In case of the 3097 MW Etalin project being developed by Jindal and Arunachal Pradesh govt, the IE report says: “the WII was asked by the Ministry (MoEF) to assess the feasibility of the plan that requires 1,166 hectares of forestland in the valley. The Ministry’s move followed a recommendation from its Forest Advisory Committee (FAC) to conduct an environment impact assessment study. Instead, the WII initiated a study to find how the project’s impact on wildlife can be minimised”. Thus instead of doing the mandated scientific impact assessment, the WII initiated a study to minimise the project’s impact.
Rivers in different parts of the world have been dammed to fulfill human needs like water for irrigation, industries and domestic supplies. Then there are dams that have been raised to control floods or to produce electricity.
These have often been celebrated as human victory over nature, glorified as engineering marvel and claimed variously as highest, longest etc as a matter of national pride.
But rarely has there been a holistic assessment or appreciation of what a dam does to the natural entity called river and its adverse impacts on all the associated life forms, including humans.
Hydro power projects impact riverine fisheriesThe bleak future of fisheries is reflected in the “Vision and Perspective Plan” released by the Department of Fisheries earlier this week. The department is keeping its fingers crossed to even maintain the production of 5,393 tonnes in 2014-15 as it feels that with the commissioning of 294 hydro power projects in the recent years, the downward trend will be difficult to arrest.
It says that the expansion of the hydro power sector has resulted in the shrinking of rivers and streams and high silt levels. Rampant sand mining and indiscriminate use of pesticides have further aggravated the problem.
The fish production from the rivers and streams is falling drastically each year and the multi-pronged environmental assault is proving to be too damaging for the fisheries promotion. The state has some precious mahseer reserves. Though the power policy stipulates a minimum discharge of 15% ecological flow of rivers, the failure of the regulatory authority to check this has converted riverbeds into sandy deserts. That’s how the department perceives the threat from hydro power generation. As a further blow to the riverine fisheries, under the revised hydro-power policy, there is no requirement for micro hydel project developers to prepare environmental and social impact reports.
The vision document reflects that the coming up of hundreds of micro-hydel projects has drastically affected the streams environmental flow in Kangra, Kullu and Chamba. The picture is so grim that the project commissioned on the Sujan Nullah is virtually threatening the hatchery of the prestigious Indo-Norwegian trout project which is the lifeline of the entire trout farming programme of the state.Perceived as one of the major threats, the commissioning of 92 power projects, in the last few years has altered the river hydrology and blocked migratory routes exterminating spawning and feeding grounds of fish.Adding to the already bad situation is the array of pesticides and insecticides being used by farmers and fruit growers.
The Global Inland Fisheries Conference in Rome, Italy, organized by FAO and Michigan State University concluded on the 28th January 2015. The three day conference meant a lot of things: A platform to present the worth, the potential and the challenges of a chronically neglected sector, a place to learn from experiences across the world and, as the conference website says, “a cross-sectoral call to raise the profile of inland fisheries and better incorporate them in agricultural, land use, and water resource planning through development of improved assessment frameworks and value estimation.”
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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]
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.”
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
Twelve-point recommendation from traditional fisher communities for sustaining riverine fisheries and livelihoods in the Gangetic basin.
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.
Ban on destructive fishing practices
Curb destructive practices of fishing, especially mosquito-netting, poisoning, dynamite-fishing, trawling and beach-seine netting everywhere.
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.
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
Reduce pollution and mass fish-kills
Urgent need to reduce the presently excessive river pollution, especially industrial but also domestic wastes.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
The October – November, 2013 edition of SANDRP’s magazine ‘Dams, River and People‘ is now available online. This is the 9-10th issue of magazine in its 11th volume. Like its previous issues, this issue too is packed with indepth analysis of matters concerning dams, river as well as larger environment. The contents magazine are mentioned in the list below. The magazine in pdf format is available here — https://sandrp.in/DRP_Oct_Nov_2013.pdf. Several of the articles are also available in SANDRP’s blog and they can be viewed just by clicking on the name in the list. Enjoy reading.
