A glimpse on the life of communities dependent on the Hasdeo river
-- Neha Bhadbhade
“The day the Bango dam was built was the day our livelihoods were destroyed” said Dashrath Manjhi the eldest fisherman at the Manjhi fishermen’s settlement near Bhavani Mandir, located 200m below the Hasdeo barrage in Korba. Sitting right outside his house, I struck a candid conversation with five to six fishermen of the Manjhi community to understand the impact of the Hasdeo barrage and Bango dam on their livelihoods. “We used to take our ‘dongas’ (boats in local language) right up to the Bango dam and fish all day” said Dashrath Manjhi who remembered the days when the Bango dam and the barrage were non-existent and the river flowed freely. He said the there was a time when they used to catch around 25 kg of fish everyday; but now it is not the same. There are very little flows in the river and they are have to spend on an average 4-6 hours daily, with 1-2 kg fish yield.
Figure 1: a) Fishermen at Manjhi fishermen settlement near Bhavani Mandir, Korba b) ‘Kotri’ a variety of fish found in Hasdeo near Bhavani Mandir, Korba.
Currently, this fishing community is restricted to fish in half a kilometer stretch on the downstream side of the Darri barrage before the Denghur nallah meets the Hasdeo. “The water is full of flyash below Denghur and there are no fish in the river” said Sunderlal who has been fishing in the river for the past 15-20 years. He also said that they do not make much from the selling the fish in the local market and now are have resorted to taking up jobs in the thermal power plants in the town to meet ends. Chedu Ram Manjhi another fisherman belonging to the community said that he has witnessed thermal pollution in the river. Chhattisgarh State Electricity Board (CSEB) and Bharat Aluminium Corporation (BALCO) releases hot water into the reservoir. The effect of thermal pollution on fishes is that they die at once when removed from the water and immediately begin to rot. The varieties of fish found are Bata, Rohu, Katla and Kotri. ‘Sirangi’ a kind of cat fish has completely disappeared according to the fishermen.
50 kilometers downstream at Hathnewra, the fishing community is called ‘Kevat’. They shared similar insights. The fishermen there too spend on an average 4-6 hours everday and barely catch up to 1 kg of fish. Unlike the river stretch near the Bhavani Mandir, where the water is very deep, at Hathnwera the river is waist deep and due to this fishermen cannot take their boats into the river. An interesting insight shared by Dilchand Kevat, the head of the fishing community was that Government of Chhattisgarh is promoting aquaculture and providing suitable aid for it. He also said that exotic fish species like ‘Tilapia’ are being introduced. These fish do not fetch a good price in the market and do not have a very good nutrition value. Another disturbing insight shared by Mangal Kevat was that on a couple of occasions he has observed few people throw some kind of fish feed that kills the fish. Such is the life of the few fishermen that depend on Hasdeo for their livelihoods. They have to spend long hours to catch fish and then also look for other means of living. The river where once fish were found in abundance are now barely surviving due to regulated flows from the barrage and toxic effluents from the industries in the region.
Apart from the fishermen, the other community that is dependent on the river water are the river bed and the flood plain farmers. Near the Darri barrage flood plain farming is practiced on an area spread over 100-150 acres on the right bank of the Hasdeo. Cultivation is done from October to January and crops grown are mostly vegetables like cucumber, gourd, cabbage and spring onions. 70 year old Budhul Patel said that the flows in the river have reduced because there is hardly any water released from the barrage. Water is mostly reserved for the industries. He said, “Last extreme event took place in 2014 when all the gates of the barrage had to be opened which flooded their farms for about two weeks. Normally during monsoon their farms remain flooded for about 2-3 days.” An interesting fact of this place is that it is situated right below a CSEB ash pond. Another farmer Amarbai Patel said that they have been practicing farming in this area ever since the ash pond was built sometime in the seventies. She too stated that the flows have reduced significantly over the years and therefore most of the farmers have now sunk borewells in their farms. But now the water table is also dropping. Many a times the flyash from the ash pond above flies onto their plants destroying them. Her sons have migrated to the cities for work and she practices farming with her husband only for subsistence. At Hathnewra there were a couple of families that practice river bed cultivation on the immediate downstream side of the anicut across the Hasdeo. According to Kholbahat, a river bed farmer here, the anicut controls the water that is released downstream and occasionally their crops get washed away when excess water was released. The Prakash Industries plant situated on the upstream of the anicut also releases its effluents, which have destroyed the plants on a couple of occasions. The sand bed is not fertile and therefore the farmers apply soil which they buy for around Rs. 500 per kilogram. In addition they use fertilizers and pesticides too.
Figure 2: a) Farm in the floodplain of Hasdeo at Gherva Ghat b) River bed cultivation at Hathnewra
At Pithampur, a village on the opposite bank of Hathnewra, Hasdeo has cultural and spiritual importance. Every year on the day of ‘Holi Panchami’ they have a huge festival where thousands of people come to worship Lord Shiva and also take a dip in the river. Three years ago before the construction of the anicut there was very little water available in the river during the lean season, however now because of the anicut they have ample supply of water due to the ponding of the river on the upstream of the anicut.
The debate on effects of hydropower development on river regimes and ecosystems has been going on for decades. There is no doubt that the physical barriers in the river hinder fish migration especially riverine fishes that travel upstream for breeding. In the Hasdeo basin too, there are a number of small and large water resource infrastructures that have reduced the flows in the river. To add to the problem are the toxic effluents that are being released illegally. All these factors have collectively deteriorated the health of Hasdeo causing decline in the fish population and thus impacting the livelihood of the fishermen. The State Fisheries Department is only interested in promoting their schemes like farm pond aquaculture and reservoir fishing and do not care about the river fishes. The fishermen dread the day when the river will not remain worth fishing in and sigh in despair thinking of what lies ahead for them and their families. Sediment flows have also reduced over the years affecting floodplain and river bed farming. Chemical fertilizers are now used for increasing production. These fertilizers are making their way into the Hasdeo increasing the concentration of nitrates and phosphates.
The path of development that the state government of Chhattisgarh is following is soon going to lead to complete destruction of the livelihoods of the few fishermen and river bed farmers that are trying to survive. Local groups and non-government organizations need to come together and intervene this path, in a manner that it would make it win-win situation for all.