Political clout of Bihar’s fisherfolk could swing votes either way in Bhagalpur, but community still bears brunt of Ganga’s unpredictability

Fisherfolk in Bihar are among the communities that revere the Ganga and have dealt with her love and anger for centuries. But of late, the river has given them nothing but pain.

Editor's Note: A network of 60 reporters set off across India to test the idea of development as it is experienced on the ground. Their brief: Use your mobile phone to record the impact of 120 key policy decisions on everyday life; what works, what doesn't and why; what can be done better and what should be done differently. Their findings — straight and raw from the ground — will be combined in this series, Elections on the Go, over a course of 100 days.

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Kagazitola (Bhagalpur): Ganga is not just a river; it's our country's lifeline, an integral part of Indian culture, and it holds many people's livelihoods in its hands.

Fisherfolk are among the communities that revere the Ganga and have dealt with her love and anger for centuries. But in the recent past, the sacred river has given them nothing but pain.

We travel to the Kagazitola Mohalla, nearly 280 kilometres west of Patna, which falls under the Kahalgaon block in Bihar's Bhagalpur Lok Sabha constituency, once known as the 'Silk City' of India. It was the epicentre of the Ganga Mukti Movement, a decade-long struggle against Panidari (the exclusive right of zamindars to fish and sail boats in 80 kilometres of the Ganga). Zamindars used to lease out their part to the fisherfolk for anywhere between Rs 700 and Rs 2,000 annually. The struggle bore fruit after the system was abolished in 1991, and fishermen were given free right to fish.

Kagazitola Mohalla comprises narrow lanes and tiny rooms of bricks and mud, situated on the banks of the Ganga. The morning we arrive is chaotic as people get ready for work. But amid this bustle of noise and activity, the Ganga is silent, and that scares the fisherfolk.

Meena Devi is busy preparing morning meals in her mud house, which is protected from the river adjacent to it by a three-foot-high wall she built.

"Monsoon is the scariest time for us; no one knows when the house will fall in the Ganga," the 45-year-old says.

Meena Devi's house has been eroded four times in the past. Pointing to the river, she explains, "My first house (approximately 150 feet away from the present one) was there. After erosion damaged it, we had to move further away from the waterbody."

During the rains, the mother of five sends her children to a nearby school over fears of floods, as her husband, Sitaram Sahani, a fisherman, spends much of his time away to earn for the family. She alleges that despite erosion taking away her home four times, the government offered no help.

"Every time I lost my house, I had to spend more than Rs 50,000 to build a new one."

Meena Devi, who lives by the Ganga, lost her home to erosion because of the river four times, but the government offered no compensation. Umesh Kumar Ray/101reporters

Meena Devi, who lives by the Ganga, lost her home to erosion because of the river four times, but the government offered no compensation. Umesh Kumar Ray/101reporters

Meena Devi and Rekha Devi's rooms share a wall.

"Fifteen years ago, during the monsoon, the Ganga's water was just a few feet away. My 8-year-old daughter had stepped out of the room to attend nature's call and slipped in the river and died," recalls 35-year-old Rekha Devi.

What's even sadder is that these two women are among the "lucky" ones as they at least have shelter. Tens of others don't and have been forced to migrate elsewhere. Of the 800-odd families of fishermen who used to live in Kagazitola, at least 150 moved away after the Ganga eroded their homes.

A shifting river

Apart from Kagazitola, Bateshwar, Kasri, Antichak, Rani Diyara, Mohanpur-Khawaspur, Asthawan, Ekchari in Mohanpur, Budhuchak, Kalbalia, and Kamlakund have been affected due to erosion by the Ganga.

Local community leader Kailash Sahani says: "We have pressed our demand for compensation and land many times. We even protested in front of the district magistrate's office. All we got after every demonstration was empty promises."

There are various factors behind erosion, but a key one is the change in the river's route. Near Bhagalpur, the Ganga has moved 2.5 kilometres north from its earlier course.

Professor Sunil Kumar Choudhary from the Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University explains: "Lower Ganga flows through Bhagalpur. Small and medium structures being set up in the river has resulted in fast sedimentation in its upper stream, forcing lower Ganga to move northwards."

He adds that earlier, the ample green cover on the river's banks used to stop erosion, but now, erosion is speeding up after deforestation.

Shifting fortunes

There are around 1.5 crore fishermen in Bihar. The economically backward community does not own cultivable land, and fishing is the only means of livelihood for them.

In Bhagalpur alone, thousands of fishermen are dependent completely on the Ganga. But over the past few decades, the fish have been vanishing.

The Ganga is the only source of livelihood for scores of fisherfolk in Bihar who do not have any landholding. Umesh Kumar Ray/101reporters

The Ganga is the only source of livelihood for scores of fisherfolk in Bihar who do not have any landholding. Umesh Kumar Ray/101reporters

Veeru Kumar Sahani has been fishing for 15 years. Earlier, he used to catch 15 to 20 kilograms of fish every day, which used to fetch him Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000.

