Fish Farming: Resettling nomadic fishermen of the Tungabhadra


Despite the industry’s potential, fishing communities in Honnali Taluk have struggled to sustain their livelihoods

At Honnali Taluk, 51 kilometres from Davangere town in central Karnataka, 45-year-old Sheila gazes ruefully at the day’s catch: the 4 kilos of catla (carp) will not fetch enough to buy one meal for her family of six.

As you stroll along the Tungabhadra River, little huts with thatched roofs come into view. An old woman cooks hot chappatis on the chula as the family slowly gathers for their meal.

An old man points to his grandchildren and remarks, “You know, my grandchildren have also started fishing at such a tender age, we cannot really afford to send them to schools. We all earn money to keep us alive.”

The old man is Kalingappa, one of the fishermen from Bellimallur village. He is almost 70 years old and is living here with his family for the past 20 years. They migrated from Maharashtra many years ago. The whole family fishes the river for a living and sells their catch in the villages nearby. Fishing at the Tungabhadra River is their livelihood.

These fishermen in Honnali are nomads without a fixed abode. They work where they can and go wherever their work takes them. They have no assurance of income, home or any security whatsoever.

This project examines what it would take settle these nomadic fishermen of the Tungabhadra River and if they can secure regular work in the growing inland-fisheries industry in the taluk. Using the example of Honnali taluk, the project also explores the potential for developing the network of panchayat and private tanks in the state into a source of local income and employment and revenue for the government.

Fishing is a key component of the local economy

India has a huge untapped potential in freshwater fisheries. Although inland fisheries based on rivers, lakes and ponds, already contribute 45 per cent of India’s total fish production, their scope for expansion is only limited by the availability of water, for which they must compete with agriculture.

Shankar Dhruve, one of the fishermen from Sasavehalli village shares his experience and problems that he has been facing in fisheries business. Shankar is fishing from Tungabhadra River since the last 20 years. In one day they catch approximately 4 kg fish and sell it to the shopkeeper at the rate of Rs. 100 per kg. The shopkeeper sells the same at Rs. 120 per kg. The fishermen mostly catch Rohu, Catla and Gauri fish from the river. “Fisheries business is not doing that great, we are hardly able to save any money. When there is less business we switch to coolie work,” says Shankar.

Fishing plays a vital part in supporting livelihoods world over and contributes a key nutritional component to the diet of a large number of people in the country. According to a study commissioned by the Institute for Social and Economic Change, Bangalore, (hereafter referred to as the Striver report), it is estimated that 12 million people are directly occupied in fishing and about 60 million are solely dependent on it for a livelihood in India. India has around 1.6 million hectares of freshwater lakes, ponds, swamps and almost 64,000 kilometres of rivers and streams. Over the past five decades, India’s fish production has increased from 0.6 million tonnes to nearly 6 million tonnes, out of which inland fisheries contributed 45.4  per cent of the whole fish production.

Hanumanthappa, one of the fishermen from Gadakatte village is the owner of Kengate pond along with two other people. They bought the pond from the auction conducted by Gram Panchayat every year. This pond is naturally made and filled with rainwater and channel water. They bought the pond in Rs. 50,000. Auction takes place in June every year. The size of the pond is 40 acres; they have put 40,000 fishes in it. The price of 1,000 fishes is worth Rs.300. No special food is given to the fishes; they survive eating fungus and algae.

The Tungabhadra covers seven districts and twenty-eight taluks in Karnataka. Fishing is one of the most important activities supporting living in the Tungabhadra basin. Fishermen in the basin mainly acquire fish from five different sources —reservoirs, rivers, irrigation canals, village ponds or tanks and private Ponds.

