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Ecology of the river

In 1863, Sir Arthur Cotton, who built the Dowlaiswaram anicut on the Godavari, proclaimed that the British Empire “had command of all the water of India”. It is the same metaphor of control over common property resources that the fishermen of the Godavari are protesting today, says R Uma Maheshwari in the final part of her series on the impact of the Polavaram Dam on the inland fishers of the Godavari

Talking to Malladi Arjayya on the banks of the Godavari at Vadapally in present-day West Godavari district of coastal Andhra Pradesh, with the full moon rising and a couple of fishermen in their nava (fishing boats) laying nets late at night, was like being enlightened on the whole philosophy of the river, the fish in it, life, and changes that were perceptible only to someone closely tied to it all. There was a simple philosophy in what Arjayya said that evening which was as good as any expert’s perspective on the ecology of rivers.

Malladi Arjayya told me they had been fishing here for many years; it was only in the last 10 years that he had finally settled down. “There has been a sharp decline in the birth of fish in the Godavari. There aren’t enough eggs now. They keep the Dowlaiswaram barrage (near Rajahmundry, built in colonial times) gates closed and open them only during pedda Godavari (the river is referred to as pedda [big] Godavari when it floods). If they had opened the gates at normal times, there would have been ample fish eggs and prawns as well. If the Godavari floods, there will be lots of fish. When the fish is pregnant, it needs to move. When the Godavari floods, it helps the fish turn and move around, and lay eggs. During the floods, the eggs get washed away and new fish are born which move along with the floodwaters. In the 1986 floods, the river was full of fish. Where do we even have that kind of flood anymore in the Godavari? Are they allowing it? Farmers and governments are only thinking of their own interests. They want more and more water for their fields. They are the ones building canals and dams. Where is the water going to the sea, as it used to? How will new fish be born?”

Several issues -- commercial, non-commercial and subsistence-based; equity; access and denial of access -- were revealed to us during our two-month engagement with fishermen/fishworkers being displaced by the Polavaram dam, who find no mention in the rehabilitation package. Tourism appears to be a major source of conflict in upstream fishing zones in East and West Godavari districts. In the few fishing settlements I visited in Khammam district, there were also issues of identity.

Sir Arthur Cotton, who built the Godavari anicut in the 19th century, at Dowlaiswaram, with a network of canals that fed water to the delta region, once said in defence of the Godavari anicut proposal: “It must always be remembered… that the extent of our territorial possessions, and the complete establishment of our paramount power, have given us the command of all the water of India, so that although the rains fail, and water may disappear in one part of the empire, we can always supply it from another; as the rains never fail everywhere… so that our control of the water enables us to equalise the supply in different parts of India.” (Major General Sir Arthur Cotton, ‘Irrigation and Navigation in Connection with the Finances of India’, address delivered to the Calcutta Chamber of Commerce, May 7, 1863, 9th reprint from Calcutta Englishmen, London, 1863; p 30)

It is important to note the language and metaphor of control used in his speech. The same sense of state power and control over natural resources continues today when it comes to river systems.

The Godavari flows through six Indian states. There is a fluid sense of ‘ownership’, or rather ‘non-ownership’ here. But now the people of the Godavari feel the state/government has all the power over the resource; they only seem to have usufruct rights to it.

The fishermen of the Godavari -- specifically those who will be displaced by the Polavaram dam project -- have an established territorial base here and links with the local people. They operate in territories that they themselves have fixed. Over sustained interactions with the community one learns that fishermen from Manturu are from Yanam; and that fishermen from Pochavaram are from Kapileswarapuram. And that these are Pallis; the fishermen in Kapileswarapuram call themselves Agnikula Kshatriyas while the fishermen settled in Kunavaram are Jalarlu.

Although there is no universal homogenous group here, the fisheries department chooses to ignore the nuances. The interesting pattern of these people’s movement along the river has never been recorded let alone recognised or acknowledged as an important aspect of their fishing history.

If the Polavaram dam comes up, it will end this interesting system of fishing and sharing a common property resource. For example, there is an unexpressed (unwritten) synchrony about where nets are laid. No two fishermen will lay competing nets; they have separate timings for laying their nets and bringing in the catch. Besides fishermen, the women (mostly tribal women) too have their own timings for capturing tiny seermin fish in their saris (two women hold the sari at both ends and wait in the water for hours). The fishermen build temporary shelters along the river banks to fish for five to six months a year. Tribal communities do not question or lay ownership to the sands and the banks which may physically be part of their village for centuries. The fishermen also know when to leave a river free, or the fish free, even at the expense of not earning an income.  Sharing a natural resource is an extension of their lives.

All their activities are carried out on the river without any sense of authority or regulation from above. They form part of a well-tuned, symbiotic existence that requires no licence regime to regulate it. With the dam in place, rights over the river will be apportioned like ration cards and what was once a flowing system will become stagnant and dead.
(R Uma Maheshwari is a journalist based in Andhra Pradesh. She has been covering issues related to development and displacement for a number of years. This is part 5 of her series on the fisherfolk displaced by the Polavaram dam, researched as part of the FES-Infochange Media Fellowship 2010)

Infochange News & Features, November 2010