Paadu is a traditional system of fishing, where a part of the lagoon is controlled and earmarked for the exclusive fishing use of designated villages. This system is common to many coastal areas of Tamil Nadu.
The highly productive southern sector of Pulicat Lagoon, close to Ennore and about 5 km from the estuary (where the sea water and lagoon water meet), is controlled by fishermen from three villages: Kottai Kuppam, Christian Kuppam and Andikuppam. The fishing grounds fall within a radius of five kilometers from the mouth of the lake, with a salinity which is well maintained even during low tides. According to the traditional fishermen, this is a caste-specific system.
Among the traditional fisherfolk there are different classes and they are more or less designated as castes. The pattanavar (one who owns the village or who founded the village) is respected as the traditional leader and his family becomes the ruling caste. The fisherfolk of the pattanavar caste generally live at the southern end of the lake which does not usually dry up. Married men of the pattanavar caste (above 15 years of age) are eligible to be members of the talekattu, which is the village level organization of fishermen. The fisherman seeking membership should be skilled and acceptable to the village community. As a member of the talekattu, he has to participate in common tasks such as contributing towards litigation, temple repairs and festival expenses. This designated caste is supposed to protect the mouth of the lake since it is the best fishing ground .
There are three paadu systems in the lagoon:
• Vadakku Paadu: This is a canal-like area of about 1.25 sq km on the northern side. This is the most productive area and therefore the most intense fishing is done here.
• Moonthuri Paadu is about 2.5 sq km in area and is not as productive as Vadakku Paadu.
• Odai Paadu is the smallest and least productive paadu and has almost been abandoned.
Fisherfolk are strict about the kind of fishing equipment used. The boats usually used are ordinary country rafts called nattupadagu (literally, country boats) The length of this plank-built boat ranges from 6-8 metres, with a capacity of about two tonnes. A lot of fishing gears are used in Pulicat Lake. Researchers have listed nine types of fishing gear: cast nets, gill nets, drag nets, shoreseine, bag nets, stake nets, hook and line, vallikodi (lure fishing) and adappu (impoundment). The most effective of these nets are sutru valai and padi valai (both kind of fishing nets).
The operation is done at night during low tide when shrimps migrate to sea. The tadukku (an obstruction that functions as a barricade in the path of the mobile prawns and they consequently get caught in the sutru valai). The operations of sutru valai are done from shore to shore, virtually blocking the movement of prawn and thereby affecting the catch of downstream fishermen. The padi valai is essentially a drag net, almost in the shape of a shore-seine, mainly used for catching mullets and other species during neutral phases of the tide. The padi valai is a symbol of affluence and not owned by many and its operation requires about 30 people at a time. The padi valai is not used often as the fishing grounds have been altered by the 1984 cyclone.
Some of the rules and regulations followed include:
1. Each village carries out the fishing operations independently of the other.
2. The paadu system for the sutru valai operates on a lottery system for the eligible talekattu of the villages. Every paadu village knows the days designated for the village for fishing in the fishing ground. The talekattu meet on certain auspicious days to draw lots for allocation of fishing grounds. The most productive as well as the least productive villages are used and this gives equitable access to all fishermen.
3. Fishing is carried out three days before and three days after the full moon and new moon. This period has heightened tidal activity, which enables active movement of prawns.
4. This system excludes new fisherfolk, Yannadi and Irula tribals and Muslims from Jamilabad from fishing in these grounds.
5. Irulas and yannadis are allowed to use simple fishing gear to hunt crabs or manually hunt crabs but are strictly prohibited from using plank-boats or fishing nets.
It seems difficult to accurately assess the total production of fishes and shrimps available in Pulicat lake given the complexity of the system. One of the most serious threats to conservation of this lagoon, according to local experts such as Sanjeev Raj, seems to be overfishing. There has been a drastic dip in the income levels of the fishermen of Pulicat. This is attributed to high pollution levels in the lake. The outlet of coolant water from Ennore Thermal power plant at elevated temperatures has adversely affected aquatic life. The pollution caused by fly-ash from the Ennore plant has also had a big impact on the water quality and therefore on the biodiversity of Pulicat lake.
The pressures and conflicts within the lake have led to establishment of a fishermen’s union which is a union of 29 different fishermen’s societies from 20 different villages in Pulicat. This union has a major role to play in sorting out conflicts, reducing tension and mobilising people to act. Currently the paadu system is being extended to include the villages on the other side of the sand bar. The sand-bar formation at the mouth of the lake happens quite often and hampers the exchange of water between the sea and the lagoon. When the sand-bar formation is partial, then the rains either wash it away or it could be manually removed. The failure of monsoons in 2000 led to complete closure of the mouth of the lagoon and this led to rapid depletion of stock.
The exact details of the conflict resolution mechanisms were not available in the secondary literature. The relevance of the paadu system to the current situation of depleted fish stock also needs to be understood. There needs to be a better understanding of ‘overfishing’ in this context. There were conflicting opinions on this system, ranging from accusations of fishermen overfishing to pollution causing depletion of aquatic life and consequent loss of income. It is clear that the paadu system of ensuring equitable use of the lake is under threat from overpopulation, depleting stock and pollution caused by the thermal power plant. It is for this reason that we view the sustained struggle against pollution as an attempt to conserve biodiversity, though livelihood issues are also involved.