A small bus load of pilgrims descended at Walen Kondh and bought the usual Prasad from a shack by the river. They crossed a suspension bridge over a deep gorge of Kal Nadi and went to the derelict temple of Vardayini Mata on the other bank.
Then a few girls among them did something unusual. Instead of offering the Prasad at the temple, they came to the ridge of the gorge and clapped a few times, peering into the river below. In a matter of seconds, there was frantic thrashing in the waters as a huge school of endangered Mahseer fish congregated swiftly. The devotees then threw in fistfuls of puffed rice to hundreds of Mahseer below. For the devotees, these fish are sacred: the children of Varadayini Mata.
Walen Kondh in Mahad Taluka of Raigad District in the Western Ghats of Maharashtra is one of the several critical community fish sanctuaries of India that protect the Mahseer fish. These sanctuaries have been successful in conserving not only the fish, but also stretches of rivers through their unique actions which find no support from the establishment and limited recognition from the conservation community.
Deccan Mahseer (Tor Khudree) is classified as an endangered specie by IUCN[i]. It does not feature in the schedule of species protected under the Wildlife Protection Act (1972) which is not a surprise as the Act represents freshwater diversity very poorly. However, many researchers, fisher folk and anglers have recorded that Tor Khudree and associated Mahseer species (Tor tor, Tor putitora, etc) which were once plentiful in rivers across Western Ghats, peninsular and central India, HimalayanRivers as well as floodplains, has now reduced drastically.
One of the major reasons behind the collapse of fish species like Mahseer is dam construction. Mahseer species migrate in the upstream to smaller streams for spawning (breeding). They need a flood pulse to undertake this migration. While other factors like pollution, overfishing, etc. have contributed to the decline, the multiple impacts of dams in terms of blocking migration paths, reduction of water levels in the downstream, submergence of pools in the upstream, changes in natural hydrograph and flood pulses, changes in sedimentation, etc., have been the primary reasons behind this collapse. (SANDRP’s report on Impact of Dams on Fisheries: sandrp.in/dams/Impacts_of_Dams_on_Riverine_Fisheries_in_India_ParineetaDandekar_Sept2012.pdf)
Fall of Mahseer has affected the ecology, local livelihoods, angling and recreational fishing in the rivers. While Hoshangabad on the banks of Narmada recorded 5-6 tonnes of Mahseer landings every year, it has been nearly wiped out from these places now[ii]. Mahseer used to form the majority of catch in these parts and has been severely affected by reservoirs like Tawa, Bargi, Sardar Sarovar and other Naramada projects. However, hardly any efforts are being made to reverse this situation. According to Shashank Ogale, who set up and managed Mahseer hatcheries in Tata Dams for more than 20 years, there are next to none functional Mahseer hatcheries in the country. This is despite the fact that dam proponents show an expense of crores of rupees to set up hatcheries as a part of their Environment Management Plan. After granting clearances, which are also based on these EMPs, MoEF does not bother to monitor the functioning and efficiency of these hatcheries or the impacts of dams on fish diversity and fisheries[iii].
In such a scenario, community conserved fish sanctuaries which are scattered across the country are playing a very important role in conserving various species of Mahseer as well as stretches of rivers. Unfortunately, most of these sanctuaries get no protection by the State Governments, Forest Departments or the Ministry of Environment and Forests. This is at a time when freshwater diversity is declining at the fastest rate globally[iv]. Ministry of Environment and Forests has done precious little in conserving or protecting riverine diversity, fisheries or rivers from the onslaught of dams. These sanctuaries keep getting submerged, dried up or fragmented by newly planned dams and State Fisheries Departments don’t bat an eyelid before giving a no-objection certificate (NOC) to projects which will spell doom for these sanctuaries.
