India Interior

Finding fish to make ends meet

Preeti Mehra | Updated on January 22, 2018

Teach a village to fish Aas Mohammad and his family draw in their fish catch at their field-turned-pond. Someof the fish will be sold to markets and some transferred to another farmer’s pond as fish seed KAMAL NARANG

The houses are now concrete and every family has accident insurance

SHER MOHAMMAD Fish-farmer in Kaman block. Even the youngsters in the village know each and every detail about fish cultivation

How an adversity turned into an opportunity for Rajasthan’s Meo community farmers

They were never fisherfolk and had no idea how a net was cast. Living for generations in the landlocked Kaman block of Rajasthan, the farmers of Jeeraheda village only knew how to sow and harvest their grain. So, when in the late 1980s, water from the Gurgaon canal, which runs through Haryana and Rajasthan, began to slowly seep into their agricultural land and cause serious water-logging, they threw up their hands in despair.

The 240 families of the Meo Muslim community, which has its homes and farms along the canal adjoining the Haryana border, knew that growing a crop on these tracts was no longer possible. “We tried in vain for many years to make use of this land, but nothing at all would sprout. It would get inundated with water,” recalls 53-year-old farmer Aas Mohammad.

The flooding also meant the farmers had less acreage to cultivate and were unable to meet their food needs, leave alone store grain for a rainy day or sell it. Already left outside the mainstream of development and traditionally backward, the community found the going tough.

All of a sudden, however, their fortunes turned for the better. “In the last 15 years there has been a lot of change. Our luck began when we introduced fish seed into the gram panchayat talab (large pond) and found it yielding good results. It grew into good-sized adult fish,” says farmer Khurshid, who is now the President of the Gram Vikas Samiti. Lupin Human Welfare and Research Foundation, which has been working on development projects here, advised the farmers to dig up the water-logged fields, transform them into talabs and introduce fish species for sale in cities.

There was no looking back after that. Khurshid says his village today has 55 such talabs in the 40-50 acres that is unfit for cultivation. Dull-blue waters and bright-blue fishing nets have become a part of the landscape, interspersed with green fields. “Our fish harvest brings us returns every day,” he says, naming the popular sweet-water species Rohu and Katla as the mainstay of their business along with the smaller mirgal, and common and grass carb.

Every day, 2-3 vehicles arrive in Jeeraheda village to cart away 5-6 quintals of fish each for markets across the State border in Gurgaon and Delhi. “We don’t have to go anywhere, our market comes to us… we do brisk business from 6-9am. We weigh the catch, fix the price and sell to the best buyer. This happens across all the four villages along the canal that have taken up fisheries,” says a satisfied Mohammad.

Kaman block alone has around 200 ponds with fish rearing. “Bharatpur district, of which we are a part, is producing 1,500 tonnes of fish and provides livelihood to 2,000 fish-farmers,” says Tarachand, Lupin’s Kaman block co-ordinator. He provides a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the profits earned by the farmers. “They spend around ?50,000 annually on seed, feed, cleaning, nutrition and so on for a talab the size of an acre. The output is about 40 quintals of fish. Per hectare, they earn ?3.5 lakh a year.”

“A problem was turned into a potential,” explains Dr Swati Samvatsar, Lupin’s Chief Programme Manager. To keep fish-farming alive and encourage the farmers, the organisation started a fish-seed hatchery in the Nineties with a capacity of one crore fry seeds; it supplied various fish species to the farmers at a no-profit, no-loss basis.

“Today, some farmers make their own seeds and provide them to others,” says Samvatsar. The results are there for all to see. The houses are now concrete and every family has accident insurance.

Unfortunately, however, prosperity and food security have not erased overwhelming social and cultural problems. Only a few girls go to school. “Women have their own role to play. They do not help in the fishery business. Instead they tend to the buffaloes, the home, the children... and to themselves,” Khurshid argues vehemently.

The good fortune has also meant that young boys in the village have become more complacent. Only a few have attempted to secure college degrees or turn to other professions. “The younger generation is more adept at swimming, fishing and growing the fisheries business,” admits Samvatsar.

Says 74-year-old Sher Mohammad, obviously proud of the training the young ones have been given, “They know each and every detail about fish cultivation.”

Fourteen-year-old Rahees sums it up as he plunges joyfully into the blue water to join the others in retrieving the submerged fishing net, “We study when we feel like it.”

(The writer travelled to Rajasthan at the invitation of Lupin Human Welfare and Research Foundation)

Published on September 11, 2015

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