature and transforming themselves to address current challenges. One of the most remarkable internal transformations in the governance systems of the Pattinavars is the shift from the earlier chieftain governance structure that was authoritarian to that of a democratic panchayat that is nominated, transparent and is accountable to the community when confronted with the equalisation engendered by modernisation. Another significant transformation was the restructuring of individual panchayats to include those who are literate to interface with the effects of tsunami and the relief and rehabilitation agencies, including the government. For the most part, this responsiveness attempts to preserve the egalitarian and cohesive nature of the communities.

The transition from nattamayi is one instance. Traditionally, the caste panchayat was a nattamayi structure based on patriarchal and patrilocal kinship and governance of the village was through a chieftan. The nattar (chieftan) was often the head of the most respected/oldest/ most powerful family in the community, and the position was passed on from father to son. The selection of the nattar was usually a private family affair where pangali (kin group) families decided amongst themselves, behind closed doors, who will be most appropriate as the village nattar. The nattar was also the owner of the nattu padagu (the large boat needed for casting shore seines) as well as the maintenance of the shore seine itself. Till the 1970s, these boats and nets were seen as heavily resource intensive, and their use was dependent on cooperative labour from the entire kinship community.

The nattar in some villages was also assisted by karyadarsis (secretaries) and dharmakartas (temple custodian), who could preside as chieftain in his absence. The dharmakartas attend particularly to the administration of the temple, its rituals and property. In villages that were comprised of more than one clan, all the nattars together formed the caste panchayat of the village. These nattars and dharmakarthas then chose other additional members of respectable standing within the village, as panchayatars to assist them in their work. These additional members could counsel the nattar but did not have authority to take decisions. Marking respect and meting out humiliation were cornerstones of the nattamayi authority. For instance, villagers stand with folded hands before the nattar.

The nattamayi came under severe criticism since it was increasingly seen as authoritarian and oppressive in modern eyes characterised by violation of human rights and humiliation of village members. Some of the other criticisms levelled against this system by its own members were the lack of transparency and accountability, particularly around community finance records, lack of attention to civic service (electricity, water) and unwillingness to negotiate with the government administration to obtain these amenities. Modernisation was characterised by greater access to technology for fishing and production, such as the availability of nylon nets that caused changes in community relations (nature of labour, elections, state programmes) and acted as the context within which this reformation could take place.

The nattamayi structure was reformed as early as half a decade ago in a few coastal villages, particularly those close to Chennai. However the process of consistent transformation was first seen two decades ago, where neighbouring villages spontaneously transformed the nattamayi structure to democratic panchayat triggered by changes in neighbouring villages. This reformation was not just in the Nagapattinam and Karaikal coastal stretch, but spread down the entire coastal region from Chennai to Nagapattinam. It was triggered by collective meetings organized by different internal fisher community leaders to educate/sensitize people about the oppressive nature of hereditary governance and the need to change to a more democratic structure.

In this reformation process, two ideas were pivotal. One was the right to express one’s views in the public space and the other was the right to inclusive and transparent decision making in the entire village rather than within the family. The critical focus was on participation— inclusion of all the people within discussions and decision making about the village. Thus the panchayatars were nominated in open yearly meetings where every member of the village had a right to be heard. The nominated panchayatars then selected the thalaivar (the leader) rather than the panchayatars assisting the nattar. These open yearly meetings were also instituted to ensure transparency wherein the panchayat members are required to report on their previous year’s performance and disclose accounts of the community. This reformation was not always hostile. Depending on the quality of the nattamayi in specific villages, these communities integrated or replaced the nattars or diminished their powers accordingly. Thus if the nattar of a village was considered a good leader, he was often integrated into the new panchayat along with other members while the annual meetings were universally adopted.

This reformation to the democratic panchayat is not the only time that these governance institutions have shown resilience. Post tsunami, more than half the panchayats and panchayatars were replaced by the villages to ensure that the new panchayats were competent to negotiate the enormous number of development actors including government relief and rehabilitation efforts and were fair in their distribution of the entitlements that the tsunami victims received. Thus at this point, all the panchayats in Nagapattinam and Karaikal transformed to include younger and more literate members.

