By Parineeta Dandekar*
When I was documenting a tiny, free-flowing river in Maharashtra Western Ghats named Shastri, the common thread from headwaters to estuary was fishing! It was everywhere, in all forms, including dozens of fish species and fishing practices, including everyone: men, women, children, otters, crocs, storks. Across the country, buzzing, diversified fisheries with old, complex narratives indicate a rich river. And the palette just gets more vivid, nuanced and colorful with the size of the river.
More than 10 million Indians from some of the most vulnerable groups depend on rivers for their livelihood and nutritional needs. This staggering number can be an underestimate as several riverine fisherfolk do not bring their produce to the market and our livelihood census hardly captures the intricacies of riverine fisheries sector. Despite the huge dependence and critical importance of riverine fisheries, the sector continues being ignored and abused. The reasons behind the exploitation are at the heart of a deeper, more troubling discourse: ownership and appropriation of the river as a natural resource.
To illustrate, most dams which fundamentally affect riverine fisheries, never recognized fisherfolk as legitimate stakeholders, with a say in the decisions making processes. In the conundrum of infrastructure for irrigation, drinking water, hydropower, flood control, sewage disposal and now increasingly, navigation, riverine fisheries find no place: its protagonists perched on small wooden boats are too poor and unorganized to hold a clout. And the rivers cannot go to the court.
Latest statement of the Water Resource Minister sums up the narrative succinctly. “Leave rivers to me”, he says. “Me” is Large Dams, Navigation, Embankments, etc. No wonder that the World Forum for Fish Workers gathering in New Delhi asserted that fisherfolk should unite against corporate and government sponsored “resource grabbing.”
Let us try to look at the status of river fisheries in India through the lens of four large infrastructure projects: How they impact rivers and fisheries, how these impacts are addressed and what space remains for the fisherfolk in the discourse which holds sway over their lives.
Inland Navigation Project
In 2016, Indian Government enacted National Waterways Act and declared 111 rivers or river stretches, creeks, estuaries as ‘National Waterways’. Prior to this act, there were only five, including National Waterway 1 on the Ganga from Haldia to Allahabad, and National Waterway 2 on the Brahmaputra. Indian Waterways Authority of India, in existence since decades, is in charge of these activities.
Purportedly for eco-friendly transport of cargo, hazardous chemicals, coal, industrial raw materials, and tourism, each project will include massive interventions on rivers like capital and maintenance dredging of rivers, docks, channels, wharves, jetties, landing stages, locks, buoys, inland ports, cargo handling equipment, road and rail access and cargo storage spaces. This will automatically include several rounds of land acquisition.
The Ganga-Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system (Allahabad-Haldia-1620 km National Waterway I or NW I ) and the Brahmaputra River (Dhubri-Sadiya-891 km) have already been declared as national waterways. The World Bank has approved Rs 375 Million USD for NW-1.
Although it is obvious that a project which entails dredging the river beds, straightening meanders, establishing ports and jetties at river mouths, mangroves and riparian floodplains, changes in river hydrology, traffic inside a river, transport of hazardous material like coal, fly ash and iron ore inside protected areas would require Environmental & Social Impact Assessment, public consultation and Environmental Clearance, the Ministry of Shipping has been opposing this and Union Ministry of Environment, Forests & Climate Change (MoEF&CC) has been inconsistent and ambiguous on its stand.
National Waterway 1: Ganga Waterway:
NW-I proposes to build multi-modal terminals at Varanasi (Uttar Pradesh), Sahibganj (Bihar) and Haldia (West Bengal). Apart from being a riverine stretch with a heavy fisheries dependence, most of the stretch is also habitat for the Gangetic Dolphin. The work on this waterway is already underway, including dredging at the Vikramshila Dolphin Sanctuary without an environmental clearance!
