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This is the eleventh story in a series of articles launched by Astral Pipes and Nature inFocus to create awareness about the ongoing water crisis and to encourage necessary action to address it.

"River animals include humans, and river humans include animals. The line between them is artificial and thin, the stories of loss, similar."

Nachiket Kelkar concludes in his writeup for The Hindu, where he tackles the complex relationship between Ganga's fishermen and its riverine animals. The writer in me can't help but gush at the lyrical prose and the ease with which Kelkar puts across the intricacies of this human-animal alliance. If not for the pandemic and the fact that he has his PhD thesis submission looming, I would have met him in person for this interview. Instead, we had to stick to email correspondence.

Kelkar is an ecologist who studies riverine capture fisheries and Ganges River Dolphins, along with many related issues, in the Gangetic plains. His main workplace is in Bihar.

It was first in 2006, that Kelkar got in touch with Professor Sunil Choudhary, who had been leading a Ganges River Dolphin conservation programme at the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary in Bhagalpur, Bihar. Within two months of meeting with Prof. Choudhary, Kelkar had joined their team in Bhagalpur for a survey of Ganges River Dolphins. Inspired by their conservation and monitoring efforts, Kelkar decided to conduct his MSc thesis research on the Ganges River Dolphin and completed it in 2008, under the guidance of Dr Jagdish Krishnaswamy.

Since then, Kelkar's continued engagement with rivers, and more so with Bihar, allowed him to closely learn the realities of rural India and exposed him to the real world conflicts involved in the space between conservation and livelihoods. This rich learning is what has continued to drive his work, and his PhD thesis research (at ATREE, Bangalore) takes an interdisciplinary approach to understand why and how conflicts in riverine capture fisheries evolve and change in space and time, across the Gangetic plains.

Taking out valuable time, Nachiket Kelkar answered some of my questions on capture fisheries, their relationship with riverine animals, and about how we can protect our rivers. Here is the edited transcript.

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Nachiket Kelkar studies riverine capture fisheries and Ganges River Dolphins, along with many related issues, in the Gangetic plains. Photograph: Tadamichi Morisaka

Riverine fisheries is an area that is rarely talked about. How much of a role do they play in the conservation of riverine ecosystems? 

Riverine capture fisheries have always been neglected by state policies, even though they are a major source of livelihood for millions of the rural poor. Most riverine fishers live in poverty and destitution, are mostly landless, and have generally limited access to education, health and other essential services. The neglect is because they yield almost no revenue to the state, as compared to agriculture, aquaculture or marine fisheries. This indifference means that we know little about how riverine fisheries influence river and biodiversity conservation, negatively or positively. Either way, they have a huge role to play.

Both biodiversity and fisheries need enough river water to survive, making both entities the victims of some of the biggest threats to the integrity of river systems; from dams, barrages, embankments and pollution to industrial waterways. This means that they are also co-dependent. Fishers, therefore, need to have secure livelihoods as well as the means to social and economic development, just as endangered riverine species need habitat protection and conservation. Can these two objectives coexist together? Addressing that is perhaps an ultimate endpoint of river biodiversity conservation efforts. Importantly, fishing can affect many species negatively, either because fishers in some areas hunt them, or animals get entangled in fishing nets and die of drowning (called bycatch, which is a major threat for endangered species like river dolphins and Gharials).

These contradictions mean that fishing and biodiversity can coexist but only under specific riders, with significant efforts needed in systematic and adaptive monitoring. It also needs awareness on the part of fishers to refrain from using practices causing direct injury or mortality of endangered species. But all this is easier said than done.

What are some of the main conflicts in the riverine fisheries sector? 

Riverine fisheries cannot exactly be called a “sector” – for its contribution to revenue is meagre, and declining. The economy of riverine fisheries is located largely around informal and scattered networks of mobile fishers, middlemen and traders, and in some cases with the involvement of cooperative institutions. This has given it the tag of “unorganised” in a formal, rational sense, among policymakers. The mobility of fishers has been an important factor underlying conflicts with the state and with agriculture, with assigned land ownership and fixed boundaries. These are institutional conflicts – over ideas of what fishing rights and “property” in fisheries constitute, and means of access to fish resources. You can imagine that in highly dynamic riverine settings, it is hard to define boundaries of fishing rights. Rather, thinking of fixed boundaries is kind of silly in a system that is shifting constantly. Yet, our policy imagination, since the colonial times and even later, has been too narrowly focussed on “land-based, settled, agriculture”, so that we have tended towards disregarding anything that does not fit that stationary frame.

