Dams · Environmental Flow · Fish Sanctuaries · Free flowing rivers · Ganga · Inland Waterways · Interlinking of RIvers · Karnataka · Kerala

Riverine Fisherfolk as Mascots of flowing rivers and how 4 projects treat them today

When I was documenting a tiny, free-flowing river in Maharashtra Western Ghats named Shastri, the common thread from headwaters to estuary was Fishing! It was everywhere, in all forms, including dozens of fish species and fishing practices, including everyone: men, women, children, otters, crocs, storks. Across the country, buzzing, diversified fisheries with old, complex narratives indicate a rich river. And the palette just gets more vivid, nuanced and colorful with the size of the river.

More than 10 million Indians from some of the most vulnerable groups depend on rivers for their livelihood and nutritional needs. This staggering number can be an underestimate as several riverine fisherfolk do not bring their produce to the market and our livelihood census hardly captures the intricacies of riverine fisheries sector. Despite the huge dependence and critical importance of riverine fisheries, the sector continues being ignored and abused. The reasons behind the exploitation are at the heart of a deeper, more troubling discourse: ownership and appropriation of the river as a natural resource. Continue reading “Riverine Fisherfolk as Mascots of flowing rivers and how 4 projects treat them today”


Narmada Estuary: Hilsa, other Fish and Fisher people need protection

Pungent fishy smell is the first thing that grabs your attention in Bhadbhut village in Bharuch District of Gujarat, which lies on the estuary of the mighty Narmada River, as it meets the Arabian Sea. Every alternate shop in every small lane sells fresh fish and by 11 in the morning, first lot of fresh fish is ice packed in thermocol boxes, all set for far off places like Kolkata and Delhi. Before I was told, I saw for myself that fishing in the Narmada Estuary is the backbone of coastal Bharuch district.

Bhadbhut Village

Just 5.15 kilometers from here is the planned Bhabhut Barrage on the Narmada River. What will happen to Bharuch if barrage is constructed? This is the reason why I am here. To understand the implications of this barrage on lives of thousands of fisherfolk from this estuary and on the famed Hilsa fish, that mysterious silver river migrant, on which the fishing economy depends nearly exclusively.

Hilsa is a marine fish that arrives in the brackish water of estuary for spawning normally inhabiting the lower region of the estuaries and the foreshore areas of the sea. For India the peak upstream migration of hilsa in most of the rivers is generally in the monsoon months of July and August and continues upto October or November.

BB 2

Bhadbhut barrage will be constructed at 5.15 km downstream of village Bhadbhut and 25 km upstream of river mouth. It is part of a gargantuan Kalpasar project pushed by the State Government. Kalpasar (pragmatic critics hold that Kalpasar is in fact an abbreviation of Kalpanic Sarovar, an imaginary reservoir) project which is supposed to be one of the biggest in the world proposes to construct a 30 km long dam (one of the longest in the world) across the Gulf of Khambhat between Bharuch and Bhavnagar districts[i]. The reservoir is supposed to trap the water of twelve rivers that empty their water in the gulf, including Narmada, Mahi, Sabarmati, Dhadar and some Saurashtra rivers. It is expected to create a reservoir of 2000 sq km area, over five times the area of Sardar Sarovar, the reservoir capacity is expected to be over 10 billion cubic meters, that is larger than the SSP reservoir capacity. The project is being pushed ignoring serious issues like hydrological-geological-structural feasibility and needless to say, it’s impacts on environment and fisherfolk. The project will destroy the coastal and deltaic fisheries and wetlands.

As SANDRP has been highlighting for some time now, riverine fisherfolk are one of the most disadvantaged and deprived sections in the dam debate throughout the country. It is no different in Narmada. Livelihood of the fisherfolk from Narmada Estuary has been threatened by several industrial estates established across the district and is now on the verge of being destroyed. Yield of Hilsa has been steadily decreasing (from 15319 tonnes to 4866 tonnes during 1993 to 2004[ii]) since commissioning of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) canal and power house in 2006. SSP is built on the Narmada River about 130 km upstream from the estuary. Another dam, Garudeshwar Dam, is under construction downstream from SSP.

Narmada Estuary
Narmada Estuary

Are people here in the estuary aware of the scale of the Kalpasar project? What do these local fisherfolk have to say about this? How have they been coping with the impacts of SSP?

On the lack of study of the downstream environment, the first paragraph from the chapter on this issue from the report of the Independent Review of the Sardar Sarovar Project instituted by the World Bank is worth quoting in full [iii]:

“From the Sardar Sarovar dam to the ocean, the Narmada River runs for 180 kilometers through a rich lowland region which represents about 10% of its catchment area. In the course of our environmental review we sought information that described the ecology of this lower reach of the river, the estuary, and near shore region in the Gulf of Cambay. We hoped to find a description of the aquatic ecosystem, including parameters indicating the quality and quantity of water and its seasonal changes, biological species, processes, and resource linkages. We looked forward to finding a systematic treatment of flow regimes and geomorphology. We expected to find systematic documentation of resource use, from drinking water to fisheries. We thought there would be documents establishing the kinds of physical, biological and socioeconomic changes to be expected as the Sardar Sarovar Projects are brought on stream and more and more of the natural flow is stored, used or diverted out of the river. We looked for a set of ameliorative measures that would be implemented to mitigate impacts. We thought these measures would be scheduled to begin with phased development of the Sardar Sarovar Projects. We hoped they would also be related to the cumulative effects of other developments on the Narmada further upstream, in particular the Narmada Sagar Projects, and to the expansion of industrial activity in the downstream rive basin in Gujarat itself.

