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Fishery conflicts in the Ganga River, Bihar, India

Fishers in Bihar face severe conflicts over access to fishing areas. Past feudal oppression, current control of the fishery by mafia gangs, and ecological degradation of the Ganga, has negatively impacted the livelihoods of fisher folk


Fishery conflicts in the Ganga River in Bhagalpur district of Bihar have had a long history of over 200 years. These two centuries have witnessed three broad phases: 1) systemic oppression of local traditional fishing communities at the hands of private feudal landlords (zamindars) who also claimed private rights over the Ganga River fisheries (1790s to 1990-91), 2) ecological degradation after the construction of the Farakka barrage and the National Thermal Power Corporation Plant in Kahalgaon (1975 to 1990), and 3) criminal (mafia) control of the fisheries after 1991, following a social movement by fishers to overthrow the previous private regime.  The stretch of river from Sultanganj to Pirpainti (80 km) was privately owned by two families in Bhagalpur, who claimed that these rights were granted to them since the Mughal period (Gadgil & Guha 1995, Sharma 2006). The Permanent Settlement of Bengal by the British administration in the 1790s (of which Bhagalpur was a part then), only reinforced this private control of fishing rights and access in the Ganga, in order to consolidate the revenue earnings from the highly productive fisheries to agricultural assets of powerful and dominant landlords (Reeves 1995, Sen 2015).     The principle of ‘riparian rights’ (as in English laws) was applied to the Ganga River and the banks and they came to be owned free-hold by the zamindars (known as Jalkar Zamindars or Panidars) (Hill 1990, Reeves 1995). The Panidari system in this part of Bihar was thus the riverine counterpart of Zamindari and was fortified by land tenancy acts of the British colonial administration in the 18th and 19th centuries. Zamindari establishments could sublet water areas for fishing to smaller entrepreneurs who would hire traditional fishers to work the fishery. The Panidari control continued to increase in its brutality and coercion over the years. Fishers had to pay at least 50% of their catch to the Panidar’s ‘men’ or often face harassment, physical assault, and threat. Although the Panidar would ensure that no criminals threatened fishers and stole their catch, their own control led to severe exploitation of fishers who worked their fisheries under this private regime.

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Basic Data
Name of conflict:Fishery conflicts in the Ganga River, Bihar, India
State or province:Bihar
Location of conflict:Kahalgaon district
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)
Source of Conflict
Type of conflict. 1st level:Water Management
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Dams and water distribution conflicts
Establishment of reserves/national parks
Water access rights and entitlements
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Fish
Biological resources
Project Details and Actors
Project details

Note: For the case at hand, the impacts of these projects are indirect – the primary impact is that of fishing mafia and allied criminal gangs, but the ecological degradation brought by the following projects played a role in further aggravating the intensity of conflicts.