Rejuvenating the pattinavar governance systems

The interpretation of our reality through patterns not our own, serves only to make us ever more unknown, ever less free, ever more solitary. —Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Marine fisher communities in the Nagapattinam district have a very sophisticated understanding of community commons, both symbolically and materially. This understanding is coded into their very nature, both existence and practice, as people and communities. They are clear about the importance of their commons to human and community 164 well being and have evolved sophisticated, indigenous institutions, perspectives and methods that governed these resources over centuries based on strong human values. In its conception, the podhu gramam of the Pattinavars embodies the spirit of the commons within the Pattinavar community. It arises from an understanding of an ‘active commons’: characterised by ‘neutral’ territory, with a body of witnesses to their compact. This space provides the opportunity for peaceful resolution of conflict and for collaboration. This highly sophisticated mechanism of enforcing collective authority is symbolic of the complex understanding that Pattinavar fishing communities have about commons and the detailed structures and processes that they have created that is both equitable and egalitarian over centuries.

Modernisation has posed several challenges to these governance systems, highlighting internal fractures such as the systematic exclusion of women from community decision making and governance; or the authoritarian nature of the traditional chieftain system. For the most part, it has reinterpreted the reality of Pattinavar fishers in new ways and in the process denied the merits of their systems such as the emphasis on principled governance and ensuring individual autonomy and community sovereignty. This neglect has weakened these systems leading to increase in conflict within these communities and their fragmentation, rendering them vulnerable to powerful, exploitative and divisive forces. Along with this weakening, there is also a corresponding weakening of community rights over the coastal environment, and enables the enclosure of their commons. For instance, privatisation of shore land for industry not only prevents Pattinavar fishers access to their customary entitlements but also makes available these natural resources for exploitation without consideration of their sustainability.

For these communities to continue to enjoy their entitlements and live a life of dignity, it is essential that their governance systems are rejuvenated. Such a rejuvenation process at its very core has to honour their heritage, both wisdom and practice, as well as their self-reflexivity and resilience shown in modern times. Such a process will restore pride in Pattinavar fishers about their origins and will help support their search for relevance in a globalising world. For this restoration of dignity, such a process must engage in honest conversation about the relevance of these traditions in the current context as well as confront internal disharmony through transparent self-examination, particularly around issues of gender and mechanisation. Pattinavar fisher communities, like other oral cultures, code their wisdom about values, principles and technology in stories. In the post-tsunami scenario, where coastal land and communities are coming under increasing pressures of development and threat, facilitating the exchange of these stories and codes that reflect cultural norms and institutions is particularly significant. Such a rejuvenation process will ensure that the Pattinavar governance systems remain vigorous, self-reliant and just.

In conclusion, the real challenge ahead of us is whether we can see through the glasses of the Pattinavar Podhu Gramam while considering the issue of community commons. At the core of this challenge is our ability to listen to the communities we work with, to witness their challenges and to freely enable them to come to their own decisions.


1 The author acknowledges the support of Edwin in completing this chapter.

2 One way to understand this complex word could be as the willingness to bind individual actions to collective will.

3 Village O: O lies at the junction of a river and the sea and therefore has both rich fishing grounds and fertile land. It is the last village lying to the north in the cluster. In 1983, a harbour was constructed and the number of mechanised boats in the village increased. Large numbers of people migrated into the village in the last two decades as crew on these boats. In the village, there is a hamlet of Vanniachis who work as crew on the trawlers and fish in the inland river. However a significant number of members from the same Pattinavar community also work as crew. They are usually poorer and have no boats.

At that time, many of the people working as crew formed a sangam (labour union) and asked for a 2% raise in their share of the catch. This was violently suppressed by the boat owner association in the village. The community of labourers did not have the organising capacity required to hold firm. The labour association maintains that the nature of the village panchayat has changed considerably in the last two decades, with increased domination by boat owners and those with money. This is the only panchayat that is elected and follows electoral party factions.