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"Fishing castes and classes in most regions of India, if not all, belong to economically backward or scheduled groups." Photograph: Kadambari Deshpande

At the same time, one cannot ignore that since India’s early history, fishermen and fisherwomen (like hunters, foragers, gatherers) have been usually ostracised by society – there have been strong caste and class divides marginalising fishing communities. Fishing castes and classes in most regions of India, if not all, belong to economically backward or scheduled groups. So social conflicts permeate institutional and economic conflicts of rights and access. These conflicts show us why looking at riverine fisheries through an economic returns lens is not exactly the right approach – a livelihood and justice approach, based onbuffering them against vulnerabilities, is crucial. 

Further, there are conflicts between capture fisheries on the one hand and other uses of rivers. These are not exclusive of the conflicts I have outlined above. Such conflicts appear in specific conditions: for example, conflicts between capture fisheries and aquaculture (pond-reared, intensively cultured fish), or conflicts between capture fisheries and protected areas designated for biodiversity conservation on river-floodplains.

When certain stretches/areas of a river are declared as protected, how do they affect the local fishermen?

Fishing is banned in protected areas, according to India’s Wildlife Protection Act, 1972. The ban makes sense in one way, but not in another. It is a fact that fishing is a major threat to some species that are critically endangered, such as the Gharial. But there are also many fishing practices that may be fairly benign to wildlife. Fish can also be considered as “non-timber forest produce” by communities living around them, as they are an important part of diet and seasonal food, and contribute to nutrition. Further, with many terrestrial protected areas located in the upper catchments of dam reservoirs, there are pattas allocated on many reservoirs to tribal or rural fishery cooperatives. Here, managing reservoir fisheries becomes a key component of wildlife management in protected areas.

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Declining water levels have compelled fishers closer to dolphin feeding areas. Photograph: Jagdish Krishnaswamy

The primary conflict around fishing bans has been around fishers losing access to some of their traditional or age-old fishing areas. If you look at the implementation of such bans, there is a wide variation. In the National Chambal Sanctuary, the ban on fishing is reasonably enforced, while in the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, fishers fish throughout the area even though sparks used to fly between them and the forest department. Lately, the local forest division has enlisted fishers for anti-poaching and monitoring activities. In other areas, such as the Giruwa river stretch within Katerniaghat Wildlife Sanctuary, a private fishing contract exists on a portion of the backwaters of the reservoir of the Ghaghara barrage, which abuts the “boundary” of Katerniaghat. In such cases, any damage to fishing nets by crocodiles, or otters, could lead to negative attitudes about wildlife among fishers. Also, as animals have nothing to do with our protected area boundaries along a river, protected areas end up being perceived as the reason for damage to adjoining fisheries by species that may move out from them.

We still do not have thorough comparative and multi-site assessments of the impacts of fishing on wildlife protection, whether in terrestrial or aquatic protected areas. The few assessments that exist for some areas are too limited, too qualitative or too old. This is a subject worthy of proper investigation.

Seafood sustainability is a topic that has gained traction recently. Do you think the sustainability of freshwater fish gets enough attention?

It does not get attention. The best example is seen in the Sustainable Development Goals or SDGs, which do not mention freshwater fisheries, but have a place for marine fisheries under the Life Under Water SDG 14.

It is also true that the goals of sustainability in marine and freshwater fisheries production systems are not comparable. The whole seafood fisheries supply system is based on mechanised and industrial fishing technology. This is a key difference, as freshwater fisheries are very low intensity in terms of technology used and fishing effort with respect to available fishing areas.

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"Whereas capture fisheries are one of the main threats to riverine animals, they are also their biggest allies. It is not only that, there are strong cultural connections between fishers and animals – even hunting, for that matter, is one of those connections." Photograph: Jagdish Krishnaswamy

Government statistics have been saying that in recent years, marine fish production is stagnating (or saturating), while freshwater fish production has grown exponentially – though that is mainly due to fish farming and aquaculture (which is like intensive farming rather than fishing). So if we specifically look at capture fisheries, they do not feature so well in these statistics although their importance for the livelihoods of millions is being acknowledged now. So, we do not know, in quantitative terms, what the economic size of riverine or lake fisheries is in terms of their total market value or production, demand or customer preferences. Apart from states like West Bengal and Assam where there is high and stable demand for river fish, cultured carps from Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal have swamped fish markets everywhere. 

Further, we know little about the effects of environmental change or hydro-climatic change, and the impacts of fishing on freshwater fish species, to even define targets of sustainability well. Therefore, it is difficult to provide traction to freshwater fisheries in the same way “seafood sustainability” initiatives do. As I have explained earlier, livelihood security, nutrition and justice concerns need to be prioritised over conventional sustainability targets.

Could you give us a glimpse into the relationship between fishermen and riverine animals?

