WRITTEN SPECIALLY FOR THE VIKALP SANGAM
A bronze-winged jacana flew low over the water and settled on some grass beyond the lake. A pied kingfisher suddenly left its perch and dove head first into the water. A pond heron swooped on a fish by the edge of the lake in Vidarbha, Maharashtra. This was a very different picture just a few years ago – the lake was dirty and overgrown with weeds… and indeed, would still have been so, had it not been for the efforts of Bhandara Nisarga Va Sanskriti Abhyas Mandal. Over the last few years, their efforts have revived several such lakes across Gondia and Bhandara districts, resulting not only in ecological benefits but also socio-economic changes for the fishing communities of that region.
The Lakes of Vidarbha – A History
The thousands of lakes found in Vidarbha have a long history.
A story goes that sometime in the 16th century Raja Surjabalalsinh, a Gond ruler from Vidarbha went to Banaras and brought the Kohli community back with him. At that time, Vidarbha region was completely forested. Heer Shah, the grandson of the Raja, later came up with two Farmaans (orders): 1) Whoever clears the forest and makes a village will be a Sardar and 2) Whoever makes tanks and irrigates the land will own the land that they irrigate. The Kohli community made several water tanks or lakes for the purpose of irrigation. Thus they became land owners, and managers of the water tanks.
During the British times, these lakes continued to be managed by the Kohli community. They were called Malguzars (revenue collectors). The tanks came to be called Ex-Malguzari tanks. After independence, Vidarbha was part of Madhya Pradesh. In 1951, Madhya Pradesh passed the Abolition of Proprietary Rights Act and ownership of the tanks was taken over by the government. This was upheld when Maharashtra became a state and Vidarbha became a part of it. In 1965, the first irrigation commission was formed and, upon its recommendation, a cess was levied on the water taken for irrigation from these tanks. The Malguzars filed a case, which eventually made its way to the Supreme Court. The Malguzars (Kohli community) won the case and obtained rights over using the water for irrigation without paying cess. The tanks soon fell in disrepair, possibly because the government could no longer collect any money for their maintenance.
Today, these lakes have many uses – water for irrigation, domestic use such as washing, obtaining edible vegetables from the lake, grasses for fodder, brooms, thatch roofs etc., recreational uses, religious uses such as visarjan etc. Irrigation is the only consumptive use of the water. Apart from this, the waters of these lakes are mainly used for fishing.
The Communities of the Region
Vidarbha region has several communities. Kohli, Kunbi, Teli, Sonar are some of the agricultural communities. They own land and are higher up in the caste system, being OBCs. There are SCs and STs such as Mahar and Gond respectively. Among NT communities are Dhivars and small populations of Bahurupi and Gosavi communities.
Dhivar community has three subcastes: Kahar, who were originally palakhi bearers and singhada farmers, Bhoi, in Western Vidarbha and Dhivar or Dhimar, which is the fishing community in this region.
The Dhivar community has a history of being socially ostracised. They are on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy in their villages. Apart from fishing, the men work as manual labourers and the women as agricultural labourers or domestic help.
With the formation of Maharashtra state in 1960, fishing co-operative societies were formed, consisting of members from the Dhivar community. These co-operatives were given jurisdiction over the tanks. At present, one co-operative society has jurisdiction over all the tanks within 5 square kilometres. Though water for irrigation is free, using the tanks for fishing requires a lease amount of Rs.450 per hectare per year to be paid to the government by the fishing co-operative societies.
Threats to the Lakes and Fish
Introduction of IMC
The Fisheries Department, Government of India, in order to increase the yield and income through these lakes, had introduced fishes such as Rohu, Catla and Mrigal, known as Indian Major Carps (IMC) into these lakes. This move proved to be detrimental to the survival of the smaller indigenous fish. With the introduction of IMC, people started using drag nets for fishing. The aquatic plants were obstructing the use of dragnets. To solve this, the Fisheries Department introduced the fish Grass Carp to curb the growth of aquatic plants. The habitat was soon destroyed and the fish populations declined due to lack of food.
Having IMC in the lakes also meant that the fishing co-operatives had to buy the fry (newly hatched fish) every year as opposed to having indigenous fish which bred on their own.
