Regulations of industrial, municipal inflow in Ganga, at the centre of pollution mitigation policies, have dissociated rivers from riverine communities
The quality of water in rivers Ganga and Yamuna did not improve despite four decades of pollution-mitigation measures. But they did within 10 days of the nationwide lockdown imposed to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
For years, the regulations of industrial and municipal inflow in the river have been at the centre of policies and programmes for pollution mitigation. On ground, however, these projects have mostly dissociated rivers from the riverine communities: An integral part of the river ecosystem since time immemorial.
While we don’t question the objective that drives these mitigation programmes, COVID-19 has exposed the truth about their shoddy implementation. This crisis presents before us an opportunity to re-imagine solutions towards a healthier future of our rivers.
Two important components of river pollution mitigations programmes — Ganga Action Plan I & II and Namami Gange — have been about biodiversity conservation and growing public awareness and participation.
However, despite having provisions for involving local communities in mitigation and conservation-related activities, these policies, in many instances, have robbed riverine communities off their customary rights over the river and subsequently, their means of subsistence.
A fisherman in Kanpur said:
If we get permission to fish in Ganga, we can run our households, save some money, and afford better schooling for our kids. Fishing is banned in this stretch of the Ganga, so we work as labourers or housekeepers. Earlier, people from our community used to get ponds on lease to grow water nuts (and to fish), but now people from other communities bid in our name and get the lease. Over the years, we have been unable to match the bid amount. About 80 per cent ponds reserved for us have been taken away.
Brunt of exclusionary regulations
Just before the lockdown, a team from the National Council of Applied Economic Research and the Tata Centre for Development at University of Chicago visited selected villages in search of the fishing communities along the 1,140-kilometre-long course of the Ganga in Uttar Pradesh in connection with a research project.
Visits to some of these stretches were an eye-opener, wherein the lack of integration of community needs and environmental conservation programmes were evident. But before going into the details of the experience, let’s take a look at the river’s course through Uttar Pradesh.
The Ganga enters the state in Bijnor district. The stretch of the Ganga from Bijnor to Garhmukteshwar comes under the jurisdiction of Hastinapur Wildlife Sanctuary, and the stretch from Garhmukteshwar to Narora Barrage down south is declared a Ramsar site (a wetland area of international importance) for the protection of Gangetic dolphins.
Further down from Bithoor to Sangam (Prayagraj), we were told that for the last two years, the stretch has been identified of having religious importance. Fishing, a primary source of livelihood for the poverty-stricken communities, has been banned at these stretches.
A woman from a fishing household in Bijnor said: “We are poor…. Our next generation does not want to do this work. But what can we do? How can we pay for their education? There are three-four months when we are able to fish, the rest of the months we are either involved in casual labour or agriculture.”
This has created a unique situation: A fisherman is now compelled to poach (illegal fishing) for survival. The ‘invisible’ communities have not been considered a part of the riverine ecosystem and get excluded in the process of pollution mitigation and biodiversity conservation.
They are either not provided any alternative sources of livelihood or even within some existing programmes, they are deprived of the promised benefits on account of faulty implementation.
Our visits also revealed significant social and economic fragmentation of these riverine groups. Weakening of their customary rights over the years, low educational status, and lack of agency and unity further limit their scope of finding any other means of earning. They even do not have any formal recognition of being riverine communities.
The research team met government officials from the fisheries department.
In their interaction, both the representatives of the government and local fisher communities indicated that untreated wastewater discharge was the primary contributing factor for pollution. However, the communities attributed this depletion in fish varieties and volume of catch to damming, low water volume and most importantly, malpractices: use of micro-mesh and poisoning of fish.
We realised that fisherfolks were well-aware of the malpractices, but due to their desperate economic conditions and absence of any other means of livelihood, are compelled to opt for such practices. A fisherman from Narora said:
No one listens to us. We know that use of mosquito mesh for fishing is destructive, but what do we do? You will find 10 hunters in pursuit of each fish in every kilometre of the river. People from other communities bid for lease and are also involved in aquaculture. We have always demanded that water and sand is ours and it should be given back to us. For centuries, water and sand belonged to us.
With the spillover of COVID-19 stress onto the rural economy and unavailability of daily wage work, the already marginalised section of the population will be pushed into even deeper layers of vulnerability.
The desperate economic needs will continue to force these communities to resort to exploitative means of fishing, which, in turn, can create a conflict between the riverine species and its ecosystem. In order to conserve the river and its species, it is also important to conserve the people who live off that river.
It is important that localised and integrated community resource management programmes are established in the protected areas of UP. While considering them an integral part of the ecosystem, their long-term experience and local ecological knowledge should not be discounted.
In fact, with every pollution mitigation programme or conservation initiative, efforts should be made towards bringing together the scientific and experiential knowledge.
Decentralised policy solutions that move from top-down imposition to collaborative and community-led protection and management of river stretches are the need of the hour.
This will not only empower the communities, but will also open channels of communication between them and the policy making authorities.