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Highly polluted as it enters Mumbai, Vaitarna a pristine river upstream, conserves wildlife

By Parineeta Dandekar* 

When I first heard about a beautiful fish sanctuary right off the highway on Vaitarna river in Maharashtra, I was skeptical. Vaitarna river, despite flowing through dense Western Ghats forests, is highly polluted and encroached upon as it enters the Mumbai Metropolitan Region. Vaitarna river stretch off a highway is not the most idyllic of spots for a thriving fish sanctuary. But I was spectacularly wrong.
The abundance and splendor of Vaitarna Fish Sanctuary highlights the resilience of India’s rivers and wildlife and the unmatched strength of community conservation. It also highlights an urgent need to protect efforts like these.
Vaitarna is a west-flowing river originating from the Northern Western Ghats of Maharashtra and flowing along the Mumbai Metropolitan Region, one of the most populous metropolitan regions in the world. A swift river, barely 120 kms long, Vaitarna is bound by several dams supplying drinking water and hydropower to MMR. 
The small Vaitarna basin holds remarkable biodiversity, critically endangered species, dense forests, a Wildlife Sanctuary, ecotourism economy, culturally-rich tribal settlements and yet faces an onslaught of dams in the upstream and severe pollution in the downstream. It is difficult to imagine a river facing these many challenges while providing invaluable ecosystem and cultural services like way Vaitarna does.
Dams on Vaitarna mainstem include Modak Sagar (Lower Vaitarna), Middle Vaitarna and Upper Vaitarna and Deharji, Surya and Tansa dams on its tributaries. In addition, several dams are planned in Vaitarna basin for supplying water to MMR including Gargai Dam and Pinjal Dam (which is a part of the Damanganga-Pinjal Interlinking Project).

Tilase Fish Sanctuary

In addition to this diversity, Vaitarna holds a spectacular fish sanctuary at Tilase village (Wada Block, Palghar District) known as Tilase Fish Sanctuary: pool with God’s Fish (देव मासे). I visited the Sanctuary once in 2013 and then in November 2022 with naturalists Aniket Motale and Vrushali Phatak. Tilase Sanctuary adjoins Tilaseshwar Mahadev, an ancient Shiva Temple placed on a boulder, in the middle of the Vaitarna Riverbed. The Sanctuary is a deep riverine pool, about 300 meters in length. Immediately upstream the pool is a Kolhapur-type weir (KT Weir) which restricts river flow into the sanctuary. In the downstream, it is limited by shallow, basalt riverbed.
This region of Palghar District has predominantly tribal population and riverine fishing is an important source of livelihood and nutritional security. Harad (2019) has documented over 14 indigenous tribal fishing methods from this region. Despite this, Tilase is a community-conserved sanctuary, protecting fish in-situ for hundreds of years only through customary rules and without any formal protection. The protection given to fish from a community which otherwise depends heavily on fishing is remarkable.
During my visit in November 2022, Tilase Fish Sanctuary was teeming with massive Tor or Mahseer fish. Hundreds of Mahseer were congregating as tourists threw in packs of biscuits and puffed rice into the pool. They looked like unstoppable swirls, jostling with each other for food and space. To see native fish swimming in a river has become such a rare sight in India that most of the visitors, including me, are rendered speechless.
It is unclear if these fish are Tor khudree or Tor tor. Tor species known as Mahseer hold remarkable cultural significance in India and are worshipped in many sanctuaries across the country. We at the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People have tried to document these sanctuaries and the threats they face.
In addition to sanctuaries, Mahseer is also a popular angling fish, known for giving a tough fight as well as an important source of nutrition.
Freshwater fish diversity is declining at a rapid rate in India and has seen the fastest decline world over compared to other ecosystems. Despite the fact that Tor tor and Tor khudree are not currently classified as endangered as per the Wildlife Protection Act, Tor tor or khudree found in Indian rivers are a fraction of their original populations and are restricted to reservoirs, not rivers. 
Tor are large-bodied fish which need deep river pools and large stretches of flowing water of good quality. Due to damming, pollution and encroachment, such rivers themselves are endangered species in India. Hence, this wild stock of Tor is ecologically invaluable.
The sheer size and number of Mahseer in Tilase is astounding. There are several traditional tales about Tilase Fish Sanctuary which need documentation. Most of the tales are archetypal, associated with several sanctuaries across Western Ghats.