Preliminary studies have documented the distress of dolphins at the loud noise and their disappearance from dredging sites, which will slowly include most of their habitat. Incidentally, Gangetic River Dolphins are our National Aquatic Animal. The case of Chinese Baiji Dolphins driven to extinction and the role played by inland navigation is documented. The project will cut through the Kashi Turtle Sanctuary, but the National Board for Wildlife has given its recommendation. Manthan Adhyayan Kendra has done an assessment of impact of inland navigation.
In 2016, a study of the impact of coal transportation by National Thermal Power Corporation on the Ganga Waterway (Haldia port to Farakka through the Hoogly river), by ICAR-Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI), corroborated severe impacts, sharp fall in fish diversity due to barge movement and the fall in income of the 25,000 fisher people dependent on it.
Not surprisingly, the affected people were not compensated. Author has met several fisherfolk around Farakka Barrage who are still facing severe impacts of the Barrage.
Built on the Ganga-Padma river in 1975, Farakka Barrage single-handedly killed Hilsa migration up the river. The barrage does not have a functioning fish lock to facilitate migration of Hilsa fish which is ecologically, economically and even culturally singular in its identity for Bengal. This is despite the fact that India’s premier Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI) is located not too far from Farakka and has a separate program on Hilsa!
However, the lucrative Inland Navigation Project has made authorities scamper and contract for a new navigational locks tender has already been awarded to Larson and Toubro for Rs 359.19 crore in November 2016.
Fish Lock, on the other hand has not been operational, repaired (or even traceable!) for last several decades.
It is clear that despite huge impacts, Riverine Fish or Fisheries have no role to play in decisions related to the NW-I development.
Inland Navigation and Impact of Fisheries in Goa
In Goa, riverine and estuarine fishing is not just a profession, it has permeated into the culture of that unique land. Researchers and activists in Goa say that about 50,000 fisherfolk are dependent on artisanal estuarine fisheries in six major rivers of Goa.Goans have several fishing techniques, indigenous management systems like Khajans, specialized nets and boats for their riverine susegaat maneuvers. Rivers and river mouths are shared with fish, snails, oyster reefs, crocs, otters, mangroves and fishing boats, in the same easy-going manner.
Of all states in India, possibly Goa has most at stake when it comes to impact of Navigation on Fisheries on its six major rivers: Zuari, Mandovi, Cumbarjua, Chapora, Sal and Mapusa/Moide. Goa has witnessed the fallout of exponentially increasing iron ore & imported coal shipping on rich estuaries of Zuari and Mandovi Rivers.
Goan fisherfolk are staunchly against “Nationalisation” of rivers and Inland Navigation. Main objections include the intricate dependence of communities on rivers and river banks which will be taken over by the navigation project, the placing of fishing nets across and parallel to river mouths and mangroves which will be useless once more ships start plying these waters, the pollution already caused by ship yards and ore transport. And biggest concern is conversion of a verdant, vulnerable and staunchly “fighter” state into a coal hub in no time.
Abhijit Prabhdesai from Madgaon, an activist and researcher with immense knowledge of Goa’s river system tells me, “Goa has one of the richest estuarine and riverine fisheries. We have our own systems like Khajan. We do not want to sell our rivers and fisheries for Coal transport of Adani and Jindal.” Click HERE for a small, wonderful film on the same.
A Citizens’ Group known as ‘Our Rivers, Our Rights’ has come together specifically to counter river nationalization and against any transport of Coal in Goas rivers. The group has petitioned to the PM: “People all over Goa are furious and up in arms against the totally, illegal, unconstitutional and anti-national attempts to nationalise our rivers and are willing to go to any extent to prevent our rivers and appurtenant lands from being grabbed for private profits of a few corporations, for coal transportation or any other reason.”
“The conservation of our river commons is essential for promotion of our rich culture and traditions, sustainable economic growth through renewed agriculture, fisheries and related activities and for protection of our environment – the economy of our children to come”.
