Narmada estuary: Facing pressure from industrial estates, livelihood of fisherfolk under threat from proposed barrage at Bhadbhut

Hilsa fish
Hilsa fish

By Amruta Pradhan*

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 all this, I saw for myself that fishing in the Narmada Estuary is the backbone of coastal Bharuch district. Just 5.15 kilometres 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 was there – 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 up to 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. Kalpsar (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. The reservoir is supposed to trap the water of 12 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 2,000 sq km area, over five times the area of Sardar Sarovar, the reservoir capacity is expected to be over 10 billion cubic metres, that is larger than the Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) reservoir capacity. The project is being pushed ignoring serious issues like hydrological-geological-structural feasibility and needless to say, its impacts on environment and fisherfolk. The project will destroy the coastal and deltaic fisheries and wetlands.

Fisherfolk of Bhadbhut
Fisherfolk of Bhadbhut

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 15,319 tonnes to 4,866 tonnes during 1993 to 2004) since commissioning of the 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 of the 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 (page 277, Sardar Sarovar: The Report of the Independent Review, Resource Futures International Inc, Canada, 1992):

“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.

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Fishing boats along the banks of river Narmada

Field visit

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: “Yield of hilsa has drastically reduced after Sardar Sarowar Dam has been built. There has been a reduction of 65 to 70 per cent. 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 (NCA) that it constantly releases 600 cusecs (cubic feet per second) of water from the dam 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 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 four months of the year, 70 per cnet of the income of fisherfolk at present are from sale of hilsa alone.”

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70 per cent of the income of fisherfolk is from sale of Hilsa

Kamaleshbhai 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 (page 10, Executive Summary of EIA Report by NEERI) 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. According to Kamleshbhai the actual population residing in the estuary region whose livelihood will be affected by barrage is close to 35,000 to 40,000!

The South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (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 Environment and Forests (MoEF). 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 up to date 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/).”

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Bhadbhut village

An edited version of the letter about the inadequacies of the EIA report sent by the Paryavaran Mitra director to the Gujarat Pollution Control Board (GPCB), which has been published in counterview.org, stating 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. 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 Kamleshbhai 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 fisherfolk 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 the Petroleum, Chemicals and Petrochemicals Investment Region (PCPIR) project. The PCPIR EIA report does not talk about impact on hilsa at all,” Bhupatbhai adds. “That’s true”, says Kamleshbhai. “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 July 7, 2014 local fisherfolk organized a protest rally at the district magistrate’s office and more than 4,000 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”.

Protest March organized on 7th July 2014. Pic: Kamlesh Madhiwala
Protest March organized on July 7, 2014

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 the estuary’s overall condition after SSP, he confirms the facts stated earlier by Praveenbhai and Kamaleshbhai. “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 per cent lower than last year when the estuary received water from dam overflow four to five 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.”

When asked as to how hilsa survives without freshwater water released in the estuary, Praveenbhai 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.”

Praveenbhai told me that the fisher people’s cooperative Bhadbhut Matsya Udyog Sahakari Mandali is preparing to file a Public Interest Litigation (PIL) 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.

Praveenbhai further informs me 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. Hilsa would be available till December-January. 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 two to five per cent 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, fertilizer sectors. 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. Praveenbhai 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 up to six persons 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 and other industrial estates dispose 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 fresh water 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 kg”, 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 me 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” (Executive Summary of EIA Report by NEERI). 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 are 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 the 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.

*With SANDRP, amrutapradhan@gmail.com. Based on field visit September 2014 by the author, first published in http://sandrp.wordpress.com

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