Feature story

Advantage aquaculture

Inland fishing has been a winner for 35,000 households in four states, providing an extra source of income and paving the pathway to a brighter future

The allure of the idea aside, taking the road less travelled can be problematic. For Prafulla Mahato, the wrinkle was the ridicule he invited when he went off the beaten stream in a bid to boost his fledgling business of farming fish.

A 41-year-old from Sukhlara, a village in Jharkhand’s East Singhbhum district, Mr Mahato had striven to improve the health of the fish he was breeding by giving them proper feed. His fellow fish farmers took a dim view of his exertions. “They made jokes at my expense; they did not think fish needed feed,” says Mr Mahato. That was two years back. “Now more than 80% of fish farmers in my village use such feed.”

Trying out the new is intrinsic to the inland fisheries programme being promoted and implemented by the Tata Trusts. Mr Mahato’s is one of 35,000-plus families that have benefitted through the initiative and he himself has done swimmingly well by following the principles of good feeding practices and maintaining water quality parameters in the pond he uses to rear fish.

A farmer from Rajura in Maharashtra's Chandrapur district inspects the fish seed he uses to stock his pond

It helps that Mr Mahato, whose earlier job as a medical representative has now taken a backseat, is more than just a fish farmer. He belongs to the band known as community resource persons (CRPs), influencers who bring other villagers into the programme, train them and foster scientific inland fishing.

There’s more to the fisheries programme than fish, though. Wrapped inside the story are allied activities that provide additional livelihood opportunities to the small and marginal farmers involved in the effort: nurseries that breed fish seed, projects to produce fish feed, pond-based horticulture, the growing of vegetables and fruits on embankments, and the rearing of poultry. Mr Mahato, who has increased his income by nearly seven times since enrolling, is a standout example of what the initiative has delivered.

Public and private

The programme has two operational approaches: culture fisheries in public water bodies such as reservoirs, lakes and rivers (where fish are grown in cages or pens) and fish farming in individually owned ponds.

The initiative has taken off in Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand, Maharashtra and Tripura. It is in the process of being piloted in Odisha and Assam, and the Trusts have also got going lately with a marine fisheries research venture in Lakshadweep.

Launched in 2016 in Andhra Pradesh, the fisheries programme is on the cusp of entering its second phase. This will extend to 2025, by when the expectation is that it will have 200,000-plus fish farmers under a largely common canopy. Central to the homogeneity embedded in it is the support of governments in the states involved. Partnerships with NGOs and organisations pursuing fisheries research and advocacy are other crucial facets.

The people profile of the programme and the intent driving it point to the overall objective. The vast majority of beneficiaries belong to backward communities, mainly tribal groups. These folks were not unfamiliar with fishing but their primary method previously was catching whatever fish they could. The programme has endeavoured to change that by having them shift from ‘inland capture fisheries’ to ‘inland culture fisheries’.

The advantages here are many, principally substantial income enhancements and the forging of a sustainable way of living. Planting the programme in states with a big demand for fish means there is a platform, and huge potential, to have it flourish. Making community participation the cornerstone of the initiative ensures that much of every village roped into it has a stake in its success.

The fish farmers are organised under community institutions (such as cooperatives) and their produce aggregated to pull in a fair price and facilitate market linkages. Training modules, exposure visits, low-cost cages, technology infusions, third-party surveys to gauge impact — the programme covers plenty of ground to cement the progress of beneficiaries.

These beneficiaries are clustered in four broad categories: individual farmers with their own seasonal and perennial water bodies, and farmer and women self-help groups who depend on public water bodies to grow their produce.

Challenges and solutions

The early struggles of the fisheries programme are now receding. Back at the beginning, convincing the community to embrace the idea of fish farming was a stumbling block. Overcoming that diffidence has resulted in impressive numbers being registered.

Data from Andhra Pradesh, Jharkhand and Maharashtra peg the average catch per beneficiary family at about 700kg a year and average income solely from fish in excess of 30,000. High achievers like Mr Mahato do much better (he made 119,500 in 2018-19).

