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Why Narmada fisherfolk have no land rights, no water rights, no compensation benefits

fish1By Parineeta Dandekar*

What separated Maheshwar Ghats on the mighty Narmada from most other rivers I have seen was the sheer gaiety and joy which people were experiencing, jumping in the Narmada.  The beautiful, jutting steps of the ghats were designed (and used) like diving boards by men, boys and women. For someone who had just seen a dry Godavari and drier rivers of Marathwada, this mirth was therapeutic. Ferry Boats and laidback ferrymen were relaxing on the river, bobbing up and down rhythmically. In the distance was a tiny sailboat, held together by white fluttering sails, zipping through the waters at a startling speed without the din of a diesel engine. A fisherman and his daughter were returning to their village, taking stock of their catch… Occasional fish rose above the waters and glistened in the evening sun.

On the spectacular Ghats, built by the remarkable administrator Ahilya Bai Holkar in the 18th Century, are motifs of elephants and warriors and an oft-repeated motif of fish. Just about 4 kms downstream, close to the Sahasradhara falls on Narmada, was a community conserved Mahseer fish sanctuary. But the locals on the Ghats do not remember it anymore.

Is there Mahseer here still? I was about to find out.  Mahseer, or the Tor species, is a remarkable fish, referred sometimes as the Tiger of waters for its strength and the good fight it gives when tackled. It is the State Fish of Madhya Pradesh and also on the list of endangered species by the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species.

Maheshwar Ghat
Maheshwar Ghat

Despite the fact that Narmada, or Maa Reva as she is unfailingly called here, is drying where she meets the sea, there was considerable water at the Maheshwar Ghats when I saw it. Upstream, the river is dammed at multiple places at Bargi, Tawa, Indira Sagar and Omkareshwar, among others.

And barely 8 kms upstream from Maheshwar Ghats sits the 400 MW Maheshwar Hydropower Project, one of 30 large and 135 Medium dams that are a part of the ambitious Narmada Valley Development Project.

Maheshwar Hydropower Project is a monument of several tragic failures. The dam sits there, across the Narmada, complete in almost all senses, except one: it has still not rehabilitated over 35,000 people who will be displaced by it. Maheshwar Project has a long history, planned initially in 1978, it was in 1993 that the project was awarded to S. Kumars, one of India’s leading textile magnates, making Maheshwar the first hydroelectric dam awarded to a private company in post independent India.

The dam would submerge 61 villages and more than 35,000 people, most of whom are not rehabilitated yet, even as the dam is nearly complete. There are several scandalous issues surrounding the dam, as succinctly put by Shripad Dharmadhikary:  “On 28 October 2015, the National Green Tribunal (NGT), reiterated its earlier directions to the 400 MW Maheshwar project proponents to neither lower nor close its dam gates, nor cause any submergence without completing the resettlement and rehabilitation (R&R) of affected people. The order validates the people’s claim that the R&R has not kept up with the project impacts as stipulated.

mangat ram
Mangat Ram at Maheshwar Project

The meeting of the lenders to the Maheshwar project took place on 8 September 2015. The record of this meeting shows that as of that date, the investors, including the promoters, have brought in Rs. 499 crores as equity. The lenders, on the other hand, have brought in Rs. 1815 crores, or close to 78% of the money spent so far. The major lenders are mostly public or government-owned financial entities, including Power Finance Corporation (Rs. 700 crores), HUDCO (Rs. 259 Crores), Rural Electrification Corporation (Rs. 250 crores), and State Bank of India (Rs. 200 crores). This belies the claim that privatization brings significant funds to the sector.

In spite of spending close to Rs. 2315 crores, the project is still not complete. Central Electricity Authority (CEA) reported that in September 2015, the cost of project stood at Rs. 4635 crores, up from the original estimate of Rs. 1569 crores. CEA also notes that since November 2011, the work has been suspended due to cash flow problems. In fact, even before 2011, the company was not able to maintain the expected pace of work. This contradicts the claim that private operators are inherently more efficient than public sector ones.

Due to serious issues including high cost of power, no buyers for the project, need for refurbishment and rehabilitation, etc., project is at a stage where it’s possible that abandoning the project may emerge as most practicable option. In such a case, consider the following: The wall of the Maheshwar Dam is already built. The river has been severely disrupted. The biota and ecosystem has been disturbed. People have been displaced. Now, if the project is abandoned, who will be held accountable for all this, plus the several thousand crore rupees spent? The Maheshwar debacle offers a chance to demonstrate how those liable for the mess can be held accountable. We can only hope that this opportunity will be handled conscientiously.”

Derelict Dam: Maheshwar Hydropower Project
Derelict Dam: Maheshwar Hydropower Project

At Maheshwar Dam wall, I was met by Mangat Ramji… Mangat Ramji, a fisherman himself, is also a firebrand activist and has been spearheading the struggles of Maheshwar dam affected population, especially the fisherfolk. He founded the Maheshwar Bandh Prabhavit Macchvara Sangathan, which has over 10,000 members today and is the biggest cooperative fisheries society in Madhya Pradesh today. He comes from the village of Lepa, the first village to submerge if the gates of Maheshwar project are closed.  He inquired with love after Shripad Dharmadhikary and Nandini Oza, veteran activists who have worked closely with him. Mangat ji says, “In the Narmada Valley, like in the rest of the the country, fisherfolk have been the biggest losers of dam development.  We talk of ‘Zameen ke badle zameen, makan ke badle makan’ for the landed people, but what about us fisherfolk? Can you give us ‘nadi ke bade nadi’? He has been a full time activist of the Narmada Bachao Andolan for many years and was instrumental, along with others, in organising the massive boat rally against Narmada Valley projects in 1999, when hundreds of boats sailed in the river, protesting against massive displacement due to the Narmada dams.