Some years ago, the government came up with three schemes that impact these lakes in some way:
a) Jal Yukt Shivar was launched in December 2014 in order to improve water conservation measures in drought prone Maharashtra. Among the various activities under this scheme, are the deepening, widening and de-silting of water structures.
b) Gaal Mukt Dharan Va Gaal Yukt Shivar, a state government project to de-silt dams and stop soil erosion was launched in May 2017.
c) Malguzari Talab Punarujjjivana Yojana was launched to revive the lakes.
Though well-intentioned, the schemes have had some detrimental impacts. All three schemes focus on increasing the capacity of the lakes by removing silt and making the lakes deeper. This is achieved by using mechanical excavators (JCBs). This mechanical excavation as well as the lack of proper implementation of the schemes have caused several problems:
- Mechanical excavators remove everything from the lake, including the aquatic plants and vegetables that the fishes survive on.
- Excavation using JCBs is done by external contractors. This takes away the opportunity for villagers to do the same work and earn daily wages.
- By increasing the depth of the lake in this manner, only dead storage increases. This will not increase the quantity of water for irrigation (live storage), which is the intention of the schemes.
- There is no measurement or data collection of how much silt has accumulated before the digging is done. Often, what is dug out is more than just silt. The aim of the government schemes was to distribute the collected silt to the farmers in the surrounding region for free. However, some corrupt contractors in charge of the excavation sell the silt to farmers, and then excavate some more and sell it for road construction. In some cases, even precious red lateritic soil has been dug out and sold, as this fetches a hefty sum.
- One of the qualities of the topsoil of this region is that once it gets wet, it seals itself and doesn’t let water percolate. With so much digging, the topsoil got removed along with the silt. Now, water seeps deep into the ground. As a result, many perennial lakes have become seasonal.
Effects of mechanical excavation on the banks of the lake in Nimgaon – Pic Tanya Majmudar
The target of these schemes was to de-silt 400 lakes per district every year. Many lakes have already been adversely affected. In Nimgaon village, 10-15 huge trees were cut so that the JCB could easily reach the lake and to create space to dump the extracted mud. In many places, villagers don’t realise what is happening till it is too late.
One of the threats to the lakes is encroachment of the land around the lake for farming. People often break open the walls of the lake (wasteweir) to let out water downstream so that it doesn’t flood these “farms” around the lake. This reduces the dead storage, which is the amount of water available for fishes.
Farming involves use of pesticides which leech into the lakes, threatening fish populations.
Certain traditional practices have also been lost – for instance, not fishing during the breeding season. Due to this, fish populations and habitat get affected.
As a result, fish populations had gone down, as had the income of the fishing co-operatives. People had stopped consuming indigenous fish as often as they used to, even though these were more nutritious.
Manish Rajankar started out as an avid birdwatcher many years ago. The large populations of birds in Vidarbha surprised him till he discovered that the region contained several lakes. His curiosity led him to inquire about the lakes and he slowly got to learn about their history and their present condition. Gradually, he got to know the fishing community there and how the fish populations in these lakes had drastically reduced.
After many years of researching the lakes and understanding community issues, Manish started revival efforts along with members of the Dhivar community through his organisation Bhandara Nisarga Va Sanskriti Abhyas Mandal (BNVSAM), which is based in Arjuni Morgaon in Gondia district.
Members of BNVSAM along with five fishing co-operatives did surveys and found that all lakes had the weed Ipomoea fistulosa, which had been one of the main causes of their deterioration. One of the first activities that BNVSAM did towards restoration was ipomoea removal. They got several villagers – men and women – to volunteer for this.
In 2009, they started with Nav-talab, where they planted indigenous aquatic plants to restore the ecosystem and provide food for the fish. Patiram Tumsare, an elder of the Dhivar community, an experienced fisher and a member of BNVSAM says, “We have to figure out where to plant. We have to see what sort of mud is found in which part of the lake and choose the suitable species to plant there.” When plantation is done, only 50% to 75% plants survive in the first year. BNVSAM members as well as community members monitored and maintained the habitat in Nav-talab.
Next, they transplanted indigenous fish species into the lake from the lake in Navegaon. The latter is a huge lake and many species are found there. Some fish came on their own during the breeding season, by reverse migration through streams formed in the monsoon. Slowly, the indigenous fish populations increased in Nav-talab.
