Ganga's riverine communities in troubled waters

There is a need to formalise the traditional occupation of riverine fishing by providing proper licensing facilities to allow for targeted policies for the community in order to mitigate the livelihood challenges being faced by it. (Image: Pikrepo)
There is a need to formalise the traditional occupation of riverine fishing by providing proper licensing facilities to allow for targeted policies for the community in order to mitigate the livelihood challenges being faced by it. (Image: Pikrepo)

A large section of the population living in the Ganga river basin still depends on the river for daily use activities and livelihood. Hence, the cleaning of the Ganga river’s water and making it safe for use remains a major goal for policymakers. Towards this end, the Namami Gange Clean-up programme was launched with a budget of Rs 20,000 crore during the period 2015–2020. However, the National Green Tribunal stated in 2017 that “not a single drop of river Ganga has been cleaned so far.”

In this context, a study 'Livelihood and health challenges of riverine communities of the River Ganga' by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) supported by the Tata Centre for Development at UChicago and Water-to-Cloud attempts to examine the quality of the Ganga river’s water at selected stretches of the river during the year 2019-20. Further, it seeks to assess the inter-linkages between pollution in the Ganga river water and the livelihood of users of the river by analysing their socio-economic profile.

The report studies a particular riverine community, that is, fisherfolk, along selected polluted stretches of the Ganga river. While fishing activities are associated with many occupations, the fishing community is the most vulnerable as its members come into the direct contact with the river water and thus, suffer the maximum impact of pollution in the river.

The study was undertaken in two phases along identified upstream and downstream locations in the States of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. While Narora and Unnao in Uttar Pradesh comprised the upstream sites, Jangipur and Tribeni in West Bengal were the downstream sites. A total of 1600 respondents were surveyed with 400 from each of the four sites in both the phases. The survey entailed conduction of water experiments using sensors, along with in-person interviews and Focus Group Discussions (FGDs).

Submerged fishing net at Tribeni (Image: Nutan Maurya)The study found that the respondents in both the selected States belonged to the economically poorer sections of the society. About 48 and 65 per cent of the fisherfolk in West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, respectively, reported earning a monthly income of less than Rs 5,000 from fishing. This figure is comparable to the 2012-13 data from the 70th Round of the NSSO, according to which the corresponding average monthly incomes in the States of Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal were Rs 4,455 and Rs. 4,636, respectively.

This poor economic status of the fishing community is compounded by the prevalence of higher illiteracy levels and lack of sanitation practices among them, especially in Uttar Pradesh. About 22 per cent of the respondents, mostly from the lower-income categories, were also found to be practising open defecation in Uttar Pradesh.

The study also enquired about perceptions among the fisherfolk regarding the quality of the river water and its suitability for various uses such as drinking, fishing, and bathing. A majority of the respondents among fisherfolk (40-65 per cent) across different sites in Uttar Pradesh considered the Ganga river’s water to be suitable for all activities, including bathing, drinking, and fishing.

The proportion of the respondents for bathing and fishing was higher in West Bengal, at 80-90 per cent. It was also found that the proportion of respondents in Uttar Pradesh who were actually using the river water for drinking, at about 82 per cent, was even higher than those who perceived it safe for drinking.

An important part of the study included the collation of data on water quality at a high geospatial resolution using real-time, state-of-the-art sensors. This enabled the mapping of the communities’ perceptions with the actual water quality parameters. The sensor data shows that the overall water quality at the study sites was suitable for fishing and the survival of aquatic life.

Fig: Spatial Distribution and Monthly Variability of CHL-A at Jangipur (Source: Heat maps prepared by the ‘Water-to-Cloud’ team (

Among all the sites, the quality of the water was most consistent in Narora while the maximum variation in quality was noted in Tribeni. The influence of anthropogenic activities was observed in both the downstream locations, that are Unnao and Tribeni, resulting in temporal variations in water quality. Similar observations were made in the ghat areas where high levels of Biological Oxygen Demand (BOD) were observed.

The assessment of the water quality parameters was also done with the objective of identifying incidences of water-borne diseases. For this purpose, the survey asked questions on specific illnesses such as pneumonia, diarrhoea, cholera, cough/cold, fever, skin disease, typhoid, and jaundice. The incidences of at least one of these water-borne diseases across the various sites were found to be in the range of 76 to 96 per cent during Phase I and 88 to 96 per cent during Phase II of the survey.

However, the figures for those experiencing these illnesses during the three months preceding the survey fell to 50-60 per cent among respondents in Uttar Pradesh and to 28-52 per cent among those in West Bengal if some of the common symptoms of cold, cough and fever were excluded.

It was further observed that the highest incidence of diseases occurs during the monsoon season and the correspondingly lowest incidence during the pre-monsoon period. In-depth interviews with selected medical professionals provide suggestive evidence that the incidence of diseases can be linked to the quality of the Ganga river’s water. The FGDs with the riverine communities also revealed that water-borne diseases were primarily caused by the poor quality of potable water in the river.

As part of the assessment of the livelihood implications, the fisherfolk were also asked to report the active fishing months, the months when they earned the highest and lowest incomes, and if the amount of fish catch had changed substantially over the last five years. The respondents, particularly in Uttar Pradesh, reported a significant decline in the amount of fish catch over the years, whereas fisher folk at all the sites in the two states reported a decline in the commercially important fish species and a rise in the number of exotic or invasive species in their fish catch over the last five years.

When asked to list the five main reasons for livelihood-related adversities, the respondents at all the four study sites said that low water volume was a major cause for concern, followed by irresponsible fishing manifested in the use of micro-mesh (mosquito net), which causes poisoning and also catches fingerlings and kills eggs. The participants also identified pollution as a cause for concern, but only after the above-mentioned two reasons.

Community participation has always been identified as an important tool for maintaining the sanctity of the Ganga river water. A contingent valuation exercise indicated that a significantly higher proportion of the respondents in Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, at 90–98 per cent, were willing to form a cooperative society that would ensure the preservation of the river water quality, but their financial constraints prevent them from making any monetary contribution to ensure the successful operation of such a cooperative.

Fishermen at work in Unnao (Image: Nutan Maurya)In this process, the authors also enquired if the respondents wanted to accept any monetary contribution from the polluting agencies as compensation for their livelihood challenges. Almost all the respondents declined, which shows their faith in the divinity of the river and willingness of the community as a whole to uphold the quality and sanctity of the river.

Overall, it was observed that the fisherfolk are socially and economically fragmented. This report makes several recommendations based on the findings of the study. While there is a need to formally recognise the communities settled on the river banks as part of the riverine ecosystem, it is also important to synchronise their local ecological knowledge with scientific knowledge for implementing better water monitoring techniques. There is a need to formalise the traditional occupation of riverine fishing by providing proper licensing facilities to allow for targeted policies for the community in order to mitigate the livelihood challenges being faced by it.

The other measures suggested in the report include the establishment of cooperatives in the riverine villages, recruitment of Ganga Praharis or guards to protect the river from exploitation by unscrupulous elements, and promotion of decentralised power structures to prevent malpractices related to fishing. 

Please see the full report here