Community rules and regulations around Tilase Fish Sanctuary

  • Fishing is strictly prohibited in the sanctuary. 
  • During spawning season, if small fish or gravid (pregnant) females get caught in nets in the upstream, fisherfolk release them back in the river. 
  • During Mahashivratri (Festival of Lord Shiva in the months of February-March), a feast is organized on the riverbank in honor of the God-fish (Dev Maase). 
  • All of the rules are informal and voluntarily enforced. There are no signages, fences or guards at the sanctuary.
Tilase Fish Sanctuary does not receive any formal protection. It is not a part of the Protected Area Network; nor is it a community or conservation reserve. While the sanctuary flourishes and is protected by local community, many such sanctuaries have been lost in Maharashtra and India due to upstream or downstream dams, encroachment, and pollution. None of the government departments have shown any interest in protecting community-conserved fish sanctuaries.
Tilase Fish Sanctuary needs urgent recognition as a community conserved area by local self-government, Forest, Environment, Revenue, Water Resources and Fisheries Departments at the State and the Central government.
There is an urgent need to study fish diversity of Tilase Fish Sanctuary and Vaitarna River. The forested river with unique ecological niches has significant fish diversity but has not been studied despite its proximity to Mumbai.
Management Committee and Plan needs to be drawn up for Tilase Sanctuary by Gram Panchayat, Gram Sabha, local community representatives, experts and government agencies.
In addition to Middle Vaitarna, Modak Sagar and Upper Vaiatrna Dams on the mainstem, Gargai Dam is being planned in Vaitarna Basin which will further reduce water flow into the sanctuary. During summer months, freshwater flow at the sanctuary is severely depleted resulting in low oxygen levels.
There is as urgent need to assess water needs of Mahseer and secure eflows to the sanctuary. Eflows needs of Tilase sanctuary should be computed and the water flow must be maintained automatically from upstream dams like Upper and Middle Vaitarna and Modak Sagar. Impact of Gargai Dam on Tilase Fish Sanctuary and fish diversity of Vaitarna has to be strictly analysed.
During Festivals like Mahashivaratri, thousands of people gather on the riverbanks and huge amount of garbage ends up in the pool. Most of this is in the form of plastic and food refuse, coming from devotees who visit the sanctuary. Several fish die in the pool after the festival due to low oxygen levels.
Simple awareness activities, garbage cans (see photo) and bins and signages can help improve this situation. The river immediately upstream the sanctuary is used for washing clothes and utensils with strong detergents. Providing alternatives like assured piped water supply at homes in Tilase village can stop this dangerous practice. Farmhouses are being developed immediately on riverbanks next to the sanctuary. Such developments needs to be restricted/ stopped. It is important to maintain a riparian buffer and have stringent control on sewage disposal from these farmhouses.

In conclusion

Tilase Fish Sanctuary on Vaitarna River is a spectacular example of community conservation. Vaitarna river has lost several deep gorges and cultural sites to dams. Middle Vaitarna Dam completed in 2013 submerged 1566 acres of Western Ghats Forests and the planned Gargai Dam threatens to again submerge more than 1779 acres of forest mostly in Tansa Sanctuary and further restrict freshwater at Tilase Sanctuary.
In this scenario, there is an urgent need to study Tilase Fish Sanctuary and help the local community in protecting this sanctuary from further pressures. We do not have many places left in the country where native fish swim enchantingly in our rivers, spreading hope for our rivers and our future.
---
*With South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People (SANDRP). Pix by the author. An earlier version of this feature has appeared in sandrp.in

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