21 November 2013: World Fisheries Day
A small bus load of pilgrims descended at Walen Kondh and bought the usual Prasad from a shack by the river. They crossed a suspension bridge over a deep gorge of Kal Nadi and went to the derelict temple of Vardayini Mata on the other bank.
Then a few girls among them did something unusual. Instead of offering the Prasad at the temple, they came to the ridge of the gorge and clapped a few times, peering into the river below. In a matter of seconds, there was frantic thrashing in the waters as a huge school of endangered Mahseer fish congregated swiftly. The devotees then threw in fistfuls of puffed rice to hundreds of Mahseer below. For the devotees, these fish are sacred: the children of Varadayini Mata.
Walen Kondh in Mahad Taluka of Raigad District in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra is one of the several critical community fish sanctuaries of India that protect the Mahseer fish. These sanctuaries have been successful in conserving not only the fish, but also stretches of rivers through their unique actions which find no support from the establishment and limited recognition from the conservation community.
Deccan Mahseer (Tor Khudree) is classified as an endangered specie by IUCN[i]. It does not feature in the schedule of species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) which is not a surprise as the Act represents freshwater diversity very poorly. However, many researchers, fisher folk and anglers have recorded that Tor Khudree and associated Mahseer species (Tor tor, Tor putitora, etc) which were once plentiful in rivers across Western Ghats, peninsular and central India, HimalayanRivers as well as floodplains, has now reduced drastically.
One of the major reasons behind the collapse of fish species like Mahseer is dam construction. Mahseer species migrate in the upstream to smaller streams for spawning (breeding). They need a flood pulse to undertake this migration. While other factors like pollution, overfishing, etc. have contributed to the decline, the multiple impacts of dams in terms of blocking migration paths, reduction of water levels in the downstream, submergence of pools in the upstream, changes in natural hydrograph and flood pulses, changes in sedimentation, etc., have been the primary reasons behind this collapse. (SANDRP’s report on Impact of Dams on Fisheries: sandrp.in/dams/Impacts_of_Dams_on_Riverine_Fisheries_in_India_ParineetaDandekar_Sept2012.pdf)
Fall of Mahseer has affected the ecology, local livelihoods, angling and recreational fishing in the rivers. While Hoshangabad on the banks of Narmada recorded 5-6 tonnes of Mahseer landings every year, it has been nearly wiped out from these places now[ii]. Mahseer used to form the majority of catch in these parts and has been severely affected by reservoirs like Tawa, Bargi, Sardar Sarovar and other Naramada projects. However, hardly any efforts are being made to reverse this situation. According to Shashank Ogale, who set up and managed Mahseer hatcheries in Tata Dams for more than 20 years, there are next to none functional Mahseer hatcheries in the country. This is despite the fact that dam proponents show an expense of crores of rupees to set up hatcheries as a part of their Environment Management Plan. After granting clearances, which are also based on these EMPs, MoEF does not bother to monitor the functioning and efficiency of these hatcheries or the impacts of dams on fish diversity and fisheries[iii].
In such a scenario, community conserved fish sanctuaries which are scattered across the country are playing a very important role in conserving various species of Mahseer as well as stretches of rivers. Unfortunately, most of these sanctuaries get no protection by the State Governments, Forest Departments or the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This is at a time when freshwater diversity is declining at the fastest rate globally[iv]. Ministry of Environment and Forests has done precious little in conserving or protecting riverine diversity, fisheries or rivers from the onslaught of dams. These sanctuaries keep getting submerged, dried up or fragmented by newly planned dams and State Fisheries Departments don’t bat an eyelid before giving a no-objection certificate (NOC) to projects which will spell doom for these sanctuaries.
Renole Pujari from Walen Kondh tells me that they have received no support or protection from the government to conserve Walen Kondh Sanctuary, however the community sanctions are so strong that not only is fishing banned across 2 kilometers from this stretch, but people are not even allowed to get down to the water, near these fish. He only hopes that this stretch of Kal nadi[v] is not destroyed by dams and chemical pollution like the neighboring Savitri River which flows through the chemical MIDC at Mahad. Fish kills are a regular feature of Savitri River.[vi]
In Maharashtra, Tilase is one more such small village in Wada Taluka of Thane district which protects Mahseer fish in Vaitarna River. The stretch is downstream of Upper Vaitarna Dam which supplies water to Mumbai. Local youths told me that fish kills occur here when water releases from Upper Vaitarna decrease. Downstream this stretch, Middle Vaitarna Dam has now come up and the sanctuary is now sandwiched between the two projects. Social sanctions here are so strict that a net cannot be put in the waters, even to check the species. Fish Sanctuaries also existed in Alandi and at Pandharpur along teh Bhima, but have been wiped out. In Vidarbha, several Dev dohs (Sacred Pools) exist in Rivers like Adan, Kathani, Wainganga, etc., where fishing is banned.