Renole Pujari from Walen Kondh tells me that they have received no support or protection from the government to conserve Walen Kondh Sanctuary, however the community sanctions are so strong that not only is fishing banned across 2 kilometers from this stretch, but people are not even allowed to get down to the water, near these fish. He only hopes that this stretch of Kal nadi[v] is not destroyed by dams and chemical pollution like the neighboring Savitri River which flows through the chemical MIDC at Mahad. Fish kills are a regular feature of Savitri River.[vi]
In Maharashtra, Tilase is one more such small village in Wada Taluka of Thane district which protects Mahseer fish in Vaitarna River. The stretch is downstream of Upper Vaitarna Dam which supplies water to Mumbai. Local youths told me that fish kills occur here when water releases from Upper Vaitarna decrease. Downstream this stretch, Middle Vaitarna Dam has now come up and the sanctuary is now sandwiched between the two projects. Social sanctions here are so strict that a net cannot be put in the waters, even to check the species. Fish Sanctuaries also existed in Alandi and at Pandharpur along teh Bhima, but have been wiped out. In Vidarbha, several Dev dohs (Sacred Pools) exist in Rivers like Adan, Kathani, Wainganga, etc., where fishing is banned.
Accoridng to Rajendra Kerkar, Goa too has community conserved fish sanctuaries protecting the Mahseer at ‘Pistyachi Kon’ nesteled between Bhimgad and Mhadei Sanctuaries. It receives no protection.
In Orissa, along the Mahanadi on the banks of the leaning temple of Huma exists the Huma Mahseer Sanctuary. On the banks is a stone statue of a lady cutting a Mahseer fish. Legend goes that the one who fishes in this stretch will meet the same fate, like King Midas! Hirakud Dam has already affected this sanctuary and the proposed Lower Suktel Dam will make things worse.
Karnataka possible has the highest number of community fish sanctuaries in the Western Ghats. Nakur Gaya and Yenekkal fish sanctuaries exist on the banks of Kumardhara in Dakshin Kannada. In Yenekal, local gram panchayat has built a small weir with wooden gates for maintaining water levels for the fish. The weir is so small that the fish can migrate over it in the monsoons. Both these sanctuaries are threatened by the numerous mini hydel projects coming across the region, especially the 24.75 MW Kukke Mini Hydel Project near Hosmata[vii]. Fisheries Department however has given an NOC to this and many other mini hydels coming across the region without even attempting to study their impacts on Mahseer and other fish.
200 MW Gundia Hydel project will also affect the entire hydrograph of Kumaradhara-Gundia rivers. Here. The EIA done by KPCL (Karnataka Power Corporation Limited) says that there are no rare and endangered fish in the area. 5 new fish have been discovered in the region just in the past one year!
Karappura Fish Sanctuary in Mysore was submerged by the Kabini reservoir while the Shimoga Agrahara Sanctuary collapsed due to dwindling water levels which resulted after construction of Tunga Anicut 12 kilometers upstream from here.[viii]
Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh too have temple fish sanctuaries, notably the Baijanath Temple complex on the banks on River Gomti in Uttarakhand conserves Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora) and supports a small fish sanctuary on its banks. Many isolated fish sanctuaries are also reported from the Ramganaga and Kosi area near Corbett. However, it is also reported that now these sites are used by anglers and the temples receive revenue in return. In Jogindernagar, a town in Mandi distirct of Himachal Pradesh, lies a lake known as Machchiyal, fed by River Uhl. This lake is supposed to be the abode of Machendru Devta, the Fish God. Fish are fed and worshipped here regularly and fishing is strictly prohibited in the lake. Machchiyal supports a large population of the Himalayan Mahseer. There is a Temple of Machendru Devta on the lake bank with ancient idols of fish-god.
In the remote Tawang in Aruncahal Pradesh in the North East corner of India flows a beautiful river Nyamjangchu. Buddhist Monpas rever the river as well as the fish in Nyamjangchu. Fish in the Nyamjangchu are not hunted. The river is threatened by the proposed 780 MW Nyamjangchu Hydel project which will divert or submerge nearly the entire length of this river flowing through India. Even premier research institutes like CIFRI (Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute) have done a shoddy study and supported the project and have not raised the issue of impact of this dam on fish diversity.[ix]
On the occasion of World Fisheries Day 2013, we urge to the MoEF to document the existing sanctuaries and grant immediate protection to all the existing fish sanctuaries in the country, protecting them from the onslaught of dams and other pressures. We had sent a similar submission to the moEF which was endorsed by several Fisheries Scientists and activists across the country in 2012, we’ve received no response from the MoEF on it till date (https://sandrp.in/rivers/MoEF_EAC_Submission_Fisheries_Nov2012.pdf, sandrp.in/rivers/World_Fisheries_Day_PR_Nov2012.pdf).
