Bihar · Floods

Bihar Floods in 1987 – IV – Sitamarhi

Above: Cover photo and map from NIDM report of Bihar floods 2007

Guest Blog by Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra

Till the end of the third week of July, rains in Sitamarhi were normal and whatever flood that normal water could cause was there in the district. But when it stared raining in the fourth week of July then just within three days, on the 27th July, the Bagmati overtopped the Muzaffarpur-Sitamarhi Road at three places and the road communication between the two towns was snapped. The road communication, however, was quickly restored on the 31st July.  On the 28th July, the Bagmati breached its right embankment near Belwa Ghat in a length of 400 meters. A flood regulator was being constructed here for the past many years to divert part of the river flow (50,000 cusecs)and make it rejoin the river downstream thus delaying this portion of the flow by 16 hours when it rejoined the mainstream. Engineers hoped that by so doing they will be able to control the floods of the river to a great extent. The under construction regulator used to get washed away every year during the rains and this was not a new thing that it was damaged this year also. Water coming out of the damaged regulator submerged the villages on the western bank of the river. The rains of the past 4-5 days were enough to flood hundreds of villages in the blocks of Bairgania, Majorganj, Shivhar, Tariyani, Piprahi, Belsand and Runni-Saidpur of Sitamarhi and Katra and Aurai of Muzaffarpur district. The river water had entered the Sub-divisional HQ of Shivhar on the right bank and on the left bank in the block HQ of Belsand and the thana there through the gaps left in the embankment for constructing sluice gates in future.. The water of the Bagmati had entered every house of Sugia, Katsari, Sugia Bazar, Shahpur, Pokharbhinda, and Bisahi etc and it was flowing one and half feet above the Sitamarhi-Muzaffarpur road near Kataunjha where the river crosses this road that was closed for the vehicular traffic. There was a simultaneous flood in the rivers of the Adhawara Group and a causeway connecting the villages Chilara and Parchhaiyan was washed away. This meant that the road connection between Sitamarhi and Sonbarsa block was also lost. The rail line between Sitamarhi and Darbhanga was overtopped at many places and the train services were suspended between the two stations. Continue reading “Bihar Floods in 1987 – IV – Sitamarhi”

Bihar · Floods

Bihar Floods in 1987 – III – West Champaran

Above: Cover photo and map from NIDM report of Bihar floods 2007

Guest blog by: Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra

West Champaran district of Bihar is located in the Northwestern corner of the state and is surrounded by the Gandak and the Burhi Gandak along with their tributaries. Two of its blocks, Madhubani and Thakaraha, are located on the western bank of the Gandak and are adjacent to the Deoria district of Uttar Pradesh.  There used to be a rail line connection between Chhitauni Ghat of Uttar Pradesh and Bagaha in Bihar. A bridge connecting these two towns was washed away during the floods in 1924 and the British Government did not restore this bridge as the train service was coming handy for the freedom fighters to travel to UP and vice versa. This bridge and the rail service were restored a few years ago. The administration of these two blocks (these are split into four now) is run from Padarauna in UP during the flood season as the blocks get thoroughly disconnected from Bihar. To prevent the westward movement of the Gandak and embankment named Pipra-Piparasi Ghat embankment (PP Embankment) was constructed in 1960s as the river has a tendency to shift towards the west and there is a constant pressure of the river on this embankment during the rainy season. At times, the safety of this embankment is threatened and there is long history of its breaches and the engineers of the Irrigation Department face a tough time maintaining the embankment. When the rail bridge was not there on the Gandak one had to go to Madhubani and Thakaraha by crossing the Ganga via Chhapra, Siwan and Gopalganj. Continue reading “Bihar Floods in 1987 – III – West Champaran”

Bihar · Floods

Bihar Floods in 1987 – II – East Champaran

Above: Cover photo and map from NIDM report of Bihar floods 2007

Guest blog by Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra

Floods in East Champaran started following the heavy rainfall in the last week of July 1987. There was a sudden rise in the flood levels of the tributaries of the Burhi Gandak (Sikrahana) like the Sarisawa, the Tilawe, the Gaadh, and the Bangari leading to submergence of lower areas of Raxaul town where flood water of depth up to two to two and half feet was spread all over. This initial flood had also affected 25 Panchayats and 125 villages in the blocks of Raxaul and Ramgarhawa. The rains that set in on the 26th July, 1987 continued unabated and by the time of the beginning of August all the major rivers –the Gandak, the Burhi Gandak and the Bagmati were in spate. Road communication of Motihari, the district HQ of East Champaran, was disrupted fully in this very first spell of floods. There was three feet deep water passing over NH-28 near Chhapwa. The road to Bettiah and Areraj was too badly damaged to afford vehicular traffic to pass through. Road from Pipra Kothi to Siwan was already damaged much before the rains and its condition deteriorated further after rains.  All the three rivers were flowing above danger mark on the 2nd August, 1987 and a vast cultivated area along with hundreds of villages came under a sheet of flood water of these rivers. The train service between Sugauli and Darbhanga was suspended because of flood water on the railway track. Continue reading “Bihar Floods in 1987 – II – East Champaran”

Bihar · Floods

Bihar Floods of 1987-I

Above: Cover photo and map from NIDM report on Bihar floods of 2007

GUEST BLOG BY Dr. Dinesh Kumar Mishra (

 Background Bihar faced the worst floods if its history in 1987[1], the records of which are yet to be bettered. In the preceding year of 1986 the flood was severe in many parts of Bihar but as the rainy season drew to close, the last October rains failed and a vast area of the State came under the grip of drought. Surprisingly, the districts cited for perennial floods like Saharsa, Purnea and Khagaria in the State were also hit by the drought. The year 1987, however, was worst for floods in Bihar (in addition to UP and W Bengal) while the rest of the country was facing one of the most severe droughts in the century. Many parts of the country were facing famine like situation while all the rain bearing clouds had moved toward Bihar. Traditionally, two days of continuous rains or a clear sky of the same duration during the rainy season signals floods or drought in the State and makes farmers apprehensive of the days to come. Continue reading “Bihar Floods of 1987-I”

