Conservation of water commons through community fishery

The efforts have resulted in the revival of the ponds. (Image: FES)
The efforts have resulted in the revival of the ponds. (Image: FES)

Located in the Bichhiya block of Mandla district, Madhya Pradesh, Changariya is a small village comprising 265 households. This village is home to the Gond, Baiga, Ahir, and Lohar communities, whose primary occupations include agriculture, informal wage labour and sale of non-timber forest produce (NTFP).

The village is surrounded by 23 acres of common land and 275 acres of protected forest area, which is under de facto use as commons by the community. The common land has two ponds that have been the main source of irrigation for a select few in the village. Up till 2016, the larger pond was primarily used by two farmers living nearby for irrigating their farms and by some other households for domestic purposes. The rest of the villagers had limited access to these water commons.

Due to the negligence and lack of maintenance, over a period of time, the ponds got heavily infested with Ipomoea carnea, a weed, locally referred to as Besharam. While the weed infested around 30 per cent of the larger pond’s bed, lack of maintenance also resulted in silt accumulation of about 1.5 to 2 feet, reducing the water holding capacity of the pond considerably.

The village institution, Prakritik Sansadhan Prabandhan Samiti (Natural Resources Management Committee), set up for commons' management and governance in the village, took up the issue in 2016. The first issue raised was access to these commons. Since the pond belonged to the entire village, it was decided that the resource would be managed for the benefit of the entire village, while also ensuring its sustenance.

While discussing ways for its better management, it was decided to use the larger pond for undertaking community fishery.  After obtaining permission from the Panchayat, the community undertook de-siltation of the pond and removed the Besharam shrubs through shramdaan (voluntary contribution of labour). Once this was done, fish seeds of indigenous species including Rohu, Catla and Common Carp were bought using the village institution’s corpus and released in the pond.

With the institution deciding to undertake community fishery in the pond, they laid out rules about the harvesting of fish as well. (Image: FES)

The village institution collectively framed rules for the governance and management of these water commons. It was decided that the responsibility for upkeep, maintenance and use of the pond would lay with all members of the community. Nobody was allowed to use the water from the pond for irrigating their private lands. With the institution deciding to undertake community fishery in the pond, they laid out rules about the harvesting of fish as well.

It was decided that, before harvesting the fish from the pond, the village community would hold a meeting every time to collectively decide the rate at which the fish would be sold. Further, every household in the village was entitled to purchase the harvested fish, without any discrimination. It was also decided that if anyone was found using the water for irrigation or stealing the fish from the pond, they would be fined suitably.

Any kind of undue behaviour for private gain was checked by the committee. When found using the water from the pond for irrigation, a farmer was informed of his mistake and fined by the village institution. Such prompt action sent out a strong message and all abided by the rules laid down for the pond’s management.

In April 2017, once the first batch of fish was ready for harvest, the committee decided to sell it at a rate of INR 50 per kg, which was significantly lower than the market price of INR 150 to 200 per kg. A farmer living close to the pond, and owning a fishing net, was selected to harvest the fish, in the presence of the village community. Around 110 kgs of fish were caught and the 85 households of the village were given first preference for purchasing the fish. This helped improve the community's food diversity and nutrition intake while also helping them save a part of their income.

The village institution as a whole benefitted too, since the earnings from the sale of the fish were deposited in the village institution fund. The amount obtained varied from year to year, based on various factors such as water overflow from the pond, quality of fish seed obtained and so on. In 2017-18, the institution spent INR 10,500 on buying fish seed and earned INR 12,910 from the sale of the same.

The collective management of the pond hasn’t been devoid of roadblocks but the community has managed to resolve conflicts amicably through cooperation. In 2018-19, the fishery was not undertaken in the pond as 2 community members objected to it citing that they did not get an opportunity to purchase any fish the year before. The matter was taken up in the Gram Sabha and the community collectively decided that those who did not get fish in the previous year would be considered on priority in the following year.

In 2019-20, INR 9,800 from the previous earnings were utilized for buying more fish seed. During this year, a farmer had undertaken fishery in his private farm pond with the support of the village institution and it was decided that he too would sell the harvested fish at a lower rate in the village as compared to the market rate.

However, a couple of people from the village were caught stealing the fish from his pond. This matter was again taken up by the village institution and it was decided that those involved would not be allowed to obtain a share of the fish harvested from the common pond. These instances display the fair and equitable conflict resolution mechanisms of the village institution.

Recently, the community also undertook planting of various native tree species on the bund of the pond, further protecting it and ensuring the health of the village commons. With water being available for a longer time now, it has facilitated the recharge of a well located in the downstream of the pond. This has ensured that water in the well is now available for an additional month during the summer, proving a big relief for the livestock keepers in the village.

Nanki Bai, a resident of Changariya, says “By undertaking fishery in the common pond, we get good fish at a lesser rate than the market. We come together and make decisions about the pond in our Samiti meetings. There is more water in the pond now which benefits us and our cattle as well.”

The village of Changariya continues to undertake community fishery in the pond every year. The smaller pond has also come to be governed and maintained similarly. The efforts have resulted in the revival of the ponds and have enriched the diet of the people. It has also brought the community together as a collective and ensured that their water commons, once facing neglect, are now governed by the village institution for the benefit of the entire village.