These sanctuaries stand testimony to the fact that community conservation is one of the most sustainable and effective ways of protecting ecosystems. The sanctuaries and their keepers deserve respect and recognition.
Fresh water inland fisheries in Maharashtra contribute to over 1 lakh MT fish catch each financial year and generate around ₹ 600-800 Crores for dependent fisher folks[i]. As per the economic surveys (2011-12) for Pune region i.e. Pune, Satara, Sangli, Solapur and Kolhapur districts, there are over 20 thousand fisher folks supported by inland fisheries generating ₹ 8,722 Lakh for the fishing community in the entire Pune region.
Total area under inland fisheries (including river, lakes, and dams)- ha
Inland fisheries production (MT)
Economic wealth (Lakh Rs.)
Number of cooperative societies
Fisher folk supported
Though these are in the Bhima-Krishna Basin, the above records are only for reservoir fisheries! The fisheries department does not collect or maintain any data on riverine fish or fisheries in this region. In fact, the Fisheries Department clearly mentions that it concerns itself only with reservoir fisheries and not riverine fisheries.
Figure 1. Fishing in Khodshi Dam region
Why is this a problem?
Across India, the potential of riverine fisheries is decreasing rapidly. At the same time, it is the rivers which form the backbone of the nutritional and economic security of over 10 million marginal fisher folk in India. But, neither are the riverine fisher folk counted by Fisheries Department, nor is their fish catch is monitored.
This has resulted in chronic downplaying of riverine fisheries sector and concentration of attention on aquaculture and marine fisheries.
No regulation or appreciation of riverine fisheries also means that no attention is being paid to the crisis of riverine fisheries, fisher folk and fish diversity. Across the nation[ii] dams and barrages and related changes in hydrology: Dry rivers, stagnant reservoirs, increasing sedimentation in rivers, rising salinity of estuaries, have adversely impacted the fisheries and dependent people. But this is not very well documented and no attention is being paid to address these issues.
Fisheries Department and Riverine Fisheries in Maharashtra
Highlights of The Maharashtra Fisheries Act (1961)[iii]: The Act applies to inland, riverine as well as marine fisheries. However, the act does not have anything specific to offer to riverine fisheries. It does not talk about traditional fisher folk, their rights, water levels that need to maintained downstream dams, fish biodiversity etc. at all. It is only an Act about edible fisheries, mostly applicable for marine and reservoir fisheries.
The act is said to provide for protection, conservation and development of fisheries in Maharashtra
The word “fish” includes fishes, crustaceans, oysters and shell fish
The act provides for the appointment of “fisheries officers”, person not below the rank of sub-inspector to look after the welfare of the fisheries in the jurisdiction
It prohibits use of nets, gears or anything that is fixed in the soil for catching the fish, use of explosives, toxic chemicals, obnoxious material and arrows for catching the fish
The State Government is empowered to make rules to regulate or prohibit any discharge of solid or liquid material deleterious to fishes as long as it does not affect the powers of local bodies to discharge sewage water
Interestingly, the Act also empowers the State Government to enact rules for protection of fish in selected waters to “prohibit or regulate the construction temporary or permanent or weirs, dams and bunds.”
Unfortunately, the Act does not offer any specific protection to riverine fisheries or conservation of fish.
How does the fisheries department work?
SANDRP discussed issues surrounding riverine fisheries and fisher folk with Fisheries Development Officer of Pune Region. The Fisheries Development Officer said that fisheries department transfers fishing rights for a period of 5 years at a stretch, either to a fisheries cooperative society or contractors. Fishing rights[iv] on dam reservoirs with area more than 200 ha and less than 200 ha are leased out for the period of 5 years to fishing cooperative societies or to contractors if no cooperative society approaches to the department. The fishing rights on the tanks with less than 200 ha area are preferably leased out to local fishing cooperative societies.