Hanumanthappa, one of the fishermen from Gadakatte village is the owner of Kengate pond along with two other people. They bought the pond from the auction conducted by Gram Panchayat every year. This pond is naturally made and filled with rainwater and channel water. They bought the pond in Rs. 50,000. Auction takes place in June every year. The size of the pond is 40 acres; they have put 40,000 fishes in it. The price of 1,000 fishes is worth Rs.300. No special food is given to the fishes; they survive eating fungus and algae.

Despite the industry’s potential, fishing communities in Honnali Taluk have struggled to sustain their livelihoods. The Tungabhadra River flows 50 kilometres across Honnali Taluk. As per government data, there are a total of 20 fishermen fishing the river who have a license to fish from the Tungabhadra River.

Hanumanthappa said that they incur a lot of loss because before the fish grows big, the pond dries up. They have requested the government to provide some solution for the same. Also, these people have their own farming business. They have hired a man to catch fish and pay him Rs. 10 per kg. As they have regular customers who buy fish from them, so they don’t go to market. Due to the shortage of water only half a kg fish has been harvested and sold in last six months.

Fishermen in Honnali Taluk

There are around 700 fishermen in the taluk, around three-quarters of which are part-time workers.

Fisheries Department tanks are given to co-operative societies—there are four in the taluk. When the fishermen take these tanks on lease for five years then every year the co-operative society has to pay five per cent more than what they paid the previous year. The fishermen purchase fingerlings and the government provides subsidy on the fingerlings.

The total population of Honnali Taluk is 2,22,592. There are 168 villages and 47 gram panchayats. In Honnali Taluk there are 16 tanks which come under fisheries department. The achkut(area covered) of each tank is more than 40 hectares. The total area of the tanks that come under the fisheries department is 661.90 hectares.

There are 20 tanks owned by Gram panchayat in Honnali Taluk. If the achkut is less than 40 hectares then the tank comes under gram panchayat. The total area of the tanks that come under the gram panchayat is 202.50 hectares There are 2 individual tanks which are constructed and owned by fishermen in their own land. The total area of both the tanks is 1.80 hectares.

Karnataka state has 5.65 lakh hectares (ha) of inland water resources consisting 1.72 lakh ha of major tanks, 1.21 lakh hectares of grampanchayat tanks and 2.72 lakh hectares of reservoirs, also 5813 km length of rivers which provide massive range for expansion of inland fisheries.

The total capacity of these water resources is around 4.01 lakh metric tonnes of fish per annum. During 2014-15, inland fish production totalled 2.24 lakh metric tonnes.

H.S. Veerappagowda, director of the Karnataka Fisheries Department, says that to grow the inland fisheries business in Karnataka, the primary requirement and the basic input is fish seeds. Unless there are sufficient number of seeds as per the requirement and quantity they will not be able to achieve any production. Karnataka Fisheries Department is producing seeds in state farms. At various districts there are centres, at Davangere district there is a rearing centre. The main production of seeds is done in Shimoga and later lifted to Davangere as there are nurseries and rearing centres.

“Fisheries do not control water resources,” says the director. The main source of water in tanks is rainwater. The rainwater fills the reservoirs and dams that is pumped into the fish tanks. The public water bodies are mainly meant for different purpose like drinking, irrigation, and power production. Fisheries is secondary, it is not primary purpose of these public water bodies. Water bodies are owned by the irrigation department, power corporations or gram panchayats. So, whoever wishes to own these tanks during bidding need to keep these uncertainties in mind and accordingly plan their fish production.

Before putting the tank up for auction the Fisheries Department makes it very clear that there are many risks and uncertainties involved like the tank may dry up. There are different ways to use these water bodies, for instance the basic water requirement is 3 feet depth which can be retained for six to eight months. If it is a smaller water body and water can be retained for shorter period in that case it can be used for rearing of seeds where the fishermen can grow it and sell it.

In India, none of the Fisheries department owns any water bodies for fisheries purpose. In Karnataka there are 25,000 water bodies but fisheries department does not have control over any of them.