In all our expectations we have been disappointed.” (Emphasis Added.)

The paragraph speaks eloquently and what it says it true even till date.


Eager to find answers to these questions, I along with Bhupat Solanki a volunteer from Paryavaran Mitra, an Ahmedabad based NGO, first met Praveen Madhiwala, a fish trader and exporter. As I explain the purpose of my visit to him, his first reaction is “if the dam at Bhadbhut comes up, Hilsa will be finished. Not only that, but the dam will prove to be destructive to the entire estuary.” He explains, “Tidal flow of water spreads 60 KM from sea shore to upstream of the estuary. They are planning to build the barrage just 25 KM upstream of the sea shore. What will happen then to the incoming salt water during high tide? It is bound to spread laterally along the barrage spreading in the coastal region and will be destructive to the settlements along the coastline. Calculating all these numbers on paper is very different than experiencing the destructive power of sea. We know what the sea can do.”

Destruction of Hilsa and other fish by Sardar Sarovar

Kamalesh Madhiwala, an advocate from Bhadbhut adds further. “Yield of Hilsa has drastically reduced after Sardar Sarowar Dam has been built. There has been a reduction of 65 to 70%. Overall water level of the estuary has gone down. Post monsoon the river becomes so dry that we can walk across the riverbed. This had never happened in the past before Sardar Sarovar.” When asked about the claim by Narmada Control Authority that it constantly releases 600 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the dam[iii] to maintain the health of the river and the estuary, he says “We don’t think water is released from the SSP. There is no mechanism to monitor this. If you approach government they will show you on paper that they release 600 cusecs of water every day. But no one maintains the on ground data.” According to him the SSP has affected overall fish variety of the estuary as well. “A decade ago there used to be 70 to 80 types of fish varieties available in the estuary. Now we get only about 10 to 12 fish varieties. Earlier along with Hilsa many other riverine species like Prawns, Mahseer etc. have been commercially equally important which Sardar Sarovar has vanquished. Now the fisher people’s income is solely dependent on Hilsa which is very sensitive species. Reduction of water flow in the river immediately affects the yield of Hilsa. Even though Hilsa is available only for about 4 months of the year, 70% of the income of fisherfolk at present is from sale of Hilsa alone.”

Hilsa ice packed to be transported
Hilsa ice packed to be transported
70% of the income of fisherfolk is from sale of Hilsa
70% of the income of fisherfolk is from sale of Hilsa

Farcical EIA of proposed Bhadbhut barrage by NEERI

Kamalesh Bhai also points out several lacunae in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report that National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI) has prepared for Bhadbhut Barrage. “The entire study has been an absolute farce. First of all none of the local people were aware of any such study going on. It also grossly underestimates the total population of fisherfolk that will be affected by the Bhadbhut dam.” The report considers the total number of fisherfolk residing in 21 villages to be 12,638 based on more than a decade old data from Census 2001.[iv] According to Kamlesh bhai the actual population residing in the estuary region whose livelihood will be affected by barrage is close to 35 to 40 thousand!

SANDRP had sent detailed critique of the EIA to the Gujarat State Environment Impact Assessment Authority before the public hearing for the project held on July 19, 2013. An excerpt from the critique:

“Unclear objectives of the project The objectives of the project stated in the EIA of the project are:

  • Protection of water quality of Narmada river from salinity due to tidal influence and checking the problems of salinity ingress and deterioration of ground water quality in the upper reaches of Narmada river;
  • Storage of the regulated release of water from SSP and runoff from free catchment for irrigation, domestic and industrial water supply;
  • Flood protection of about 400 sq km low lying area covering 17 villages on the left bank of river Narmada;
  • and Road connectivity between left and right banks, shortening route from Surat/Hajira to Dahej region.

The EIA agency has uncritically accepted these objectives, without assessing if the barrage with low water storage can really fulfill the second the third objective and considering the low salinity level reported by the EIA (mainly based on data provided by the project authorities, again uncritically accepted by NEERI), is the first objective relevant. The fact that the Kalpsar department played such an important role and the fact that it is public knowledge that the barrage is part of the propose Kalpsar project should have been taken note by NEERI. NEERI should have also questioned as to why is this small part of the larger Kalpsar project applying for such piecemeal clearances which is actually in violation of the Supreme Court orders. It should be added here that the Kalpsar project had applied for the TOR clearance from Union Ministry of Env and Forests. The project came up before the MoEF’s Expert Appraisal Committee on River Valley Projects. SANDRP had then sent a letter to the EAC, saying that based on information provided, the project should not be considered for clearance. In its 41st meeting in Sept 2010, the EAC declined to give TOR clearance to the project, saying that the documentation provided are highly inadequate and need to be more holistic and uptodate pre-feasibility report needs to be provided. The project there after has not gone back to EAC.

