Like us, rivers work. They absorb and emit energy; they rearrange the world.
(White 1995, 3)
Introduction: fixing water and rivers
Rivers have always stirred strong emotions in human beings. Constantly undercutting and eroding the very surfaces that sustain them while simultaneously depositing silt and making new geological forms, rivers have fashioned unique landscapes; sometimes finding safe alcoves and sometimes dropping off precipices yielding awe fluid edifices. As crucibles of civilization, rivers have left an indelible mark on the human imaginative landscape.
As an ecosystem, a river is a complex network of many elements. Since all of life lives downstream of a river in a one form or another, a river’s temperamentality affects the wafer delicate fabric we call life. Civilizations have hinged on floods and loathed droughts since time immemorial.
Rivers erode; relocate flotsam, and fashion new landscapes principally to remove obstructions from their paths. In the long run, a river’s ‘work of eliminating obstructions aids the human work of moving up and down rivers’. In the short run however it puts human beings at odds with the river, demanding greater human effort in overcoming the river and the river’s effort at removing the obstruction placed in its path.
Rivers also constantly accommodate; a silt-laden channel is abandoned for a fresher path or a human dam is countered by dropping the silt load into the reservoir. A ‘natural’ adjustment is seldom sudden or instantaneous, sometimes taking millennia to fashion. Over time, rivers build up enough potential energy to overcome these obstructions ¾ a new channel and/or filling the reservoir up with silt.
Yet, rivers are notorious for their furious floods that can wipe away entire cities. A human life is but a dot on a river’s timescale. It is only natural thus that human metaphors for rivers have been about movement. An ancient Roman law proscribed the containment of water: ‘Aqua currit et debet currere ut currere solebat’– water may be used as it flows and only as it flows.
Changing the fixation: Colonialism, modernity, India
The coming of modernity however changed that law fundamentally; the instrumentality of water occupied centre-stage, a river was forgotten about. The space occupied in mythology and imagination, the world inherently contained in a river was reduced to the simple and neat formula: H2O. This was river’s mighty fall in the imaginative and productive landscape. Rivers were seen as resources that needed to be harnessed in order to aid other productive ends.
In India, weirs, dams, canals all came up to bind a river’s flow to the predetermined ends. The fate of Indian rivers has always been a contested terrain. Whether it was mythology or a dam engineer’s drawing board, Indian rivers have seldom been controversy free. Indian rivers have always occupied a larger than life space in imagination.
These very imaginative landscapes were the focal point of the changing engineering landscape. Yet Indian rivers have seldom been eulogized as more than agricultural landscapes. Their productivity is tied inextricably to agriculture. Other residents of the riverine landscape ¾ human and non-human ¾ have been marginalized at best. For instance, fishermen who depend on the pulses and flows of a river do not form a part of the agricultural imaginative landscape. Even today, employment guarantee schemes such as the MNREGA do not cater to the skill sets of groups such as fishermen.
Today, across the world, dams are being taken down to free up rivers and make way for fish who have returned in promising numbers. Across the continental United States, there are many examples of how quickly rivers have recovered once dams are removed. The biggest example would be the Elwha river in Washington where Salmon are showing signs of returning after a 70 year hiatus! It is being accepted that in the long run dams don’t make sense, even fish ladders often times don’t. It is being recognized that sustaining fishing and agriculture will involve re-creating a sustainable river that is able to sustain itself. In the Indian establishment however, the dam dream continues.
Cauvery: a truly Indian river:
Cauvery Map illustration is by Ayodh Kamath showing the various interventions mentioned here
The Cauvery is no stranger to human activity. According to Government of India audits for the agricultural year 1875-6, the Cauvery Delta Irrigation System was the most productive irrigation system in the entire Indian Sub-continent showing a remarkable rate of return of 81 percent on capital investment. Interestingly, of all the irrigation works present at the time of these audits, only about 20 percent were constructed since the beginning of British rule in 1800; 80 percent of the irrigation works were pre-1800, maintained by British military (and subsequently civil) engineers. With prodigious returns on investment, it was perhaps inevitable that the colonial lens would seek to fundamentally recast the river for absolute development.