Bihar · Floods · Kosi

Breach in Chamarbandha Embankment in Samastipur-1958

Above: Samastipur Floods 2013  Photo: RailIndia

Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra[1] (

Background There was an unexpectedly heavy flood during 1953 in Bihar that led the State leaders to think about the flood control measures to be taken seriously. The losses incurred in the State in floods prompted the Government of India to formulate its first Flood Policy and take preventive and corrective steps so that the flood victims are helped in whatever way possible. While the Flood Policy was given the final shape and announced in September, 1954 Bihar was already under a severe spell of floods in 1954. The 1954 flood is still counted as one of the worst floods in the history of Bihar and remembered well by the elderly generation. Following the floods of 1954 and promulgation of the National Flood Policy many embankments were constructed along the Bihar rivers and the Burhi Gandak that passes through the present districts of W & E Champaran, Muzaffarpur, Samastipur, Begusarai and Khagaria and joins the Ganga about 25 km below Khagaria town was one to be embanked in its stretch below Champaran. Continue reading “Breach in Chamarbandha Embankment in Samastipur-1958”

Bihar · Floods

Thanks to Bagmati Project, They Are on Roads for Forty Years

Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra[1] (

“We went to meet the collector to ask him whether we were the citizens of this country or not? If, because of the Bagmati Project, our citizenship is terminated, he should issue orders to us to leave the country and get settled in Nepal and we will go there” says the Mukhia of Masaha Alam of a village that was in the Bairgania block of Sitamarhi district of Bihar prior to the construction of the embankments on the Bagmati in 1971-72. The village had an area of 150 acres and 420 families according to 1971 census. Only 104 families have been settled till date[2] and the remaining 316 families in the village are still awaiting rehabilitation as they were trapped within the river and its right embankment then forty years ago and are literally on roads since the river was jacketed to prevent flooding of the plains in the river basin. Continue reading “Thanks to Bagmati Project, They Are on Roads for Forty Years”

Bihar · Floods · Kosi

1948 Floods in Bihar-3 Inaugural flood in Bihar after Independence – Assembly Debate

-Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra (

This years’ flood[1] was discussed in the Bihar Legislative Assembly on the 18th September, 1948 from a different angle than what is common to political forums. Dip Narayan Singh initiated the debate saying, “…I have a feeling that the floods cannot be stopped altogether and therefore I will request the Government to find ways to reduce the losses caused by floods, provide succor to the people at the time of their emergencies and this process should continue to find innovative means to deal with floods. At the moment this job is assigned to the Sub-divisional Officer or the District Magistrate. When the floods arrive then the victims neither get boats nor the relief reaches them in time. I will request the Government, therefore, to initiate a permanent procedure to deal with floods.” He continued, “Let the Government of India constitute a Commission to go into the details of the floods in the Ganga basin and devise strategies for facing the floods so that the miseries caused by it can be reduced.”

Then and Now. 2008 Kosi Floods, in perspective if the 1948 Floods. Photo: Times of India
Then and Now. 2008 Kosi Floods, in perspective if the 1948 Floods. Photo: Times of India

Prabhunath Singh suggested that,  “…all the embankments running along the Ghaghara from Darauli in the west to Kasmar in the east via Agampur, Tajpur, Naini Bundh, Sonepur Seva Samiti should be raised and strengthened. Along with this sluice gates should be installed on all the small rivers like Tel and others coming from Naini and Brahmapur to facilitate drainage of the stagnating water.”

He charged the Railway Company of obstructing the process for it felt that if all the other embankments are raised and strengthened, the railway embankments will be adversely impacted. That is the reason this district has to face floods year after year. He suggested to the Government that if it really wanted to help the people in their moment of crisis, it should help the flood victims in rebuilding their houses and arrange seeds for them to put agriculture back on rails. If the Government decides to advance loans for the purpose, it will require nearly Rs 30 million for Saran district alone. With that money it would be better for the Government to device means to make Saran a flood free district for all times to come. He further suggested that the Government must realize the money from the people that it gives to them as help and take advice about the costs involved from the engineers[2]. Saran was a rural district with high population density which was unmatched elsewhere. The villages there were beautiful with rich cultural background. The people there have a high degree of self respect. Gratutious relief should be given only to them who really need it. There are people in our villages who would prefer to die than to queue up for relief.

Timeless flood suffering in Kosi. 2008. Photo: Reuters
Timeless flood suffering in Kosi. 2008. Photo: Reuters

Girish Tiwari, also from Saran, said, “…Yesterday someone was asking what is the amount of money orders received in Saran from different places? I want to tell him that the people in Saran will have to starve if their loved ones didn’t send money orders here. The people need relief but there are various ways of providing relief. The places where there is a need of employment, open work there.”

He continued, “There is a stretch of Diyara land starting from Darauli till Sonepur. Let me tell you about Sitab Diyara, the village of Jay Prakash Narayan, which is now located west of the Ghaghara in Balia district of Uttar Pradesh. Many people from this village have shifted to Balia in Uttar Pradesh and some have moved to Rivelganj. People from Nagar Diyara have no place to go and they need land from the Government to settle down somewhere and the Government should acquire land for them. That will be a help.”

Ram Bonod Singh from Chhapra claimed that, “Not an inch of dry land is available from Manjhi to Sonepur. The current of water was so strong that all the mud houses collapsed. Cattle were in deep trouble. Most of them died or swept away and those survived fell sick. There was no fodder as all the land was under water. Fodder needs to be arranged for them and the Government must open cheap husk and straw shops to save the cattle.

Not much has changed..cattle battling the Bihar Floods now. Photo: BBC News
Not much has changed..cattle battling the Bihar Floods now. Photo: BBC News

Dip Narayan Singh lamented that boats were not available normally when the floods struck and the officers had no clue how to face the emergency. Many boats of the traders were parked at Mahnar and Hajipur and had the officers known about their availability they could have helped in rescuing a good number of people from the flooded areas and thus saved their lives. Insisting on the opening of cheap grain shops in the flood ravaged areas he told that a huge amount of food grain was buried under the debris of the collapsed houses and the seeds for the next crop also got trapped there. Such people needed to be helped by ready to eat food and also with seedlings of paddy for immediate transplantation from the areas that were not flooded this year. This should be done without any further loss of time. Some people might need loans for house building and that should be made available to them on deferred payment. Cooperatives could also advance loans to such people wherever they existed. Crop loan might be needed for some and that should be arranged for those who asked for it.

