Water food cultivators in Madhya Pradesh face existential crisis

  • For Rajesh Raikwad and 99 others belonging to the Raikwad community in Imlaha, a village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, the Kusum Sagar talaab (water body) dominated by aquatic plants is a source of survival throughout the year.
  • The talaab supports a variety of foods that grow in water, like water chestnuts, lotus stem and kishurua, a sweet-tasting fruit that grows in the roots of water plants. Wheat and paddy are also grown in the lake bed when most of the lake is drained for irrigation.
  • An ongoing court case that started in 2019 in the Jabalpur high court is threatening the existence of the Raikwads. The cases were filed after the Raikwad samiti (or collective) of Imlaha village was fraudulently deregistered and the pattas (land deeds) of the members declared invalid.
  • Freshwater ecosystems such as Kusum Sagar are important for the survival of avian species and aquatic plants.

With the help of a bamboo pole, Rajesh Raikwad expertly navigates his kishti, a tapered flat-bottomed boat made of iron and painted blue and green, in the Kusum Sagar talaab (water body) on a cold, windy afternoon interspersed with light showers.

The sun plays hide and seek and numerous water birds go about their business, unmindful of the boat slowly making its way through the clear blue water. A pair of Sarus cranes walk gracefully in the distance amidst a bunch of tall, green grass floating in the water and waving gently in the breeze. A kingfisher suddenly swoops down on its prey, its movement so fast that it disappears in a flash.

For Rajesh Raikwad and 99 others belonging to the Raikwad community in Imlaha, a backward village in Madhya Pradesh’s Chhatarpur district, the water body dominated by aquatic plants is a source of survival throughout the year. The talaab supports a variety of foods that grow in water like water chestnuts (singhara), lotus stem (kamal kakdi) and kishurua, a sweet-tasting fruit that grows in the roots of reed-like plants floating above the water.

Wheat and paddy are also cultivated in Kusum Sagar when most of the water is drained out for the cultivation of crops in the nearby areas through the means of irrigation canals. But the talaab is never completely dry. Wheat is sown in December and harvested in March and then rice is sown in April-May and harvested in June-July. The total size of the talaab is about 250 hectares. Of this, 20 hectares belong to Imlaha residents and another 20 hectares belong to the residents of the adjoining village, Pathargua.

Ducks swim in Kusum Sagar talaab in Imlaha village of Chattarpur district. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

“We mainly grow water-based crops and don’t possess any land for cultivation. The talaab is our only source of livelihood. When the water of the talaab gets drained in the summer months, we get kishurua and kamal kakdi. All of us have demarcated plots ranging from two to three bighas (a traditional measurement unit, equivalent to about 0.162 hectares) in Kusum Sagar,” Rajesh Raikwad said.

His companion Santosh Raikwad, who sits in the middle of the boat, informs that the water body yields one crop after another, making their survival easy. Singhara is cultivated in November-December; then comes kishurua, which matures in March-April and continues to fruit till July. Kamal kakdi also gets ready by March-April and is found in the water body till June-July.

Kishurua fruits are sold at Rs. 100 per kg in the nearby markets of Khajuraho, a well-known UNESCO world heritage site and Panna district, which lies 45 km from Khajuraho. Though greater quantities of singhara is produced and kishurua takes a long time to grow, kishurua fetches a cultivator Rs. 10,000 to 20,000 during the peak season. It is highly cherished by the Raikwads for its taste and profitability.

Rajesh Raikwad, who stops the boat near a dense clump of kishurua plants, describes the delicious taste of the fruit. He explains that kishurua is boiled before consumption and is not cooked as a vegetable.

“For growing kishurua, we have to disperse the seeds in the water first. The seeds are nurtured in a corner of the water body and then shifted or transplanted to a wider area. The roots sink deeper under water and the plants grow taller reaching up to a height of 5 feet when fully mature. There are about five fruits per plant and they are either black or white in colour,” he added.

Slender kishurua plants float in water. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

The boat comes to rest amidst kishurua plants growing in profusion all around as birds fetch food in the water. Harvest is a busy time, with women taking part in digging out the fruits along with the men of the village. The two men in the boat agree that the entire production process of kishurua is lengthy and painstaking, involving many hours of work.

“With the advent of monsoon, we take out the kishurua roots about three inches in size and sow them just like paddy. When the roots spread, the plants start growing in water. Kishurua, which is sown in July, gets ready by March next year. It takes eight to nine months to mature,” said Santosh Raikwad.

According to Rajesh Raikwad, kishurua resembles the cultivation of potatoes. The roots go deep, almost till 5 inches inside the soil. When it is ready for harvest, the talaab dries up as irrigation water is channelled out. The women of Imlaha dig out three to four kg of kishurua fruits in a day.

After performing household chores, including preparing food for the family early in the morning, they come to dig out kishurua and store them in baskets. Once plucked, the fruits can be kept for five to six days at a stretch at home.