Seeing this success, other fishing co-operatives joined in. As of 2019, BNVSAM works with 12 co-operative societies with 63 lakes in total, across 43 villages. With each fishing co-operative, one lake is reserved for conservation of indigenous fish.
When a co-operative first decides to do plantation, Patiram and Nandu from BNVSAM undertake a survey of the lake to note the areas and soil-types for appropriate plantation. They take an estimate of the total area for plantation and decide which species should be planted there. Then the co-operative has to pass certain resolutions such as – no grass carp or common carp will be introduced in the lake; after planting is done, there will be no grazing for the first 3-4 months and no dragnet will be used in those months. A person is paid to stand guard to ensure this.
The tank bed is first ploughed in summer. Planting is done after the area gets submerged during monsoon. Mainly, submerged plants like Hydrilla verticilata, Ceratophyllum demersum, Vallisneria spiralis, floating plants like Nymphoides indicum, Nymphoides hydrophylla, Nymphaea cristata and partly submerged plants like Eliocharis dulcis are transplanted. Men get the plants from other lakes and the women do the actual planting – the women are familiar with this process due to their experience with agricultural labour.
Ploughing of tank bed – Pic Manish Rajankar
Collection of aquatic plants for plantation – Pic Manish Rajankar
Plantation of aquatic plants – Pic Manish Rajankar
BNVSAM also began with manual and selective de-silting of lakes. Unlike mechanical excavation, this ensures that only silt is removed, existing plants are not damaged and the soil left behind can support the growth of new plants.
As the habitat is restored, more indigenous fish, coming in from monsoon streams, start breeding there. Some are transplanted from other lakes. This is different from IMC, which have to be bought.
A net at the outlet of the lake in Nimgaon, to prevent fish from escaping – Pic Tanya Majmudar
Research and Traditional Knowledge
Traditional Fishing Methods and Changing Practices
Patiram Tumsare described the various fishing practices prevalent up until a few years ago.
Traditional fishing equipment – Pic Tanya Majmudar
Traditional bamboo fishing trap – Pic Tanya Majmudar
In Adari, a hook fishing method, a rope was tied horizontally between two bamboo poles. Fishing lines were hung vertically from this rope at a distance of 1 meter. Bait was tied to these lines such that it just touched the surface of water. Worms called ghui, frogs or small fish were used as bait. This method used bigger hooks and was used to catch Dadak, Botari and Maral fish.
Patari was a similar method, but here the fishing lines were submerged. The lines had many small hooks with different kinds of bait.
Jhaka or Thapa involved a cone shaped trap made of bamboo and net. Fishermen would observe movement or bubbles in the water and place the trap there to catch the fish.
Tangad involved 8 to 10 people for trapping. They would take a bamboo and beat it in the lake to disturb the water, making the fish move about and become visible.
Sadki was a flat bamboo trap placed in flowing water to catch fish.
For biloni fish in the shallow waters of paddy fields, an earthworm was wrapped in a leaf and tied to a thread. It was then moved up and down in the water as bait.
Since the early 2000s, nylon nets have largely taken over.
Patiram brought his immense knowledge and experience to BNVSAM. Over the years, BNVSAM has done a lot of research work related to the lakes. Their office has samples of all the indigenous fish species found in the region stored in formaline and some samples of plants they have used for lake restoration. You could also find samples of the five types of soil found in the lakes as well as a seed bank of indigenous aquatic plants.
Samples of different soil types in the office of BNVSAM – Pic Tanya Majmudar
Along with the co-operative societies, they maintain records of fish found in each lake and track these in different seasons over years.
BNVSAM have also started to do bird counts to see how the lakes have impacted other wildlife. Says Patiram, “Earlier, we used to transplant fish but they wouldn’t grow. After the lake rejuvenation, not only did the fish increase, even birds came.”
There exists a lot of traditional knowledge related to these lakes. Fishes were known for their medicinal value. There was a natural system for prevention of siltation in the lakes. This consisted of khus grass being grown near the lake inlets. This acted as the first line of defence against silt. Then the water passed through wild rice and finally through gaad plants (a tuber vegetable), both of which sieved out the remaining silt. But now, most of the khus grass has been harvested as it is a lucrative product.