Murli Manohar Prasad talked about floods as a long term problem and said that some years ago there was a meeting with the Government of Uttar Pradesh when it was decided that the Railway Bridge at Majhi on the Ghaghara will have to be extended and embankments should be built on the river from Dhanawari till Chinwari like that built on the Gandak. Uttar Pradesh had opposed this embankment on the ground that the proposed embankment will have adverse impact on the Balia district. He wanted to know from the minister about the fate of those discussions. He also wanted that the issue of deforestation should also be discussed with Uttar Pradesh as massive felling of trees had aggravated the flood situation in Bihar while maintaining that not much benefit is expected from the restoration of forests as, “Unfortunately, the topography of Saran is quite unique. The level of the Gandak river is above the level of its surrounding, the river flows in many streams that take off at various points from the main stream. The level of these streams is also higher than the adjoining land and embankments are built on them also (He was referring to Zamindari embankments.). The local people had developed a very efficient system of irrigation and drainage that worked well till the Moghul Rule. Sluice gates were built on the embankments at various places on the Gandak which helped in controlling various smaller rivers taking off from the Gandak. Whenever people apprehended floods, they used to drop the shutters of the sluice gates. Besides, they have connected the chaurs (depressed lands) with these rivers and could take water from the rivers or discharge water into it with the help of sluice gates. Their drainage channels used to run parallel to the embankment of the river and were connected to the chaurs and the people could manipulate the direction of flow water as they desired. Almost whole of the Saran district was somehow connected to many of its major rivers namely the Ghaghara, the Gandak and the Ganga. Unfortunately, this amazing set up of irrigation and drainage got ruined with time and the sluice gates that were functional till 1878 ceased to function because the indigo planters who were paying the water rates based on the expenses incurred on running the set up to the Government refused to pay it anymore which they were paying so far. That led to the death of a good irrigation and drainage system. When water ceased to flow through these channels then not only the zamindars but rayyats also started encroaching the river bed and the local officers of the Government helplessly watched the proceedings of dismantling law and order situation of the district. His appeal to the Government was that, “it should not end up only distributing relief to the flood victims but should think seriously over the flood problem of the district.”

2013 Kosi Floods Photo: India Today
2013 Kosi Floods Photo: India Today

Prabhunath Singh intervened once again to say that, “The land between Darauli to Sonepur is quite fertile. The district of Saran is rated as a deficit district not because its land is inferior but because its population is very large and per capita availability of land is too small. I want to reiterate, therefore, that the damage inflicted by floods on the district is the only reason of the misery here and the Survey and Settlement Reports confirm it.” The embankment built in Kasmar Pargana from Sonepur to Darauli was earlier looked after by the Zamindars but their attitude changed and they had virtually abandoned the maintenance of those structures which were in ruinous state. He wanted the Government to take over the up-keep and maintenance of these structures. He added that an embankment existed earlier on the left bank of the Ghaghara from Sonepur to Kasmar and all that was needed to be done was repairing this structure.  If the Government of Uttar Pradesh objected to it then Bihar Government could always tell them that the embankment already existed and the State was only repairing it. The Survey and Settlement Report records stand a testimony to that effect.

Most of the members of the Assembly were of the view that the policy hitherto adopted of ‘no embankments’ along the rivers should be revisited, should now be changed and embankments must be built wherever needed or demanded by the people. The Government, however, was still not decided and used to pass the buck on the experts’ advice as it very well knew the consequences of embanking of heavily silt laden rivers.

Two ministers in the Government replied to this entire debate in the Assembly and their statements are worth studying minutely. First to reply was Ram Charitra Singh who said, “… It is quite likely that the reason for the floods in North Bihar are the people themselves living in the State.  Almost all the rivers of North Bihar have their origin in the Himalayas that are covered with ice. All the rivers that discharge their water into the sea bring a lot of sediments in their flow and deposited it on their path to the sea. That is how the land was formed in this region. Then came the human race which started tampering with the rivers for its own benefits and its lack of foresight resulted in the situation that we are faced with now. The debate that has taken place in the House establishes that we are still trapped in the same mindset.   The result is that many embankments have been built and many others are in the process of being built. The debate today in this House has revealed that many of our friends desire that we should continue building the embankments and they believe firmly that this will benefit them and improve the flood situation. I must say that, scientifically, had these embankments not existed the problem of this magnitude were not going to be there but what has happened has happened. We now better concentrate on the future course of action. Our policy is to control the construction of embankments.  Wherever these embankments are built, their construction is illegitimate and a vigil has got to be kept on them. At some places there were constraint and embankment had to be built there although it creates problems.”

He continued, “…I went to the Saran district recently and stayed there for three days (watching the flood situation) and immediately after my return here I got 14 embankments built along the Ganga for flood protection including Dighwara, Shitalpur and Kaudimal. I am not upset that so many embankments have been destroyed this year and a sum of Rs. Two lakhs twenty thousand has been wasted but I don’t regret it and should our engineers suggest that an embankment is essential, I will not hesitate helping them build it.” He admitted that the kind of damages due to floods that were seen in Saran this year were not seen elsewhere and assured all his help to the district. Emphasizing the need for drainage of the Chhapra town he had already instructed the Chief Engineer, Special Officer and the District Magistrate to repair the roads, railway line in collaboration with the District Board even if it amounted to cutting the railway line immediately. The Kharif crop was already lost and if the water is not drained out, the chances of Rabi would also recede.

Another minister, KB Sahay had this to say. “…The problem of floods is very critical. If we construct embankments in Saran, what impact will it have on the other districts? If we control the Ganga in Saran, how will that effect the other districts in UP? I want to put all these facts before the House and want to assure you that the Government will appoint a Commission whose job will be to tell that if an embankment is to be built in Muzaffarpur, it should tell us where and how?…If in Patna then where and how and so on.”

2008 Flood Photo: Bihar Days
2008 Flood Photo: Bihar Days

Dinesh Kumar Mishra, Convenor-Barh Mukti (


[1] This is Third part of a series of articles Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra has written for SANDRP based on his month long research at the National Library, Kolkata recently.