It also states poignantly: “Our rivers are the inalienable properties of our village communities and continue to sustain lakhs of Goans even today. Fishing tools like Fut’tani, pagels, ogors, manxio, kobule, lambaris, etc are used extensively by thousands of river side fisher folk people to sustain Goan economy and culture… These rivers are not only the lifeline of Goan communities, but are also completely owned, managed and protected by local communities”.
All Goa Fishermen’s Union has said that 45 inland fishing villages will be destroyed on account of the nature of waterways proposed. Several bodies like Chapora Fishermen Association have opposed the move strongly.
For nearly one year, the ruling govt has been stating that it will sign a tripartite Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between Goa Govt, Marmagoa Port Trust and Inland Waterways Authority after taking people in confidence, but it has still not shared the MoU with the people.
Fisherfolk protests are rising, but fisherfolk: the true custodians of Goa’s rivers and vibrant cultural identity find no place in the discourse surrounding their rivers.
River Interlinking and fisheries
River Interlinking (ILR or Inter Linking of Rivers) being pushed by the Centre is poised to change the hydrology of several rivers in eco-senstive zones across the country. Several studies have documented the possible impact of river interlinking project on fisheries. Some studies claim “implementation of such construction-intensive project will lead to biodiversity loss that would be beyond comprehension.”
For some of the ILR projects, even an EIA is not needed because it is wrongly claimed that they are drinking water supply schemes and erroneously excluded from EIA Notification 2006 like the Damanganga Pinjal Link in Western Ghats.
For other Projects like Ken Betwa Link Project, the EIA makes sadly laughable claims. The Project will significantly change the habitat of Ken river, which is also famed for migrating fish like Anguilla bengalensis bengalensis and Bagarius bagarius and Mahseer. As is observed throughout the country, dams have led to sharp population collapses of these species. In addition, dams change the entire hydrological, chemical and physical properties of river water, entirely affecting fisheries. In his eloquent report young researcher Tarun Nair sharply illustrates how all the diversity of River Chambal, Ken and Son is hanging by a thin thread due to all the existing diversions on the rivers which take away water, silt, nutrients and sand from the rivers.
The EIA of Ken Betwa Link, however, says that the canals would provide a shortcut for the fish to migrate upstream!
A recently published paper on the Ken Betwa project, authored by a Senior Fisheries Scientist of CIFRI (who was also the member of the EAC which cleared Ken Betwa Project, but did not oppose the fraudulent EIA of the project!) highlights the ecological richness of Ken river and the possible impact of the link on fish species and diversity.
According to the paper, Ken River has 89 fish with two species recorded in 70s already missing due to “Large scale modifications in the riverine habitats due to construction of dams and barrages at two sites on the main channel and three sites on tributaries… As a result, the river has been fragmented, causing serious obstruction to the migratory fish species, Tor tor, Bagarius bagarius and Anguilla bengalensis. Dams have altered the hydrological regime, sedimentation pattern, and feeding and breeding grounds of the native fish. Dams have considerable influence on downstream river ecosystems, extending for hundreds of kilometers below the barricade. Diminishing populations of Indian major Carps, Catfish, Murrels, and Featherback and increasing invasion of hardy exotic fishes could be attributed to the massive river modification activities. Construction of Daudhan dam on the river Ken and related developmental activities would lead to extermination of this valuable fish species like Anguilla bengalensis bengalensis from the river. Dam will affect diversity negatively.”
Betwa has about 81 species. “Ken and Betwa traverse through some of the most diverse habitats including rapids, falls, and deep pools; the river substratum comprises bedrocks, boulders, gravels, sand, silt, and clay in different stretches. This leads to a rich fish diversity including Indian Major Carps(IMC), large Catfish, Murrels, Featherbacks, Mahseer and miscellaneous fish form the major fishery. About 60% fish species found in the Ken are edible.”
Ken has 8 threatened species and a fish Anguilla bengalensis bengalensis, a long distance catadromous migrant which is very rare in Yamuna is still found here and is held very important by local communities.