However, a small part of that same project, the Bhadbhut barrage is now proposed before the Gujarat State Environment Impact Assessment Authority (http://seiaa.gujarat.gov.in/).”

An edited version of letter about the inadequacies of the EIA report sent from Paryavaran Mitra director to Gujarat Pollution Control Board which has been published by Counterview states that the report fails to assess severity of impact on Hilsa and other migratory fishes and instead tries to imply that fishing activity is only a part time employment for fisher community, which is entirely incorrect.[v] The report proposes fish ladder as a mitigation measure with no specific details. Fisherfolk are not impressed. “Tell me madam, have you ever seen a fish climb a ladder?” asks Kamlesh bhai laughing.

While a fish ladder may or may not work (it is not likely to work for Hilsa and other important fish species, it has not worked anywhere in India so far), the fisher folk are not wrong in ridiculing it. Fish ladders have never been taken seriously by the proponents who put them in. Case in point is Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, where too, a fish lock was supposedly made for Hilsa. It has not been operated for over a decade and current officials have no idea that such a thing exists.

Cover Page of the controversial NEERI EIA of  Bhadbhut Barrage Project
Cover Page of the controversial NEERI EIA of Bhadbhut Barrage Project

“The NEERI EIA is a complete copy paste job. It has several incidences of plagiarism. It mentions names of places that are found nowhere in this region. This region also comes under PCPIR[vi] project. The PCPIR EIA report does not talk about impact on Hilsa at all!”- Bhupat Bhai adds. “That’s true” says Kamlesh Bhai. “Even after the NEERI completed the report none of the local people had any idea about the project and its impacts. Now we are raising awareness. On 7th July 2014 local fisherfolk organized a protest rally at the District Magistrate office and more than 4000 fisher people were a part of this. This is our fourth rally opposing the project.” When asked if any compensation is being offered for those getting affected by the barrage, I am told none. According to them in the entire argument about the barrage, its impacts etc. there is absolutely no talk about compensating the fisherfolk. They also raised their voices in the public hearing of the project. 1500 farmers and fisherfolk attended the public hearing on July 19 and walked out soon after sharply registering their protest against the proposed project and naming it as “anti-people”.[vii]

BB 7
Protest March organized on 7th July 2014 (Photo by Kamlesh Madhiwala)

When we arrive at Praveen Macchi’s house, his door is adorned with images of Silvery Hilsa. His family has been involved in fishing from generations. When asked about estuary’s overall condition after SSP he confirms the facts stated earlier by Praveen Bhai and Kamalesh Bhai. “We don’t think water is released from SSP and even if it is, it is so meagre that it is nearly useless. The estuary receives water only when the dam overflows. In 2014 the dam overflowed only once which was as late as September. Other than dam overflow only other source of water is releases from River Bed Power House of SSP, leakage from below the dam wall and some water from downstream streams.” Fish yield of this year is about 30% lower than last year when the estuary received water from dam overflow 4 to 5 times in year. “Now water from SSP has been diverted for hydropower generation. After power generation at Canal Head Power House water is released into Narmada canal instead of river/ estuary.”

Hilsa used as a decorative element
Hilsa used as a decorative element

Pressures on Narmada estuary and livelihoods of thousands

When asked as to how does the Hilsa survive without freshwater water released in the estuary, Praveen Bhai explains “As of now Hilsa arrive at least during monsoon as the river stretch of 130 KM holds rain water. If Bhadbhut barrage is built there will be no free flowing river stretch to support fish breeding. Yield of Hilsa will be hard hit and so will be the fishing industry. Entire population dependent on fishing will lose its livelihood.”

BB 9
If Bhadbhut barrage is built there will be no free flowing river stretch to support fish breeding

Praveen Bhai told me that the fisher people’s cooperative ‘Bhadbhut Matsya Udyog Sahakari Mandali’ is preparing to file a Public Interest Litigation challenging the barrage project. Is livelihood of more than 30000 people getting affected reason enough to argue for stoppage of the project? Will the courts understand this implication? They did not when impact of SSP on fisher people was argued earlier. Let us hope judiciary is more sensitive to the fisher people’s issue this time.

Gujarat Government Map showing Kalpasar and Bhadbhut project locations
Gujarat Government Map showing Kalpasar and Bhadbhut project locations

Praveen Bhai further informs that the overall salinity of the estuary has gone up due to severely restricted freshwater flow into the estuary. Fish diversity has reduced and riverine fish movement is obstructed due to SSP (Sardar Sarovar Project). Hilsa which would be available till December – January is now seen hardly till September as the salinity levels rise rapidly after monsoon. Says Praveen Bhai: “Narmada has been Hilsa’s favoured habitat. Earlier Hilsa was found in Tapi estuary near Surat as well. But after the Ukai dam was constructed only 2 to 5% of Hilsa arrive at the Tapi estuary. Lives of fisherfolk in the estuary have been devastated. The problem of livelihood of these people became so serious that there are instances where women of the community had to get into prostitution.”