Whereas capture fisheries are one of the main threats to riverine animals, they are also their biggest allies. It is not only that, there are strong cultural connections between fishers and animals – even hunting, for that matter, is one of those connections. We call hunting a threat because of our modern conservation objectives, which I too support. But I also feel that to tackle the “threat” of hunting, we have to understand it as culture, as knowledge. That is exactly the complex relation: could fishers really have known animals as well, if they did not hunt them or interact with them in other ways? Similarly, for a few thousand years, riverine species have lived around fishing humans. So, even their environment is not historically exclusive of people.

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"Most of us do not wish to understand how historically marginalised people live. How, in spite of hardships, they may be willing to extend a helping hand to protect riverine animals, in their own capacities, whatever that may be." Photograph: Jagdish Krishnaswamy

To summarise, the relationship between capture fisheries and biodiversity, especially endangered species, has been tenuous and complicated. We must be cautious in interpreting and studying it. First, there is nothing harmonious or worth romanticising about it, as community-based conservation discourses will have us believe. Second, it is also not antagonistic as fortress conservationists who support protected area-centric management insist. It is in the middle, it is not without conflict, but has to be handled sensitively and pragmatically. 

You have done a lot of research on the endangered Ganges River Dolphin. What can you tell us about the species?

The Ganges River Dolphin is peerless as a species – it is one of the most ancient cetaceans that are alive today, and is the oldest river dolphin species that survives. It evolved about 23-26 million years ago, and effectively lost its eyesight in the course of evolution, due to disuse in its shallow and murky riverine habitat. But the river dolphin is not blind if one considers how it "sees" with its high-frequency echolocation apparatus based on the nearly constant emission of fairly simple “clicks”. Its food includes small fish and shrimps.

One of my core interests has been to link the understanding of evolutionary, acoustics, physiology, or the so-called “basic biology” of river dolphins to their social and political environment, the one they constantly share with humans. For example, if a dolphin gets trapped or killed in a gill net – we must aspire to provide an explanation based on both proximate and ultimate, social and ecological and evolutionary causation. We must try to connect this one event to the political and cultural conditions of the fisherman deciding to use a particular net in a particular spot on the river on one hand, and to the nitty-gritty of animal physiology, acoustics, and behaviour on the other. I emphasise that only such an understanding, across scales, can help us identify the pathways that actually threaten dolphins. I believe that such research will eventually help us effectively tackle the immediate and future threats to Ganges River Dolphins.

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"It evolved about 23-26 million years ago, and effectively lost its eyesight in the course of evolution, due to disuse in its shallow and murky riverine habitat." A dead river dolphin. Photograph: Sushant Dey

One thing I do want to mention here is that even though things are not exactly looking up for Ganges dolphins, they are an extraordinarily resilient species in terms of tolerating human alteration of rivers. That is seen from how they have managed to survive in so many highly disturbed river habitats. This is important to recognise, while studying and conserving them, and while prioritising which threats are to be addressed. Clearly, some emerging threats, in combination with existing ones, could overcome and severely damage the species’ future survival prospects.

What are the conservation efforts that are currently at play for river dolphins and the rivers / water they live in?

I would say that the overall outlook towards river dolphin conservation in India, and in the Indian subcontinent as a whole, has been largely positive. India declared the river dolphin as the National Aquatic Animal in 2010. In 2015-16 the MoEF-CC CAMPA Fund unravelled a “species recovery program” for Ganges River Dolphins, undertaken by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII). There are plans under discussion for a “Project Dolphin” on the lines of Project Tiger or Project Elephant. A dolphin research centre is set to start soon at Patna. In West Bengal, the forest department has been planning to set up a community reserve on the Hooghly for river dolphins. In terms of availability of resources and political will, these beginnings seem promising and are welcome.

I am hopeful of these well-meaning programs delivering positive conservation outcomes. But I am also sceptical. The main reason is the centralisation and bureaucratisation of science and conservation that such programs inadvertently bring about. To some extent, it is inevitable. But such processes have to also be balanced by effective and democratic collaborations between biologists, social scientists, activists and conservationists who have been working hard for years on the ground. Stronger integration, networking and information sharing across all these individual efforts is challenging but crucial. There is also a need to scientifically empower many activist efforts.

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"The Ganges River Dolphin is peerless as a species – it is one of the most ancient cetaceans that are alive today, and is the oldest river dolphin species that survives." Photograph: Sushant Dey

In India, there are many groups working on river dolphin conservation and who have been doing committed work over these years – Patna University, T.M. Bhagalpur University, WWF-India, ZSI-Patna, Jiwaji University Gwalior, Wildlife Trust of India, HEAL-Bengal, WII, Turtle Survival Alliance, and several other groups, teams, and individuals. 

River dolphin or biodiversity conservation initiatives also need to align much more strongly with other river conservation efforts – for clean water, for fishing rights, for public health, etc. There has been a start, but overall, biodiversity conservation initiatives often tend to hang a bit aloof from these other issues. 

