By Neerja Deodhar
- Jabalpur’s disappearing lakes, and the water chestnut farmers who were heavily dependent on them, are the subjects of Taal Betal.
- Meanwhile, The Golden Fish looks at the effects of pollution on Goa’s Mandovi River.
- These stories document the destruction of livelihoods and lives at the cost of modernising cityscapes and fuelling economic growth.
In Jabalpur, there is a story about the Gond queen of the hills, Rani Durgawati of the Chandel dynasty, who gave the landscape its 52 lakes. These lakes improved the lives of the locals and became indispensable to them, as well as countless generations after them. The water bodies became inextricably linked to the city’s identity itself.
Over time, these lakes began to disappear — victims of business and sports complexes and new housing. Soon after, the lives of a community of water chestnut farmer-fishers were devastated: The local administration decided to direct drainage, including septic tanks and toilets, into the remaining water bodies. The community’s century-old profession of farming became unviable, and fishing was a struggle too.
In Goa, there is folklore about a golden fish in the Mandovi river, which brings prosperity to whoever catches it. It is believed that the patriarch of the Dempo family, a powerful industrialist clan in the state, found one such fish.
But in recent years, the waters of the Mandovi have turned black, and no golden fish swim in it anymore. Local fishermen wonder if the mythical creature lives under the juggernaut-like casinos that are stationed on the river — and feed on anyone who falls off the ships. Or worse — Dempo’s golden fish grew so big in size that it swallowed up the entire village. These snatches from history and myth are the first chapters in stories about water bodies, urbanisation and unplanned development, which is more disruptive than it is desirable. They are stories of the destruction of livelihoods and lives at the cost of modernising cityscapes and fuelling economic growth.
Jabalpur’s disappearing lakes, and the water chestnut farmers who were heavily dependent on them, are the subjects of Taal Betal, a documentary by Sanchay Bose, Pramathyu Shukla, Shubham Sengupta and Rudraksh Pathak. The title of the documentary is a play on lakes (taal) and how the farmer-fishers’ lives have fallen out of step with the rhythm (betal) of development while the rest of the city has marched on, the filmmakers explain.
Chhotelal, one of the subjects of the documentary, says that in the past, 78 families practiced water chestnut farming in Jabalpur, but now, only 40 remain. Many of the community members speak of the profession as being a thing of the past. Those who continue to practice it have to travel to villages 30 to 40 kilometres away to find lakes with soil that can sustain the crop. Those who dare to continue fishing in Jabalpur’s lakes out of desperation must brave rashes and infections.
But this disruption of their livelihood doesn’t just have financial consequences; practicing a profession for over a 100 years means that the community also has to navigate the attachment and reverence they feel towards it. “One particular instance that touched us was when Chhotelal put on a ceremonial crown made of leaves that are sacred to his community, before he stepped onto a boat for the first round of picking chestnuts,” the filmmakers recount.
The visuals of Taal Betal paint a portrait of the labour of the farmer-fishermen, and the environment they work in. Close-ups of the fish gills, of the community members at work on boats and of Jabalpur’s infrastructure, which is a haphazard work-in-progress, set the scene for this story. The shots of wooden boats carrying farmers who sift through the water to find the nuts illustrates how painstaking this work is. “We wanted to show the beauty of the lakes as well as the damage caused to them. We wanted to showcase the people who go to these places everyday and work in less-than-satisfactory conditions,” the filmmakers explain.
Nitesh, an MSc student and a young member of the farmer-fisher community, rues that his family cannot contribute to the city’s economy or sustain themselves with water chestnut farming alone. He says that given a choice, he’d prefer to work as a daily wage labourer than practice the family profession.
