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…
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.
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.