The Narmada estuary is already facing growing pressures from industrial estates. Bharuch District has 13 industrial estates with 137 medium and large scale units of chemicals, textiles, plastics, fertiliser related industries etc. Industrial estate of Dahej which is in close proximity to Bhadbhut releases its untreated effluent in the sea near Bharuch. This is affecting the overall water quality of the estuary. Praveen Bhai points out to a very peculiar phenomenon. A completely different genre of crime has evolved in the industrial estates near Bharuch where youth blackmail the companies when the companies discharge untreated effluent into the sea. The companies, hand in glove with police, bribe the blackmailers for keeping quite. Effluents meanwhile go untreated in the river and sea. This is also true of effluents from Ankaleshwar and other industrial estates. The SSP has worsened this situation due to drastic reduction in freshwater flow that earlier used to dilute the industrial, urban and other effluents.

Concerns of fisherfolk We now move towards the banks of Narmada to meet artisanal fisher people there. Boats which can contain upto 5 to 6 people are parked along the banks. Since it is a noon time, hurry burry of fish packing is settling down. One by one tempos from the market are arriving and picking up the packed fish. As we talk with a bunch of fisher people, their worries and concerns tumble out. Several issues emerge while talking to them.

“Government is all set to build a dam destroying our livelihood. As it is government is not extending any kind of support to us river fisherfolk. No bank provides us with loans” one of them speaks.

“Yield of fish has also reduced due to reduced water level of the estuary. Sea water gets contaminated by the untreated effluent that Dahej & other Industrial estates disposes in the sea. This sea water that is highly contaminated with chemicals and heavy metals enters estuary during high tide. This polluted water has also affected the overall fish quality and there is hardly any freshwater from upstream to dilute it because of the dam. Earlier single Hilsa fish used to weigh more than two kilograms. Now it hardly weighs one to 1.25 kgs” says another one.

“With all this polluted water how will the fish grow? It naturally starves” says yet other.

“If Bhadbhut Barrage comes up, Hilsa will no more come here. Our livelihood will be destroyed. Government is not even offering any compensation. No one has been compensated for the impact we have already felt due to the SSP.” They all keep talking anxiously.

They further inform that several farmers in Bharuch who have lost their land in PCPIR project or other industrial estates have shifted to fishing creating more stress in the industry that is already facing a steep decline. Farmers, who are new fisherfolk lack the traditional skills or patience and often fence the estuary and sea with fishing nets in hope of catching Hilsa, which prevents the fishermen’s traditionally used small boats from entering the sea. As they speak, every concern raised is met by a nod by the entire group.

BB 10
Fishing boats along the banks of river Narmada

BB 11

Contrary to this scenario the EIA report summary by NEERI states “… the fresh water storage in upstream of the barrage will provide a favourable environment for intensive fresh water fishery and provision of fish ladder with shiplocks would enhance the fishery activities and fetch greater economic benefits to the people.”[viii] Fisherfolk when asked about this conclusion show the other side of the argument. Fisheries department floats tender for fishing in the dam reservoir. Only big contractors can afford to obtain the contracts. “It’s not a job for small fishermen like us. If the dam comes up all these small boats you see will vanish” they say.

Fisherfolk from Bhadbhut

Other than the threatened livelihood, the fisher families in the estuary are also facing several other issues. Wells of fresh water now contain saline water. Many of them used to rely on Narmada River for drinking water. Since the river has gone dry after SSP, they no more receive drinking water from Narmada River. As the water from the estuary has reduced, the wells which have traditionally been an important source of drinking water are now dry or saline. Villages which are closer to the sea are experiencing saline water and also polluted chemical water ingress. “Many of us are having skin problems because we have to go in the chemical water.” I wonder with fishing industry plagued with so many problems if younger generation is at all willing to continue in the same occupation. When asked about this they tell me that for now the traditional skills is the only real education the younger generation has.

Many of them have protested the project at the public hearing. “We all are opposing the dam. Building dams might to do good for contractors, but what about us? Are we not people?” they ask.

The proposed Garudeshwar Dam on Narmada immediate downstream of SSP will further stop the water flow to estuary as it is designed to pump back to SSP the water released from River Bed Power House. The fisherfolk here do not know about this, nor has the government bothered to tell them or do any impact assessment or prepare any rehabilitation or management plan. The only hope is the petition lying before the National Green Tribunal against the Garudeshwar Dam.

I come back with more questions than answers. Praveen Bhai’s home, with his welcoming door adorned with the silvery Hilsa remains in my thoughts for a long while.

Amruta Pradhan, SANDRP amrutapradhan@gmail.com

(Based on field visit September 2014 by the author.)