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Project area:40,000 ha approx.
Level of Investment:Unknown
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:5,000-6,000 fishers (including family members) of the Mallah and Nishad castes in Bhagalpur district
Start of the conflict:01/01/1983
Relevant government actors:Bihar State Government and Departments of Animal Husbandry & Fisheries, Environment & Forests, Agriculture, Revenue, and Public Works.
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:Ganga Mukti Andolan (GMA), Bihar; Jal Shramik Sangh, Kahalgaon, Bhagalpur; Vikramshila Biodiversity Research and Education Centre, T.M. Bhagalpur University, Bihar; Dakshin Banga Matsyajibi Forum, Kolkata; Paridhi, street threatre group, Bhagalpur, Bihar
(websites not available for these – these are rural grassroots and civil society organizations)
Conflict and Mobilization
IntensityHIGH (widespread, mass mobilization, violence, arrests, etc...)
Reaction stageMobilization for reparations once impacts have been felt
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Social movements
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Local scientists/professionals
Religious groups
NGOs and Civil Society Groups, ecologists, social workers, river biodiversity conservationists who are supporting movements and appeals to recognize and secure livelihood rights of fishers
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Blockades
Boycotts of official procedures/non-participation in official processes
Creation of alternative reports/knowledge
Development of a network/collective action
Involvement of national and international NGOs
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Public campaigns
Street protest/marches
Appeals/recourse to economic valuation of the environment
Interactions through river dolphin conservation groups, scientists and NGOs: after the initial antagonism against the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, continued engagement and commitment by conservationists to work with fishers dependent on the river for their livelihoods did bring about some level of positive attitude towards the sanctuary – which also in turn helped fishers to speak up about the injustice and threat faced during their fishing activity, to government departments (Choudhary et al. 2015). Though the actual outcomes of this dialogue are yet to be realized on the ground, this is surely a case of biodiversity conservation allowing for at least some recognition of the fishery conflict problem in Bhagalpur district, not confined to the Sanctuary, but also with relevance to the wider landscape.
Impacts of the project
Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Desertification/Drought, Food insecurity (crop damage), Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation, Soil erosion, Surface water pollution / Decreasing water (physico-chemical, biological) quality, Large-scale disturbance of hydro and geological systems, Reduced ecological / hydrological connectivity
Potential: Groundwater pollution or depletion
Other Environmental impactsOther environmental impacts include changes in river temperature regimes, erratic releases from upstream dams, and reduction in river sediment flux).
Note: Flooding is not a threat – in fact the average flooding pulse is a critical need for fishers as it helps in connecting wetlands to the river channel, and allows higher productivity of fish stocks and population replenishment.
Health ImpactsVisible: Violence related health impacts (homicides, rape, etc..), Deaths
Potential: Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide, Other environmental related diseases
Other Health impactsUnknown but likely important to document
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Increase in Corruption/Co-optation of different actors, Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place
Other socio-economic impactsA major chunk of monthly earnings might be lost by fishers even now, regularly, to criminals, boat theft, net/gear theft and seizures (by government officials); indebtedness to local moneylenders is high mainly for health costs and for personal expenses (e.g. marriage). Many fishers do not have identity cards or Below-Poverty-Line cards (Kelkar 2014b).
Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Compensation
Criminalization of activists
Deaths, Assassinations, Murders
Court decision (undecided)
Under negotiation
New Environmental Impact Assessment/Study
Corruption and divisions within local fishing communities are also rising because of the conflicts. Governmental corruption has also fed off of the conflicts.
Between 1987 and 2007, a rough estimate indicates that at least 80-100 fishers were murdered by fishing mafia criminals for refusing to part with their fish catch (demanded as extortion) (Sharma 2006, Kelkar 2014 a, Choudhary et al. 2015)
Development of alternatives:1. Creation of locally grounded community-based institutions involving decision-making only by traditional fishers is critical to appeal for their rights. Currently the fishing community itself is highly fragmented and unorganized.
2. Rapid action to curb criminal gangs involved in destructive fishing and harassment of fishers, by involving police action and providing security to fishers. Immediate curbing of destructive nets and instructing and monitoring fishers to use nets based on ecologically suitable net mesh-size restrictions.
3. Ecological restoration of rivers by providing adequate ecological flows for fisheries from existing dams and barrages, amelioration of pollution impacts
4. Bringing together fisheries sustainability and biodiversity conservation as interrelated objectives and active steps towards realistic involvement of fishers in community conservation initiatives
5. Revival of failed cooperatives in Bihar, and their application to active and responsible management of river fisheries (not only ponds and wetlands)
6. Political organization of the Mallah and Nishad castes, that lay claim to being ‘traditional fishing communities’ and which possess traditional knowledge and continue some traditional practices in fishing. Identifying and settling rights of these communities to sustained and secure river fishing livelihoods, along with initiatives for improving their current economic and socially marginalized condition.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:There are three prime reasons to believe that the whole effort at seeking Environmental Justice has been a failure. First, the deep-rooted history of lawlessness, nepotism, and violence, often emanating from disturbing caste and class divides, have been impossible to overcome for the lower social rungs of Bihari society even today. Second, the widespread degradation of the ecology of the Ganga River has aggravated fishery conflicts to extreme levels – where an exodus from fisheries is being witnessed, and fishers appear to have the feeling that they have ‘lost the battle’.
A combined result is that there is still poor mobilization of fishing communities (see Jassal 2001 for a crucial example), to challenge injustices and inequalities that they face regularly. Third, while the role of social movements and civil society organizations in bringing the conflict issues to the fore has been laudable, the effort appears to have hit only roadblocks whenever the state government departments have been involved in action – this especially includes the Fisheries and Forest Departments.
Governmental corruption has not only weakened such action, but exploited grassroots workers, occasionally even criminalized activists, and squeezed fishers even further – through resource-grabbing, bribery, and exploitation of various kinds. This experience has repeated itself so frequently that the situation has continued to remain bleak and rather hopeless.
Sources and Materials
Related laws and legislations - Juridical texts related to the conflict

Zamindari Abolition Act, 1952
[click to view]

Code of Criminal Procedure, 1973
[click to view]

[click to view]

Estates Manual, 1953
[click to view]

[click to view]

[click to view]

The Indian Fisheries Act, 1897
[click to view]

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

Gadgil, M. & Guha, R. (1995) Ecology and Equity: The Use and Abuse of Nature in Contemporary India. Psy. Press, p. 83.

