Gobar Times
Cover Story

Caught in a net

      Apair of fish, a pair of shoes...     

He bobbed on the wavelets of the wide river with a happy smile on his face. A river which he knew could be an angry roar or a soft murmur in her different moods. He was happy because today after a long while he had caught two hilsas – that king of all fish, favourite of the babus in Kolkata. These two may fetch a price of more than Rs. 40 each – worth almost an entire day’s earning he would have from catching other kinds of fish.

He hoped Baba would be in a good mood. Then, he was sure to get some money for himself. With that he could buy some churis for Ma, maybe a ribbon for Dipu, a kite and perhaps a pair of shoes for himself? But that was a rude awakening from his pleasant daydreams. For Mukim knew Baba wouldn’t hear of shoes.

His father, a docile man in general, fired up every time he mentioned shoes. In fact he blamed all their troubles – lesser catches and drops in incomes – on shoes. Why? Yes, Mukim would like to know too.

      Nets and nots     

With a long coastline of 9040 kilometres, India, is the third largest fish producer in the world. As many as 5.38 million people, like Mukim, depend on fishing as their primary source of livelihood while another 0.8 (UN figure) million depend on it to supplement their incomes from agriculture.

These traditional fisherfolk have made a careful study of the environment and for centuries have been the guardians of our rivers, lakes and marine ecosystems. There are two kinds of these professionals in India – those who live along the coasts and fish in the oceans and those who, like Mukim’s family, settle along the banks of rivers, lakes and other inland water bodies.

      Fishing in troubled waters     

India’s inland fisheries resources are among the richest in the world. In the past decades the government has paid serious attention to develop this potential. It has given a big boost to aquaculture or fish farming, and during the 1970’s had set up fish farmers Development Agencies in 111 districts.

As a result, the yield from these inland water bodies has also risen sharply in the past couple of decades. So life for Mukim, and his family must have become easier, with more profits pouring in?

Well, you see that’s the irony. Even though the fish yield has gone up tremendously, the people who depend on fishing, struggle for survival. What are their troubles? And you must still be puzzled about how these troubles relate to ‘shoes?’ Just read on…

      River guardians     

Scattered along the shores and banks of innumerable water bodies in the country, these communties had studied riverine ecology. The wisdom of traditional fisherfolk like the Koibortos of Assam and Jharis of Orissa has nurtured the river. At the same time the river has sustained them for centuries.

They understood the behaviour of fish and set down rules and devised simple fishing methods that allowed them to catch fish without jeopardising the fish population. But their old wisdom has failed them. Today no river is safe for the fish. The problems that face riverine fishing communities are many-fold.

      Death knell of Dams     

The large-river systems are characterised by native riverine species of fish, mussels, and crayfish. The forests, which line the streams, are important habitats for fish species. The waters are not uniform. Rivers have shallow places where the water is warm and turbid. These are interspersed with deep pools. So the habitats are varied.

The massive dams have destroyed species that flourish in this habitat. Many species of fish migrate huge distances for spawning. The dams, weirs and barrages act as physical barriers for these migratory species. In many other countries big water projects provide fish ladders, that help fish to travel upstream, but Indian dams have no such ladders.

      Hilsa and Raja     

The most obvious example of the effect of dams on migratory fish is that of ilish or hilsas. This fish skims the surface of the river when it migrates upstream to spawn and then returns to the estuary, which is its natural habitat. The Ganga once used to have plenty of them and two decades ago you could have found hilsas as far upstream as Benaras and even Haridwar, but not any more.

The Farakka barrage has changed all that. Today hilsa catches on the downstream side of the barrage is 28 to 30 per cent of the total fish landings, while on the upstream side they make up only 1.5 per cent of the total. And the 30,000- strong Hoogly fisherfolk who depended on this highly prized fish have lost over 60 per cent of their earnings. The migratory species are not the only ones affected.

Fish native to the river ecosystem require flowing water habitats to complete their lifecycle. Big dams bring about changes in water temperature and quality. The water discharged from the reservoirs is often low in dissolved oxygen and high in carbon dioxide, which can kill fish downstream. Like hilsa the masheer is another threatened species. There were seven types of this fish, locally known as raja and are considered sacred by many.

Once abundant in the swift flowing Ganga near Rishikesh and Haridwar their numbers have declined. The golden masheer has disappeared from the Banar stream of Himachal Pradesh. Well, now we know why Mukim was so happy to land two hilsas. ?But why does Mukim’s father blame shoes for all their trouble, Well, dams are not the only problem for the fish and fisherfolk.