According to the Fisheries Development Officer, Pune District alone has 87 water bodies, on which fishing rights are controlled by fisheries department. Out of them, 17 water bodies are more than 200 ha in area. On 7 of those 17 water bodies, there are local cooperative fishing communities while 10 are leased out. On the other hand, there are 70 water bodies which are less than 200 ha. Out of those, 38 are controlled by local fishing cooperative societies, while 32 are leased out to contractors.
He said that in case of marine fisheries in Maharashtra, annual reports[v] are available giving details of about species, fish catch, fish landing stations, number of mechanized boats and so on. However, the picture about fresh-water fisheries is very dismal with complete lack of basic data about number of fishermen, species, yearly fish catch, distribution and abundance of fish species etc. In the section of fresh water fisheries, the department only controls leasing out fishing rights in lakes and dams. Therefore, the aspects related to conservation and protection of riverine diversity remains untouched.
In fact, the fisheries development officer went to the extent of saying that we should not ask more questions about riverine fisheries as the mandate of the Fisheries Department is only to look at fisheries in reservoirs and not rivers!
There has been some research on fish diversity in various parts of the Pune region. For Warna basin, an exhaustive fish species abundance and cause-effect analysis is done by Dr. Mohite and Dr. J. Samant[vi]. For the Pune district, an organization named RANWA attempted to study riverine fish diversity. Interestingly, their initial records indicate that rivers flowing through Pune, once had over 110 fish species![vii]
The department breeds the healthy fishes (called as brood stock) in the controlled conditions and sells the young fires or fingerlings to the contractors or local fishing cooperative societies operational in the jurisdiction. The ponds are seeded with the cultures and the fishing continues to the next season.
The rare riverine fisheries cooperatives
Though the fisheries department of the state concerns itself with fishing in the dams and tanks, there are some rare exceptions, which provide a brief glimpse of the potential and richness of riverine fisheries.
In case of Sangli, Kolhapur and Nanded, the fishing rights on Krishna, Warna, Panchaganga, Dudhaganga, Bhogawati (Sangli and Kolhapur) Godavari (Nanded) are leased to the local fishermen. The reason is that, such leasing was being carried from the times of Patwardhan sansthaniks of Sangli and Shahu Maharaj of Kolhapur. Even after the princely states were annexed by the British, such leasing of fishing rights in the open river continued and is going on till today.
However, in these cases too, the department has no clue about the distribution of fish species or the status of fisher folk.
Example of Kolhapur We interacted with 3 cooperative societies in Kolhapur which operate in the rivers to understand the situation and problems the fishermen face. We interacted with 1. Daulat Sahakari Macchimar Sanstha, Shirol, 2. Hatkanangale jalakshetra macchimar sahakari sanstha, Hatkanangale, and 3. Shirol Taluka Sahakari Macchimar Sanstha, Kurundwad
Figure 2. Fish catch in the Sangli Market. Credit:Mandar Paingangkar
Atmaram Apate, Chariman of Hatkanangale jalakshetra macchimar sahakari sanstha elaborated that “In the Kolhapur district alone, there are 52 different fishing cooperative societies fishing in the open river and there are around 4-5 thousand fishermen from the region. All the fishermen are traditional fisher folks who are genuinely familiar with the waters. Each fishing cooperative society has fishing rights decided traditionally on the rivers of Krishna and Panchaganga”.
Figure 3. Fishermen casting his net in Krishna River. Credit: Mr. Nerlikar
On a different note, Shirol taluka macchimar sahakari sanstha wrote a letter to Assistant Commissioner, Fisheries (Technical) of the Kolhapur district seeking “process of collecting revenue from the fishermen of the open river is unjustifiable and should be stopped. Fishermen are aggravated by the fact that such practice is followed in no other district of Maharashtra except these three, so they want such measure to be discontinued.”
However, there are some contrary opinions to this demand too. Atmaram Apte of Hatkanangale fisheries cooperative society feels that “it is by the very process of leasing, rights of fisher folks on the river are recognized and protected. If the process of such leasing is stopped, anyone could come in our area and do fishing while the local fishermen will not be able to make their ends meet”.
