Take the case of Assam. According to Pradeep Sharma, professor of the department of geography, Cotton College, Guwahati, most of the 3,513 wetlands in Assam are not even registered. The fishery development corporation of Assam only has a little more than 200 beels (wetlands) that are under the corporation. The rest is either wasteland or being fished by different people without any regulation.
At a seminar on riverine and reservoir fisheries held in May 2001 in Kochi, it was stated that with proper management, the reservoir fisheries of India could yield 50 kilogrammes of fish from a hectare annually, against the 20 kilograms now. Reservoirs need to be a thrust area for development, the recommendations stated.
Moreover, along with the two million hectares of reservoirs in the country, there are also 3.2 million hectares of ponds, tanks and other waterbodies. These are conservative government records. "These tanks and ponds were a part of life for the rural people," says Dehadrai. Thako Sadar, a fisher living on the embankments of the Kamla river in Bihar, agrees: "It is only the ponds that are keeping us alive."
Therefore, it must be realised that ponds, tanks, reservoirs and other such waterbodies are an integral part of the solution. However, the question is that of ownership. And this is related to legislations. For example, the Madhya Pradesh government has given fishing rights to people displaced by the Tawa dam in the reservoir (see 'Net gain' Down To Earth, Vol 10, No 16). Or, as recommended at the seminar, there should be a uniform policy and a committee comprising members of the various departments should look after matters related to fisheries.
Moreover, Dehadrai also suggests that the anachronistic fisheries act should be replaced by pragmatic policies that take into account any change in the fisheries status of the country. He adds that the present policies are formulated in the control and revenue structure. They do not encourage any enterprise. The lease policy is a fine example of this. While the lease periods in India for a fishery can extend up to seven years, most of the places it is less than five years. "This makes the lease holder resort to exploitative fishing than making the resource sustainable," says B Lahon, senior official with the Assam Fisheries Development Corporation.
Experts say that it is time to think beyond the dying rivers and concentrate on how the other inland resources can be harnessed. There is also a suggestion that fisherfolk should be trained in other fishing-related lucrative trade like rearing ornamental fish. The country has an export potential of US $30 million, against the current US $0.39 million.
"Make local fisherfolk stakeholders," says Sunil K Chaudhary, professor of botany in the T M Bhagalpur University. "Fisherfolk should be consulted before taking any decision on the fisheries, cooperatives should be monitored strictly and the deep areas sensitive in terms of fish population should not be leased out," he adds.
Clearly, the fisherfolk cannot tide over the very threat of existence on their own. Experts feel that integrating the knowledge of the fisherfolk in the management of fishery resources will go a long way in improving their status. This will provide employment and also make this sector sustainable. But if the situation is allowed to drift, the Koibortos and the Jharias are sure to go under.
Written by S S Jeevan with inputs from Kazimuddin Ahmed, Richard Mahapatra and Kushal P S Yadav, Prabhanjan Verma and Ranjan K Panda