(All photos by the author)
Although heavily developed before British intervention, irrigation in the Cauvery delta was primarily inundation based. At the end of the 18th century, the Grand Anicut (at the foot of Srirangam Island) was the only masonry headwork in the entire delta; a labyrinth of streams channeled river water to individual farms. Characteristic of inundation irrigation, natural plastic materials were used to impound and direct water (i.e. timber, grass, earth), which offered greater flexibility to the wide variations in rainfall and river flow. However, as early as 1804, it was observed that the Kollidam was drawing more water from the main Cauvery than the branch that actually supplied the Delta due to its higher bed slope. Early measures to ‘correct’ the problem included extensive and annual repairs on the Grand Anicut. However, none of the bunds/temporary dams to divert water proved to be effective ¾ they were routinely silted and/or taken down by the river. In 1834, drawing inspiration from the Grand Anicut, further downstream, Sir Arthur Cotton designed and directed the building of the Upper Anicut at the head of the Srirangam Island on the Kollidam. Inherently, this regulator meant that the flows of the distributaries were reversed i.e. the Cauvery carried more water than the Kollidam. Lower levels of water in the Kollidam jeopardized cultivation in the lower reaches of the delta. In order to ‘correct’ that eventuality, Cotton had submitted proposals for the Lower Anicut alongside those for the Upper Anicut. The Lower Anicut fed the Viranam Tank in South Arcot district, and irrigated Shiyali Taluk in Tanjore District. Work on the two regulators began together. Thus, the three regulators viz., the Upper, Lower and Grand Anicuts together ensured that cultivability along the Cauvery Delta was augmented and stabilized for continuous returns.
Dam(n)ing the Cauvery: Mettur
Along with the anicuts, Sir Arthur Cotton also drew the plans for a large reservoir on the Cauvery in 1834. However, it was in 1856, that earnest attempts began to think through a large dam on the Cauvery just before it entered the plains, when Major Lawford submitted proposals for the construction of a reservoir on the Cauvery near Nerinijipet (about 11 miles downstream of Mettur). From 1856 to 1901, no less than four separate proposals sought to harness the Bhavani (a tributary of the Cauvery) instead of the Cauvery (Barber 1941, 3) (Day 1873) (Sunder Raj 1941). Finally, in the early decades of the 20th century, there seemed to be some movement concerning the building of the dam.
One of the major factors that held back the Mettur Dam was the Cauvery water dispute. The Mysore Government had decided to construct a dam at Kanambadi (about 20 kms from Mysore) for irrigation and augment flows for the Sivasamudram hydroelectric station. Sivasamudram (in operation since 1905 and modeled along the Niagra falls hydroelectric station) provided electricity for the Kolar Gold Mines and Bangalore city. However, given the rain dependent nature of the Cauvery’s flow, ‘stable’ flows were needed to ensure proper running of the plant. The 1914 arbitration award however was unacceptable to Madras Presidency for it did not “provide for what were contended by Madras to be their established rights in regard to existing irrigation in the Cauvery delta” (Barber 1941, 14). While arbitration was still going on, Mysore began building the Krishnarajasagar dam in 1911. Although completed only in 1927, the dam was an important cause of disagreement since it held the Cauvery from the delta.
Between 1914 and 1924, a series of negotiations were conducted between Mysore and Madras, in which, most notably were contested the regulation of Krishnarajasagar (thereby regulating how much water was actually available for Madras). The amount of water that Madras had access to also determined the height of the Mettur dam and thus its effectiveness. It was in February 1924, that an agreement was finally reached. Given its long gestation, many figures had to be revised and on 3 March 1925, the Mettur dam was finally given a go ahead. It took nine years to build Asia’s then highest masonry dam. According to the Salem Gazetteer, 26 villages were submerged in the process and that water spread is 15346 ha.
In the late 19th century, the world over, fisheries and fish passes became an important topic of discussion in response to the growing fishing industry. In 1867, Sir Cotton alerted the Government of India about the possible damage to Indian fisheries from the weirs extant at the time in Indian rivers (Sunder Raj 1941, 342). 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 (Day 1873, 7-14); he designed a fish passage ¾ a modified form of under sluice to allow passage of fish ¾ that was tried on the Lower Anicut on the Kollidam (Sunder Raj 1941, 342). The idea was that fish could ascend the Lower Anicut through the under sluices and reach their spawning grounds without impediments. The pass was primarily designed for the Hilsa who could not ascend it, as it was too wide (Sunder Raj 1941, 343). 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 (Nair 1954). In light of its operational problems, the pass was abandoned. However, according to fish biologists, the pass may not have been a great disincentive either. According to Dr. Francis Day, who surveyed fish in Indian rivers and seas, the hilsa was recorded spawning near Trichinopoly (Trichy) (Day 1873, 7-14). Colonial records indicate that the hilsa was sought to be cultivated and exported along the lines of the Salmon in northwestern United States. In fact, the hatchery at the Lower Anicut was promoted to ensure consistent fish produce for export. 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. The hatchery was later abandoned, as it could ensure sustainable fry in large numbers.
