Rathnakar Salian is a traditional catamaran fisherman from Sasihitlu village in Mangaluru district of Karnataka. He learned how to throw the net, how to pull it out, and how to look for fish in the sea from his father and uncles. Using small catamarans that can carry four persons and their limited gear, he fishes by the coastline, not going deeper than one nautical mile. The waters he fishes in is the point at which the west-flowing Netravati river joins the Arabian Sea.
Salian does not go on more than two expeditions per week. “Usually, a group of four boats, called kai rampani go out to sea together and we share our catch among the group members,” says Salian, explaining the age-old sustainable and collective practice of fishing among the Mogaveera coastal community. The group earns “nothing less than Rs 20,000 per outing” and on good days, when they chance upon prawns, they could make close to Rs 60,000.
As he passionately describes his occupation, it is clear Salian is worried about the continuity of his source of livelihood. “There are plans to divert the Netravati river,” he says. “If that happens, the kind of fishing we do will be greatly affected, which means we will have to go in the deep fishing trawlers and longliners that go further from the coast.” Salian wonders both about the future of sustainable, coast-side fishing and his own employment. He’s afraid he may “become just a labourer” on deep sea trawlers.
Netravati river diversion causes concern
The imminent diversion of the Netravati river has been a source of anxiety for fisherfolk like Salian, farmers and other residents in the Mangaluru district. Arising from the Western Ghats, the river flows west through Dakshina Kannada before meeting the sea at Mangaluru. In 2001, the Karnataka government first suggested the Netravati river diversion project, the state's first major inter-basin river water transfer plan. It claimed that Yettinahole, one of Netravati's tributaries, could be a good source of drinking water for the dry eastern districts of Kolar, Chikkaballapur, Bangalore rural, Chitradurga and Tumakuru. Since 2010, the project has found mention in state budgets, with Rs 13,000 crores allocated towards three phases of construction.
Conservationists, water experts and locals in the Netravati basin have opposed the project from the get-go. They allege that what the state claims as a project for water supply, is actually a diversion for power generation. Over five years, there have been 18 massive protests across Dakshina Kannada and Sakleshpur of Hassan district, with farmers, fishermen, green activists, civil society and politicians participating. They say the diversion can destroy the highly sensitive Western Ghats, and leave the locals without enough water for industrial or personal use. More than 18,000 trees have been sacrificed: a tragedy in the Western Ghats, which is one of UNESCO's World Heritage Sites and one of the 18 hotspots for preserving biodiversity. Most of all, about 3.5 lakh fishermen from the traditional fishing community, Mogaveera in Udupi and Dakshina Kannada depend on the ecosystem of the river and sea for the livelihood.
In response, the Karnataka government addressed these concerns by changing the name of the plan from Netravati river diversion project to Yettinahole stormwater lift project. The Karnataka Niravari Nigama Limited (KNNL), which is undertaking the project, is now constructing a massive pipeline corridor through the Western Ghats. It will build seven weirs--barriers across the width of a river--on all the seven tributaries of Netravati, to lift 24 TMC (1000 million cubic feet) of water over the ridgelines of the Western Ghats, into the eastern districts.
Bad news for fisherfolk
Fisherfolk believes the water lift will directly affect them. Manohar Boloor, president of the Karavali Fish Workers Association, says that the lifting of river water via weirs will lead to 30 percent less fresh water draining into the Arabian Sea. Less water draining into the sea means a drastic change in salinity levels, oxygen, and nutrient levels in the micro-ecosystem in which fish thrive.
In a conference held on the National Fisheries Day at the College of Fisheries, Mangaluru, Dr S.M. Shivaprakash, director of the Extension Education Centre at the Karnataka Veterinary, Animal and Fisheries Sciences University, says, “The nutrients deposited by the river gives way to the bloom of phytoplankton and the resultant zooplankton, which become food for the many varieties of fish fries and spent fish (fish that have discharged their load of eggs). However, this condition can be seen in the sea only during the monsoons, when there is a gush of fresh water being dumped into the sea by the rivers.”
