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Proposed Bharbhut barrage across Narmada mouth has made fishermen uneasy, admits state-sponsored study

Narmada river at merging into sea
Counterview Desk
In a major admission, a state-sponsored study, “Environmental Impact and Risk Assessment for the Proposed Barrage Across River Narmada near Bhadbhut, Dist. Bharuch”, by top consultants National Environmental Engineering Research Institute (NEERI), has said that “in the event of construction of the barrage and the creation of the fresh water reservoir at the barrage, the concern of the fishermen regarding deprivation of the presently available fishing advantage is quite genuine that deserves very careful consideration for policy-level action.”
The study is the main focus of attention at the environment public hearing, to take place on July 19 for the Rs 4,000 crore project barrage across Narmada river’s mouth at Bharbhut. Pointing towards the concern of fishing community residing next to the proposed barrage, the study says, “The total number of fishermen’s families residing in 21 villages is 2,520 with a population of 12,638. On an average, a family comprises of five fishermen, having 2-3 active fishermen. Thus, out of the total fishermen population of 12,638, about 50% is actively engaged in the fishery activities.”
Pointing out that “Narmada estuary traverses through the bounds of Bharuch district“, the study say, “The estuary, which is about 1.6 km wide at the barrage site downstream of village Bhadbhut, gets widened at the Gulf mouth. It covers an area of about 25,000 to 30,000 ha. This estuary is reckoned as the largest estuary in the State of Gujarat.” The concern is particularly serious as these fishermen live here in poor conditions. Every other adult members of the family is unemployed.
"Fishermen are inadequately equipped with fishing infrastructures like mechanized/ non-mechanized boats. Since each family owns several nets, it indicates that the fishing activities are mostly localized along the frontal stretch of the estuary nearby the habitation of the fishermen", the study says, adding, “It also implies that the boat bound movement of the fishermen is limited to a small number of fishermen having access to mechanized boats. Fishing practices are mostly conventional type. Regardless of the boat-based/ non boat-based activities, fish catching is essentially done by means of nets.”
Even then, “while fish production in Gujarat comprises inland fish and marine fish, of which the former is the minor constituent, contrasted to it in Bharuch district, the inland fish production is the major constituent accounting for 27.80% of the total inland fish production in the state, while marine fish production is a minor constituent and accounts for only 0.94% of the total marine fish production in the state".
Among the major catches, the study says, Hilsa fish has been the major constituent. In early 2000s, it accounted for 87% of the total estuary catch, how its share has declined to about 43% of  the total estuarine fish catch. The other species supporting the estuarine fisheries are Grey Mullet (Mugil parsia, M. cunnesius, M. tade, Mugil Sp.), Catfish (Anus Sp.), Bombay Duck (Harpodon nehereus), Scampi (Macrobrachium rosenbergii), Penaeid / Non Penaeid Prawn (Metapenaeus Sp., Acetus Sp.), Cock-Up (Lates calcarifer), Kalbasu (Labeo calbasu), etc.
The study quotes fishermen as saying that once the barrage at Bharbhut is built, there will be a further reduction of flow of riverine water into the downstream estuary which may cause variation in salinity of the estuary water, affecting the upstream migration of the Hilsa fish. In their view, the barrage would be a barrier to the movement of fishermen and also to the migration of Hilsa and other fishery species across the barrage. The traditional fishermen are mostly dependent on the Hilsa fishery which is showing a consistent declining trend. However, as the price of the Hilsa fish has increased quite substantially, they have been so far surviving.
The fishermen also feel, says the study, that after the barrage is constructed, the breeding ground of Hilsa fish will disappear. In the context of the new barrage construction, they should be treated as the “Project Affected Persons”, they said, and need to be compensated suitably. This is particularly necessary because “unlike agricultural farmers having permanent asset of land on which they have legal right, the fishermen do not have any exclusive legal right for fishing in any part of the estuary or the sea. This encourages outsiders to encroach in their fishing area and thereby deprive them of their livelihood”. With the construction of the barrage, “they may lose forever whatever fishing advantage that they presently obtain.”
The fishermen also complain that “they are deprived of many government support schemes like the Sagar Khedut Yojana, which is operative in other talukas of Bharuch District." They may, however, be happy to carry out agriculture, if they are provided a piece of land, as compensation. Even as saying some of the fishermen’s concerns are genuine while others are not, the study admits, “Presently, the fishermen residing along the Narmada tail stretch carry out their fishery activities across the three habitats without any interruption. Moreover, the marine Hilsa fish species, thriving in saline water environment of Arabian sea, requires freshwater environment for breeding purposes. Similarly, the freshwater prawn, thriving in freshwater environment, requires brackish water environment for breeding purposes."
The study says, "These fishery species do not face any obstruction to their inter-habitat migratory path. After construction of barrage, inter-habitat movement of the fishermen as also of the fishery species (Hilsa fish and fresh water prawn) will be obstructed.” This may happen because a "river’s estuary, where freshwater meets the sea, is a particularly rich ecosystem. Many fish catch comes from these habitats, which depend on the volume and timing of nutrients and freshwater." 
The study underlines, “The riverine nutrients exist in water flow and sediments, carried and transported by flow and sediments; increase the nutrient level in estuaries and the adjacent sea. The decrease and alteration of the flows and nutrients reaching estuaries have marked effects on coastal and marine ecosystem and biodiversity, such as the nursery ground of fishes in estuaries and marine fish catch. The alteration of the flows reaching estuaries because of barrage is a major cause of the precipitous decline of sea fisheries in many estuaries of the world. Decreased discharge rates can result in an increase in salinity in estuaries and change the composition of species in this zone.”

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