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 that dotted the river delta. But the coming of the Mettur Dam formed an impassable barrier (Devanesan 1942, Chacko 1954)
Mettur’s Stanley reservoir remains one of the largest reservoirs in South India and the oldest in Tamil Nadu. At its maximum the reservoir is 85 km long and over 8 km wide encompassing a shoreline of over 290 km . B Sundar Raj, the then Director of Fisheries in Madras remarks that the Fisheries Department was perhaps not consulted when the dam was being designed, to create a fish friendly design (Sunder Raj 1941, 344-45). Although the dam was not built with a fish pass/ladder, it was assumed that the Ellis surplus and gradual gradient of the surplus channel would allow for fish migrations upstream (Sunder Raj 1941, 344-45). According to Dr. Sunder Raj, the Gangetic Carp was introduced in 1928 while other carps such as rohu, mrigal and calbasu were introduced from 1948 (Sreenivasan 1998, 4). A fish seed farm was also established near the dam. This fish seed farm continues to supply fingerlings for release into the Stanley reservoir. Hatchlings are supplied to the Krishnagiri reservoir upstream of Mettur and other reservoirs in Tamil Nadu. Regulations such as the Indian Fisheries Act (1897) and Tamil Nadu Amendment (1927) were enforced to prevent fishing in certain areas below the dam as well as enforce mesh regulations to prevent the capture of small fry. Furthermore, fishing is prohibited for 2 km immediately downstream of the dam (in fact, all dams in Tamil Nadu), that stretch of the river has been declared a sanctuary in order to ensure that biodiversity is preserved. Visiting in the height of summer in May, it was observed that immediately downstream of the dam, the river seemed to flow. Given that Mettur is also a hydropower dam, freshwater is regularly released into the river as electricity is generated . Currently, fingerlings that are about 45 days old are released into the reservoir.
Fishing in Mettur today:
Today, in Mettur, fishing is organized around licenses. Fishermen are allowed to fish the reservoir if they have a valid license. Fishing licenses need to be renewed every year. Fishermen have to sell their catch to the local cooperative society, the Mettur Dam Fishermen Co-operative Marketing Society. This society in turn sells the catch to a contractor who then sells the fish to wider markets in Bengal and Kerala after retaining a certain minimum for the local market. The society buys fish from fishermen according to their weights at a guaranteed rate. Fish are graded along four categories of weight and kind. This guaranteed minimum price is pre-decided by the society every year. Every year, the society also issues a “tender for the disposal of Mettur dam fishes”. Through this tendering process, the highest bidder over the minimum price (set by the society) wins. In the last three years, the tendering process has not been initiated in Mettur leading to a monopoly by one contractor.
Currently, about 200 licenses are issued every year. Each license costs about INR 1200 and is valid for a year. Fishermen have to log their daily catch according to grade of fish caught in a ‘passbook’. Their earnings depend on the grade and quantity of fish caught.
Accessing the river: On a recent visit to the reservoir area by the author, fishermen in Mettur complained that they had no access to the river, as there is rampant poaching. Illegal fishing has long been a problem in Mettur according to fishermen. According to the contractor currently holding the tender at Mettur, while licenses are issued to only 200 fishermen, over 2000 people fish the reservoir. Most of this illegal catch makes its way directly to the local market and is sold at higher than the society stipulated prices.
Not enough fingerlings released: According to fishermen, not enough fingerlings are released into the reservoir. They claim that while crores of fingerlings can be released into the reservoir, only a few thousand are released. During a visit in May 2014, officials at the fish seed farm said that over 32 lakh (a number stipulated by the Director of Fisheries) fingerlings were released into the waters last year. Fishermen allege that the even if fingerlings are released into the reservoir, they do not have the opportunity to grow because of the rampant poaching. It is a sentiment echoed by the contractor too.
Smaller catches, no earnings: At Mettur, an initial daily catch of 4.5 tonnes was estimated in 1951, which was revised to 1.82 tonnes/day. Today, fishermen say they catch a few hundred grams of fish every day, sometimes they do not catch any fish at all. Catch passbooks revealed lower grade fish in quantity and weight were caught more regularly than a good grade fish. On an average fishermen say that they earn about INR 6000-7000 over the course of two months. Today the catch plateaus around 1-1.5 tonnes on a good day. Fishermen and contractor alike complained that the quality of fish stock has reduced in the reservoir. Where earlier, there were indigenous fish that have now been lost- from catches and vocabularies’.