For Part 1 see:

Part 2:

[2] He meant that the Government should not give money to the flood victims just as a dole. It was to be a soft loan and the estimates etc should be suggested by engineers.

Bihar · Floods

1948 Floods in Bihar-2 Inaugural flood after Independence – Official Version of Floods and its Aftermath

Compiled[1] by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra (

Government of Bihar, Revenue Department, Report on the Flood and Relief Operations in Bihar for 1948-49. Superintendent, Government Printing, Bihar, Patna, 1951.

Muzaffarpur [2]“During the August floods water from the River Narayani flooded the village Fatehabad. About 100 houses are reported to have collapsed as a result of the breach in the bundh due to change in course of the River Gandak. There were heavy showers and considerable damage was caused to the paddy crops and certain parts of the Sadar and major parts of Katra, Minapur and Sakra thanas experienced floods… During floods in the Ganges, Hajipur sub-division was badly affected and steps had to be taken to arrange relief.” P-15 Continue reading “1948 Floods in Bihar-2 Inaugural flood after Independence – Official Version of Floods and its Aftermath”

Bihar · Floods

1948 Floods in Bihar-1 – Inaugural flood after Independence – View from Press Gallery

Guest blog by Dr Dinesh Kumar Mishra (

Background Bihar is long known for its floods. The British had left India but their legacy of looking at rivers and their floods was still continuing in 1948[1]. They always favored ‘leaving the rivers to their own devices’ and did precious little to tame the rivers. The zamindars used to put temporary and not so temporary embankments along the rivers to provide some flood protection to their ‘ryots’ which used to breach quite often to the detriment of the people living in the flood plains of the river. The repairs of such breaches were the responsibility of the zamindars but if they did not repair the same, the British establishment used to repair it and realize the cost of it from the zamindars. There were only 160 kilometers of ‘well designed and equally well constructed’ embankments on Bihar Rivers then. Zamindars had got a hint from the Government of India that their days were numbered and had little interest in maintaining the embankments in order. It was under these circumstances that the Government of Bihar (GoB) was expected to face the floods for the first time in independent India. Continue reading “1948 Floods in Bihar-1 – Inaugural flood after Independence – View from Press Gallery”

Bihar · Dams · Ganga · Himalayas · Interlinking of RIvers

Dams, Fish and Fishing Communities of the Ganga: Glimpses of the Gangetic Fisheries Primer

Some highlights from SANDRP’s latest Publication on Riverine Fisheries of the Ganga

The government is discussing Ganga not only as ‘Ganga Mata’, but also as a ‘navigational corridor’ with plans to build barrages after every 100 kilometers with funding from World Bank. At her origin, hundreds of hydropower dams are changing the ecological character of the Ganga. However, as a rich ecosystem, the Ganga also supports  about 10-13 million riverine fisherfolk and about 300 freshwater fish species! Riverine fisheries have been a blind spot in Independent India, despite the fact that they provide nutritional and livelihood security to millions of people.In the post independence water management discourse, river has been equated to water and water to irrigation, water supply, and hydro power. The profound impacts of irrigation, water supply and hydropower dams on sectors like riverine fisheries have been entirely ignored.

Nachiket Kelkar looks at the status of riverine fisheries and fisher communities in the Gangetic Basin of India and highlights the devastating impacts of dams, barrages and water abstractions on this. Nachiket’s study on Gangetic Fisheries is based on long term engagement with fisher communities in the basin as well as robust scientific studies.

SANDRP has published this work in the form of a Primer which will soon be available online. What follows are some glimpses from the Primer. Please write to us if you are interested in receiving a full soft copy of the Primer.



Riverine fisheries of the Gangetic basin support one of the largest fishing populations of the world. However, its fish resources are rapidly declining due to large dams, barrages and hydropower projects, severely altered river flows, fragmentation of hydrological connectivity between rivers and wetlands, alarming levels of pollution, riverfront encroachment, rampant sand mining and unregulated overexploitation of fish resources.

Across its range, the fisheries show indications of economic unviability and ecological collapse, with violent social conflicts as an outcome of the contest over scarce and declining resources as well as politics and access. A major factor behind the serious fisheries-related problems is severe alteration of river flow volume and seasonal dynamics by large dams, barrages and hydropower projects. The state of river fisheries directly indicates the declining biophysical, ecological and social integrity of the river basin. The existing in-river fisheries contribute merely about 10% of the overall inland fish production. Even this production is highly unsustainable today and has all the indicators of serious levels of overfishing. For instance, river fisheries in Bihar now even glean small-sized fish fry for markets in northern West Bengal (Siliguri) and Assam, where eating small fish is a delicacy (F.pers.comm).

To understand the situation in Gangetic Basin clearly, a detailed, large-scale interview survey was conducted by the author in 2012 across 372 fishers in 59 fisher groups spread over 17 rivers in 5 north Indian states. The survey objective was to document perceptions of traditional fishing communities about issues and problems in fishing in the Gangetic basin. Of the respondents, c. 90% singled out “large dams and poor river flows” as the main causes for a near-total decline in fisheries and fish resources over the past 4 decades. About 90% people mentioned low water availability and stoppage of fish migratory routes by large dams as the main cause for fish declines. Almost 45% (from eastern and northern UP, and Bihar) singled out the Farakka barrage as the main problem.

The Sone River in the dry season. Poor river flows released by dams and barrages have serious implications on fisher livelihoods. Photo: © Subhasis Dey.
The Sone River in the dry season. Poor river flows released by dams and barrages have serious implications on fisher livelihoods. Photo: © Subhasis Dey.

The Canvas of Gangetic River Fisheries
The Ganga  River, from her headwaters to the delta, along with hundreds of her tributaries drains an area of approx. 0.9_1 million km2 across northern and eastern India, flowing through 10 states in India and also in Nepal and Bangladesh. These rivers form one of the largest alluvial mega-fan regions of the world, and deliver huge quantities of sediment from the Himalayas to the northern Indian plains and to the Bay of Bengal in the Indian Ocean. The Gangetic floodplains shape not only landforms but also complex human cultures that attempt to stabilize themselves and adapt to the constantly changing riverine forces. Biodiversity, hydrology, geomorphology and social dynamics influence each other through constant interaction and multiple feedback mechanisms.