And despite this, we did not see any representation from CIFRI either about the impact of the project on fish and livelihoods or on the fraudulent EIA at a time when the project was seeking environmental clearance.
What is the role of fisherfolk in decision making?
None. The Public hearing of Ken Betwa was extremely problematic, with no place of fisher people or researchers or academics who are also stakeholders. Even the Executive Summary of the EIA was just not available for the local residents to study and comment before public hearing. SANDRP has highlighted the issues.
Narmada Obstacle Race and Fisheries
Since the inception, Narmada Valley Development Plan of Madhya Pradesh which include 30 major dams (of which the Tawa, Bargi, Omkareshwar, Mann and Indira Sagar dams have been completed in Madhya Pradesh) in addition to the Sardar Sarovar dam in Gujarat declared complete by the Prime Minister Shri Modi on his birthday, Sept 17, 2017, ecological integrity of Narmada has been compromised exponentially.
There are documented reports of how fish landings of valuable fish species like Mahseer collapsed following dam building. Recently research paper by CIFRI, Bhaumik et al , “A Case Study of the Narmada River System in India”, with particular reference to the impact of dams on its ecology and fisheries, 2017 compared pre- and post-impoundment eco-environment and fisheries. Not surprisingly, it revealed staggering changes in productivity, water quality, and aquatic flora and fauna of the river system.
Among the fish, species like Mahseer (Tor tor), Labeo fimbriatus and Labeo dyocheilus suffered most. Percentage contributions to catches of Freshwater Prawn, (Macrobrachium rosenbergii) and Hilsa (Tenualosa ilisha) have declined by 46% and about 75% in the estuarine stretch of the river system! The percentage contributions to total yield of Carp, Catfish also fell by 17% and 36%.
Just imagine the impact this must have had on the riverine fishing communities, which is not documented as usual, nor is there any question of counting them among the impacts, compensating the losses or rehabiliting the affected people:
“Unni (1996) mentioned the river as the only natural source of Mahseer eggs because of high and sustained abundance. However, studies conducted by the Government of Madhya Pradesh between 1987–1988 and 1995– 1996 showed decline in fry production potential of the species by nearly 78% within three decades of commissioning of the river valley projects.”
Narmada, once an important natural seeding ground of fish like Mahseer now has to buy Mahseer fingerlings from Tata Hatcheries in Pune. This is an ecological tragedy of massive proportions if we are ready to listen.
There is strong opposition to further dams by fisherfolk in places like Maheshwar. I have visited fish bazars in Maheshwar region, still with some native species. The fisherfolk there ask, “If our river won’t flow, we will not get fish. Can the dam builders compensate us with another river?”
Apart from fisherfolk, Government organisations like CIFRI have noted that: “Giant freshwater Prawn (M. rosenbergii) fisheries have shown a declining trend during the installation of the Sardar Sarovar dam. Loss of habitats due to the controlled flooding of riverbeds and change in depth profiles created major constraints for Prawn fisheries.”
Fisheries of Bharuach and downstream is dominated by a single enigmatic species: The silvery Hilsa or Palwa fish, which migrates from the sea up into the river for breeding during monsoons. It lays eggs in relatively calmer and nutrient rich waters of the estuary and upriver and then swims back into the sea. Hilsa, renowned for its flavor is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon.
Across India, dams and especially barrages at river mouths have killed Hilsa fisheries. Same is the case in Narmada. Again documented by CIFRI: “The Sardar Sarovar dam was built stage-wise in Gujarat, gradually blocking the normal river flow, restricting the Hilsa migration range, and also causing a shift in their breeding grounds. In the recent past, the fishing grounds have moved further downwards to the Gulf of Cambay, where about 90% of the catch is now harvested.
During the filling of the Sardar Sarovar Dam Hilsa production has shown a declining trend. Annual catch of 16,000 t of the species during 1990– 1991 reduced to 4000 t in 2007–2008 and indicated a 75% decline in production over a period of one-and-a-half decades.