After a few years of work, Manish realised that though the income of the fishing co-operatives had improved, this hadn’t really made a lot of impact on the community. On having a dialogue with the women of the community, several issues were brought to the fore, one of them being that a fishing co-operative on its own cannot sustain 80 families. They needed daily wage work. The women also discussed the casteism, corruption and alcoholism prevalent in their society. A young woman named Shalu Kolhe, from Nimgaon, was particularly vocal about these issues. Manish encouraged her to undertake a fellowship program called Grassroots Leadership Development Program conducted by Centre for Leadership, Coro. The program covered self-development, leadership, advocacy and more.
Shalu, who is now a member of BNVSAM, did this fellowship in 2013-14. After this, she began working with her own community. Says Shalu, “A Dhivar woman is nothing before the Kohlis. We work as labour in their houses. We have to cover our heads when we come across them. If one of them comes to our house, we have to vacate our chair for them and sit on the floor. I wanted to change this.”
She started forming self help groups and encouraged women to attend the womens’ gram sabha. Despite opposition from her in-laws, she raised pertinent issues in the gram sabha, such as absence of MREGS work in their village. “The Kohlis don’t want us to get daily wage work because they need labour for their farms. They have the power to arrange this,” she says. She spoke up about other corrupt practices too. In one instance, the government had waived off the fishing co-operative’s lease amount as compensation for floods that year. So an amount remained in the account of the fishing co-operative, but the public wasn’t aware of this. She also realised that many things were mis-reported in the gram sabha proceedings book. “Men come to the gram sabha drunk,” she says. “They don’t know half of what’s happening. That’s why women participation is so important – accounting is better, money management is better.”
Through Shalu’s efforts, her village was able to get work under MREGS. Several self-help groups were formed under the MSRLM. She insisted with the gram panchayat on the required women representation (and also caste representation) in committees such as ration samiti, arogya samiti and van haq samiti. She brought health check-ups to her village.
“When I started, I had been alone. But in a few years, there were a hundred women with me! I felt my village didn’t need me anymore. I was happy!” says Shalu. That was when she decided that she needed to work with other villages and empower other women. She started identifying women who could take on this work. One such woman was Sarita Mesram from Savartola.
“I got married when I was very young,” says Sarita. “I didn’t know how to cook, so my mother-in-law used to hit me. I worked as a labourer at a farm owned by a Kunbi. Kunbis are similar to the Kohlis. When I met Shalu, I took the chance to do something different with my life. I filled the form to get the fellowship.”
Sarita became a fellow in 2014-15 and started working with BNVSAM. Amidst opposition from her family and criticism by other villagers, she too started raising questions in the gram sabha. She brought out issues regarding ration, widows, wages, disabled community, use of tax money. She was instrumental in getting daily wage work to her village and in educating women about government schemes available to them.
Through the involvement of BNVSAM members, manual de-silting of lakes was included in the MREGS list. They are attempting to get plantation and ipomoea removal included as well. In 6 co-operatives that BNVSAM is engaged with, the gram sabhas have passed a resolution that there will be no JCB used for the digging of lakes – de-silting will only be through daily wage labour. They have also resolved that no plastic will be dumped in the lakes.
Manish, Shalu and Sarita, members of BNVSAM – Pic Tanya Majmudar
Patiram Tumsare, of BNVSAM – Pic Tanya Majmudar
Manish realised that among the various social issues of this area, was the fact that Dhivar children were ostracised in their schools. He started doing some projects with the schools. In one of them, he asked children to write about the indigenous biodiversity of the region. This was one area where the Dhivar kids clearly had more knowledge than the others. Resultantly, other children had to work with Dhivar children, and they soon became friends.
One more project with the children was creating awareness about the need for “Chadhanbandhi”. During monsoons, fish migrate upstream (termed “reverse migration” or “chadhan”) and find appropriate habitat, where they breed. Because a huge number of fish pass through a narrow inlet during this time, they are easy to catch. “A lot of people come to catch fish during this time,” says Manish. “Even those who are not fishers come with mosquito nets and sarees to catch fish. This is detrimental to fish populations. On International Fish Migration Day, we did an activity with children to make posters, do a rally and raise slogans. This created a lot of awareness on the issue and consequently, a resolution was passed in the gram sabhas that no fishing will happen during these ten to fifteen days.”
Children’s rally on World Fish Migration Day to create awareness on reverse migration – Pic Manish Rajankar
Patiram Tumsare says, “During chadhan, some four or five species used to come to Nav-talab. After we did restoration work here, we counted 28 species of fish in the lake.”
