Manish Rajankar, Shalu Kolhe and the Dheevar fishing community have been trying to restore the ancient lakes of Bhandara-Gondia in order to restore biodiversity and livelihoods. The proliferation of invasive fish and plant species led to a decrease in native species and the quality of the waterbody. Illustration by Debangshu Moulik for Mongabay.

Lack of community investment

Bhandara and Gondia districts, like other districts of Maharashtra, have a number of fisher’s cooperative societies. The ownership of the lakes, though rests with different government departments, away from the community investment. This was one of the reasons why many of the lakes were in a dismal state. The government had failed to even mark the catchments properly. Without community involvement, the prized wetlands were neglected, leading to erosion of biodiversity.

Further aggravating this was the government’s decision to introduce invasive, alien species of fish into existing ponds and lakes. The ultimate sufferers were the traditional communities, primarily the fisherfolk, that depended on the water body.

The only positive outcome was that the rights of irrigation were secured through the provision of Nistar rights, under the Maharashtra Land Revenue Code where the fish farmers got free water for irrigation.

After the Centre issued Wetlands (Conservation and Management) Rules, 2010, the government did come up with a database for Bhandara district with listing of wetlands briefs in part I and part II. But none of the lakes figure in the list of Ministry of Environment, Forests and Climate Change for wetland conservation programme launched in 2019. Manju Pandey, joint secretary, MoEF&CC, said, “It is for the state governments to identify the sites.”

Incidentally, Vidarbha Development Board, Nagpur did prepare a comprehensive report, Action Plan for Development of Fisheries and Aquaculture in Vidarbha, but it does not mention anything about conservation of wetlands, fishing water bodies etc.

Habitat revival for lakes

The proliferation of invasive species posed to be a problem for the lakes of Bhandara.

One was the problematic invasive, exotic plant species, Ipomoea fistulosa, called besharam (shameless) in Marathi because of its nature of occupying the entire space on the periphery of the water body. This is the area where plant species from the local ecosystem that are important for aquatic life forms and as fodder for livestock, grew. The invasive plant, growing at a much faster rate and occupying a larger area, drew away all nutrition. And without human intervention to stop its growth, it flourished.

The other ‘invasion’ was by exotic species tilapia, gariepinus and plant feeder grass carp. These either feed on underwater vegetation and/or do not allow smaller fish to grow. Earlier, a government scheme had introduced Indian major carps (IMC), which are the high yield fish species of rohu, catla and mrigal. The three exotic species were introduced in a similar government scheme. Garipinus and pangasius are exotic catfishes that are harmful to indigenous fishes.

Introduced more than three decades ago, IMC production went up substantially and that of local species went down. IMCs are bigger and earlier fetched a lot more money than indigenous fish. But the IMC yield was substantial only once in a year while local breeds could be fished almost round the year.

Also, the fishers realised that while catching these big fishes, they needed to use dragnet, a type of fishing net, which landed up destroying aquatic plants. That in turn affected the production adversely and destroyed the tank further. Additionally, these fishes also ate useful aquatic plants/shrubs.

Before/after images of the periphery of Khamkhura Gaon talao that was occupied by an invasive species, Ipomoea fistulosa. The plant is called besharam (shameless) in Marathi because it grows at a much faster rate and occupies more space on the water body than native plants. Photos from BNVSAM.

Clarias magur, an indigenous fish in the talaos of Bhandara is known for its nutrition and economic value for the fishing community. The restored water tanks are now reserved only for native fishes. Photo from BNVSAM.
Clarias magur, an indigenous fish in the talaos of Bhandara is known for its nutrition and economic value for the fishing community. The restored water tanks are now reserved only for native fishes. Photo from BNVSAM.

Each of the fishermen of the cooperative society used four-to-five tanks, of which, one was reserved for biodiversity conservation. “It was then that we had a discussion with Manish bhau. He asked us if anything could be done for aquatic plants? Yes, of course. Just as we plant trees on land, we can do so in water too,” said Tumsare, who was equipped with the traditional knowledge.

Eleven tanks – one from each cooperative society and reserved for biodiversity conservation – were selected for habitat development. Just ahead of monsoon, the lake bed was ploughed. After initial showers, when the lake bed was completely immersed in water, they sowed local species of aquatic plants such as chila, chiul, faandh, chaura, halduli, rajuli, singiful and white lotus (all shrubs). After these was a layer of a variety of traditional grasses and tall shrubs – Submerged plants such as Hydrilla verticilata, Ceratophyllum demersum, Vallisneria spiralis, floating plants like Nymphoides indicum, Nymphoides hydrophylla, Nymphaea cristata and partly submerged plant like Eliocharis dulcis (not in that order).

