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Making Connections in Malwan

Steve Lockett (MT Education and Outreach) visits an area of rural Maharashtra where one of the world's most ancient forest forms generates clean water for a mahseer river.

Tillari River, Maharashtra

Life chances can turn on a few simple things. The flip of a coin, a braking car, or how your upstream neighbours decide to treat their crops and fields. Such things were brought home to me when I spent a few days with a team of otter researchers in the southern part of Maharashtra.

Discussing the multiple impacts of farming methods while walking a steep climb of two-hour’s duration to reach a water source, was my induction into how difficult life can be in this beautiful, yet fragile part of the Western Ghats. Ramesh, who was one of our guides, is a lifelong rice farmer. His small plot is bordered by a Myristica swamp, one of the world’s most ancient forest forms and one that clings to a precarious existence along India’s west coast. Translating for us was Malhar, one of Nityata River Otter Conservancy’s field researchers.

Malhar studies inside the swamp (left). A fresh Myristica plant (right)

“Do you grow local rice? Or a hybrid variety?” I asked.

“Sir, I grow a hybrid, but now I am going back to the old ways.” Ramesh replied. “For my whole life, I was never sick. Every morning I drank the cooking water for the previous day’s rice for my breakfast. Now I get coughs and colds in the morning and I had to have an operation. The new rice is not as powerful.”

“Is the hybrid rice giving a better crop?”

“At first it did not. The Agriculture Department told us it would give four times the yield, but after the first year I didn’t get that amount. The next year, while going to buy new seed, which I had never had to do before, they told me ‘that is because you didn’t use our fertiliser’.

“After that, I started to use the chemical fertiliser and the yield grew. I also saw other changes, frogs and insects were not so many, either in my field, or in the swamp.”

We reached the top of the hill, where the stream was pumping out of the ground in the centre of a thickly wooded area. Small Haludaria fish, freshwater shrimps and crabs went about their business while we looked with interest at a huge claw scrape in the mud. “Tiger chasing barking deer,” Ramesh said.

The Myristica swamp and the hill stream we climbed are both small but vitally important parts of the lifeblood of Tillari River, a mahseer habitat. It was noticeable that large changes in the cropping routine of this area were under way, with damaging impacts upon water supply. Whereas cashew was once the cash crop grown on land not required for rice and vegetable cultivation, now large tracts of pineapple were being grown. It is a plant best suited to growing in monoculture, requires huge inputs of fertiliser, pesticides and water, and the plantations are increasingly taken out of local hands, and coming under the ownership of corporations or those from outside the state.

Small fry

Concern about numbers of fish in the river started Parasher, the sarpanch of a small village downstream of Ramesh’s village, to think about possible causes. His conclusion was that too great a harvest was taking place during the monsoon breeding season.

Steve (r) meets Parasher (l) to discuss community response to loss of fish numbers

After a meeting of the village panchayat, it was decided that a rotation plan was required. Each family in the village was to take a turn at not netting any of their fish during monsoon. This would mean a number of fish would leave the breeding grounds, in small streams and paddy fields, to return to the main river.

So far, all of the villagers have happily taken part. For those who are taking their turn to allow the fish to breed and leave, they receive a share of their neighbour’s fish during the summer. It is a collective system and one that appears to be working.

A stream runs past the corner of a paddy field, where seasonal water inflow is used by breeding fish

Ghost town

On the drive to meet Parasher, we passed a large collection of houses, just outside of the main town, but these houses formed a ghost town. Neat rows and blocks of properties had been left to crumble, at the mercy of the elements and the rampant vegetation that thrives on neglect.

Abandoned buildings
'Economic mirage is slowly reclaimed by greenery' Photos: Pravin Desai

I asked Pravin, our host, what had happened to this township.

“This was built during the dam construction,” he told me. “Once a constant electricity supply came to the town, we were told that there would be jobs for all. Many new people would arrive from the villages around, all to take up the new jobs that power would bring.”

The reality is that a handful of the properties were used to house the construction workers, who all left to follow the building money once the dam was complete. Since then, this economic mirage has slowly been reclaimed by greenery.

Bigger fish

On my final day in the district, I went to visit the river, to try to find a mahseer. It seems most likely that this river should hold either Tor malabaricus, at the northern limit of their range, or the large mahseer of Vaitarna and Savitri Rivers, which are possibly the same species as those called Tor tor in Narmada River. From the photos I had seen, I wasn’t sure if the fish here were either.

Another boost from having a dam built in the vicinity is that the local Fisheries Department consider the impoundment to be a part of the ‘Blue Revolution’ programme. This aims to produce a far greater number of fish, to increase protein supplies in rural areas. In principle, a fine idea; in practise, an exercise in releasing invasive fish dangerously close to important and fragile areas of freshwater biodiversity.

The river seemed to be low and painfully clear for an October day, especially given that the retreating monsoon had only just cleared the region one week before; almost a month later than normal. I had seen a few fish rolling, managed to find small small Rasbora and spent a lot of time observing the bird life in and around the river. Indeed, while inspecting a night line set for murrel (snakehead fish), baited with an 8 oz Puntius species, a pariah kite had been circling my head, whistling its descending cry, looking like it would attempt to lift the hooked fish, which was feebly slapping the river’s surface.

Nightline set for snakehead fish

After four hours of searching different spots, Pravin and I went back to his homestay to have lunch. “Later I will take you to where Aunty is fishing,” he told me while we drank kokum juice and ate a delicious vegetable curry with local rice.

Takes guts

Bhendulgi was stood in the edge of a raging torrent. In the two hours it had taken to eat our lunch, the dam had been opened and the river was at least one metre higher than before. Slinging her handline to the top of a huge, tumbling gully, she set the line and turned to speak to us.

“Yes, chicken guts are always the best bait for mahseer. I have caught one and some nice small fish.” As Pravin translated her flow, she pulled up a bucket from the river’s edge. Inside were all manner of tiny things, including what may be an undescribed species of freshwater puffer fish, and a dead mahseer of about 2 lb.

Bhendulgi with a Tillari mahseer (left). Two other fish species found in the river (right)

“This one I can sell in the market for 500 rupees,” she said as she pointed to the mahseer. I asked if I could take some photos of it, which I duly did.

Bhendulgi explained that she and her husband eat the smaller fish and any mahseer she catches, they sell. She fishes most days, but only for a few hours; enough time to catch enough to feed themselves a good meal accompanied by their home-grown vegetables from their plot next to the river.

We chatted about the difference in our lives, Bhendulgi seeming to know quite a lot about Spain, where I live, and Europe in general. I asked how did she know so much about Europe, and she grinned.

“By selling the mahseer, I put my daughter through university. She got a good degree and now has a very good job in Europe.”

Luckily, the river has multiple ways to provide, as long as all along its length, there are those who work to keep it in good shape. A few small actions here have played a part for the good of the whole, sometimes despite the work and intentions of local governmental and commercial bodies. It may be in the power of communities in many others places to bring about positive changes to their local rivers and the life that depends upon them.

Steve and Ramesh on the farm, with Myristica saplings behind, on the floor


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