Accoridng to Rajendra Kerkar, Goa too has community conserved fish sanctuaries protecting the Mahseer at ‘Pistyachi Kon’ nesteled between Bhimgad and Mhadei Sanctuaries. It receives no protection.
In Orissa, along the Mahanadi on the banks of the leaning temple of Huma exists the Huma Mahseer Sanctuary. On the banks is a stone statue of a lady cutting a Mahseer fish. Legend goes that the one who fishes in this stretch will meet the same fate, like King Midas! Hirakud Dam has already affected this sanctuary and the proposed Lower Suktel Dam will make things worse.
Karnataka possible has the highest number of community fish sanctuaries in the Western Ghats. Nakur Gaya and Yenekkal fish sanctuaries exist on the banks of Kumardhara in Dakshin Kannada. In Yenekal, local gram panchayat has built a small weir with wooden gates for maintaining water levels for the fish. The weir is so small that the fish can migrate over it in the monsoons. Both these sanctuaries are threatened by the numerous mini hydel projects coming across the region, especially the 24.75 MW Kukke Mini Hydel Project near Hosmata[vii]. Fisheries Department however has given an NOC to this and many other mini hydels coming across the region without even attempting to study their impacts on Mahseer and other fish.
200 MW Gundia Hydel project will also affect the entire hydrograph of Kumaradhara-Gundia rivers. Here. The EIA done by KPCL (Karnataka Power Corporation Limited) says that there are no rare and endangered fish in the area. 5 new fish have been discovered in the region just in the past one year!
Karappura Fish Sanctuary in Mysore was submerged by the Kabini reservoir while the Shimoga Agrahara Sanctuary collapsed due to dwindling water levels which resulted after construction of Tunga Anicut 12 kilometers upstream from here.[viii]
Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh too have temple fish sanctuaries, notably the Baijanath Temple complex on the banks on River Gomti in Uttarakhand conserves Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora) and supports a small fish sanctuary on its banks. Many isolated fish sanctuaries are also reported from the Ramganaga and Kosi area near Corbett. However, it is also reported that now these sites are used by anglers and the temples receive revenue in return. In Jogindernagar, a town in Mandi distirct of Himachal Pradesh, lies a lake known as Machchiyal, fed by River Uhl. This lake is supposed to be the abode of Machendru Devta, the Fish God. Fish are fed and worshipped here regularly and fishing is strictly prohibited in the lake. Machchiyal supports a large population of the Himalayan Mahseer. There is a Temple of Machendru Devta on the lake bank with ancient idols of fish-god.
In the remote Tawang in Aruncahal Pradesh in the North East corner of India flows a beautiful river Nyamjangchu. Buddhist Monpas rever the river as well as the fish in Nyamjangchu. Fish in the Nyamjangchu are not hunted. The river is threatened by the proposed 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydel project which will divert or submerge nearly the entire length of this river flowing through India. Even premier research institutes like CIFRI (Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute) have done a shoddy study and supported the project and have not raised the issue of impact of this dam on fish diversity.[ix]
On the occasion of World Fisheries Day 2013, we urge to the MoEF to document the existing sanctuaries and grant immediate protection to all the existing fish sanctuaries in the country, protecting them from the onslaught of dams and other pressures. We had sent a similar submission to the moEF which was endorsed by several Fisheries Scientists and activists across the country in 2012, we’ve received no response from the MoEF on it till date (https://sandrp.in/rivers/MoEF_EAC_Submission_Fisheries_Nov2012.pdf, sandrp.in/rivers/World_Fisheries_Day_PR_Nov2012.pdf).
These sanctuaries stand testimony to the fact that community conservation is one of the most sustainable and effective ways of protecting ecosystems. The sanctuaries and their keepers deserve respect and recognition.
– Parineeta Dandekar ( firstname.lastname@example.org)
[viii] Shyama Bhat Kolari, Development and management of Freshwater Fish Sanctuaries in India, 2005