The control of the river discharge has detrimentally affected the migration of Hilsa and their abundance in the river. Change in salinity patterns and gradual shrinkage in freshwater habitats have cumulatively affected the Hilsa fishery.”
Just downstream of Sardar Sarovar Project (SSP) Dam in Gujarat, now a new dam, Garudeshwar Dam is under construction, without any social or environmental impact assessment. The project is designed to arrest any water released by River Bed Power House of SSP from going down to the sea, to be pumped back to the dam! A petition challenging the project in National Green Tribunal, unfortunately and shockingly, was dismissed on grounds that it was filed too late!
Yet another Dam, this time to to improve water quality?
And it is with this background that the Government of Gujarat proposes to build yet another dam on Narmada: the Bhadbhut Barrage, right near the Narmada river mouth, which can be the last straw for Hilsa in Narmada estuary. No wonder, on Oct 8, 2017, when the Prime Minister visited Bharuch to lay foundation stone, hundreds of fishing boats defiantly waved black flags at the ceremony.
Stated objectives of the Bhabhut Barrage are:
- To protect the fertile land from salinity ingress
- To protect the river banks from erosion and
- To provide the road connectivity between Hazira and Dahej industrial estates.
Central reason behind rising salinity in Narmada is declining freshwater releases from the Sardar Sarovar Dam, managed by the Sardar Sarovar Narmada Nigam Ltd (SSNNL). Recently the Narmada Control Authority has allowed the closing of all 30 gates of the Sardar Sarovar dam at Kevadia Colony, which will help raise level of water in the reservoir to 138.68 meter from the present 121.92 metre.
According to Dr. MSH Sheikh of the Brackish Water Research Institute, Surat, “The Dam authorities believe that water release in the downstream is wastage of the freshwater. They have no value for the 150 km of Narmada River downstream the dam. There was a delta of Narmada when the Sardar Sarovar dam was not constructed called Aliyabet with lush green Aal grass. Cattle from villagers of the northern and southern parts of the river grazed here. After the construction of dam and non-release of adequate freshwater, delta of Narmada has all but disappeared. Southern portion of the delta has merged with land and created a desert. Sardar Sarovar dam has played major role in changing the geographic condition of the entire area and reduced the freshwater fish, reducing the fish catch in the delta hugely.”
“Bhadbhut Barrage will lead to high siltation at the mouth of estuary which will create problems of uneven surface in breeding- fishing zone and navigational problems for fishing boats. The major economic threat is due to the creation of reservoir of fresh water as freshwater has limited number of fish species and its market rates are very low – Rs 80 to 100 /kg in comparison to estuarine species which fetch between Rs 300 – 1200 /kg with varied range of fish. Fisherfolk are opposing Bhadbhut project as their very livelihood is at stake. They had no option but to oppose the laying of the foundation stone of the Bhadbhut Dam on Oct 8, 2017 by Prime Minister Shri Narendra Modi at Bharuch. Thousands of fisherpeople took out boat rallies with black flags and the fisherwomen took out silent march. We want the Barrage cancelled, we want the government to ensure ecological flow in Narmada not only for the factories and SEZs, but for fisheries and finally, we demand for compensation: Compensation for the livelihoods lost due to reduced flow of our river.”
Farcical EIA of proposed Bhadbhut Barrage by NEERI
In 2014, SANDRP had visited Bharuch to understand the impact of Bhadbhut Barrage on fisherfolk and Narmada. During the meeting, Hilsa dominated all discussions. Local Fisherfolk and traders drew our attention to the EIA of Bhadbhut done by National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI).
Kamalesh Madhiwala, President Samast Bharuch Machimar Samiti, pointed out several lacunae in the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) report. “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 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. 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!
“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. 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.”
Rallies and protests go on, as mentioned above, foundation stone laying of Bhadbhut dam was opposed on Oct 8, 2017.
