Community, place and citizenship


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RECENT work on the politics of the environment has highlighted the centrality of ‘community’ to the assertion of rights claims. Too often, however, ‘community’, like its correlated ‘culture’, is understood in terms of an uninterrupted continuity with the past, as a kind of permanence that does not allow for historicity or dynamism. By contrast, I suggest that the real power of community lies in its becoming, not in its being.

In this essay, I turn to artisanal fisher activism in the district of Kanyakumari to make two related arguments: first, for a processual understanding of ‘community’; and second, for a consideration of ecological activism as a politics, not of cultural autonomy but of equal citizenship.

Within the environmental literature, the opposition of ‘state’ and ‘community’ is used to critique state developmental practices that displace the poor and deplete natural resources. More broadly, this opposition has come to stand in for the opposition between modernity and tradition. Many critics of Indian state developmentalism tend to seek ecological alternatives to the state and other institutions of ‘modern’ power in forms of ‘non-modern’ or community authority and consciousness that they claim either predate or exist outside modernity’s sweep.

I find this binary between modernity and its Other, with the ‘state’ standing in for the modern and the ‘community’ for the non-modern, both ahistorical and politically unhelpful. It is ahistorical because it imprisons concepts in an original context of production and disregards the history of their changing uses and meanings. It is politically disempowering because it imposes a regime of cultural authenticity on social actors that limits their range of political expression. By contrast, I consider it more historically and politically meaningful to document the production of community within the framework of state power. Only by acknowledging the mutual implication of state and community can we account for how bureaucratic categories and mechanisms of rule are incorporated into the self-representations and political strategies of subaltern groups.

For me, work on place-making has offered a useful way of highlighting the dynamism of community. Donald Moore (1998), for instance, has proposed a rethinking of locality and community, not as pristine receptacles of the non-state and the non-modern, but as products of ongoing struggles knitting together diverse histories and geographies. Localities, he insists, are not simply the backdrop of history but are made and remade through history. Finally, Moore points out that, while struggles over territory can be highly localized, they are never simply local, sealed off from the outside.

Taking his cue, I argue that Kanyakumari’s artisans responded to their displacement by capitalist restructuring of the district’s fishery with a politics of place-making that produced both new forms of locality and new understandings of community. Artisanal politics generated a category of local citizenship forged, not through the separation of state and community identities and spaces, but through their mutual implication.



Let me turn now to Kanyakumari. The district has a 68 kilometre coastline that is dotted with 44 coastal villages and inhabited by a low caste, Catholic fishing population numbering approximately 150,000. The social geography of the coast is at once religious and civil: the boundaries of fishing villages overlap with parish boundaries, and the parish priest is the moral authority of the village council. However, this mutual implication of the religious and civil is not without its tensions. Fisher struggles for greater caste rights within the church, or for greater lay authority on the coast, have occurred with frequency over the course of three centuries (Narchison 1983; Ballhatchet 1998; Villavarayan 1956).



It was into this dynamic cultural context that the developmental state entered in the 1950s. Mechanization of the Indian fishery was one strand of the national drive towards industrialization that took off during the decade after independence. The National Planning Commission proposed a radical transformation of capture fisheries that paralleled India’s Green Revolution in agriculture: new mechanized fishing technologies would boost catches to levels commensurate with the postulated wealth of the oceans, contribute to the economic development of the country, and help feed its burgeoning population. This ‘Blue Revolution’ was to be an all-India affair, promoted by the central government and adopted with variation in every coastal state.

The commission’s recommendation of rapid technological change was justified by perceptions of the coastal population as socially backward. The incorporation of the coast into a national framework of development was to help undermine those aspects of coastal culture that were inimical to social progress. At the same time and in accordance with Gandhian notions of the decentralized, self-governing village republic, the NPC identified the need to sustain the organic solidarity of the fishing village as a foundation for development.



It finally determined that community development, which would retain the fishing village as the basic unit of the development process, would be the ideal approach to ensuring the smooth transformation of the coast. In its final incarnation, community development was a peculiar blend of goals: it invoked the ‘village community’ as an organic space of ‘moral economy’ that would provide a foundation for the nation and it sought to restructure the village to suit the needs of nation-building.

In the context of the Kanyakumari coast with its Catholic population, the Tamilnadu state government sought legitimacy for fisheries development by soliciting the support of the Catholic Church and framing community development as religious minority uplift. Then Tamilnadu Chief Minister K. Kamaraj courted the church as the moral authority of the coast, both for winning fisher votes and for endorsing fisheries development. By choosing the Catholic Church as the authority of the coast and disregarding the authority of village fishing councils, the state reduced the complex cultural history of Kanyakumari’s fishers to a single referent of identity easily accommodated to developmental priorities. Through the political process, then, state developmental and secular understandings of ‘community’ came together, creating an overlap between the fisher collective of the development agenda and the religious collective of the state’s secular imagination.