The major rivers of the Gangetic Basin (Based on ‘hydro1k-rivers-Asia.dbf’).
The major rivers of the Gangetic Basin (Based on ‘hydro1k-rivers-Asia.dbf’).

The dynamic balance of these factors triggers opportunities for spawning, reproduction, population dynamics and viability, migration and movement of freshwater species, including fishes, river dolphins, otters, crocodilians, turtles, invertebrates as well as terrestrial biodiversity.

In floodplain rivers, as floodwaters recede post-monsoon, fishers record the highest catches in October and November, as large post-breeding and migrating adult fishes (e.g. major carps, clupeids, mullet) become catchable. Winters, from December to early February, generally record low catches because many fish show slowed behavior and limited movement. But in spring fisheries of minor carps and catfishes record high production. With water levels reducing, fishes become more concentrated in specific river habitats like deep pools, where they are easy to fish. Summer fish catch biomass is also reasonably good due to the overall low water availability.

In the Gangetic basin, fisheries are practiced in a range of diverse freshwater habitats including natural and man-made, lentic (stagnant water) and lotic (flowing water) ecosystems. Natural freshwater areas include large floodplain rivers, non-perennial rivers, perennial and seasonal streams, cold-water rivers and streams, glacial lakes, estuaries, tidal rivers, floodplain wetlands, oxbow lakes, grassland swamps and marshes. Manmade habitats include dug or built-up wetlands, ponds, man-made reservoirs, dam reservoirs and canals. To the fisher, flow velocity, depth profile, substrate type, vegetation structure, current patterns and habitat stability are key indicators for fishing effort allocation and logistical decisions.

Fish Diversity in the Gangetic Basin
The overall species pool of the Gangetic fish assemblage is estimated at around 300 species (53+ families, 150+ genera; 250 species). The floodplain fisheries are dominated by major and minor carps (Cyprinidae), catfishes (Siluriformes: 6-7 families), Clupeidae, Notopteridae and a mix of many other families. Major carps and the Clupeid fish, Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) and some large catfishes form the most valued catches across most parts of the Gangetic floodplains.
Major carps, the most preferred freshwater food fishes, include species like Catla, Rohu, Mrigal, Mahseer etc. exhibit potamodromous (along freshwater upstream-downstream gradients) migration. Though these fishes have suffered serious declines due to overfishing, pollution and dams, they have been mass-produced through artificial rearing in pond aquaculture. Farmed large carps form the major proportion of fish eaten anywhere in India today. In wild fisheries, catfishes come lower in the preference order, but with the decline of carps, medium and small catfishes have become the main fishing targets. Further, as most catfishes are sedentary and do not show long-distance movements, the fisheries have completely switched from carp- to catfish-targeting fisheries. Other deep-bodied, highly sought after fishes include the Chitala and Notopterus, or the featherfishes, and mullet.

Various fish species in Ganga Basin. Refer to the Primer for more information.
Various fish species in Ganga Basin. Refer to the Primer for more information.

The estuarine fishery in the Hooghly and Sunderbans tidal rivers in West Bengal is dominated by shellfish (prawns, mud crabs and shrimp), Clupeidae and Engraulidae, Sciaenidae, catfishes of the Ariidae and a far more diverse set of families compared to truly inland fisheries. Other important components of the commercial fisheries include 5-6 species of shellfishes (mainly prawn and shrimp).

Coldwater fisheries specialize on large-bodied, rapids-loving potamodromous migrant fishes such as Mahseer and Snow Trout. These fishes are of high commercial importance and are in high demand by professional sport fishers and anglers, apart from being highly prized as food locally. Mahseer in particular, have recently led to the opening of new markets of luxury wildlife tourism that is based on angling and recreation in the Western Himalaya.

Dam reservoir fisheries are almost entirely based on managed stocking and breeding of commercial fishes in hatcheries, of major carps Catla, Rohu and Mrigal, catfishes like Pangasiodon, and minor catfishes. The state of river fisheries in the Gangetic basin has been affected over the last few decades by several threats described in the next section.

Dams and Riverine Fisheries in India Fisheries across India have been severely affected by dams, flow regulation and associated human impacts, which have substantially altered ecological requirements of fisheries and biodiversity together. If one clinically investigated the fisheries’ decline, they would find it to coincide with the period of maximum dam building (1970s-80s) in India. Most commercially valuable fish species, especially major carps and Hilsa, have shown population-level collapse and even commercial extinction over large inland waters. Reduction in harvested fish size-class distributions, a classical indicator of overexploitation by fisheries, points to poor fish recruitment and adult survival, which may be further brought down by flow regulation by dams. Dams have acted as the major factor of disruption by blocking migratory routes of upriver or estuarine spawning fishes such as Hilsa and Anguilla eels. Dams have also caused loss of genetic connectivity between fish populations, most notably seen in major carp stocks. Erratic water releases, nutrient and sediment trapping behind dams and barrages, failure of breeding in carp and catfish species due to siltation, erosion, poor water availability, modified thermal regimes required for breeding (increase in temperatures due to low river depth/flow), and exceptional levels of hazardous pollution (again, magnified due to the poor flows reducing dilution capacity of river water), are other fallouts that adversely affect fisheries. The fact that there is just not enough water in the river must form the bottom line of any causal investigation of riverine fisheries. Lack of appropriate policy measures and pollution receive dominant mention as threats to fisheries by government research agencies, but they are mere outcomes of much larger shifted baselines because of dams. Dams, barrages and hydropower projects through flow regulation have increased uncertainty about fishing and driven fishing to desperate levels: fishers often resort to destructive practices, or even worse, exit the fishery altogether. Such exit does not solve the problem of existing fisher folk: water is critical to sustaining not just fisheries but the river and the people dependent on it. Detailed understanding of the lives of fishing communities of the Ganges is therefore critical.

Ganga made completely dry at Haridwar by the Bhimgouda barrage Photo: SANDRP.
Ganga made completely dry at Haridwar by the Bhimgouda barrage Photo: SANDRP.

