Threat of livelihood loss looms large over thousands of fishermen because of the proposed Bhadbhut project in South Gujarat

Fishing boat on the mouth of Narmada river
Fishing boat on the mouth of Narmada river

By Anupama Vijayakumar and Arvind Khuman

The villagers around the mouth of Narmada river face a grave threat on account of loss of livelihood. The fishermen in the area have launched protests against the proposal to construct an 11-km-long barrage on the mouth of the Narmada river, at Bhadbhut, in Bharuch district, which will help divert sweet water into the huge Kalpasar reservoir, to be built by damming the Gulf of Khambhat. While one of the declared aims of the barrage is to conserve surplus Narmada waters and then divert them towards the Kalpasar reservoir via a 32-kilometre-long canal, the fishermen in the area are apprehensive. They derive most of their annual income from their catch of the Hilsa or Ilish fish during the months of June to August, which is sold at Rs 300-400 per kilogram. In Western India, Hilsa is only found in Bharuch district. Hilsa makes its way from brackish water to fresh water during the monsoon season to lay eggs. It is caught on its way back to the sea. Because of this reason, the fish is usually caught at the mouth of the river.

A senior minister in the Narendra Modi government, Nitinbhai Patel, recently explained a few other advantages of the barrage. He said the proposed Bhadbhut barrage would be 100 feet wide, and it would connect Hazira and Hansot through a six lane highway, thus drastically scaling down the distance of those travelling from Hazira to Dahej, the two main industrial centres in South Gujarat. However, government officials do not appear to have looked into the plight of the fishermen.

According to a leader of the protesting fishermen, Pravin Majhi, about 8,000 fishermen residing in 22 villages from Kevadia colony, the site of the Narmada dam, to Bhadbhut – a distance of 112 kilometres — will be adversely affected. These people are traditional fishermen. If the barrage comes up, they will be unable to exercise their right to access the areas and carry out their traditional fishing activity. No form of public consultation or public hearing was held at the initial stages, when the project was conceptualised in 2009.  The barrage will block the contact between the river and the sea. This will block the passage of the fish, too. He also said that the barrage would create an obstruction in such a way that the fishermen, who occasionally venture out into the sea for fishing, would not be able to do so anymore.

The Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report of the Bhadbut project, prepared by the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute, Nagpur, mentions “an apprehension about obstructing the movement of fishermen and fisheries”. At the same time, it says that there is a provision for fish ladders and ship locks in the barrage to prevent the obstruction, adding, the project does not have any negative impacts such as submergence of habitation or loss of flora and fauna. Yet, the fact is, the entire village of Tadiya Dhanturia will be displaced. In a right to information (RTI) petition, filed with the Chief Minister’s Office in Gujarat, enquiring about the rehabilitation and other plans for fishermen, the Gujarat government has replied that no plans have yet been made to rehabilitate the villagers.

Under the Coastal Zone Regulation (CRZ) Notification, 2011, the area up to 200 metres on the high tide line (HTL) on the landward side in case of seafront and 100 metres along tidal influenced water bodied or width of the creek, whichever is lesser, is to be earmarked as No Development Zone (NDZ). One of the exceptions made under the notification is with regard to construction of facilities required for local fishing communities such as fish drying yards, curing facilities etc. It is perplexing that the EIA report uses the term “sub-optimal” to describe fisheries in the area. It tries to imply that the fishermen are only partly employed in fishing and that only a small number of fishermen own boats and need to go out to the sea. It also makes note of the fact that the Hilsa fishing trend is on a decline. The exception sought by the project is not what it intends to achieve.

From the EIA report, it is clear that the barrage is being constructed mainly for improving the road connectivity along the Delhi-Mumbai Industrial Corridor (DMIC). Yet another purpose it will serve is to provide water to the industries that are coming up in the vicinity, including the Petroleum, Chemical, and Petrochemical Investment Region (PCPIR) in Dahej. The report says that fresh river water stored upstream of the Bhadbhut barrage would be 500 million cubic metres (MCM). Of this, 60 MCM would be used for domestic usage, 10 MCM for revival of the defunct lift irrigation schemes in the vicinity, 200 MCM to “facilitate” speedier infrastructure development and industrialisation in the region. Fishing and fishermen hardly figure as part of the plan.

The Gujarat government claims that the barrage will bring economic development and prosperity to the region and would boost the fishing industry. But the fishing community does not think so. The aggrieved fishermen from the 22 villages marched on June 14, 2013 to the collector’s office in Bharuch district to present their grievances. They demanded that they should be declared as project affected persons (PAPs) on the lines of those affected by such projects like Narmada. The demand needs to be seriously considered, as their livelihood is under threat. Taking into account the ecologically sensitive nature of the sea water-fresh water contact, crucial to the breeding of Hilsa and other fishes, and the fact that the Hilsa species in India already faces a threat of extinction, one needs to re-analyse the desirability of the Bhadbhut barrage.

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