"It used to take three days in the river to get that much fish," the 37-year-old says. "Now, even after spending more than three days, we barely manage to net 2 kilograms of fish. And all this effort and risk gets us only Rs 5,000 a month. My wife has started buying vegetables in wholesale and selling them at a local market to run the family."

Ravi Sahani sailed on the Ganga at 6 am with his friends to catch fish. They went 7 kilometres in and 36 hours later had not caught even 1 kilogram of fish.

"We had brought ice with us to keep the fish fresh, and even prepared meals on the boat at night. All this cost us around Rs 200, but we had to return empty-handed," the 28-year-old says.

This severe scarcity of fish has forced fishermen to go to neighbouring Maldah in West Bengal to buy fish.

"When I don't get fish here, I go to there. I spend Rs 600 per trip and buy around 20 kilograms of fish, which I sell at the local market in Kahalgaon. That earns me Rs 600," Ravi rues.

Where have all the fish gone?

Several factors are behind the depleting population of fish in the Ganga, an important one being the 2,245-metre-long Farakka Barrage commissioned in the 1980s. Experts say the barrage has deteriorated fish production in the area.

Another reason is pollution in the river — untreated sewage from many cities flows into the Ganga. According to a recent assessment by the Quality Council of India, effluents from 30 nullahs in Bihar are discharged in the Ganga without any treatment.

Professor Sunil Kumar Choudhary says: "Apart from untreated sewage, excessive use of chemical pesticides in farmlands adjacent to the Ganga, too, causes pollution. It has damaged the river's ecology and affected the fish."

Citing a research paper, he adds, "In recent decades, many species of fish, including Rohu and Katla, have vanished from the Ganga."

Compounding these problems are the mafia, belonging to other castes, active in the area. They have allegedly been using their money and muscle power to exploit the Ganga, using 100-metre-long nets, as fine as mosquito nets, to catch fish. This results in baby fish getting trapped and dying immediately. The regularity of such illegal activities is also responsible for entire species being wiped out from the Ganga.

The mafioso also threaten traditional fishermen, warning them to not fish in the Ganga and sometimes snatch their nets and fish. Many incidents of threat, kidnapping and murder have been reported in recent times. This February, the mafia in Bhagalpur kidnapped five fishermen and released them later.

Despite attempts, the Bhagalpur Senior Superintendent of Police, Ashish Bharti, remained unavailable for comment.

Fisherfolk said scarcity of fish in the Ganga forced them to go to Maldah in Bengal to fetch fish. Umesh Kumar Ray/101reporters

Fisherfolk said scarcity of fish in the Ganga forced them to go to Maldah in Bengal to fetch fish. Umesh Kumar Ray/101reporters

The fiasco of identity cards

According to local fishermen, whenever anyone from their community is killed, it is difficult to establish them as fisherfolk, which deprived their families of compensation. Hence, they have demanded identity cards from the government.

According to government officials, around 150 fishermen of Kahalgaon were given identity cards in 2017. But the cards dictated the area where they could fish, thereby limiting their access to the Ganga. Fishermen had then protested and demanded revised cards that give them unlimited access.

When asked about this, Deputy Director of Fisheries (Bhagalpur) Sanjay Kisku says: "There is a clear rule that states a fisherman cannot fish in other blocks. This is a policy decision; we can't do anything about it. Nonetheless, we sent a letter to the department last December and are awaiting a reply."

Although there are a few government schemes, such as a subsidy to open fish-feed units, digging ponds and insurance for fish grown in ponds, these benefit only those who own ponds and waterbodies, leaving a large number of traditional fishermen out in the cold.

When politicians curry (fish) favour

In the three Lok Sabha constituencies of Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur and Darbhanga in Bihar, the Mallah community's votes are the deciding factor.

Last year, Janata Dal (United) chief and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had pressed for Schedule Tribe status for the community, a second time after 2015. The ball is now in the Centre's court.

An extremely backward caste, the fisher community has long been associated with Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) president Lalu Prasad Yadav. Later, its loyalty shifted to the BJP — BJP leader Syed Shahnawaz Hussain won two consecutive elections from Bhagalpur in 2004 and 2009. During the 2014 general election, it was a three-way fight, after JD(U) snapped ties with the BJP and RJD fought alone. That divided the votes, and RJD leader Shailesh Kumar trumped.

electiononthego

A local fisherman says: "When we narrated our plight to Hussain, he promised that once the BJP came to power, our grievances would be addressed. Hence, we voted for him in 2014, but he lost."

So this time around, community members have taken matters into their own hands and got their own leader, Mukesh Sahani, popularly known as "Son of Mallah". The Bollywood set decorator-turned-politician is a millionaire and vocal about fisherfolk's rights. Sahani believes that the Mallah community must get reservation in Bihar, just like it has in West Bengal, Delhi and other states.

Sahani was with the BJP during the 2014 polls. Over differences in the seat-sharing formula, he snapped ties with the saffron unit last December and floated his own outfit — Vikasheel Insaan Party — and later joined the RJD and Congress-led alliance.

Many fishermen we spoke to seem optimistic about Sahani. But politics, just like the river Ganga, is on its own course, where promises are either broken, or forgotten, or simply ignored.

The author is a Patna-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters


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