The impacts of dams on fishing communities are very different from the landed community. Fisherfolk get no compensation, no mitigation measures and no packages. The sector needs focused struggle and work.

After a long and lonely struggle, Mangat Bhai and the fisherfolk were able to establish their rights of seeding, catching and selling any fish in the reservoir which will be formed if and when the gates of Maheshwar Dam close. This was through a cabinet decision in 2012.  The irony is that after this massive struggle, dam has been built, rehabilitation has not happened, fisherfolk villages, like all the affected villages, remain in the clout of fear that any day they will be evicted or submerged, they are not able to sell or buy lands, nor spend money on repairing and renovating their houses, forget building new ones. Nearly 61 villages remain in the state of anxious, suspended animation.

If and when the gates close and generation begins, the downstream hydrology will change entirely. The dam wall will stop upstream downstream migration of fish, the downstream river will have silt free and nutrient free water, severely affecting fish diversity. Reservoir in the upstream with stagnant water will result in a significant change in fish species composition.

Bustling fish market near Maheshwar
Bustling fish market near Maheshwar

Mangat Bhai says, “Lakhs of fisherfolk have been affected by Narmada Valley projects… and all are without any decent compensation… they are expected to disappear into thin air… Every village along the river and her tributaries has about 50-100 fishing homes. The fisherfolk are closely connected to the tune of the river: they fish, grow rice, melons and vegetables on the exposed river beds and floodplains in summer months. This land is used by fisherfolk for centuries without any formal rights. But does this mean we have no rights? That we should just give up our rights, our river?”

The similarity of what Mangat ji says and what fisherfolk across the country, in West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Gujarat, Maharashtra, etc., have been saying is striking. Recently, affected fisherfolk of the Gosikhurd dam in Vidarbha across River Wainganga had organized a Boat Satyagraha against the corruption-ridden dam.

Fisherfolk in Narmada come from various communities like Kahar, Bhoi, Nishad, Dhimar, Malla, Khevar, Kevat (the last one only ply boats). They have no land rights, no water rights and no compensation benefits. Mangat Bhai tells me, “After the dams in the upstream were built, several fish species have disappeared from the river or are rarely found, ‘Zhinge to bache hi nahi hain’ (Prawns are no longer found), fish like Gegwaa, Baam (Eel) and Mahseer have reduced drastically. Fishes which tolerate muddy waters are the only ones which are found now, bottom dwellers have reduced substantially.” Mangatji puts the reduction in fish catches at Maheshwar after upstream dam construction at nearly 80%. He says that fisherfolk cannot depend on this occupation for full time now. They either have to migrate or find a new job.

In fact, once one of the biggest landing sites for Mahseer fish in India was Hoshangabad in Madhya Pradesh, the catch used to be 2-3 tonnes in just a month. But after frenzied dam development in the valley without any thought of the fish or the fisherfolk, a fish which formed 50% of the catch is now less than 4% of the catch. Its size has also reduced considerably.

Mangatji says one more problem is sudden release of water from upstream dams like Indira sagar and Omkareshwar for hydropower generation. The gush of water washes away nets which the fisherfolk have laid in the river. It also disturbs fish breeding, eggs and young ones. It is remarkable to note that Mangatji’s observations have enough scientific support.

Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: “The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people”
Slogans against Bhadbhut Barrage say: “The Dam will kill the fishers: This government is killing people”

“Did you not write to the Government, to NHDC (NHDC, a joint venture between NHPC and MP government, owns and operates Omkareshwar and Indira Sagar Dams) about this?” I ask.

“We sent hundreds of submissions. We are told that water will be released when there is demand of electricity. Thats all. Vo to jab chahe Narmada maiya ko sukha de, jab chahe badh kar de. Nadi koi share pe nachate hain. Macchvare kuan hai kucch kahne vale? Hamse yadada bikli zaroori hai (Whenever they want they can dry up Mother Narmada, or flood it. They make the river dance to their tunes. Who are we fisherfolk to express ourselves? Electricity is more important than us.)”.

Mangat ji’s fight does not end with Maheshwar Project. His fight is a symbolic fight of all fishing communities throughout the country who have been facing massive impacts of dam development: in form of actual displacement, decline in fish species, change in fisheries composition, award of fishing contracts to outsiders, and destitution of the river and the a way of life. Narmada has seen a massive protest from fisherfolk in Bharuch, near the estuary of the river. Not only has reduced flow from Sardar Sarovar Project affected recruitment of Hilsa fish in the estuary, the under construction Garudeshwar weir and the planned Bhadbhut Barrage would totally destroy fisheries livelihoods.

Riverine fisherfolk find no mention in our decision making surrounding dams today. Mangat Bhai says that the EIA (Environmental Impact Assessment) of Maheshwar Hydropower Project does not even mention fisherfolk or impacts. Even popular movements have ignored this section of the society. Only in Narmada Valley there may be lakhs of fisherfolk who are suffering the impacts of dam development on their rivers. Across the country, the figure is more than 10 million. The Expert Appraisal Committee of the Ministry of Environment and Forests which recommends Environment Clearance to dam projects, has consistently ignored issues of fisherfolk and fisheries. The only thing it recommends in terms of fisheries management plan is fish hatcheries, even when there is no assessment of if hatcheries are useful, effective, how hatcheries function, whether they function at all, if at all they benefit the fisheries, etc.

It is time we acknowledge the Guardians of the River… who are in tune with the pulse, ebb, flow, tide and silt of the river. The fishing community has faced historic injustice at our hands.

I walk down the Maheshwar Ghats, and spot one more shrine, with the motif of intertwined fish. People have offered flowers to the fish, devotees bow to the sculpture. Lets us hope our fisherfolk receive a part of this respect too.

*South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.  Contact: [email protected]. Source:

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