Nowhere else to go: Dwindling catches have forced fishermen to migrate to other reservoirs in search of catch. Fishermen complain that they cannot avail of schemes such as MNREGA because these schemes do not cover fishing. Fish production in reservoirs is on its way down. Dwindling flows and catches are fast making fishing unviable.
Changing fishing practices: Mesh size for fishing was raised from 5 cm to 10-12.5 cm to allow capture of only large sized catla and to give major carps a chance to breed at least once before being caught (Sreenivasan 1998, 4). Today, fishermen allege that poachers use smaller sized meshes and are able to catch fry that are too small to be caught. According to the contractor, these small fry are dried and sold as dried fish to markets in Andhra Pradesh.
Fishing in Mettur is fast becoming unsustainable for fishermen. According to the contractor, the only solution remains leasing out the entire reservoir to one contractor ¾ a practice followed in all reservoirs across Tamil Nadu, except Mettur ¾ so that everything from catch to process to marketing is under one head. The fishermen think the only solution is divesting the responsibility of releasing fry away from the fisheries department to the fishermen themselves. There is little or no memory of indigenous fish in the river. Fishermen currently fishing the waters of the reservoir have no memory of the hilsa or any of the other indigenous fish such as the Puntius dubius which also became extinct after the coming of the Mettur Dam. Fishermen who have fished the waters of the dam for over 50 years do not know of any other fish than reservoir stocked fish that they have caught.
Mettur represents (like in case of other dams and rivers in India) the privileging of agriculture and electricity needs over needs of the people and ecosystems that depend on the river in other ways, the privileging of a certain imagination over all else. While initial results based on this imagination might have seemed satisfactory to some with some claim over control over floods, some water for irrigation etc, in the long run, it has turned out to be unsustainable as flows have reduced and other impacts and options could be seen.
Today, memories of migratory fish are lost; fishing is only restricted to reservoir fishing with stocked fish. Decommissioning and deconstructing of dams in India may be a long way away. However, there is an urgent need to re-organise reservoir operations, reservoir fishing and understand the various roles that rivers flowing with freshwater play. Release of water from dams all round the year for rivers needs to be a norm for all reservoirs, old and new.
Seasonal, stricter licensing: Instead of licenses that run an entire year, it may make sense to rotate licenses amongst fishermen and giving license to fisher-people’s cooperatives to ensure greater access. This will also help in reducing poaching as more fishermen will have access to the river. In addition, the fisheries department needs to shift ownership of fishing to fishermen and not licenses.
Creating other opportunities: During my visit, fishermen pointed out that a few years ago when the fisheries department did not have enough personnel, fishermen were asked to release the fingerlings into the reservoir. That year, the catch was sustainable and higher than any other year after. In addition to fishing, fishermen who do not have the season’s license need to be encouraged to work at the fish seed farms. Fish seed farms can benefit from traditional knowledge about fish and fishing while fishermen will have another vocational avenue that uses their extant skill sets.
Creating a truly fishermen’s cooperative: Without access to the market, access to the river may not be the most beneficial for fishermen. A fishermen’s cooperative that issues licenses and controls catch would ensure that fishermen have ownership of the entire process. Through a fishermen’s cooperative, fishing would be democratized. Fishermen are already sensitive to market forces; they point out that a strong local market exists for catch.
Populating the reservoir with other kinds of fish: Reservoir fishing in Tamil Nadu is dependent on some exotic fish and rohu, katla. While a free moving river and its biodiversity may be impossible to recreate in a reservoir, the fisheries department needs to think of other fish that might also be suited for the reservoir and thus increase the diversity of fish caught with emphasis on local varieties and fished in the reservoir.
Creating a sustainable fishing policy: There is an urgent need to re-organize fishing policy of each reservoir at the reservoir level instead of at a state or national level. Fishing policy needs to be decoupled from being premised just on catch. It needs to be sensitive to the needs of the fishermen who depend on these catches as well as flows of the river that sustain these catches.
The above suggestions could go a short and long way in creating some semblance of a balance in fishing in reservoirs & rivers. However, in the long run, there is a need to look beyond dams for irrigation and hydropower. While dams and hydropower may be inextricably linked to the way in which we currently think of rivers, as the experience of the Elwha and other rivers shows, we need to start valuing the services a river provides. There needs to be an inherent sensitivity towards to the people who live along the river that needs to be built into policy and decision making processes.
Ramya Swayamprakash (firstname.lastname@example.org)
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 Srirangam Island in Trichy district is the head of the delta. The river splits in to the Kollidam (the larger distributary) and the Cauvery.
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 Cauvery Basin Map: https://sandrp.in/basin_maps/Hydropower_Projects%20_in_Cauvery_Basin.pdf