They decided to reserve that tank only for local fishes such as daadak, vaghur, marad, mothari, savada, shingur, katva etc. The traditional community skills worked wonders; indigenous fish production meant increased income as it fetched more value. “That, in turn, meant, increase in net profit for the cooperative society members from 200% to 700% as the fishermen did not have to invest in stocking and feeding as they did for IMC,” Rajankar explained.

Soon the positive results prompted the fisherfolk to carry out a similar exercise for other tanks.

People collecting native aquatic plant species from a talao. Photo from Bhandara Nisarga Va Sanskruti Abhyas Mandal.
People collecting native aquatic plant species from a talao. Photo from BNVSAM.

Women leadership from among dheevar community

All this while, Rajankar felt a gap when he interacted with various community members – the women of the community were almost non-existent. “I just had to do something. How can a community benefit if the women are not involved?” he said.

Fortunately for him, he met Shalu Kolhe, the daughter-in-law of the secretary of one of the fishermen cooperative societies at Nimgaon in Gondia district. The smart, young lady caught his eye and he encouraged her to attend a leadership training programme at Mumbai’s Committee for Resources Organisation (CORO). After getting married in 2008, Kolhe, who had completed her Class 12 education, had spent her time just like any other Dheevar daughter-in-law of the village. Up to 2014, when Rajankar first met her, she had never stepped out of the village on her own, always kept busy with household work and farming and didn’t even know where the village gram panchayat was. The Dheevar women worked in their own farmland or as labourers at other upper caste farm owners, especially Kohlis, the community known as “lake builders”. No one had a say in the matters of their family, let alone something to do with the village.

“Today, when I look back, the journey looks incredible. After much resistance from my home, I decided to attend the CORO training. Only my husband supported me. It was staggered over four installments and for the first two sessions, I was almost blank. But then things came on track and by the time I was through with the training, I was a changed person,” a bubbly Kolhe proudly states about her achievements.

Shalu Kolhe from Gondia teaches the process of making fish pickle. She formed self-help-groups of fisherwomen and brought woment at the forefront of developmental activities. Photo from
Shalu Kolhe from Gondia teaches the process of making fish pickle. She formed self-help groups of fisherwomen and brought women to the forefront of developmental activities. Photo from BNVSAM.

It took a lot of time convincing other women, almost fighting the patriarchy in the village, ensuring the women’s rights are not toppled at the gram sabha, getting their share of work under MNREGA for 15-20 days a month at least under the funds reserved for women. But none of these challenges deterred Kolhe, who also went on to form self-help-groups of fisherwomen. Kolhe has also ensured that she is not the lone woman in this process. Helping other women, bringing them to the forefront too has been an ongoing activity for her.

Convinced that the conservation work can be rightly understood by students at a young age, she took out a rally of school children for ‘Save Biodiversity’. Her popularity grew and so did her acceptance when, slowly, the men from her own and other communities realised that her work benefited the society at large.

The Government of Maharashtra had by then introduced Jal Yukt Shivar and Gaal Yukt Shivar schemes for digging farm ponds and de-silting lakes and water bodies. Extraction of the Ipomoea fistulosa, was decided to be taken up and the activity was carried jointly by the women SHGs, fishing cooperative members and the biodiversity management committee members. In 2015-16, five lakes were identified to remove besharam. The work could have been done under MNREGA using JCB machines but that would damage the lakebed further, so Kolhe decided to go ahead with shramdaan (voluntary physical work) to remove the besharam shrubs manually, let them dry and remove the root too.

Rajankar informed that the five tanks were monitored for two years; post monsoon study was carried out on four sites for which other species grew when besharam was absent and how it affected the growth of fishes. Yield has increased at all those sites now.

Over the years, BNVSAM’s work has gained popularity. As of the end of 2019, they work with 12 fishing cooperatives with 63 lakes across 43 villages.

The community planting native aquatic plants in a water tank in Bhandara. Photo from BNVSAM.

Read more: Story of a river bed, a geological marvel and community pride

Illustration by Debangshu Moulik, an artist based in Pune, India. He likes making things. You will find him working on stories, books, drawings, paintings, murals, videos, illustrations, animations, screen-prints, etchings, zines, installations and he hopes to make a lot more.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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