Fisher communities in Ganga: Around 10-13 million people in the Gangetic floodplains are estimated to be dependent on fish resources for their livelihoods, directly or indirectly. However, accurate estimates of active traditional and non-traditional fisher populations are still wanting. It is important for any discussion on fishing communities to clearly separate traditional fishing communities from ‘non-traditional fishers’, who may be practically from any other local community and with the possession of other livelihood options, but also opportunistic fishing, due to unrestricted access to imported nets and gear available in markets to anyone. Traditional fishing communities were always the craftsmen of their own nets and gear, and also possess remarkable ecological knowledge about rivers, fish and biodiversity, their breeding biology, ecology, seasonality, and distribution. Of course, with the degradation of fisheries throughout the Gangetic plains, the traditional knowledge and practices of fishing are eroding fast. Hence such knowledge needs to be documented well, especially from old fishers with whom it still persists, to identify historical baselines of river fisheries with a different, past ecological reference (pers.obs.; F.pers.comm).
Traditional fishing communities today form a highly marginalized, politically unorganized and socio-economically impoverished people. Caste discriminations and political history form the chief reasons for their poverty and subjugation over centuries of fishworking. But the present condition of rivers does not seem to offer hope to any improvement in their economic position unless and until there is collective voicing of their concerns, especially against large-scale water engineering projects that threaten their livelihoods.

Author in discussions with fishers
Author in discussions with fishers

Their livelihoods, one may argue, confined them to the river’s water, albeit the fact that they never owned the waters legally. However, they always have stated cultural claims of temporally confined territory, following their foraging preferences and site usage. But depending on the nature of the river’s hydrological dynamics, there may be variable maintenance of fixed ‘territories’ by fishers adopting a roving mode of fishing, and neither legal nor cultural claims can be reconciled to a level that the conflicting parties can reach mutually. With regards to their economic viability and status, a large proportion of the traditional fishworkers fall Below the Poverty Line (BPL), and are recorded as Economically Backward Castes, and also have been assigned the status of Scheduled Castes. Annual incomes from fishing alone, according to the few estimates available, range from INR 25,000/- to INR 50,000/- (pers.obs., F.pers.comm.).

Large dams, flow regulation and Gangetic basin fisheries : The singular key problem of fisheries today is that it lacks water in the dry-season, because of flow regulation by dams, barrages and hydropower projects. More water flow releases are needed for the protection of riverine fisheries in the Gangetic basin. Widespread river habitat degradation, industrial, agricultural and domestic pollution, altered flows and modification of sediment and nutrient fluxes by dam projects, and resource overexploitation (by fisheries, agriculture or industry) have had major consequences for the unique biodiversity and fisheries of floodplain rivers across Asia. Obstruction and fragmentation of river flow, habitat destruction, accelerated erosion and siltation, long-distance water diversions (involving huge amount of transmission losses and waste) and poor flow releases are the major direct threats of dam-canal systems in the Gangetic plains.

Flow volume problems: Lower-than-minimum flows have been consistently recorded across the Ganga, Yamuna, Chambal, Kosi, Sone, Ken, Betwa, Ghaghra and Gandak rivers. Along with these large rivers, almost all others (Rapti, Baghmati, Mahananda, Teesta, Kamla, Burhi Gandak, Punpun, Gomti and others) have been highly regulated64,69. The reduction of freshwater discharge reaching the Sunderbans because of the Farakka barrage has led to high degree saline ingress throughout the estuary, causing die-offs of considerably large tracts of mangroves and aquatic vegetation, as well as severe losses to the upstream fishery. Downstream, fishing practices suited to brackish and fresh waters now have to adapt to saline intrusion into the estuary’s waters. Globally, fragmentation and flow regulation have caused the most severe impacts through drastic alterations to riverine biota and ecology. Low flows and fragmented connectivity of river channels lead inevitably to fish population declines and breeding failure. Over time, dams have probably led to genetic isolation of fish populations as well as river dolphin / crocodile populations, destruction of fish breeding habitats and spawning triggers and loss of valuable wild fish germplasm. These losses are so large in their ecological value and opportunity costs that they cannot be recovered with artificial fish culture techniques or hatcheries.

Aggravation of pollution effects: The Ganges basin is one of the most polluted large river basins in Asia, especially with regards to domestic sewage and agricultural runoff. Poor flows reduce the dilution and self-purification capacity of river water to reduce concentration of pollutants and local impacts on fishes. . Agricultural fertilizers (organophosphates, organochlorines, nitrates etc.), heavy metal pollution from industrial effluents, thermal power plants, oil refineries, distilleries and tanneries, and nitrogen-rich sewage, waste-water and non-biodegradable substances such as plastics, mercury, radioactive compounds and hospital wastes can cause fish kills or even worse, lead to high levels of toxicity in tissues. Pollution problems are especially acute in highly regulated river reaches, especially around Delhi (Yamuna River), and the Gomti at Lucknow, Yamuna until Panchnada in UP and Ganga River at Kanpur, Allahabad, Varanasi, Patna, Barauni, Bhagalpur and Farakka.

Polluted Ganga at Allahabad Photo: National Geographic
Polluted Ganga at Allahabad Photo: National Geographic

Siltation in dam reservoirs and barrage gates: Excessive siltation in the Ghaghra barrage has led to, as per local fishers, breeding failure in Labeo angra (Ghewri), a preferred spring-fisheries target in the region. The fishers claimed that over the past 5 years they have not captured a single fish with eggs inside it, and also added that catches have plummeted heavily (F.pers.comm). Siltation of gravel/sediment in reservoir or storage zones is a problem of huge magnitude for fisheries, especially through breeding failure. Accumulated silt in reservoirs is estimated to be so high (in tens of meters height) that it cannot even be easily flushed out, and leads to nearly 60-90% reductions in sediment fluxes of rivers in monsoon and non-monsooon seasons. Siltation adds to obstruction of flow release through barrage gates. In the Farakka barrage, sediment load accumulation is leading to breakage of gates every year, adding to maintenance costs.