[i] https://sandrp.in/dams/Why_Modis_54000_crore_legacy_project_KALPSAR_is_doomed_Nov_2010.pdf

[ii] https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/09/01/collapsing-hilsa-can-the-dams-compensate-for-the-loss/

[iii] Page 277, Sardar Sarovar: The Report of the Independent Review, Resource Futures International Inc, Canada, 1992

[iv] P. 10 of Executive Summary of EIA Report by NEERI

[v] http://counterview.org/2013/07/18/environmental-impact-assessment-report-on-bhadbhut-suggests-project-is-pro-industry-lacks-sensitivity-towards-fisherfolk/

[vi] PCPIR: Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region, see: http://gujaratpcpir.org/

[vii] http://www.counterview.net/2013/07/fisherfolk-walk-of-out-public-hearing.html

[viii] P. 15 of Executive Summary of EIA Report by NEERI

Dams · Free flowing rivers

Collapsing Hilsa: Economic, ecological and cultural impact of dams

Above: Hilsa fishers in Bangladesh setting out for their journey Photo: with thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao

In addition to the Gangetic Fisheries Primer, SANDRP will shortly publish a Primer documenting the Impacts of dams on Riverine Fish and Fisher Communities. One of the most profound impacts of dams on fish is blocking migration routes and perhaps no other fish symbolizes this impact as dramatically as the Hilsa: the Silver Queen of the River.

Glimpses of the impacts of dams on Hilsa in South Asia.


Arguably, Hilsa is not just a tasty and healthy fish species that migrates from the sea up the river to spawn. It is a cultural icon that binds Bengalis, whether from West Bengal or Bangladesh, together in their shared love for Ilish Machch. Pohela Baishakh or the new year day’s meal is not complete without Ilish. Though Hilsa is celebrated fervently by the Bengalis, it is prized in all estuaries of South Asia, from Narmada, Mahanadi, Godavari, Cauvery to Indus and Irrawaddy and takes the name of  Chaski, Palva, Ilishii, Palla, Pulasa, etc. It is also found at confluence of Tigris and Euprates in Iran, where it is as prized and known as Sbour. The fish flavours several poems, folklore, songs and phraseologies of the entire South Asia. In cultural terms, the significance of Hilsa is comparable only to Salmon and Mahseer.

Ilish on Pohela Baishakh Photo: Flickr
Ilish fish and rice, a religious offering and cultural fare on Pohela Baishakh Photo: Flickr

Tenualosa ilisha, Hilsa or Indian Shad belongs to the sub family Alosinae of Family Clupeidae. Commercially, it is the most important fisheries in the estuaries, especially in the Ganga-Hooghly region.It occurs in marine, estuarine and riverine environments and is found in Indus of Pakistan, Irrawaddy of Myanmar and Indian rivers like Ganga, Bhagirathi, Hooghly, Rupanarayan, Brahmaputra, Godavari, Narmada, Cauvery, Tapti, coastal rivers like Padma, Jamuna, Meghana, Karnafuly and others in Bangladesh. It is seen to migrate up smaller estuaries like Pennar too.

Hilsa, by habitat, is a marine fish but migrates in estuaries and rivers for spawning, normally inhabiting the lower region of the estuaries and the foreshore areas of the sea. Hilsa ascends the rivers for spawning and the spent fish and their progeny migrate down the river towards lower estuaries and coastal areas, moving in shoals. The peak upstream migration of Hilsa in most of the rivers of the country is generally in the monsoons months of July and August and continues upto October or November. The spring spawners that enter the river for spawning in January-March return to the sea during July-August when these are caught in good numbers. The monsoon spawners that enter the river during September- October return to the sea after spawning and these spent fishes are caught in good numbers during January- March. Similarly, the off springs of spring-spawners make journey for the sea from the river during November- January, whereas the off springs of monsoon spawners return to the sea from the river during July- September. (Bhaumik et al, CIFRI, 2012)

Obstruction to undertaking this spawning migration by dams and barrages has been singled out as the primary reasons for the fall of Hilsa fisheries in India as well as Bangladesh. The trade of this commercially important fish species constitutes upto 1.5% of Bangaldesh’s National Gross Domestic Product and about 2 million fishers are estimated to depend on Hilsa fisheries in Gangetic estuaries. Till August 2014, Bangladesh has stopped Hilsa exports to India to contain astronomic price rises in Bangladesh as the costs of the fish are becoming uncontainable due to its cultural importance on one hand and dwindling supply on the other. India has requested Bangladesh to lift the ban of Hilsa export, but it is yet to relent, due to a number of socio-political reasons. [2]

Fishers setting off for Hilsa from Bnagladesh Sunderbans Photo: With thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao
Fishers setting off for Hilsa from the Bangladesh Sunderbans Photo: With thanks from Arati Kumar-Rao

One of the main reasons for the phenomenal fall of Hilsa in Gangetic delta has been the Farakka Barrage built by India in the 1970’s, just a few kilometers upstream the India –Bangladesh border, to divert water from Ganga into the Hooghly river, to keep the Kolkata Port at the mouth of Hooghly, free of sediments.

Prior to commissioning Farakka Barrage in 1975, there are records of the Hilsa migrating from Bay of Bengal right upto Agra, Kanpur and Delhi covering a distance of about 1400 kms. Maximum abundance was observed at Buxar, near Allahabad, at a distance of about 650 kms from river mouth. Post Farraka, Hilsa is unheard of in Yamuna in Delhi and its yield has dropped to zero in Allahabad, from 91 kg/km in 1960s. Studies as old as those conducted in mid-seventies[3] single out Farakka’s disastrous impacts on Hilsa, illustrating a near 100% decline of Hilsa above the barrage post construction.