The makers of Taal Betal say that the future of this profession looks grim, if not non-existent. “Most young members of this community have given up on the profession and have left the city to look for better opportunities… Although it may sound disheartening, it would not be wrong to say that this may be the last generation that takes up water chestnut farming,” the filmmakers remark. Not only do these planning decisions run counter to the wisdom of the past, but they also don’t consider the growing demand for water chestnuts as a coveted food item. “The local sellers mostly earn from local customers. The city of Jabalpur still consumes water chestnut mostly during Navratri, as a ‘falahari’ dish. The local bazaars are a far cry from the gourmet experiences in metropolitan cities where water chestnut is welcomed in. There’s no government plan in place to leverage the recent surge in its popularity. It is, quite simply, overlooked,” the filmmakers explain.
On the subject of the disruptive nature of such improper urban planning, the filmmakers say, “A desirable change would have been to safeguard the interests of local farmers by capitalising on the demand of chestnut. By integrating it with fishing during seasons when chestnut isn’t feasible, it would have made for a holistic plan from a livelihood perspective. To this date, there’s no one occupying the post of a city planner in the Municipal Corporation. Such oversight results in issues that may arise years after implementation.”
The ‘golden fish’ referred to in Goan folklore and in a documentary of the same name by Avadhoot Potdar, Akanksha Gupta and Akshata Dalvi, is a symbol for prosperity and sustainability. It was endangered by the sharp rise of the tourism industry and by mining, and subsequently casinos, which have taken over the Mandovi river, the filmmakers explain.
Today, the fishing community on the river battles noise pollution from the boats, water pollution owing to the discharge of sewage directly into the river, oil spillage, and decreasing catch.
“All this has led to marginalisation of traditional livelihoods at the hands of large capitalist conglomerates. The lore of the golden fish represents a state of aggressive capture and hopelessness as experienced by the locals today,” the filmmakers add.
The documentary features a local saying that the people of Goa have “learnt to live with” the casinos — an industry that was seen as necessary to uphold Goa’s economy. In 2019, the industry reportedly earned Rs 411 crore in revenue; the government, in turn, earns an average Rs 320 crore in license fees annually from casinos. The filmmakers say that this industry has indulged in state capture. Take for example the former CM, the late Manohar Parrikar, who protested against casinos on the Mandovi waterfront, only to stand alongside the biggest casino operator once he won a landslide victory.
Every six months, there is an extension in the permissions granted to the industry to continue business. But this does not mean that the locals have resigned to the fate that the casinos will be a constant presence; the filmmakers say that there is strong local opposition, stemming from moral, environmental and cultural reasons.
The Golden Fish ably demonstrates the disconnect between the fishing community and locals on the one hand and the casino industry on the other, through voice-overs. We hear their opinions and anguish, but they remain faceless, as visuals of the opulence of the casinos dominate the screen. The imposing nature of the casino ships is also established through night shots where the bright neon lights on the casinos illuminate the whole river, and the fishermen are mere silhouettes in their shadow.
One part of the documentary focuses on those who work in the casinos, and how their lives are far from ideal. These employees, largely young women from the north east of India, feel alienated in a state far away from home, at stressful jobs where they work long hours and do not get leaves during the festive season.
It calls into question the notion that the casino industry is uplifting Goa, for it only seems to benefit those at an ownership level. “Even though the casino industry provides livelihoods to a large number of youth from across India, the underlying exploitation, marginalisation and racism can often go unnoticed and seems so abstruse that we felt we needed to address it in our film,” The Golden Fish team says.
On the subject of disruptive infrastructural changes, the filmmakers say, “Changes are inevitable. However, for them to be desirable and not disruptive, it’s important that the impact on all stakeholders is evaluated and accounted for. Local Goans find themselves largely disconnected from and often at the receiving end of the ill effects of the casinos…. On the other hand, the state and the casinos continue to flourish. This lack of inclusion of one the key stakeholder is what makes the change disruptive and dangerously lopsided.”
Taal Betal and The Golden Fish were entries in the Nagari Short Film Competition held by the Charles Correa Foundation. Taal Betal won the Best Film Award, and The Golden Fish was declared a runner-up.
Neerja Deodhar is a writer and researcher based in Mumbai. She tweets at @neerjadeodhar