Far out in the estuary of Aghanashini, as Ismail Bhai spread out Indian Mackerel for drying, a carpet of silver spread out before us. “We fish in the river but the Bangde we catch in the sea also have their links to Aghanashini. We owe her everything”. Estuary of the modest, free-flowing Aghanashini supports around 5000 fisherolk. In the neighboring dammed Sharavathi, fish diversity plummets, so do dependent livelihoods. But rivers like Aghanashini are a rarity now.
India is world’s second largest producer of Inland Fisheries (8.90 million tonnes in 2017-18, double the marine production). And yet, hardly 10% of this comes from the rivers. Riverine Fishery is below subsistence level with an average yield of 0.3 tonne per km, about 15% of its actual potential.
This is a tragedy as India is a megadiverse country for freshwater fish diversity with over 700 fish species including 158 Threatened species. Indian rivers host highest endemic freshwater fish (27.8%) in Asia, with Western Ghats having 67% endemism and spectacular new discoveries. Eastern Himalayan Biodiversity Hotspot is Data Deficient, but extremely diverse.
Over 10 million fisherfolk depend on riverine fisheries: hundreds of communities with unique fishing methods, gears, songs and stories. Like our rivers, fisheries too connect conservation, livelihoods, social identities and art. Despite this, riverine fish and fisherfolk receive next to no protection.
Amidst multiple stressors, India’s 5700 completed and under-construction large dams and hundreds of mini hydel projects have been majorly responsible for the collapse of our fisheries. And what a spectacular & unheralded collapse it has been. Upstream and downstream, dams fundamentally alter fish habitat: flow, temperature, turbidity, nutrients, access to spawning grounds, fragmentation, introduction of exotics etc.
Narmada Valley Projects of Madhya Pradesh like Tawa, Bargi, Omkareshwar, Mann and Indira Sagar and Sardar Sarovar in Gujarat decimated fisheries of Narmada. According to CIFRI (Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute), post-impoundment, yields of Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) fell by 75%, Prawns (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) by 46%. Migration routes of Hilsa were blocked from the sea upriver while Sardar Sarovar Dam reduced freshwater in the river. Instead of restoring the flows, planned Bhadbhut Barrage at the river mouth will be the last straw for the estuary. No wonder that when the Prime Minister visited Bharuch to lay foundation stone of Bhadbhut Barrage in 2017, hundreds of fishing boats defiantly waved black flags.
Madhya Pradesh, once a bustling Mahseer landing station, lost 78% of Mahseer in three decades and now buys fry from Tata Hatcheries, Lonavala: An ecological tragedy of momentous proportions. On the banks of the incomplete Maheshwar Dam, fisherfolk leader Mangatramji asked me, “Government talks of compensating land for land, but we fisherfolk depend on the river. Will they compensate a river with a river?”
Similar is the case with Cauvery, Pennar, Godavari and Krishna. Upper reaches of Krishna estuary have reached hypersaline conditions due to diversions and cannot sustain commercial fisheries. While landed farmers received some compensation for newer dams like Gosekhurd, its lakhs of riverine fisherfolk are left destitute.
Iconic fisheries of Ganga started declining since 1970s, coinciding with increased water abstractions through barrages and dams. Average yield of major carps declined from 26.62 to 2.55 kg/ha/year during last four decades. Impact of projects like Inland Navigation, being pushed without an EIA or appraisal, is profoundly negative for Gangetic Dolphins.
EIA Reports of dams routinely make fraudulent claims. EIA of Ken Betwa Link Project, set to affect migrating fish like Anguilla bengalensis bengalensis, Bagarius bagarius and Mahseer says “The canals of the project would provide a shortcut for the fish to migrate upstream!” A senior scientist of CIFRI published a paper on catastrophic impacts of Ken-Betwa link on fisheries but as a part of Expert Appraisal Committee appraising such projects CIFRI never raised an issue!
In the Himalayan rivers, Hydropower development is wrecking a havoc with fisheries. In Teesta basin, access to the river for fisheries has been severed due to bumper-to-bumper dam development. Himachal Pradesh Fisheries Department came up with “Negative zone list” in rivers, only to hand these zones to dam developers for a hefty fee. Agencies like CIFRI seem to have forsaken fisheries for consultancies with developers. Located in the same state as Farakka Barrage, a textbook example of dam-led fisheries collapse, CIFRI did not push for a functioning fish-lock for Farakka.
CIFRI has been entrusted with several Environmental Flows studies. Its Eflows Assessment for 780 MW Nyamjanchhu River was severely flawed and used a canal-like cross-section for the river. For 3097 MW Etalin Project, CIFRI eflows report recommends low flows and does not even provide a list of fishes.
Eflows recommendations by MoEFCC too have been severely inadequate. Eflows are recommended to be released through a dam-toe powerhouse, which are as fish-friendly as a sharp chopper. Peak flows from hydroprojects during peaking operations wash away eggs, fry and juveniles. There has been no study to assess efficacy of MoEF’s adhoc recommendations on eflows, one kilometer “free-flowing distance” between dams or hatcheries. The only official solution to salvage fisheries collapse seems to be hatcheries, reservoir fisheries and aquaculture. However, farmed fish affect biodiversity, gene pool and completely alter the equity around riverine fisheries. Dam company’s power to confer fishing contracts marginalizes riverine fisherfolk further.
In the US, world’s largest dam decommissioning is around the corner. Klamath dams will be decommissioned for their impacts on salmon runs, traditionally important for the tribes. I think of the fishers I met throughout the country, still singing songs of the fish which no longer swim up their rivers. Fish which are blocked by dam walls, which find no water to return to. Like Advait Mallabarman says in his classic Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, “Separated from water, Malo fisherfolk gasp like fish. Will they be able to wait any longer?”
As the year 2020 comes to close, let us hope 2021 will bring better fate for the riverine fisheries and fisherfolks in India.
Parineeta Dandekar (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Note: An edited version of this has been published in Sanctuary Asia in August 2020 issue, see: https://sanctuarynaturefoundation.org/article/india,-dammed