Habitat destruction and alteration of erosion-deposition dynamics: Soil erosion by erratic and sudden releases before floods can potentially lead to alteration and destruction of fish breeding habitats and stock depression. Changes in depth and flow velocity lead to fish not being able to receive natural physiological cues for movement and spawning that are otherwise provided by variability in discharge. Flow alteration also alters hydrological connectivity and sediment transport with wetlands and confluence channels during flooding. As a result these productive breeding habitats often become unavailable for catfishes and carps. These factors together become a problem for pre-settlement fish juveniles and recruits, which move into the main channels.

Threats to cold-water and foothills fisheries from Hydropower Dams: Overall, despite their projected low impact situation, hydropower projects can have serious large-scale effects on mountain streams as well as rivers downstream. Globally, despite mitigation measures in hydropower constructions, fish migration and development have largely been deemed as failures. In India, hydropower projects, especially run-of-river projects in higher altitudes, often have disastrous effects on natural thermal regimes, cause sediment blockages and perturb natural flow variability at diurnal timescales through releases varying across several orders of magnitude. These changes severely affect not just breeding and migration in higher-altitude cold-water fisheries of snow trout and Mahseer in Himachal, Sikkim and Uttarakhand, but also downstream fisheries of catfish and carps in the foothills and plains due to altered flows. Their cumulative downstream impact can also potentially risk fisheries-based uses of river water without being exposed to the risk of sudden flow releases every day.

Globally, through extreme perturbation of natural flow dynamics, dams have homogenized and altered many crucial river-floodplain processes, and have had disastrous impacts on biodiversity and fisheries. There is an urgent need to ensure ecologically necessary, adequate and natural flow regimes in all rivers of the Gangetic basin. The current water scarcity is so severe that projects such as river interlinking, apart from their ridiculous proposed costs, are simply impossible to conceive of, water itself being the limitation. There is no doubt that further water developments will prove disastrous for a whole section of people and their livelihoods, and must be scrapped. Rivers that need urgent attention in this respect are the Chambal, Yamuna, Ken, Betwa, Alaknanda, Bhagirathi, Mandakini, Sone, Damodar, the Ganges at Farakka and Allahabad, Sharada, Ghaghra and all other rivers especially in Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar0. Run-of-river hydropower projects, flow diversions and links, pumped irrigation, embankments, agricultural intensification, groundwater depletion and sand mining are highly destructive threats that will affect not just fisheries but the whole social fabric of river users in the near future.

Despite the demonstrated folly of not allowing rivers to flow from headwaters to estuaries and deltas, engineers, technocrats and politicians talk of “rivers flowing wastefully into the sea”. This statement would imply that the thousands of species and millions of fisher livelihoods that need flowing water in rivers are of no value to the state policy on water resource development. Such statements are ignoring important societal needs and hence are evidently irresponsible.

No post dam-construction compensation schemes exist for fishers, who may lose their entire livelihood because of flow-regulation and loss of hydrological connectivity due to dams. Downstream fisher populations must be ideally compensated for the lost fishing catch and livelihood opportunity, but in general there has been scant attention towards the communities’ livelihoods (F.pers.comm). Downstream water allocations through on-ground consultations with fisher communities are urgently needed (F.pers.comm). In India, water resources development is so strongly irrigation-focused (and now strongly focused on industry and hydropower), that, in comparison, riverine fisheries are not even acknowledged as legitimate and in need of conservation and livelihood protection. These biases mean that only pond aquaculture receives any attention. If river conservation and development groups can actively work with fishing communities in order to develop an informed and aware constituency or interest group, fishers will gain political voice in making negotiations about water availability in river basins.

Fisherfolk of Ganga Photo: Gangapedia
Fisherfolk of Ganga Photo: Gangapedia

Fisheries incur ‘colossal losses’ every season due to irregularities in dam operations, and always fall severely short of demand. But now, through the boom of artificially managed pond aquaculture and wetland fishing especially in Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal, the nature of supply itself has radically changedThis boom has contributed to India becoming one of the largest producers of inland freshwater fish in the world. But such ranking hides a lot of miserable facts about river degradation. Although net production shows increases, the collapse of river fisheries that still support millions of poor people who don’t get access to aquaculture, get totally ignored under such swamping. This is why farmed fish in fish hatcheries can barely replace riverine fisheries despite the fact that they have cornered the attention of fisheries development.

The failure of river fisheries has led to large-scale outmigration for labour from the Indo-Gangetic plains (F.pers.comm.). This might be a significant contributor to the magnitude of labour-related migrations from the Gangetic plains, which has been a rising exodus. Today, fisher folk from Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Bengal provide a large proportion (20-40%) of construction and manual labor force across India (F.pers.comm). Others who stay behind have to take to menial jobs such as rickshaw-pullers or servants (F.pers.comm; pers.obs). Some are forced to take to crime to be able to feed themselves and their families. These factors can weaken the social resilience of production systems and create poverty, disparity and community breakdown. It has been argued that ethnic conflicts between local Indian populations and illegally immigrated Bangladeshi refugees are linked to poor water releases from the Farakka barrage in West Bengal, to downstream floodplain reaches in Bangladesh.

Mitigation measures like Fish ladders and hatcheries
There is little existing research on the construction design, functioning and efficiency of fish ladders in tropical and subtropical large floodplain rivers. Across the tropics, monitoring studies on fish ladders do not show positive results. A handful of barrages in India have constructed fish ladders, but owing to numerous problems they have been largely a failure. These problems are all related to the extremely low discharge rates from the dams – as there is simply not enough water volume allocated for migrating fishes, which therefore cannot access the ladders and fish lifts. Other problems are linked to siltation in reservoirs and turbulence of flows near the fish passages. For instance, the Farakka fish lifts do not seem to have been of any help due to the extremely low outflow of the Ganga River from it, and the commercial extinction of the Hilsa fisheries both upstream and downstream is clear with an estimated 99.9% decline. Fish passes constructed at barrages on the Yamuna River (Hathnikund barrage) and the Ganga barrage at Haridwar have been monitored by CIFRI and the results suggest that they have had very low success for migration of cold-water species like the Golden Mahseer Tor putitora. Similar structures on the Beas River and Mahanadi River (Salandi dam, Orissa) have found to be ineffective in buffering the adverse impacts on fisheries production in these rivers. India has dominantly followed reservoir hatcheries development, and therefore consideration for effective fish ladders has always been low priority. However, as we have seen, hatcheries themselves bring about several problems for native fish populations – and are not an ecologically viable solution, despite being economically profitable to certain interests. Given the poor success of existing fish passages, it is important to consider modern designs in existing and proposed dams that are suited to the ecology of our own fishes. A whole body of interdisciplinary research – spanning engineering and ecology, is needed to address the significant gaps in our understanding of making fish passages work. We need to monitor existing examples well to assess reasons for their failure. Again, just the act of allowing higher dry-season flows and timely adequate releases in the river could be a far more effective strategy for fisheries improvement than other intensive technology-driven practices to enhance fisheries production (F.pers.comm)