Table 1 – Species diversity in 4 tanks where Ipomoea fistulosa extraction was undertaken in 2016
Name of Wetland
Numer of local plants species by succession
Number of plant individuals
Rate of Ipomoea regeneration
* Study was not possible
Data by BNVSAM
Ipomea growth in Khamkhura gaon talav – Pic Manish Rajankar
Khamkhura gaon talav after ipomea removal – Pic Manish Rajankar
Khamkhura gaon talav one year after ipomea removal – Pic Manish Rajankar
The fishing co-operative societies have logged 56 fish species from the area. Though fishing co-operatives kept data earlier, they never compared figures over multiple years to see trends. Moreover, since the Fisheries Department required data only on IMC, data on indigenous fish species was generally not collected. After lake restoration work was done and production of indigenous fish species increased (as seen in table 2), people realised that these were more profitable.
Table – 2: The impact of habitat development on indigenous fish production at six intervention sites
Production (kg) Before Intervention
Production (kg) After Intervention
Motha Talav Arjuni
Ghanod Gaon Talav
Nimbodi Channa Bakti
Savartola Gaon Talav
Bandhya Talav Nimgaon
Data by BNVSAM
Fish market Pic Tanya Majmudar
Apart from increase in production, the quality of the fish also improved with improved habitat. They tasted better. Their demand increased in the local markets. Now, if people knew that habitat restoration work had happened in a particular lake, the price of the fish from that lake went up. IMC fetched only 100 to 200 rupees per kg. whereas indigenous fish varieties fetched 400 to 500 rupees per kg. Moreover, these were available year round while IMC were only caught once a year.
Other economic impacts were also seen after restoration work. As soon as Ipomoea was removed, wild rice started growing in the lakes. Now women harvest wild rice. They also collect vegetables like karambu and many tubers.
Vegetables growing in the lake – Pic Tanya Majmudar
Shalu says, “Not only has our work improved women participation in gram sabha and increased daily wage labour, it has also brought a social change. Earlier I was vilified for raising my voice since I was a woman and a Dhivar. I had to go to women to mobilise them. Now they come to me. Even the men come to me with village issues. I am happy! Now people from my community sit on chairs and talk on stage.”
“Traditionally, women don’t fish,” says Manish. “So they are not part of fishing co-operatives. However, I think it is essential for women to be a part, if the money earned from fishing is to reach homes. Even if they don’t fish, they can be involved in habitat development and other activities. We are trying to get 50% women representation in co-operative societies.”
BNVSAM wants to start enterprises related to the produce obtained from the lakes, such as making fish pickles, smoked fish and lotus rhizome chips.
Apart from the 12 co-operatives where they have set aside a lake each for biodiversity conservation, they are giving guidance to other co-operatives to rejuvenate their lakes. They are also looking to get more contracts for doing plantation work in other lakes and eventually mark them for conservation.
BNVSAM is trying to understand how the government schemes with regards to de-silting have affected the lakes of this region. There is no data available on this as yet. They also wish to undertake studies such as those on nutritional value of indigenous fish.
Currently IMC are bought from hatcheries. Fish in the fry stage cost Rs. 200 per 1000 individuals. However, when these are kept in an open environment such as a lake, there is nearly 90% mortality. So people buy fish in the fingerling stage at 3 rupees a piece or yearlings at 5 to 6 rupees a piece, which becomes very expensive. Hence, Manish is thinking of setting up hatcheries for breeding IMC as well as indigenous fish.
Based on the experiences from this work, BNVSAM is now organising consultations with all traditional fishing communities of Maharashtra to prepare the draft of Communities’ Freshwater Fisheries Policy to submit to the State Government for sustainable fishing and livelihoods of the dependent communities.
BNVSAM has a small team of seven members. But they do a bit of everything. They are ecologists, social activists, community mobilisers, scientific researchers and much more!
Note: Currently, some of this work is continued under the banner of a new organisation called Foundation for Economic and Ecological Development (FEED), which was co-founded by Manish in 2019. FEED is the new venture for resource based livelihood development of communities for management of natural resources and sustainability.
 Dead storage refers to water in a reservoir that cannot be drained by gravity through the outlet.
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Read another piece on this work Returning to Traditional Practices to save Vidarbha’s Lake District