      Murky depths     

Rivers are considered holy in India, but they are hardly treated with respect. All kinds of muck and filth find their way into the rivers. We have to treat and purify the water to drink it. So how do the fish survive in those filthy depths? The answer is that they don’t. Every summer the Gomti becomes a deathbed for thousands of fish--because the water that is released slowly from the reservoir upstream carries effluents from the neighbouring industries.

More than 1,500 industries situated along the banks of Ganga dump untreated industrial wastes into the ‘holy’ river. Industries near the Yamuna release water at 60º C making it difficult for the fish to survive.

In the Kali river in Uttar Pradesh, some 30 tonnes of fish were found dead because the 34 sugar mills dumped their waste into the river. All of Chambal’s tributaries are highly polluted. Paper and pulp, cement, chemical and other factories are pouring in millions of gallons of waste into the Son, making the river’s fish catch one of the lowest.

No fish survive up to 22 km stretch in the Son. It’s the same story repeated for all the rivers – Damodar, Hoogly, Bhadra, Godavari, Kaveri and Kulu. A shoe factory near Mukim’s village dumps its waste into the river. The fish survive only 48 hours where the waste is poured in.

      The seaside view     

Far out into the sea you can see a black dot. As it draws close to the shores you can make out that it is a little boat with five people in it. You marvel at their balance as they effortlessly move around on what looks no more than a rickety raft to you. The fisherfolk have a profound understanding of the winds, tidal currents and lunar forces.

They understand the occurrence and movement of fish shoals, the various fishing grounds, the myriad species of fish and their food habits. They go far out into the sea and at night navigate to the shore by the stars. As they heave to with a flourish you notice that they have brought in the morning’s catch – a small motley of little silver fish, gleaming on the net. But it’s a catch on which five families have to survive. Strange isn’t it, that the vast ocean can offer only so little?


The coastal fisher people have survived by understanding and carefully harnessing the resources of a very niche ecosystem. All along the coastline of India, from Mandvi in Gujarat to Digha in West Bengal, there are more than 1,800 fishing villages, which account for 70 per cent of the total catch. The marine fish industry has been growing at a rate of five per cent, but the fishing villages are becoming poorer.

In the past these communities provided the poorer people of the village with a cheap and abundant source of protein to supplement their diet. They also evolved traditional techniques to catch fish. Fishing was a labour intensive activity and the capital investments made in boats and fishing gear were little. The fisher people who made their own boats and fishing tackle were self-sufficient. Though most of the technology was indigenous it was not as if these people were not adaptable to change.

Over the years the y had assimilated and adapted many foreign techniques that helped them to bring in a better catch – the dugout canoe came from the Arabs and the catamarans so common in Kerala was a Polynesian influence. But nothing had prepared them for the sweeping changes that were to come. Today the catches are low and the price of fish is prohibitive in the coastal areas, denying them their protein source. All this started when the new modernisation drives began.

      Big time business     

By the early 1970s the regular fishing grounds of the US and Japan were already depleted. At the same time the global demand for fish was rising sharply. For India this meant a great opportunity to earn foreign exchange through export. So newer grounds needed to be explored to meet the growing demands.

The Indian Ocean that covers an expanse of 74.917 million square kilometres has an estimated capacity to yield 14.39 million tonnes of marine products. Most of this would come from the narrow strip of water that borders the land or the inshore waters. So in 1977, the Indian government declared a 200-mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ) in the Indian Ocean.

This declaration gave it the sovereign rights to exploit the resources of the sea commercially. At that time the government said that the vast economic zone had remained untapped because of lack of modernisation and technology. And so the government began to introduce mechanised trawlers.

      A fishy business     

Under the new scheme the government collaborated with Norway and introduced trawlers and new types of nets. The goal was dual – to increase the yield and to improve the lot of the fisher people. So how did the opposite happen? Why was the already poor fishing community pauperised? To understand this we need to go into the economy of the fishing business. This involves three stages – production, marketing and consumption of fish. In the earlier days all the three operations could be controlled by the fisherfolk, as the demand was local.

The scale of operations was small but enough to meet the demands and little investment was needed to go out to the sea. Even then many of the fisher people had to borrow capital to make their boats and buy their nets. With the new technology, the catches promised to be huge, but the production far exceeded local demand.

The scale of operations widened and the market became bigger and fish began to be sold further afield. This required better preservation technologies, which were available through financers.

The poor fisherfolk could neither afford mechanised boats nor the preservation techniques. So the middlemen stepped in. These were the people with the money. They bought boats and they controlled the market and thus the profits. The traditional fisher people were left out of the new system.

      Surf war     

The volume of export of marine products has increased severalfold in the past five ecades.. An elaborate infrastructure with middlemen and financers was created to support this huge industry. And they became indispensable. The old methods that had served the fisherfolk so well were suddenly consideredprimitive, unorganised and ill equipped and the government concentrated only on implementing the new technology.