River restoration and alternative livelihoods: Given the current state of riverine fisheries, there is an urgent need to consider possibilities for large-scale ecological restoration of rivers by modifying dam operations and improving ecological flows. Alongside restoration, it is crucial to consider alternative livelihoods to fishers, which regard their traditional knowledge and provide them with clearly defined user rights and responsibilities over management of wild-caught or cultured fish resources. Ecological restoration of all major and minor rivers in India needs to be undertaken urgently, to ensure ecologically adequate, naturally timed flow releases, consistent dry-season flow regimes, hydro-geomorphological habitat maintenance, flood maintenance and reduction in pollution. Dam re-operations to ensure adequate flows and variability in river discharge remain a neglected aspect of river management in most regions today. Flow restoration can lead to improved health, numbers and availability of native commercial carps and preponderance of larger fish sizes through improved juvenile recruitment, along with other advantages to surface hydrology and local groundwater availability. Large-scale scientific research and monitoring programs must be instituted to study the response of inland wild-capture fisheries and take further steps to mitigate local threats. Restoration also needs to involve stringent restrictions on release of untreated domestic and industrial effluent, especially in urban belts such as Kanpur, the National Capital Region of Delhi, Allahabad-Varanasi, Mathura-Agra, Lucknow in Uttar Pradesh; Patna, Barauni in Bihar and the Durgapur and Kolkata regions in West Bengal. Strict restrictions are needed on sand-mining, riverfront encroachment and embankment construction, especially in the Chambal, Ghaghra, Gandak, Baghmati, Rapti and Kosi Rivers. In this regard, more judicial interventions, such as seen recently in the case of sand-mining closures from river beds based on a review by the National Green Tribunal, are critical in reducing wanton and unregulated destruction of riverfronts, when implemented effectively. In terms of reducing the most direct impacts, there is a need to regulate fishing pressure and completely curb destructive fishing practices like dynamiting, use of mosquito-nets, beach seines, and gillnets below allowable mesh-sizes, poisoning, use of long-lines etc. Traditional fishers must be involved directly in monitoring and banning the use of destructive practices by the government monitoring agencies.

Finally, the quest for sustaining fisheries in the Ganga River basin in the long-term will require rethinking of current dominant paradigms to move towards ecological restoration of rivers, their biodiversity, as well as socially just, rights-based and equitable socio-political restoration of traditional fisher communities and fisheries management systems.

-Nachiket Kelkar

Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, Srirampura Royal Enclave, Jakkur, Bangalore 560064, India. (The views expressed are of the author and do not belong to the institution where the author currently works)

Member, IUCN Cetacean Specialist Group, IUCN, Gland, Switzerland.



Twelve-point recommendation from traditional fisher communities for sustaining riverine fisheries and livelihoods in the Gangetic basin.

Rank Need Recommendations
1 Water Provide enough water, adequate natural flows in all rivers. Allow fish movements upriver, currently blocked by large dams and barrages. STOP new dams and mindless, high-cost, destructive and unsustainable engineering projects such as river interlinking.
2 Ban on destructive fishing practices Curb destructive practices of fishing, especially mosquito-netting, poisoning, dynamite-fishing, trawling and beach-seine netting everywhere.
3 Poverty alleviation and social security Fishers are in need of government dole or loans, technical know-how, permits and I-cards, housing, education and displacement packages. It is alleged that these benefits are hardly reaching them, although the allocations of funds reach farmers easily. Fishers need government security from criminals / mafia / anti-social elements / pirates that harass them and grab fish catch.
5 Define fisher rights and responsibilities Clearly define fishing use and access rights across all riverscapes, provide clear guidelines on multi-objective management of fisheries amidst other economic activities
6 Reduce pollution and mass fish-kills Urgent need to reduce the presently excessive river pollution, especially industrial but also domestic wastes.
7 Alternative livelihoods River fisheries are currently in a state of ecosystem-level decline or collapse. Trash fishes have become the most common catch, replacing many commercially viable carps and catfishes. People require alternative livelihoods in situ, to check problems related to migration and exodus to work as construction laborers or rickshaw-pullers. Community-based, cooperative pond carp-culture fisheries seem highly promising. Other alternative livelihoods include working with river management authorities, conservation agencies, ecotourism, agriculture etc.
8 Fishery co-operatives Focus on community-based management of river fisheries and help it develop in an ecologically friendly and sustainable manner. Replace the systems of private contracts and free-for-all fishing by power-equitable, social dignified resource-sharing arrangements
9 Ensure compliance of fishers towards biodiversity conservation and monitoring Needs to be ensured through continued monitoring of fishing activity and behavior, including by-catch or hunting of species. This will help safeguard endangered wild species such as gharial, turtles, river dolphins, birds etc. This can also help the spread of exotic food fishes that are rapidly invading our rivers (the worst examples are Tilapia species, Chinese and Common Carps, and more recently, Red-bellied Piranha.
10 Use of Food Security Act, Rural Labor Programs Can facilitate daily incomes by which fisheries losses could be offset; while also providing a solid community-level incentive to regulate and monitor fishing.
11 Restoration of native riverine fish communities Very important given the huge decline in native carp species of high commercial value. Fisheries need to protected not only by revival of stocks, facilitating better fish recruitment, but also by protecting fish breeding habitats from
12 Adaptive management of water tenure in fishing areas Owing to natural uncertainty linked to flow regimes and channel course changes, new flexible systems of tenure in fisheries are required. Such systems would fit in well with providing a clear definition to fishing rights in any riverine stretch.