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

Umesh Kumar Ray | Mar 19, 2019 | 8 min read


Umesh Kumar Ray


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

Fisherfolk are among the communities who 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. 


Fisherfolk families’ biggest predicament

I travel to Kagazitola Mohalla, almost 280 kilometres west of Patna, which falls under the Kahalgaon block in 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 (exclusive right of zamindars to fish and sail boats in 80 kilometres of 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 rights to fish. 

Kagazitola Mohalla comprises narrow lanes and tiny rooms of bricks and mud, situated on the banks of the Ganga.

The morning I 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 (45) 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,” she 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 rainy season, the mother of five sends her children in 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 and Rekha Devi’s rooms share a wall. “Fifteen years ago, during monsoon, Ganga’s water was just a few feet away. My eight-year-old daughter stepped out of the room to attend nature’s call and slipped into the river and died,” recalls Rekha Devi (35).

What’s sadder is that these two women are among the “lucky” ones. Reason: because they at least have shelter. Tens of others didn’t and were forced to migrate elsewhere.

Of the 800-odd families of fishermen who used to live in Kagazitola, at least 150 shifted elsewhere after Ganga eroded their homes.


Why did it happen?

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

Local community leader Kailash Sahani says, “We have pressed our demands of compensation and land many times. We even protested in front of the district magistrate office. All we got after every demonstration were empty promises.”

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

Prof. Sunil Kumar Choudhary from the Tilka Manjhi Bhagalpur University says, “Lower Ganga is flowing through Bhagalpur. Setting up of small and medium structures in the river has resulted in fast sediment deposition 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, after the cutting down of forests, erosion is speeding up.


No more fish in the river?

There are around 1.5 crore fishermen in Bihar. The community is economically backward and many don’t own cultivable land. For them, fishing is the only means of earning. 

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

Veeru Kumar Sahani (37) has been fishing for 15 years. Earlier, he used to catch 15 to 20 kg of fish daily, which fetched him Rs 1,500-2,000.

“It took three days in the river to get that much fish. Now, after spending more than three days, we barely manage to net 2 kg. And all this effort and risk gets us only Rs 5,000 a month. My wife has started buying vegetables in the wholesale and selling it in a local market, to run the family,” he says. 

Ravi Sahani (28) sailed on the Ganga at 6 am with his friends to catch fish. They went seven kilometres in and 36 hours later hadn’t even caught 1 kg 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.” 

This severe scarcity of fish has forced fishermen to go to neighbouring Maldah (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 kg of fish, which I sell in the local market in Kahalgaon. And that earns me Rs 600,” rues Ravi.

Where have all the fish gone?

Several factors are behind the depleting number of fish in Ganga, an important one being the 2,245-metre-long Farakka Barrage, commissioned in the 80s. 

Experts say the barrage has collapsed fish production in the area.

Another reason is pollution in the river — many cities’ sewage is thrown in the Ganga without any treatment. According to a recent assessment by the Quality Council of India, effluents from 30 nullahs in the state were discharged in the Ganga without any treatment.

Prof. Sunil Kumar Choudhary says, “Apart from untreated sewage, excessive use of chemical pesticides in farmlands adjacent to the Ganga, too, is causing pollution. It has damaged the river’s ecology and impacted 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. Allegations are that they have been using their money and muscle power to exploit the Ganga.

They allegedly use 100-metre-long nets, as fine as mosquito nets, to catch fish. This results in the trapping of baby fish, which die immediately. The regularity of such illegal activities is also responsible for the wiping of entire species\.

The mafia also threaten traditional fishermen, warning them not to 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, mafia in Bhagalpur kidnapped five fishermen. They were later released.

Despite attempts, Bhagalpur SSP Ashish Bharti remained unavailable for comment.


The fiasco of identity cards

According to local fishermen, whenever anyone from their community is killed, it’s difficult to establish them as fisherfolk, depriving families of compensation. Hence, they’d 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 they could fish in, thereby limiting their access to the Ganga. Fishermen had then protested and demanded revised cards giving 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.”

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


When politicians curry (fish) favour

In the three Lok Sabha constituencies — Bhagalpur, Muzaffarpur, and Darbhanga — Mallah community’s votes are the deciding factor.

JDU chief and Chief Minister Nitish Kumar had, last year, pressed for the Schedule Tribe status for the community, a second time after 2015. The ball is in Centre’s court. 

An extremely backward caste, the community has long been associated with Lalu Prasad Yadav. Later, its loyalty shifted to BJP — BJP leader Syed Shahnawaz Hussain managed to win two consecutive elections in 2004 and 2009.

During the 2014 general elections, it was a three-way fight, after JDU snapped ties with BJP and RJD fought alone. That divided the votes and RJD leader Shailesh Kumar trumped.

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 Bengal, Delhi, and other states.

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

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

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