Migration route of Hilsa, Pre Farakka Barrage spanning about 1400 kms Source: CIFRI 2012
Migration route of Hilsa, Pre Farakka Barrage spanning about 1400 kms Source: CIFRI 2012
Highly restricted range of Hilsa post Farakka Source: CIFRI
Highly restricted range of Hilsa post Farakka Source: CIFRI

An obligatory Fish lock provided in Farakka Barrage is non-functional and tagging experiments reveal that Hilsa cannot move across the barrage due to obstruction of three-tire sluice gates.[4] For more on how Farakka has failed its objective and continues to impact livelihoods: https://sandrp.wordpress.com/2014/11/25/lessons-from-farakka-as-we-plan-more-barrages-on-ganga/

Fishers who live off the Ganges strongly feel the pressure of dams, personified by Farakka. In north India, ‘Farakka’ –the word doesn’t mean a village on the Bangladesh border anymore, but means destruction by dams. The local Hindi dialects have borrowed new phraseology: “Farakka hua, tabse hilsa toh bas bhabis” (Farakka happened, and then Hilsa exist only in imagined future)”. The same phrase repeats up to the Yamuna River! In a recent status survey of Gangetic fisheries almost 75-80% of fishers singled out ‘Farakka’ as the root cause of all their miseries. They actually referred to multiple barrages built on the respective rivers. But destruction had a common name: Farakka.[5]

Bangladesh has been making several serious attempts to revive Hilsa fisheries and implements a strict fishing ban in certain months to avoid fishing “jatkas” or small Hilsa. It has also declared several Hilsa Sanctuaries to protect the fish and is witnessing small and steady improvements in the population. India has hardly taken any steps to protect this specie. IUCN has led a program called Ecosystems for Life: A Bangladesh-India Initiative and Hilsa fisheries is a part of this project. There is also a Norwegian project on Hilsa Aquaculture [7] ( All prior efforts of Hilsa Aquaculture have failed). However, the primary need to address the giant problem of the Farakka Barrage is being unaddressed. The barrage and reduced freshwater in the downstream is also exacerbating other stressors like sedimentation of the river mouth, high fishing pressure on limited stocks, concentrated pollution, etc.

Hilsa in other Rivers (would taste as sweet!) Hilsa is found not only in Ganges delta but most of the estuaries in India. In all of these places, Hilsa fishery is primarily affected by dams and barrages near the estuaries, blocking spawning migration and reducing freshwater from upstream.

Hilsa in Cauvery: A century of impacts In Tamizh, Hilsa caught at Sea is Kadal Ullam and the one in the River is the Aattu Ullam. Here, the impact of Mettur dam on valuable Hilsa fisheries in the Cauvery has been recorded as early as 1939 in an issue of Current Science, where it is stated: “Unfortunately the effect of the dam (Mettur on Cauvery) on the fisheries below was disastrous. The number of valuable Indian Shad or Hilsa, the most important sea fish ascending the Cauvery for breeding purposes, declined as the high floods which enabled them to ascend the rive no longer occur. The serious decline of fisheries in Cauvery would be evident from the fact that the fishery rental of the river below the dam which used to amount to 80000 Rs. annually has steadily declined since the formation of the dam to about 42,900 rupees.”[8] Puntius species also disappeared in Cauvery post dam, which formed 28% of the landings prior to dam construction.[9]

As per the Report “Fishing the Cauvery: How Mettur Changed it all,” by Ramya Swayamprakash published by SANDRP[10], It was Sir Aruthur Cotton himself, way back in 1867 who alerted the erstwhile government about the damages wrought by weirs on river fisheries. Immediately, Dr. Francis Day was commissioned to investigate the impact on fisheries and subsequently appointed Inspector-General of Fisheries in India. In his report on the fisheries of India and Burma, Day condemned dams as insurmountable barriers to fish passage; he designed a fish passage which was on the Lower Anicut on the Kollidam. The pass was primarily designed for the Hilsa who could not ascend it, as it was too wide. According to the Madras Fisheries department in 1909, the fish pass did not ensure Hilsa migration because of various practical and technical difficulties; in the first place, the expenses for the construction of a fish pass were not commensurate with the expected results and secondly, sufficient water could not be provided for the efficient working of the pass. Interestingly, Hilsa was sought to be cultivated and exported along the lines of the Salmon in north-western United States. So important was the Hilsa that a stuffed specimen made its way into the exhibits sent to the Great Exhibition from the Bombay Presidency, in 1851!

Fishing at the Lower Anicut on Cauvery Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Fishing at the Lower Anicut on Cauvery Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Today, the Hilsa is unknown on the Cauvery. According to fish biologists, the Hilsa ascended the anicuts on the Cauvery up to Mettur to spawn overcoming the low anicuts. But the coming of the Mettur Dam formed an impassable barrier.

Hilsa in Godavari is known as Pulasa when caught i the river and Vilasa when caught n the sea!  Here too, the fish is declining and main reasons are said to be declining water levels and the Dowleswaram Barrage [11] (Arthur Cotton Barrage). In Andhra villages too Pulasa has a huge cultural significance.

