In his late 30s, Nilesh Heda is a renowned expert on issues related to fishing communities and wetland ecology. While doing his PhD on fish diversity, he worked with the fishing communities in Vidarbha in Maharashtra. He is currently heading an NGO, Samvardhan in Maharashtra's Washim district, that works on holistic approach to conservation of natural resources. He is currently focusing on establishing a chain of cooperative societies and River Study Groups (RSGs) to support fishing communities. Nilesh believes that sensitising local people about the river basin conservation is the need of the hour to sustain wetland ecosystem and fishermen's livelihoods.
He spoke to India Water Portal on the status of inland fishing and the fisherfolk in India.
What is the current scenario of fishing communities in India?
The disappearance of India's traditional fisherfolk is a strange irony. India's inland fish yield went up by eight times in the last four decades. It now contributes to more than 40 percent of the country's total fish production and 1.4 percent of the gross domestic product (GDP).
In the ninth five-year plan, the union government allocated around Rs 207 million on fisheries development; it's 400 times more than its allocation in the first five-year plan. During 1998-99, 46.3 percent of the fish catch in the country was from the inland fisheries. In the same period, inland fish production witnessed an annual growth of 10 percent (marine fish production was only five percent). More than 78 percent of inland fish production comes from aquaculture, intensive fish farming from reservoirs and other water bodies. With an annual fish production of 2.8 million tonnes, India stands second in inland fish production, next only to China.
India's big 'blue revolution', however, has failed to impress riverine fisherfolk, the trade's original masters. There are many reasons for it. There is a dedicated department or ministry in every state to look after fisheries development, but none for the welfare of the fisherfolks. Even the census of India refuses to acknowledge them as a separate community; it doesn't have a precise classification of the riverine fisherfolk. They don't exist in the livestock census either. Deciphering the number of these fisherfolk is left to the researcher. Marine fisherfolk is, however, classified as coastal or deep-sea fishers. With rivers dying due to pollution and dams and embankments altering the flow, fisherfolk are being pushed into oblivion.
Though no official figures are available for the riverine fisherfolk, their population is estimated to be around 0.45 million. This also includes the coastal fisherfolk. A large chunk of the 387 communities, which the Anthropological Survey of India has identified, is involved in inland fishing. These people are dependent on the 191,024 kilometres (km) of rivers and canals and the numerous wetlands and reservoirs.
What do fisherfolks do during drought?
Drought affects the livelihood of the fisherfolks severely. They simply disappear from their villages in search of subsistence. As per my knowledge, fisherfolks migrate to cities or turn to illegal activities like alcohol making.
Do we have any data of fisherfolks affected by drought or any policy measures to help them?
No such data is maintained by either the fisheries department, department of agriculture or any other department. As far as I know, there are no such policy measures.
How have the big dams affected the livelihood of fishing communities?
Most immediate effect of the dam is on the availability of fish. Both the diversity and the abundance of fish have changed dramatically in the post-dam scenario. For example, after a dam was built on the Adan river in Washim district in 1977, local fish like batchwavacha, Indian long-fin eel, yellow mahseer, high-backed mahseer, kolus, mullyagarra, black-line rasbora, and mola carpet that were available in abundance reduced drastically.
Have the thermal power industries affected the fishing communities?
Severely. There are many studies and research papers to support this argument. However, the area where I am working does not have any power industries.
What are the problems these communities are facing at the moment?
1) Riverine fisherfolk have not been classified in the caste lists of the governments. Most of the fisherfolk are scheduled castes (SC) and scheduled tribes (ST), depending upon the ethnological characteristics of an area. But there have been squabbles over their status.
2) No census of the fishermen exists making it difficult to provide them financial aid.
3) You will find information about marine fisherfolk but leading researcher in the field, Debnath says there’s no information available on riverine fisherfolk. Every state has its fisheries department, which is primarily concerned with fish-production status, but due to lack of welfare policy for the fisher folks, the fishing community suffers.
4) Agriculture and not pisciculture gets the priority on water use.
5) While designing big irrigation projects and constructing dams, neither any consensus is sought from the fishermen nor any compensation provided to them for their losses.
6) The fishing cooperatives so far have not benefitted the fisherfolks because of faulty systems.
What happened to the cooperative?
Fisherfolks are mostly illiterate and have failed to manage the cooperatives properly. Thus, over a period of time, the cooperatives are captured by wealthy people. Fisherfolks are not able to register their cooperative because it requires money and they are poor.
Do government provide any subsidy for the fishing cooperatives?
There are various subsidies. However, most of the fisherfolks are not part of the cooperative societies so the subsidies are enjoyed by others.
Will the current drought-proofing measures like Jalyukt Shivar by the government in Maharashtra help fishing communities in retaining their livelihood?
Restoring water bodies and making traditional fisherfolk stakeholders in fisheries development may save this fast-disappearing tribe. In the Jalyukt Shivar programmes, the main focus is on water conservation and not the overall ecological restoration. Unless it is done, it is difficult for fishing communities to sustain their livelihood.
Are there any insurance schemes or government schemes for the fisherfolks to compensate for their loss during the drought?
No. Not at all.
What are your recommendations to improve the situation of the community?
The degradation of the inland open water resources has dealt a major blow to the traditional fisherfolk. These resources need to be restored. The polluters must be taken to task. Integrating the knowledge of the fisherfolk in the management of fish stocks will go a long way in improving their status. The present fisheries policies are formulated in the control and revenue structure. They do not encourage any enterprise of the fisherfolks. The leasing policy is an excellent example of this. While the lease periods in India for a fishery can extend up to seven years, in most places, it is less than five years. This makes the leaseholder resort to exploitative fishing than making the resource sustainable.