What can we, many of us who live far away from rivers, do to protect our rivers?

First, many of us do not live far from rivers! There is some river around us always – even if we may not know of it. No matter how small or large, or clean or polluted, it has a history, an attachment with some town, a group of fishermen, an industry extracting its water, some local shrine around it, or a wetland in the vicinity where waterbirds congregate! So we only live far from rivers in the sense that we do not think as much about them as we think of, say, forests.

At a larger level, we need to change the way we look at rivers in our country. Predominantly, our view of rivers as a society has been either utilitarian or religious, and both engagements have not amounted to anything useful for saving them. Cultural or political beliefs, tourism, pilgrimage, rallies or government plans over the last 4 decades, have garnered popular attention to some extent, but have not been effective in saving rivers, in terms of improving or restoring their water quality, or ensuring adequate flows for biodiversity and fisheries. Instead, what has worked better is scientifically informed and sustained activism. But for larger rivers like the Ganga, even this has not been enough.

Interestingly, many of our cleanest and most biodiversity-rich rivers in India, in fact, flow in regions that we have until recently regarded as poor, backward, or dangerous for people to visit. Look at the Chambal or Gandak rivers, for example. 

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A Ganges River Dolphin in the Hooghly river in Katwa, West Bengal. Photograph: Ritobroto Moitra

Rivers are seldom thought of as social-ecological hybrid systems. Rather, they are viewed as mere water-carriers, conduits, or “water bodies”. There has been a significant growth in public interest around wildlife and wilderness, especially with respect to tiger reserves and forests. But the same cannot be said about rivers, which still tend to be ignored. Many people still do not know or believe that rivers harbour unique and endangered species of wildlife. How many people want to see tigers, and how few even know of a dolphin or a gharial!

We collectively need to be a lot more aware of the systemic threats that rivers face. Today, everyone seems to have heard of pollution in our rivers, and the need to clean them, especially the Ganga. No doubt this is absolutely crucial, but the buck often stops there. The problem with pollution or clean-up discourses is that they focus too much on the instrumental and symptomatic, while conveniently pushing bigger and systemic threats under the rug. We hear of tanneries or factories that are dirtying the Ganga. But we hear less of the water that is extracted from the river by dams and canals, and the solid wastes and plastics that are dumped into our rivers. Or about industrial waterways, port constructions, or river interlinking – which are projects likely to negatively affect rivers in a destructive and perhaps even irreversible manner.  

In all this, everyone seems to think that pollution is the only threat to our rivers, while dams, barrages and other river flow alterations continue to injure many of our rivers and their ecology and hydrology. We still hear so often from ministers and even civil engineers that “river water is flowing waste into the sea”. I am sure that even for the most lay person, it is not hard to understand how the influx of freshwater into the ocean is important for maintenance of productivity, for climate regulation (even the Indian Monsoon!), for fisheries. But many have never been told this! This discourse needs to be changed. Policies to ensure ecological flow regimes from headwaters to coasts are critical to implement in an adaptive manner, for regulated rivers.

Our national water policy and even conservation plans also do not prioritise the issues of environmental flow provisions or ecological flow management for biodiversity, as much as they ought to. This is changing, but discussions on ecological flows remain a little design-centric or model-based, rather than being based on the science of riverine ecology. I see many prospects for integrating both these approaches.

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"Both biodiversity and fisheries need enough river water to survive, making both entities the victims of some of the biggest threats to the integrity of river systems; from dams, barrages, embankments and pollution to industrial waterways." River fishers on the banks of the Hooghly, Kolkata. Photograph: Radha Rangarajan

We also need a deeper understanding of agriculture, urban water demand, and the industrial use and abuse of water to understand the threats to rivers. We hear a lot about the state of farmers and their living conditions, and rightly so, but how often do we hear about fishers and their state of life?

Further, our engagement with river conservation has to begin with some real empathy for the less privileged, which includes animals as well as people. We want rivers and river dolphins to be conserved, but from a distance. That is elite privilege, where we can go on about solutions and the way forward, without ever visiting a place in what we may regard as the “dark corners” of Uttar Pradesh, Jharkhand, or Bihar. Most of us do not wish to understand how historically marginalised people live. How, in spite of utter hardships, they may be willing to extend a helping hand to protect riverine animals, in their own capacities, whatever they may be.

Finally, I think that today, our concern for environmental matters finds conflict at very close quarters, thanks to the virtual world of conflict. This conflict begins with what we read in our phone apps. It begins at home, with our parents and close relatives! That is the hardest part of it. It is important that we keep trying to educate ourselves and first make our loved ones or near ones aware of what we have done to our rivers. And, what we could do better.