In the 1960s, the Blue Revolution’s original goals of poverty alleviation and self-sufficiency in food were subverted by the rise in price of prawn in the world fisheries market. In Tamilnadu, the ‘pink gold rush’ signalled the subordination of cooperative development for domestic consumption to the export trade in prawn. Accordingly, the Tamilnadu Fisheries Department shifted emphasis to the rapid distribution of subsidized trawling boats for prawn harvest.



The pink gold rush restructured domestic fishing for monocrop, export oriented production. Apart from increasing levels of fish harvest, the pink gold rush radically altered social dynamics across the Indian coastal belt. Since prawn are most abundant in shallow waters, trawler owners equipped with the capital-intensive technology to take them to offshore fishing grounds now preferred to remain in the area closest to shore to avail of this valuable commodity. The crowding of the inshore sea has led to violent confrontations between trawler and artisanal fishers over access and use of the coastal waters (Kurien 1978, 1985, 1993; Kurien and Achari 1990; Mathew 1986).

On other parts of the Indian and Tamilnadu coast, the prawn rush attracted outside entrepreneurs to fishing and created a class of non-operating merchant capitalists, most of whom had no previous connection to the sea. In Kanyakumari, however, a different pattern emerged. Here, the class of mechanized trawler owners arose from within the Catholic fishing population and as a result generated a unique politics of place and community around the access and use of natural resources.

Conflict between the two warring factions of Catholic fishers set in motion a triangular relationship between state, church and fishers. As artisanal militancy against trawler aggression increased, the state began to collaborate with the church to defuse the power of artisanal village councils. Both state and church have deployed the rhetoric of ‘community’ to present the upward mobility of one section of the Catholic fishing population as the advance of the community as a whole, and to link community uplift in turn with national progress. Both have promoted notions of religious minority solidarity and participation in the nation to present the material advance of Kanyakumari’s trawler owners as the creation of a representative fisher middle class, and to condemn artisanal opposition to trawling as the reactive isolationism of a population resistant to progress.

Through fisheries development, then, the Indian state has exercised its power to incorporate coastal Catholics into nation-building frameworks, in the process producing them as ‘difference’ from a national mainstream. In its capacity as a developmental actor, the Indian state has identified artisanal fishers as an economic minority standing apart from the industrializing nation. And in its capacity as a secular force, it has identified them as a Catholic minority standing apart from the Hindu mainstream.

These two overlapping forms of ‘community’, each distinguished by its difference from a posited economic or cultural ‘mainstream’, have circumscribed the relationship of fisher artisans to the state and operated as limits to full citizenship. However, Kanyakumari’s coastal artisans have responded, not by rejecting the state and its categories outright, but by appropriating and reworking them in unexpected ways.



In response to the coastal crisis, and their marginalization by both state and church, Kanyakumari’s artisanal fishers have turned to a politics of place-making that maps identity onto territory. They have tapped recent developmental and political initiatives to constitute themselves as a collective of ‘traditional practitioners’. This new understanding of community has three key elements – territory, technology and ecology. As I detail below, each of these elements has a longer history. However, over the last two decades artisanal fishers have redefined these elements and combined them to construct an artisanal community consciousness.



The reworked understanding of territory that grounded artisanal community consciousness reflected a spatial shift from village to zone. Previously, fishers asserted their right to shore space and the marine resource through the village. By the late 1980s, however, the village was supplanted by the zone as the primary basis for territorial identity. Interestingly, this shift was catalyzed by a state initiative. In response to widespread artisanal attacks on trawlers across the Tamilnadu coast in the late 1970s, the Tamilnadu state government instituted the 1983 Marine Fisheries Regulation Act that reserved the 3-mile inshore zone for artisanal fishing.

The Act was mainly compelled by ‘law and order’ concerns: its primary purpose was to separate fisher antagonists into distinct zones to stave off conflict while continuing to promote development through mechanization. In effect, however, the Act exacerbated tensions between warring fishers. In Kanyakumari, artisanal fishers took full advantage of the new Act. The line in the sea substituted a horizontal boundary for the vertical ones separating villages and became a territorial marker for the divisive hostility between mechanized and artisanal villages. Now, trawlers were attacked not only when they damaged artisanal craft and gear, or harvested large catches, but also if they transgressed the 3-mile inshore boundary. With every clash, the 3-mile zone became an even more potent symbol of artisanal identity.

