Interrelationship between fish, fisher-folk and the river at Palla, where Yamuna enters Delhi

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Mangal Shahni in the front has been involved in fishing in Yamuna for over 30 years. He says the fish diversity and catch has reduced due to pollution and lack of flow during lean season. (Image by Author) 

By Bhim Singh Rawat*

Fisher-folks know a river better than most others. Fish diversity is unfailing indicator determining river health. Unfortunately given the pollution load and lack of fresh flowing water, the Delhi stretch of Yamuna river is biologically dead. Hence fishing activities are rare and not much is known about the current fishermen community.

Situation was better in the past. Many people still fondly recollect, memory of bathing in a pristinely flowing Yamuna in Delhi around 1970s. They also describe their narrative of enjoying plenty of fish variety. Elderly in Greater Noida even claim watching ‘Sush’ dolphin in the river during their childhood.

Now the river is in continual degradation. It gets some clean water during monsoon, when adjoining areas face flood threat.

But at Palla, the entrance of River Yamuna in Delhi, fishing activity is still not totally uncommon. Many individual anglers from Delhi occasionally leisure along the river angling with locally made angle. There is fisher-folk group camping on the left bank of Drain Number (DN) -8. The drain carries Delhi share of potable water from Western Yamuna Canal and meets River Yamuna at Palla.

The provision ensures round the year water availability in the DN 8. It keeps about 26 km stretch of Yamuna river upto Wazirabad barrage well saturated. The flowing river attracts villagers, devotees, swimmers and anglers in good number to fulfill their social, cultural and recreational needs.

There are also individual fisherman and fisher-folk depending on river Yamuna for livelihood. In the morning of April 18, 2019 the author visited the area and met with a fisher-folk group of Yamuna. This account tries to provide some basic detail of the fisher-folk group, their ordeal due to decreasing flow, fish diversity and increasing pollution in the river.

Shambhu Shahni heads a group of about 16 fishermen camping on left bank of DN 8 by the river Yamuna. Geographically the area falls in Dahisra village of Sonipat district in Haryana.  Officially they have fishing contract in DN 8 and river Yamuna upto Palla the entry point of river in Delhi.

The group is comprised of youths, middle aged and old people namely Mangal Shahni, Rupak Shahni, M.D. Farukh, Chain Kishor and Ram Ji Shahni fishing in Yamuna reportedly over past four decades. All of them belong to Kalvani village in Sheohar district of Bihar excpt Ram Ji who hail from Muzzafarpur district. The group was familiar with Bagmati and Budhi Gandki rivers of Bihar.

“Ab machli nahin hai shab, bees pachhes sal pahle bahut thi” (Now there is very less fish, 20-25 years ago, we used to have good catch) says Mangal Shahni preparing for casting net in the river. In a proud tone, he claims involvement in fishing in the river for the last 40 years. He even revealed that there was time he had seen catch of fish as big as adult man size in Yamuna river.

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Puthi fishlings catch being sold to Jhajhar farmer. The fishermen told that the group of 16 were not able to catch even 40 kg in a day. (Image by Author)

As per the group the fish variety has drastically come down over the years and many commonly found fish are found rarely now. Puthi is most common fish variety being found in the river. Chilwa, Bachua and golden are found in less number. Baam and Malli fish have nearly extinct while Mangur is only found in polluted stretches.

“Puthi survives all the adverse environment. It remains inactive in pools during lean season but multiply during monsoon”, says Mangal. According to Ram Ji Rehu, Katla, Sua, Mahasir are not Yamuna fish in that stretch. “DN 8 me bahut ganda pani aa rha hai sir, Jamuna is saal sahi chal rha hain nahin to is samay Jamuna me bhi ya to ganda pani chalta hai ya ye such jati hai” (DN 8 is too polluted sir, Yamuna river is flowing better this year otherwise by this time of year, the river also either carries pollution or dries up) laments Shambhu Shahni.

In fact, there was stinking smell coming out from the drain. Shambhu further states that the water has become toxic, many a time dead fish comes floating in the DN 8 which are of no use.

Krishna Dalal a farmer from Jhajhar district of Haryana who has come to the site to collect fishlings for his fish farm says that government has been discharging pollution in the river via drain affecting the fish catch.