Kelkar, N. 2014. River Fisheries of the Gangetic basin, India: a Primer. Dams, Rivers, & People Newsletter, 13, 3-5, 40 p.

Banerjee, M. (1999) A report on the Farakka barrage and its impact on the human fabric. South Asia Network for Dams, Rivers, & People Report, 29 p.

Barman, R. K. (2008) Fisheries and fishermen: A socio-economic history of fisheries and fishermen of colonial Bengal and post-colonial West Bengal. Abhijeet Publications, Delhi.

o Choudhary, S.K., Dey, S., Kelkar, N. 2015. Locating fisheries and livelihood issues in river biodiversity conservation: Insights from long-term engagement with fisheries in the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary riverscape, Bihar, India. Proceedings of the IUCN Symposium on Riverine Biodiversity, Patna, India (April 2014), 30 p.

Doron, A. (2013) Life on the Ganga: Boatmen and the Ritual Economy of Banaras. Cambridge Univ. Press, Foundation Books, New Delhi, India. 235 + xxi (57-141).

Kelkar, N., Krishnaswamy, J. 2014. Restoring the Ganga for its fauna and fisheries. In: Madhusudan, M.D., Rangarajan, M., & Shahabuddin, G. (eds.) Nature Without Borders. Orient BlackSwan, India.

Adel, M.M. (2001) Effect on water resources from upstream water diversion in the Ganges basin. Journal of Environmental Quality, 30, 356–368.

Hill, C. V. (1990) Water and Power: Riparian Legislation and Agrarian Control in Colonial Bengal. American Society for Environmental History, 14(4), 1-20.

Reeves, P. (1995) Inland waters and freshwater fisheries: issues of control, access and conservation in colonial India. In: Arnold, D. & Guha, R. (eds.) Nature, Culture and Imperialism. OUP, New Delhi. p. 260-292.

Sharma, M. (2006) Landscapes and Lives. Oxford University Press, New Delhi. 12-41 p.

Kelkar, N., Krishnaswamy, J., Choudhary, S., Sutaria, D. 2010. Coexistence of fisheries with river dolphin conservation. Conservation Biology, 24, 1130-1140.

Jassal, S.T. (2001) Caste and the colonial state: Mallahs in the census. Contributions to Indian Sociology, 35, 319–356. Kelkar, N. 2014. Politics, access and institutions in Gangetic river fisheries: two failed states. Current Conservation 8.3: 25-31.

Sen, S. (2015) The Fish Order of Nineteenth Century Bengal: Contracting and Colonialism in the Gangetic Delta. Thesis submitted to the Wesleyan University in partial fulfilment of requirements for the degree of Bachelor of Arts with Dept. Honours in Economics, 203 p.

Links to general newspaper articles, blogs or other websites

Unshackling the Ganga
[click to view]

‘Mafia making life of fishermen hell’. The Times of India, Patna, 5th December 2002.

Orphans of the river
[click to view]

Other documents

Photo courtesy: Nachiket Kelkar
[click to view]

Other comments:Varied conflicts over land and water ownership are latent in the area and couched often under ‘ecological inevitabilities’ such as natural changes in the river channels after major flooding events. However, the violence and the lack of law and order that follows such abrupt geomorphological changes are purely social impacts – they can never be justified (as politicians do sometimes) as being due to the uncertain character of the floodplain river and landscape. Fishers find their livelihoods to often be in conflict with all others, because by the very action of their occupation, they tend to straddle multiple institutional boundaries (e.g. farm lands, district/block boundaries etc.). Adaptive forms of management to recognize their dynamic practices and livelihood needs are therefore critical. Such adaptive management is exceedingly complex in a state like Bihar, where caste and class disparities are vicious in their severity, and come to haunt every step towards dialogue or co-management.
Add to this the pernicious evil of governmental corruption and nepotism, which has historically persisted in this state. Transcending these challenges requires, above all attempts at actions here and there, a serious political will and engagement, with this matter. Without the support of political reform, all minor actions till date have appeared trivial, and the conflict has continued. Systemic changes, not only from the bottom, but also the top, are going to be critical in ensuring any success whatsoever in the management and mitigation of the severe and violent conflicts over fisheries in the area.
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Contributor:Nachiket Kelkar Email: [email protected]
Last update29/11/2016
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