Artisanal fishers did not only claim the 3-mile zone; the zone became symbolic of their link to the sea, a connection that they claimed the trawler fishers had lost. Take for instance this explanation provided by a fisherman who participated in the fire-bombing of a trawler owned by a friend’s relative. When I asked him how a population sharing caste and faith came to be so divided, he explained, ‘It’s because the trawler owners have forgotten who they are and what they know about the sea. You see, anyone can use a trawl net – a farmer, a teacher, even a bureaucrat! But when we go out to sea, we have an instinctive sense of where the fish are. We can read the water like others read the land. It’s this shared sense of the sea that makes us a community.’



By this logic, the very markers of civilization adopted by trawler owners, such as land ownership and absentee boat ownership, are reinterpreted by artisanal fishers as markers of deracination, of an uprooting from the sea and, by extension, from community.

Like their redefinition of territory, artisanal fishers’ redefinition of technology was also compelled by another development initiative, this time by the church. With the expansion of the development arena in the 1970s to include non-state actors, the Catholic Church too entered the fray. A decade after the onset of the prawn rush and frequent clashes, a section of the Kanyakumari clergy began to question the liberatory potential of the state’s development agenda and rethink their own role as moral custodians of the coast.

Drawing inspiration from Latin American liberation theology and the Indian communist movement, they began talking about the economic and cultural rights of the poor and how to extend the church’s ‘natural authority’ to fill a development gap left by the state. The ensuing ‘option for the poor’ was manifest in a church project to motorize artisanal crafts. The aim of the project was to create an intermediate technology that would in turn create an intermediate category of motorized fishers and help undercut the polarization of artisanal and mechanized fishers.



After much trial and error, a motorized canoe with a speed equal to the trawler became operational in the late 1980s. Instead of undercutting sectoral tensions however, the spread of canoes increased the militancy of artisanal politics. With trawling identified as the only real enemy, the new motorized technology was assimilated into the original antagonism between sectors. The inclusion of motors into the category of ‘artisanal fisher’ reflected its increased flexibility and specificity. Now, artisanal could include new forms of technology as long as they weren’t trawlers. Not only were they assimilated, the motorized canoes became the policing arm of the artisanal sector. The speed of the canoes enabled head-on confrontation with trawlers at sea and the frequency of clashes increased sharply. In addition, artisanal village councils whose legislative authority had been undermined by their inability to restrict trawling were now revitalized through the deployment of vigilante canoes.

The political resonance of the opposition between artisanal and mechanized technologies is especially evident in the attitudes of fisher youth. Many young fishermen did not grow up learning their fathers’ skills, opting instead to spend part of the time at school and part of it working as labour on mechanized craft. For most, this experience as seasonal labour on trawlers is inherently conflictual: they are attracted to trawling for its wealth and status, and repelled by the humiliation of working on the boats.

A number of the young fishermen I spoke to recounted tales of oppressive working conditions and poor pay. The experience of a labourer’s humiliation has given them new appreciation for the relatively more egalitarian character of artisanal harvest. A 21 year old fisherman who had worked successively on five trawl boats before turning to work on his uncle’s artisanal craft spoke of the trawler with both hostility and fear: ‘It changes people,’ he said, ‘it makes them arrogant and cruel. Before I worked on them, I used to pray for the money to buy a boat. But now that I see how it changes a person, I don’t want one.’ By associating trawling with a breakdown of social relations, artisanal fishers constructed a new moral economy that made the very ownership of trawlers a transgression of community.



Finally, artisanal fishers redefined ecology to reflect a new concern with sustainability. The lives of artisanal fishermen are marked by the unpredictability of harvest. While seasonal variation and individual skill do contribute to the outcome of fishing trips, there is also a great deal left to chance. On any given day, two groups of fishermen operating in the same area using the same craft and gear may be either blessed with a full net or cursed with an empty one. Artisanal fishers often contrast the unfathomable nature of the sea with the farmer’s mastery over land.

An elderly fisherman and village councillor explained to me the integral role played by kadal matha, the goddess of the sea and a local incarnation of the Virgin Mary, in the lives of fishers: ‘The land can be owned and farmers plant seeds knowing exactly what crop they’ll harvest. But the sea isn’t anyone’s property. We never really know what our kadal matha will give us.’ Although it causes bitterness, divine providence as a reason for empty nets is accommodated within the moral universe of artisanal fishers. This makes it all the more unacceptable that mere human beings would usurp this divine right through technological capability.