In the ensuing years there was a phenomenal increase in the number of mechanised trawlers as the middlemen invested hugely. But lack of capital kept the poor people tied to the traditional techniques. Then the turf war began.

The old craft were not sea worthy enough to be taken into deep sea. As a result the fisher people could only fish in the inshore waters. But as productivity inshore was higher, the trawlers,too, operated close to the shore too the propellers cut the nets of the poor folks. While the trawlers raked in fish, the catches dwindled for the traditional fishing community.

      Caught in the net     

The ecological price of mechanisation was high too. Trawlers use a fishing method called bottom-trawling in which the nets raked up the ocean floor. This is done to scoop up the shrimps and other crustaceans that inhabit the shallow inshore ocean floor. Bottom trawling destroys fish eggs and larvae, breeding in the sandy sea bed. It also makes the seawater turbid and most fish avoid this murky water.

This, of course, affects the fish yield. Another instance of ecological destruction is purse-seining. In this method, the trawler chases a shoal of fish, throws drawstring net around it and lifts the catch. The nets used are so fine that they do not allow the baby fish to escape.

This was not the case with the nets traditional fishermen used. Their nets had bigger holes and fish eggs and baby fish escaped to restock the ocean. The marine ecosystem can be replenished each year if given the chance. But mechanised fishing does not allow the ocean to replenish itself. And so the fisherfolk return with empty nets.


      Artful anglers     

Traditional communities have developed a variety of methods to trap fish. While the Andamanese use short spears and harpoons, the Kaibortos of Orissa change their techniques every season:

  • The simplest type of trap is the polo (cage trap made of bamboo strips) used in knee deep, still water to catch fish hidden in mud.
  • They make an artificial dam in shallow running water leaving a small passage. A chepa (valve trap) is placed to block the open mouth of the dam and the natural current sweeps the fish into the trap.
  • Differnt nets are used in deep and shallow waters. They also use rod and line (borhi), basket trap (jakoi) and fishing basket (khaloi)
  • In July and August when yield is low, they catch fish in the paddy fields. They attach earthworms to hooks tied in ropes, and lay them out—fish that come to eat the worms are caught on the hooks.

      Small fish in a big pond     

The plight of fisherfolk does not end on the economic front. While surveys have been conducted and data collected on fish fauna, little effort has been made to gauge the status of these people. For a long while they did not even figure in the census conducted by the government! The impact of this neglect is quite tragic.

Take the example of the 40,000 villagers who live in Kahalgaon, near Bahgalpur in Bihar. The stretch of river they fished in was supposed to belong to two people who claimed to have panidari or rights over the water, just like erstwhile zamindars had rights over land. And they levied taxes.

The villagers believed that they were cursed by the gods as they were ‘born from the ribs of a dead monster’. In 1982 the cause of the fisher people was taken up by the Jal Shramik Sanga that later grew into the Ganga Mukti Andolan. The people of Kahalgaon had finally found a voice.

      Hijacked net gains     

But today the old panidars are being replaced by the powerful fish lords who have muscled their way into the big business of fishing. A lot of times they have been help by the policies formulated by the government. In the inland fisheries, the government has been auctioning parts of the man-made reservoirs.

The people who win the auctions are those with capital and the traditional fishers become bonded labourers to them. With both marine and inland fisheries, the problem is common — lack of capital. In a bid to improve the lot of the communities, the government has given a boost to fisheries but the profits have been waylaid by the middlemen. Is there a way out of this mess?

      Tide over problems     

The first and foremost step is to involve the fisher people in the process of development. The one factor that would go a long way to save the poor is to integrate their old and traditional knowledge with new technology. On the marine front instead of introducing mechanised trawlers, the government could look at upgrading and motorising the country boats used by fisher people.

Existing laws restrict trawlers from fishing too close to the shore. In Goa for example a five km zone of sea is exclusively reserved for the traditional fishers. More such laws could be enacted and implemented stringently in other states.

      Clean-up act     

For the riverine fisherfolk reviving polluted rivers and restoring lake ecology are of prime importance. Ponds, lakes, and wetlands have always played a major role in rural economy. One way is to make the communties responsible for this. The Madhya Pradesh government has, for example, given fishing rights in reservoir fisheries to the people who have been displaced by the Tawa dam. At present the yield here is 20 kilogramme for each hectare but with proper management these can yield as much as 50 kilogramme of fish per hectare.


If the government authorities and the fisher men and women work hand in hand. the situation can still be salvaged. So can the future of India’s fabulously diverse fish fauna. But a fresh, new way of thinking is the order of the day. It is time to discard the old, recycled ideas. Just like yesterday’s left over fish stock.


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