There have been hiccups along the way. Theft and, occasionally, sabotage have blighted some operations. Blame that on not-so-neighbourly jealousy, the deterrent to which has been getting more residents of targeted villages into the fishing fold.

The positives in the programme are heftier. Besides the extra income, villagers cite a host of attached rewards: reduced migration, better health indicators, awareness of government schemes and subsidies, and community cohesiveness. “This project has improved social harmony within the community,” says Jaisingh Bodra, a 30-year-old tribal from Paseya village in Jharkhand’s West Singhbhum district.

There are challenges that linger still in the Trusts realising their 200,000-by-2025 goal. “One of the major ones we have faced and continue to face is finding motivated and skilled people to work on the ground,” says Shashwati Bhunia, who heads the fisheries programmes. “Getting the right CRPs is difficult and this cuts across the regions we work in.”

The community itself is not so much of a handicap. “We don’t need to do much pushing now; in fact, there is a pull from the community,” adds Ms Bhunia. The maturing of the initiative has ushered in another gain. “District administrations in a lot of areas have approached us for collaborations.”

On the agenda from here on is going upstream to get a firmer grip on the value chain of the programme, from creating nurseries to rear fish seed to having farmers exert greater control at the fingerling stage. “That’s why we have nursery farmers who sell to grow-out farmers within our own network of beneficiaries, and sometimes even outside,” says Ms Bhunia. “The next step is having our own hatcheries for fish breeding.”

Strengthening community institutions is another priority, and this is essential to the sustainability of the programme. “We need community institutions that can work independently,” explains Ms Bhunia. “We are thinking of incubating farmer producer organisations and farmer producer companies. The ideal would be to have communities owning the work and running it.”

Also on the table are plans to expand and enrich the programme: by taking it to more states, adding high-value fish varieties and prawns to the breeding and rearing basket, using technology tools to minimise costs and maximise output, and by building resource centres that communities can tap into.

Getting a fix on the present has enabled farmers in the fisheries initiative to plan for a future that smells just fine.

A group of farmers belonging to the Bhoi community harvest their catch in Mandhal village in Chandrapur

Fishing further

Rohu, catla and mrigal are the most commonly bred varieties in the inland fisheries programme of the Tata Trusts, and for profitable reasons. These species of the carp family are widely consumed across India, they are relatively easier — and cheaper — to grow, and they can be farmed together in the same pond. But the time may have come to look beyond them.

On paper, and in the water, it makes sense to consider breeding higher-value fish and prawns. The problem lies in the economics of the proposition.

“We consider the pond as an ecosystem and we try to utilise the entire water structure of the pond,” explains Shashwati Bhunia, who heads the fisheries initiative. “Rohu, catla and mrigal work well together because they live in different layers of the water; they are not competitors for food or in feeding patterns. All of which means growing them together is more beneficial for the farmer.”

The case for trying out higher-value species such as magur and prawns is strong but there is a catch here. “Prawn cultivation requires a bit more of expertise and a bit more effort, as they tend to become cannibalistic if sufficient food is not provided,” says Ms Bhunia, “while the carnivorous magur is difficult to culture with other species.”

That has not stopped the programme from taking a serious stab at these more lucrative options. “With prawn, magur and the like, their seed and feed cost is two-three times higher,” adds Ms Bhunia. “Of course, they give better returns — magur, for example, sells for 400 a kilo compared with 150 for rohu — but then you will also have to increase your investment.”

The safer bet is to introduce improved varieties of rohu, catla and mrigal, the kind that grow more quickly and breed more easily. As always, the farmer is the key player in making the equation work.

“Many of our farmers want to try out newer things and many a time the suggestions come from them,” says Ms Bhunia. “Our point is that we want to start the newer species with select farmers who we know will follow through and get some profit from the venture. We can then consider how to scale it up.”