This author made a presentation to the Standing Committee of the Lok Sabha, the lower house of Indian Parliament in June 2012 about the impacts of dam on riverine fish and discussed Hilsa, when an MP from Coastal Godavari district in  Andhra Pradesh said, “I know Pulasa! My constituency depends on riverine fisheries like Pulasa, and not marine fisheries, but we end up talking only about marine fish and not river fish and Pulasa and the impacts of upstream projects on livelihoods of river fishers”

Pulasa/ Hilsa of teh Godavari Photo: The Hindu
Pulasa/ Hilsa of the Godavari Photo: The Hindu

In Mahanadi, Orissa, Hilsa has been hit by dams and is recording a declining trend[12]. Paradip recorded about 500 tonnes Hilsa, but prices have increased astronomically.[13]

Hilsa in Narmada, Sardar Sarovar and the proposed Bhadbhut Barrage The narrative of damming the Narmada by the Narmada Valley Projects is one of the most significant stories of an on-going struggle against modifying a river and way of life of her people. Although there are many facets to the story ranging from displacement, false benefits and true costs, forest loss, non-existent rehabilitation and an all-pervasive insensitivity of the government towards weaker communities, the impacts of this project on riverine fisheries have been equally profound. Narmada River system experienced a nearly 70% decline in Hilsa catches in just a decade between 1993 to 2004 ( From 15319 t to 4866 t  ) and this decline was prominently recorded from 1998-99 onwards.[14] As per CIFRI, the most stressed species after Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) construction is the Hilsa and Macrobrachium prawn (Jumbo River Prawn). CIFRI made some prediction about impacts of the dam after 35 years, calling it a ‘critical period’ when fisheries will be nearly lost. Shockingly, these conditions are already being witnessed in Narmada Estuary in Bharuch which records nearly 30%  Inland Fish production. More than 12,000 people from 21 villages in Bharuch alone depend on Narmada Estuary for fisheries.

Assessment of impact of commissioning of Sardar Sarovar dam and other projects in 2009 by CIFRI revealed that SSP will retain 96% of the sediment, adversely affecting biological productivity of the downstream including Narmada estuary.[17] However, already the Sardar Sarovar and upstream dams in Narmada Basin have already resulted in retention of about 95% sediment, cutting off the delta from nutrient rich silt.  Historical  sediment  discharge  of  Narmada  was  61  million  tonnes  and  the  current sediment  discharge  (average  of  last  ten  years  of  the  study)  was  found  to  be  3.23  million  tonnes.[18]

According to CIFRI, “While the annual inflow is 23.68 MAF (1981-1990), it will be reduced to 15.9 MAF after 10th year of SSP, to 4.34 MAF at the 30th year and will cease at the 45th year. This freshwater decline will severely affect Hilsa fishery and prestigious fishery contributed by M rosenbergii (Jumbo River Prawn)”. As freshwater declines, there will be “Steep hike in salinity regime with tidal ingress. Fishery not tuned to such enhanced salinity will succumb to such pressure. Mangroves will also be affected and this will impact marine fish production as Mangroves are nurseries of many marine fish.”

Gujarat Government has agreed to release 600 cusecs water from Sardar Sarovar and Bhadbhut Barrage as environmental flows. There is no study as to whether this amount is sufficient for estuarine balance, for ecological needs of Hilsa or other species, for spawning migration, etc. Also, there is no guarantee that Gujarat will release this meagre quantity. Ironically, the minimum flows of 600 cusecs agreed to be released by Gujarat through SSP come to 532. 9 Million Cubic Metre (MCM) water annually and CIFRI’s warning of a sharp fisheries decline at 30th year was for 4.34 MAF or 5353.4 MCM! So, 532.9 MCM released now as minimum flows is barely 10% of a dire scenario predicted at 30th year of commissioning SSP[i]!

It is hardly a wonder that Hilsa is falling sharply in Narmada Estuary and fishers are directly blaming the Sardar Sarovar for this decline.[19]

Last Straw for Narmada Hilsa: Bhadbhut Barrage: Gujarat Government is planning to build Bhadbhut Barrage about 17 kms from Bharuch, directly affecting the Narmada estuary and the Hilsa and Prawn fishery. The Barrage is planned for SEZ and also water sports and is a part of an infeasible scheme known as the Kalpasar project which plans to dam almost all rivers as they meet the Gulf of Khambat.

Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: "The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people"
Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: “The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people”

The Bhadbhut Barrage is being fiercely opposed by fishers in Bharuch because of its serious impacts on their livelihoods and Hilsa fisheries. Public Hearing of Bhadbhut Barrage was held in July 2013, wherein the fisher community staged a walk out, stressing that the EIA had under-reported Hilsa fisheries in the region, number of fishers and their dependence on the Estuary for fish. The walkout took place immediately after Pravin Tandel, the fisherfolks’ local leader, spoke saying the project would “adversely affect the fish catch, especially Hilsa, once it is implemented. Currently, Hisla fetches Rs 1,200 per kg, and is our main source of livelihood.”[20]

Fisherfolk protesting against Bhadbhut Barrage Photo: Counterview.org
Fisherfolk protesting against Bhadbhut Barrage Photo: Counterview.org

Hilsa in the Indus: In the Indus too, Hilsa fisheries, known as Palla are the main stay of local fisher communities. Hilsa fish is a highly contested territory due to declining catches.