Currently, Tumkur is doing well in inland fisheries business, but Kolar district is failing due to lack of rainfall. Almost every district has the same problem. Last year there was good rainfall in Malnad and Chikmangalur compared to previous years, so ultimately, like with agriculture, it is the monsoon that determines the output of annual freshwater-fish production.

The status quo of the water bodies in Karnataka

Shivraj HP, the owner of Gowdankere from Kunkova village has taken a three years tender of the pond from the government. The size of the pond is 48 hectares, and he bought it for Rs. 1 lakh. Currently he has are 60,000 fish in the pond, which he feeds organic food. So far he has been able to harvest only 2 kg fishes in six months due to water crisis.

Karnataka has very good water resources including reservoirs, rivers, and tanks. It also has qualified people to handle these water bodies for fisheries purpose and there is a good demand for fish in the state.

However, there is uncertainty in rainfall. The availability of water in the water bodies mainly depends on rainfall. Next is availability of quality fish seeds. The required seed production for these water bodies is mainly by the government farms. There are only a few private sector people who have taken up seed production but still there is a big gap. So, more private sector people have to come forward to take up the seed production so that the gap is reduced. Also, there is no organised marketing system. Though the current production is marketed immediately (?). In case there is  good production,the department needs to have an appropriate marketing structure.

The department has good technologies for the use of water bodies for fisheries purpose. But, the water bodies are mainly meant for agriculture, power production or drinking water purpose. Secondary priority is given to fisheries department. Planning for inland fisheries becomes difficult as the department has no control over these water bodies.

Key challenges in Inland Fisheries Growth

The Irrigation Department controls the water management and does not see allotting water for fisheries as a main concern. Implementation of Integrated Water Resources Management (IWRM) plan in Karnataka Fisheries Department  is  one  way  to  keep  a  balance  of  the  needs  of  various  sectors like fisheries, agriculture and power production.  Enhancement of livelihoods is part of IWRM values, and a few efforts to execute IWRM can also ensure the development of Inland Fisheries sector in the state.

Even though fishing in tanks form a major source of living for the fishermen, tanks have declined in numbers due to ignorance. While tank fishing is relatively safer, economically and physically than river fishing, it still remains neglected.

Neelkanth Mishra, founder and CEO of Centre for Aquatic Livelihoods JALJEEVIKA, explained ways in which the situation can be improved overall. In terms of the inland fisheries business, there is a need for a national fishery policy that can encourage standardization of marketing services for the produce, quality retail including safe and hygienic retail points in rural and urban areas.

Provision of credit and new technology to farmers should be made easier through policy. The issuing of licenses should be standardized, said Neelkanth Mishra.

Also, he added that the future of the inland fisheries department depends on a dedicated fishery policy adoption by government and provisions of new technology to collectives. In absence of these two important criteria even though India has more than 50 lakh hectare of water bodies, progress will be very slow.

The bottom line

The study looked for ways to stabilise the catch and regularise the incomes of the nomadic fishermen of the Tungabhadra River. But, the Karnataka State Water Policy does not consider fisheries as a major priority, even though it states that water should be guaranteed for various sectors and support livelihoods. The Fisheries Department does not have the liberty and the capability to develop water bodies to improve inland fisheries.

The fishing community on the Tungabhadra River can be benefitted by creating a similar fresh-water fishery through a cooperative of their families. Fish farms in Honnali taluk are an established and viable business, capable of not just supplementing the incomes of local farmers but supporting a thriving fishing community. They contribute to the local economy and are a major source of employment and livelihoods.

With the assistance of government, the nomadic fishermen can be benefited through building a wider network of ponds that can be auctioned to fishermen cooperatives. The fishermen who have bought panchayat tanks they will make good profit if government extends the lift-irrigation systems in the area to supply a perennial source of water to these fish farms and introducing scientific methods in fish farming, from the supply of fingerlings, production of fish food, best rearing and harvesting practices to refrigeration, transport and marketing.

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