And in this situations, , the response of Kalpasar Project Authority of Gujarat government is, “If migratory fish are caught during their upward travel for the purpose of spawning (producing eggs), question of next generation does not arise at all and after some years with the same practice, fishes would become extinct.”
The response is not only callous and irresponsible, but utterly shameless when viewed with the background of all that has happened to the fisherfolk in Narmada during damming.
Where are fisherfolk in decisions around Bhadbhut Barrage?
No assessment of downstream impacts of either Sardar Sarovar or Bhadbhut dam has been done. No compensation is being offered to the fisherfolk affected. According to the fisherfolk, compensation has never entered the discussions at all. 1500 farmers and fisherfolk attended the public hearing in 2014 and walked out soon after sharply registering their protest against the proposed project. However, the fact remains that they have no space in decision making that can be the last straw for commercial Hilsa Fishery in Narmada and livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk families.
Aghanashini River cutting through the Western Ghats and meeting the Arabian Ocean in Dakshin Kannada District of Karnataka is a rare river in many senses. First and foremost, it is one of the very few rivers in India and even the world to retain its integral connection to the sea from its source: it is undammed and free flowing. Less than 1/3rd of large global rivers remain like that today. Because of the relatively protected catchment, immensely biodiverse habitat and comparative remoteness of the river basin, the water quality and riparian health still are in a good condition. But the gem is the estuary of the Aghanashini, its mouth where it meets the sea. The estuary, its associated mud flats and mangroves form a spectacularly productive ecosystem which harbours astounding biodiversity, at the same time supports livelihoods of thousands of fisherfolk, riparian farmers, bivalve collectors (clams, mussels, oysters, etc).
More than 20 villages depend on Aghanashini estuary for fishing, directly employing more than 6000 fisherfolk, impacting about 25-30000 people! The Centre for Ecological Sciences of Bangalore’s Indian Institute of Science (IISc), proposed to the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board that the biologically active mudflats near Aghanashini village and the mangroves near Kaggal and Masur villages be declared as ‘Biodiversity Heritage Sites’, under the Biological Diversity Act of 2002. The Bivalve Collectors’ Union proposed to the Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Authority that the entire estuary be declared as a ‘critical vulnerable coastal area’.
In such an ecological wonderland, Karnataka State Industrial and Infrastructure Development Corporation (KSDIIC) has proposed a multipurpose port bang at the mouth of the river, which is going to affect and destroy mangroves, mudflats, and estuarine area spread over more than 1000 acres. In late 2016, an expert appraisal committee (EAC) of the Ministry of Environment and Forests recommended environmental and coastal regulation zone clearances for the project.
As usual, the EIA (done by NEERI) and public hearing has been severely critiqued as being inadequate, biased and refusing to acknowledged the ecosystemic and cultural value of the region.
Some media reports claim that the port will be built on a PPP basis, with Adani being the private party. While more than 300 submissions were received against recommending Environment Clearance to the project, the MoEF&CC’s Expert Appraisal Committee (EAC) still recommended the project for EC. It seems that in their scheme of things, voice of fisherfolk (or even experts and scientists) holds no sway. But this does not mean that the port will continue unchallenged.
In conclusion Riverine Fisherfolk can be the mascots of our healthy, flowing rivers. When we brush them under the carpet, we brush the rivers under the carpet too. Ecosystem-dependent communities are the best indicators of how we treat our natural resources and vulnerable societies. They are a yardstick to assess environmental governance of a nation. It is clear that we are failing riverine fisherfolk of India by not ensuring assessment of impacts of project on them, by not including them in decision-making processes affecting their livelihoods, by not compensating them for the stark losses because they were too poor, weak and vulnerable to stake their claims and by mistreating our rivers.
The challenge also holds an opportunity. Riverine fisherfolk can be the mascots of our rivers. Ensuring their welfare is a win-win game for all. It is time to acknowledge them as ambassadors of healthy, flowing rivers.
This is a slightly abridged version of the article published in sandrp.wordpress.com. Click HERE to read the original article