“At this point of year, we are getting negligible catch of only a small fish Puthi Golden (local name). For a good catch, we are totally dependent on flowing Yamuna particularly during monsoon. However we are not sure how lucky we will be and only God knows what we will get to catch”, says Ram Ji Shahni of the group.

As per him the Puthi is sold by 10 rupee kg in local market. There are people in the group who transport the catch in the market. Many buyers also visit them to buy the fish directly.

Chilwa (local name) is other variety of fish the group catches in large amount from the river when there is sufficient flow. The group also claim that these are native fish species in Yamuna.

Do you always get these fish in Yamuna?” I curiously asked. Ram Ji replied that it is after three years that the river is flowing in this month and before this year the river used to dry significantly by this time of year.

“Aap pahle ate to dikhata kya sthiti hai Yamuna ki, kuch chapte to hame bhi kuch rahat milti”, (You should have come last year to see the real condition of river Yamuna, if you had raise the issue then, perhaps we could have got some benefit) adds Ram Ji.

“We suffered heavy losses, but neither contractor nor administration listens to us”, rues Shambhu. As per him, someone from the fisheries department get the fishing contract and then sub contract it to them.

“I have been given area between Baghpat Ghat (in Uttar Pradesh across the river) upto Bahera village in Sonipat for a sum of four lakh, forty two thousands. If the river dries up; will government make up for my losses?” asks Shambhu.

He also says he and his group pays money for the fishing work to the contractor. About sixteen of his group depends on Yamuna as lone source of livelihood to take care of their families. But for last four years, the group is suffering losses continuously as the river was running dry during lean season. The occasional pollution in DN 8 was adding to their woes.

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M D Farukh showing Puthi and Golden fish which are native variety. (Image by Author) 

“There must be flowing water round the year and industrial pollution reaching the river via drains must be stopped, only then we can survive”, demands Shambhu in firm voice on which the entire group agrees.

As per the fisher-folk there have been several polluting industries along DN 8 emptying chemically laced effluents in the river via drain. They raised the issue before the administration but in vain. For working as sub-contractor, they are never compensated against the losses caused by pollution or lack of flow. They feel that pollution is on the increase even as the flow is on the decline year after year.

Apart from these two causes, excessive sand mining has also impacted the fish number and fisher-folk livelihood adversely. As per the group sand mafia obstruct the river channel and turn the flowing stream into pools impacting fish movement. Secondly the mining operation increases the turbidity in the river affecting the quality of water unfavourable for fish population.

It is also revealed that in every district of Haryana adjoining the river, fisher-folk from Bengal or Bihar have been doing fishing work for past many years. The groups visit their villages for two to three months between Diwali and Holi. As per them, fishing is officially banned in the river from July 1 to August 30 every year.

It was surprising to note that while fishing activities based on Yamuna river are facing threats from pollution, lack of flow and mining, farmers of parched district like Jhajhar are taking up fish farming in ponds by filling them with ground water.

The two farmers from the Jhajhar area who had visited the Yamuna fisher-folk for fishlings even said that fish farming was more lucrative than farming itself.

When I was talking to the fishermen group, they were perplexed as to why people had visited them and were making inquiry about their profession. I had responded by saying that we wanted to understand the interrelationship between Fish, Fisher-folk and River in terms of Yamuna.

To this, the fishermen said that if there is clean flowing water only then there is fish, fishermen and a river. Simple profound fact.

End note: Only two variety of fish namely Puthi and Golden were seen during the visit at Palla. Both are native species. The fisher-folk reported of catching Chilwa, Bachua fish species in less number. Whether these are native, exotic or rare is not known as they were not seen and documented on the day of visit. During November 2017, the author has seen Tilapia fish at Ram Ghat, Palla which is exotic and invasive species. The group also revealed that Baam and Malli fish have nearly extinct in Yamuna while Mangur is only found in polluted stretches.

*Contact: bhim.sandrp@gmail.com. This article was first published in sandrp.in. Tarun Nair, Nachiket Kelkar and Subhasis Dey identified the English and scientific names of few of Yamuna fishes seen around Palla


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