Before the construction of the Sukkur Barrage, the Palla used to reach to Multan as per records of 1907. The Sukkur Barrage and then later the Kotri Barrage severely restricted Palla’s range, affecting the fish and its fishers. According to M. R. Quereshi, ex-Director of Marine Fisheries Department of Pakistan, the Palla used to ascend the river (Indus) to spawn in the middle of June but its ascent is now delayed by at least one month owing to late freshets. Kotri Barrage near Hyderabad has severely restricted its breeding range. Like the Cauvery, in Kotri too the fish ladders do not work due to faulty designs and Hilsa is unable to ascend them, consequently prevented from going up to the upper reaches of the river. As a result the Hilsa fishery is being depleted and immediate action is imperative to increase its production. “Failing this, the fish will eventually disappear from the river.”

Palla fishers at Kotri, on the banks of Indus circa 1890. Photo from British Library, UK
Palla/Hilsa fishers at Kotri, on the banks of Indus circa 1890. Photo from British Library, UK

To conclude, the fate of this silvery fish hangs in a fine balance. Not only does the Hilsa enjoy huge cultural significance, it also supports millions of livelihoods. In the United States, several dams, like the recent Glines Canyon Dam on the Elwha, have been decommissioned for their impacts on migrating fish and dependent communities. Elwha river dams came down in a biggest decommissioning effort because the indigenous Klallam tribe asserted its rights on traditional Salmon fisheries which were blocked by these dams. In Japan too, Arase Dam was decommissioned because of its impact on Ayu fish and fishers.

What has happened in India to the Hilsa fish and fishers is far more serious.

Hilsa has a striking ecological, economic and cultural significance. Till date, ranching or farming of Hilsa has not worked. Till date, fisher communities continue to face conflicts, hardships and risks, go deeper and deeper in the sea to gather a few Hilsa. Till date, dam operations have not changed, nor have the fish passes been designed, built, operated or monitored to help the fish.  Till date, none of the fisher communities who suffered colossal losses when a dam affected Hilsa, have been compensated for their loss.

Is it not time to rethink these dams, to help the fish and our fishers?

-Parineeta Dandekar, SANDRP, parineeta.dandekar@gmail.com

Hilsa as a sacred offereing Photo from Flickr, with thanks to the contributor
Hilsa as a sacred offering Photo from Flickr, with thanks to Arup Kanjilal


[1] Dugan, 2008, Quoted in FAO Report No. 7, Sustainable Fisheries and Aquaculture for food security and nutrition, 2014

[2]  Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee refused to share the Teesta waters with Bangladesh, the neighbouring country has imposed a ban on export of the silver-scaled fish.

[3] Ghosh, 1976 quoted in Review of the biology and fisheries of Hilsa, Upper Bengal Estuary, FAO, 1985

[4] Bhaumik and Sharma, Present status of Hilsa in the Hooghly Bhagirathi River, CIFRI, 2012

[5] Nachiket Kelkar, Thirsty Rivers, Bygone Fishes, Hungry Societies, Dams Rivers and People, December 2012 https://sandrp.in/rivers/Thirsty_Rivers_Bygone_Fishes_Hungry_Societies_Nachiket_Kelkar_Dec2012.pdf

[6] Pathak et al, Riverirne Ecology and Fisheries, vis a vis hydrodynamic alterations: Impacts and Remedial measures, CIFRI, 2010

[7] http://www.nofima.no/filearchive/Rapport%2002-2013.pdf

[8] B. Sundara Raj, The Mettur Dam Fisheries, Current Science, October 1939

[9] Sugunan, Reservoir Fisheries of India, FAO, 1995

[10]  Ramya Swayamprakash, Fishing the Cauvery, How Mettur changed it all, SANDRP, June 2014

[11] http://www.thehindu.com/todays-paper/tp-national/tp-andhrapradesh/pricey-pulasa-is-now-everyones-favourite/article6235820.ece

[12] A Raisd,On Mahseer of Hirakud, Fishing Chime, August 2005 http://www.fishingchimes.com/onmah.htm

[13] http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/home/environment/flora-fauna/Is-Hilsa-fish-on-its-way-out/articleshow/21932621.cms


[15] CIFRI, River Narmada, Its Environment and Fisheries, 2009

[16] EIA of Bhadbhut Barrage by NEERI, 2013

[17] CIFRI, River Narmada, Its Environment and Fisheries, 2009

[18] Gupta et al, quoted in Dandekar, Thakkar, Shrinking and Sinking Deltas: Major role of Dams in delta subsidence and Effective Sea Level Rise, SANDRP, 2014 https://sandrp.in/Shrinking_and_sinking_delta_major_role_of_Dams_May_2014.pdf

[19] http://articles.economictimes.indiatimes.com/2012-08-08/news/33100832_1_hilsa-catch-utpal-bhaumik-hilsa-prices

[20] http://www.counterview.net/2013/07/fisherfolk-walk-of-out-public-hearing.html

[i] While we do not know the schedule through which Gujarat Government plans to release this water, the fact remains that this figure of 600 cusecs is not supported by any studies.