Artisanal outrage at such hubris on the part of the trawlers has found new expression through the language of ‘sustainability’. Sustainability as a concept entered the political lexicon of local artisans through the mobilization work of the National Fishworkers Forum. The NFF’s work in Kanyakumari began in the early 1990s when, in the name of economic liberalization, the state deregulated India’s 200-mile exclusive economic zone and licensed the entry of over 2,000 foreign industrial fishing vessels.



In its anti-liberalization campaign, the NFF stood development on its head by equating trawling with destruction not production, and by identifying artisanal fishing as the only means to a sustainable future. This initiative drew Kanyakumari’s artisans into a global political arena that linked local struggles over use and access of marine resources. But even as they were incorporated into a global politics of opposition, artisanal fishers increasingly used the language of fate and faith to counter trawler aggression. They began to speak of trawling, not simply as an expression of greed and unequal distribution, but as hubris against divinity.

Resource depletion was a warning from above not to disrespect the gift of nature. Significantly, ‘nature’ also included the god-given skill of artisanal fishing which made the deskilling effect of mechanized trawling an added affront to nature and divinity. The link between artisanal fishing, divine will, and the sustainable future of the resource produced a new sense of religiosity around their special connection to the sea, displacing moral authority from the church to artisanal fishers and making them the custodians of the sea and the moral arbiters of local conflict.



Together, territory, technology and ecology crystallized a place-based community consciousness that challenged the framework of state developmentalism. It did so by reconstituting community to exclude trawlers and reframing authority to exclude the church. These reworked forms of community and authority have anchored a sense of local belonging. However, I would argue that for Kanyakumari’s artisans, the claim to local identity and rights was also a claim to citizenship. They endorsed so-called local identities and priorities and rejected their subordination to national concerns. But they did not demand local autonomy. Rather, artisanal fishers demanded greater state intervention to protect their rights as artisanal producers. It was this equation between the critical role of state power and local rights that made artisanal politics one of citizenship.

In articulating a sense of ‘ecological citizenship’, artisanal fisher politics offers the following challenges. First, it points to a rethinking of citizenship in terms other than that of national belonging. Most importantly, it suggests a new perspective on subalternity. On the Kanyakumari coast, there was no unitary insurgent consciousness rooted in premodern culture. In the process of reconstituting themselves as a community, artisanal fishers redefined culture, sometimes in old and sometimes in new terms. They invoked the protection of the Virgin and the state. They demanded their rights as locals and as citizens. And they reconstituted community in cosmological as well as in class terms. In their self representations and political strategies, Kanyakumari’s artisans combined elements that are commonly separated into categories of ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ to create a new politics that reveals the compatibility of subalternity with citizenship.


* The essay in Arun Agarwal and K. Sivaramakrishnan’s edited volume, Agrarian Environments: Resources, Representations and Rule in India, Duke University Press, 2000 offers empirically grounded and theoretically forceful arguments for rethinking ‘community’ in processual terms.



Kenneth Ballhatchet. 1998. Caste, Class and Catholicism in India, 1789-1914. London: Curzon Press.

John Kurien. 1993. ‘Ruining the Commons: Overfishing and Fishworkers’ Actions in South India’, The Ecologist 23(1), 5-12.

John Kurien. 1985. ‘Technical Assistance Projects and Socio-economic Change: Norwegian Intervention in Kerala’s Fisheries Development’, Economic and Political Weekly XX(25,26), A70-A87.

John Kurien. 1978. ‘Entry of Big Business into Fishing: its Impact on Fish Economy’, Economic and Political Weekly, 8 September, 1557-1564.

John Kurien and Thankappan Achari. 1990. ‘Overfishing Along Kerala Coast: Causes and Consequences’, Economic and Political Weekly, 1-8 September.

Sebastian Mathew. 1986. ‘Growth and Changing Structure of the Prawn Export Industry in Kerala, 1953-83’, M.Phil. dissertation, Centre for Development Studies, Trivandrum, Kerala.

Donald Moore. 1998. ‘Subaltern Struggles and the Politics of Place: Remapping Resistance in Zimbabwe’s Eastern Highlands’, Cultural Anthropology 13(3), 344-381.

J.R. Narchison, V. Paul Leon, E. Francis and F. Wilfred. 1983. Called to Serve: A Profile of the Diocese of Kottar. Nagercoil: Assisi Press.

J.M. Villavarayan. 1956. The Diocese of Kottar: A Review of its Growth. Nagercoil: Assisi Press.