The gush of fresh water keeps the temperature around 27 degree Celsius, and oxygen levels at 4 PPM, perfect for fish to breed. "Without it, fish varieties like mackerels, sardines and few types of perches might migrate. This scenario has given us sleepless nights,” says Boloor.
In Meenakaliya village, 35-year-old Praveen Bengre says the smallest changes in water temperature and organic components can cause all fish types to migrate out or breed less. “Our elders calculate their estimated catch in a typical fishing season by looking at the volume of palke (the nutrient deposits) in the sea brought by Netravati,” says Bengre. “Less water in the river means less palke.” This, to them, means fewer number of fish.
Protest against the project continues
Bengre and 18 others own a 20-feet boat with two 5 HP outboard engine. His group collectively earns Rs 10 lakh per season which they split between them. But the going has been tough. “The fishing season has already started ending at least 30-45 days earlier every year due to lack of catch,” he says. “We now make a living through low-value fishes like mackerels, sardines and pink perches.” Bengre believes that diverting Netravati river may trigger a situation in which the low-value fish also migrate elsewhere. “We will be left with even less or no catch,” he fears.
Gopal Kundar is another small fisherman from Thota who is part of a group of 16 people who fish within 10 metres of the coast. They catch silverfish, oil sardines and croakers. His idyllic village, with thatched roof huts spread out on sandy beaches, has been a site where many Kannada and Tulu films have been shot. They have a simple, sustainable lifestyle, built to withstand the power of the coast and respect its vulnerability. “We are now worried about the impact of the Netravati obstruction on our fishing," he says.
Kundar and Salian are members of local fisher co-operatives, which are in turn associated with the National Fishermen's Federation (NFF) and the State Fishermen's Association. In October 2015, they had taken part in the largest protest march against the river diversion project, where over 25000 people, including fisherfolk, walked 90 km from Mangaluru to Gunday, up through the Western Ghats to the Yettinahole tributary. The fishermen continue to participate in demonstrations against the project, and despite their limited income, have also given small donations to help fund various protests since then.
Yet, they have encountered only silence from the government, which denies the effect the project may have on fisheries, citing lack of evidence. Fishing groups too believe that the courts and state officials might take their worries more seriously if the effect of a river diversion can be conclusively proven. “To determine how much freshwater dumping is needed to maintain an intricate balance of the sea and sweet water, we need research," says Boloor.
The National Fishworkers Federation, Karnataka State Fishermen’s Action Committee and 12 other fishermen's associations in three maritime districts of the state have sought expert views from the state fisheries department, the National Institute of Oceanography, and Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) on the effect of the Yettinahole project on fisheries. They hope the scientific and academic studies will bolster the fisherfolks’ assessment of the project’s impact based on indigenous knowledge.
Another front that offers hope to fishermen is a legal remedy. However, one of three petitions in the National Green Tribunal, accusing the project of being detrimental to the eco-sensitive Western Ghats, was cleared. The Tribunal allowed the implementing agency Viswesvaraya Jal Nigam Ltd. to go ahead with construction, on “health grounds” since the project’s intended beneficiaries in Kolar, Tumakuru and Bangalore Rural do “face acute drinking water scarcity”. But the tribunal gave the go-ahead after laying “pre-conditions” that forests and the ecology must not be damaged. The agency and government, however, have interpreted this as a “green nod” and a “major victory”.
Implementing officials insist that the first phase of the Yattinhole alias Netravati project will be complete by February. The fisherfolk say now that their only recourse is political. Dinesh Holla, convenor of the Sahyadri Sanchaya, an anti-Netravati activist working group, says that residents in Dakshin Kannada, including fisherfolk, are determined to make the project a talking point in the 2018 state Assembly elections.
(M. Raghuram is a Mangaluru-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)