The ‘open source fisheries’ project in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra is swimming with the tide to provide succour for communities on the margins

Summer’s not quite at high noon but it’s sweltering even in the shade and Meesala Bangaramma is in no mood to consider what lies ahead. The present is what occupies the thoughts of the 42-year-old mother of four from the Kondadora tribal community in Kodikallavalasa village of Vizianagaram district in Andhra Pradesh — and that is panning out the way she had hoped.

“I don’t like thinking about the future but I’ll soon have some extra income and that should be a boon,” says the straight-talking Ms Bangaramma, one of 55 beneficiaries from her village who are part of an inventive livelihoods initiative aimed at increasing the earning capacity of people in dire need of a helping hand.

The ‘open source fisheries’ programme of the Tata Trusts promotes what is known as inland culture fishing and it has enabled some 22,000 households in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra to improve their lives and — Ms Bangaramma’s outlook on tomorrows notwithstanding — their prospects as well.

Piloted in 2016, the programme is now in its third phase and the Trusts have roped in a clutch of partners for the effort, primarily the respective state governments. The initiative began and has found the greatest success in Andhra Pradesh, where it is being implemented in collaboration with the Centre for Aquatic Livelihoods - Jaljeevika, a nonprofit that specialises in developing inland fishing for small and marginal farmers.

The majority of the beneficiaries in the project are fish farmers who grow their produce in cages, or pens, that sit in water bodies that come under the state government’s fisheries department. In the allied activities component of the project are nurseries that deliver fish seed (baby fish used to populate the cages and water bodies) and feed — there are some 1,000 of them, 600 in Andhra Pradesh alone — pond-based agriculture, the growing of vegetables and fruits on embankments, and the rearing of poultry.

Suite of solutions

The fish growers are brought together under cooperatives and their produce is aggregated to fetch the best price in the market. Preceding all of this is the training, technical and otherwise, that the beneficiaries receive. Low-cost cages, third-party evaluations and surveys to understand how and what the involved communities have gained are also part of the programme.

About 70% of these fish farmers are from tribal communities and the only means they had previously to make a living was by selling forest produce, mainly firewood, or working for daily wages. Fishing was not a foreign proposition for them, given that they lived near water bodies, but doing it in the scientific and ordered manner — the culturing and growing of it — was a discovery. That, though, did not translate into an immediate embrace of the fisheries programme when it was introduced.

The natural suspicion that villagers in India’s hinterlands have of outsiders kicked in at the time the Tata Trusts first came scouting for opportunities to seed the initiative. Anxieties were allayed and the villagers convinced after a few groups were taken on an ‘exposure visit’ to the Dimbhe reservoir (near Pune in Maharashtra), where an inland fisheries project has been thriving for years.

The exposure visit settled some of the challenges that confronted the programme in its early days, but there were others that had to be dealt with. “The learning journey has been long and difficult for us,” says Karthik Ramesh, a programme manager with the Trusts who has been with the initiative since its inception. “It was abstract in the first year and there were many gaps. We had to go through a lot of co-creation with the government, the community and our partners to arrive at solutions.”

The teething troubles were understandable. “We had secured a mandate to work on fisheries as a livelihoods theme but nothing beyond that; it was a blank slate,” adds Mr Karthik. “We began by building our knowledge of this space, by building relationships with the government, the community and civil society organisations.”

From pilot to prototyping to scaling up, the programme has come through the grinder to find its feet and discover the path ahead. It has had to cope with expected problems, and the bizarre too. For example, in Andhra Pradesh’s Anantpur district a rumour emerged that the cages were polluting the drinking water of the area. Then there was the incident in Vizianagaram where a disgruntled local poisoned the fish in the cages.

“The community’s strength and dignity helped us overcome these issues,” says Mr Karthik. “They told us: ‘We understand the problem is not with the fisheries or the fish. The programme works and its logic works.’ They were willing to take the risk.” Mr Karthik also has appreciation for the help rendered by the state governments, particularly in Andhra Pradesh.

The key point in calibrating the programme for success has been the setting up of the seed nurseries, the lack of which could have undermined the entire enterprise. “If you look at fisheries or any kind of agriculture in general, the seed is essential,” explains Mr Karthik. “We didn’t know the specifics of this in the beginning but we knew it would be a problem procuring them from elsewhere. Our intervention on the nurseries has been critical.”

Seeking support

The objective of the open source fisheries programme is to reach 200,000 households by 2021. To make that possible the Tata Trusts will need the state governments they are collaborating with to step on the gas. “We cannot get to that figure by ourselves, and that was never the intention,” says Mr Karthik. “But we can with the government and other partners by our side, because then you can scale up rapidly.”

Andhra Pradesh, where it all began, remains the showpiece of the programme. “That’s where we have been longest,” says Mr Karthik. “We had the luxury of time and we could afford to make a few mistakes. That’s not how it has been in the other two states, where we have had very different challenges. For one, there isn’t the same sort of basic fisheries infrastructure.”

Ultimately, it is the livelihood element that scores highest in the project. There are two categories of beneficiaries here. People with other sources of income — from selling firewood or working for daily wages — generally pull in about 70,000 a year. Those dependent solely on fishing earn in the range of 100,000 and 200,000, and even more.

That’s welcome income for everybody involved, and testimony to how far the programme has progressed. “No one knew about cage-culture fishing when we began here in 2016,” says Padmakar Bojja, who heads the programme in Andhra Pradesh. “We mobilised the community through local self-help groups. We made them aware and we gave them all the necessary training and support.”

Pakki Ratnalamma, a 39-year-old tribal who also hails from Kodikallavalasa village, is trying to make the most of such support to climb out of scarcity. A mother of two kids, Ms Ratnalamma’s only source of income used to be the meagre bit she earned from selling wood scavenged from a nearby forest, and that’s how it has been for her people for as long as she can remember. It’s different now.

“My hope is that my children can make a better life for themselves,” she says.

Fish spawn being reared in fish cages in the Pedderu Reservoir in Andhra Pradesh’s Visakhapatnam district