The black coloured kishurua fruits are bigger in size than the white ones, inform some elderly men of the Raikwad community. It is a seasonal fruit and keeps the body cool in the harsh summer months when temperatures across Bundelkhand easily cross the 40-degree Celsius mark. The women in the village make flour (atta) after grinding dried kishurua fruits. But it cannot be stored for long as it is very sweet and gets infested by worms quickly.

Struggle for continued existence

Amidst the hard work that the Raikwads do every day to eke out a decent living from growing water-based crops, ongoing court cases since 2019 in the Jabalpur high court are threatening their existence. The cases were filed after the Raikwad samiti of Imlaha village was fraudulently deregistered and the pattas (land deeds) of the members declared invalid.

Small white lotus flowers and leaves float in the water. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

The needle of suspicion is pointed towards some residents of the adjoining Pathargua village, who also share the same talaab. According to Imlaha resident Kishori Raikwad, a contractor based in Bamitha village in the same Rajnagar tehsil as Imlaha wants to grow fish in the water body on a commercial scale. Allegations are rife that he colluded with Pathargua residents and cheated the Raikwads of Imlaha.

“Our registration helped us in keeping our plots till we were cheated of our rights. Most of us own small plots. If there is pisciculture in the lake, all our crops will be ruined as the fish will eat up everything we grow so laboriously,” he told Mongabay-India.

People from Pathargua who this correspondent tried to reach were not available for comment.

The ownership of the talaab belongs to the government and the Raikwads’ samiti had deposited Rs. 5,000 yearly since 2016 as a collective lease to the Imlaha gram panchayat for cultivating in the water body, according to the registration copy in possession of the Imlaha samiti members.

“We all pay the panchayat together as a registered body known by the name of Kusum Sagar Matsya Udyog Sahakari Samiti Imlaha,” explained Paramlal Raikwad, another resident. The samiti was registered in 1998.

According to Rajesh Raikwad, the pattas were distributed by the fisheries department. “The Sahaykarita Vibhaag (Cooperatives Department) did not bother to inform us nor the panchayat before declaring our land deeds invalid. It is clear that some officials belonging to the department has been bribed by the contractor,” he added.

Rajesh Raikwad navigates his boat on Kusum Sagar. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

The Raikwads want to continue the tradition started by their ancestors. “Our ancestors used to grow water crops in this talaab and we are continuing in their footsteps. We are now fighting for our rights,” said Santosh Raikwad.

Chhotu Khare, a resident of Imlaha from another community, told Mongabay-India that the Raikwads have been cheated of their pattas. “They are not to be blamed. Their names are still there in the pattas, but the samiti has been deregistered. As they are not educated, the samiti audit did not take place for years due to some reasons. When it became known that the audit has not been done, a new society was opened using the name of the Raikwads’ samiti. Their livelihood will be at stake if they lose the cases. Pathargua is our adjoining village and they also share the talaab. Some pattas belong to Pathargua and some to our residents. The cheating has been done by the Pathargua residents.”

Santosh Raikwad, an advocate based in Chhattarpur, is fighting the case on behalf of the Raikwads. Both Pathargua and Imlaha residents have authority over the talaab. A case has been filed as a writ petition at the Jabalpur High Court in 2019.

Sanjay Patel, a lawyer said about the ongoing case: “It was a registered society and the Raikwads of Imlaha had the talaab on lease. The people were in continuous possession of the water body. But there was a conspiracy during which a forged document was prepared, the signature of the society members made and the talaab handed over to someone else. That is why their registration was cancelled. I am trying to give them back their land deed rights.” The next hearing is on February 10 2020.

A close up view of kishurua. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

According to Satyendra Pandey, a social activist based in Bhopal and state convenor of the Rashtriya Gramdoot Parishad, a people’s platform, all natural resources should be managed by local communities. The advantage of this process is that the livelihood of the local people is protected and the natural resources, which are controlled by communities, ensure their sustainable use.

“This was the intention behind giving the business of fisheries in water bodies in MP to cooperatives and self-help groups. But in the past five to 10 years, fisheries contracts have been given to private contractors in a planned manner instead of local groups. This threatens the livelihoods of local communities on a large scale. Contractors may destroy the ecosystem of water bodies for their business interests,” Pandey told Mongabay-India.

Shweta Khare, the sarpanch of Imlaha and the wife of Chhotu Khare, said she is in favour of the Raikwads. “They have been growing water food for years. But some people want to do commercial fisheries. Pathargua residents have done a conspiracy as they wanted total control of the talaab. The Imlaha society should be registered again and allowed to work without any hindrance.”

Freshwater ecosystems are important for the survival for avian species and aquatic plants. According to a FAO report Freshwater Biodiversity, freshwaters are rich in biodiversity and provide us with drinking water, means of transportation and recreation. Factors like overuse, conversion of such habitats, pollution and introduction of alien species are posing a threat to them. According to experts, sustaining such ecosystems is vital for global development, but their value is not appreciated in terms of paying back for the services derived.

A demarcated plot in the talaab. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

Banner image: Harvesting crops from the Kusum Sagar talaab. Photo by Deepanwita Gita Niyogi.

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