In fact, simply recognizing fisherfolk and leasing fishing rights is still an important function, as per Mansih Rajankar, who has worked extensively on fisheries in Vidarbha. According to Rajankar, “At least some user right of these fisherfolk on the rivers is thus recognized. In Vidarbha, dams like Gosi Khurd will destroy downstream fisheries and fisherfolk do not even have nominal user rights on the river and hence, are not even counted as being affected by the dam!”
Pollution It is important to understand that the significant problem fishermen face is about water pollution. The Shirol, Hatkanangale and Jaisingpur MIDCs release highly untreated and toxic effluents which results in fish kills and thereby hampers the fish catch. The fish death have been alarmingly high in the district and the causative agents are sugar mills as well which release their stored wastes in the water on the onset of monsoon[viii].
In Dec 2012 and January 2013, Kolhapur taluka fisheries cooperative society, Bhoiraj fisheries cooperative society, and those from Shirol, Shridhon, Awali had written to fisheries development officer of the Kolhapur district, seeking compensation against the reduced fish catch. The same request was forwarded to Kolhapur district collector by the fisheries department. The district collector dodged the ball in the respective Tehsildar’s court. Tehsildars said that they don’t have enough money to grant for compensation. However, no concrete action was taken against the polluters. Maharashtra Pollution Control Board did not intervene in the matter either.
Unfortunately, no government department is ready to act for betterment of riverine fisher folks in the district.
The fishermen from Shirol Taluka (which has Dutta Cooperative sugar mill, and Shriol MIDC) say that about a decade ago, they used to receive around 10-12 kg of fish catch a day, now they only get 4-6 kg of fish catch per day. They attribute this reduction to the polluted discharges.
Most of the seeding done in reservoirs is exotic fish. Although Tilapia is an exotic pest species which competes with native fish, Fisheries Department is using Tilapia seeds in many reservoirs, from where they enter into river systems, contaminating the rich gene pool. For information on exotic fish invasion in our rivers: http://www.downtoearth.org.in/content/silent-invasion
In fact, Mr. Suneel Koli from Daulat Macchimar Sangathana, Shirol, Kolhapur told us that they get around 60-65 fish varieties in their catch, indicating the richness of riverine fisheries. Dr. Nilesh Dahanukar of Indian Institute of Science, Education and Research (IISER), Pune has recently[ix] discovered a new fish species in the Krishna river basin of Maharashtra section of Western Ghats. Experts believe that fish diversity in the rivers of Western Ghats is highly understudied and more focus needs to be given to the same.
Maharashtra state government and the Maharashtra state Fisheries Department needs to pay urgent attention to welfare of riverine fish diversity, fisheries and fisher folk. When the Fisheries Act 1961 clearly states that it provides for conservation and improvement of fisheries in the state, why is state government turning a blind eye to riverine fisher folks? It is important that the state fisheries department starts identifying the fishing communities (at least-if not the individual fishermen) of the open river. This will also help in understanding the plight of fisher folk in Maharashtra. Inland fisheries should not just be confined to the seeded fishing in dams and reservoirs.
Riverine fisher folk also need to get user rights on the rivers in which they fish. They should also be part of social impact assessment when dams and other structure are built on rivers and also part of Rehabilitation plans.
Rules under the Fisheries Act 1961 about “prohibit or regulate the construction temporary or permanent or weirs, dams and bunds” need to be formulated and enacted.
The polluters (including municipal corporations) and sugar mills need to be penalized as per the Fisheries Act 1961 to safeguard the livelihoods of riverine fisher folk.
The fisheries department needs to acknowledge local biodiversity of fish fauna and take efforts to conserve and promote them instead of only focusing on common carps and major carp varieties of the fishes. The department is not entrusted to protect only these varieties.
It is crucial that the fisheries department and State Department shows some will and initiative to protect riverine fish diversity against the onslaught of more, taller and bigger dams, polluting industries, law defying barons so that riverine fishery would survive for generations to come. With Climate Change becoming a reality, biodiversity and resilience of small scale, riverine fisheries can provide an important adaptation measure, which needs to be promoted urgently.
[i] Maharashtra District Economic Survey 2011-12, page number 100