As winter was about to set in the coastal state of Odisha, Batakrushna Sahoo, 71, was preparing to travel to New Delhi for an event he had never earlier imagined attending. He compared the journey to this event, with going to heaven.

He ironed out his blue vest-coat and a white shirt neatly, took a small bag and a select few members of the family to the national capital. He was headed to take part in an event at the Rashtrapati Bhavan to meet President Ram Nath Kovind and receive the fourth highest civilian award – the Padma Shri.

The programme was to be attended by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Union Home Minister Amit Shah and other top echelons of the Indian state besides several other outstanding inspiring personalities. After receiving the award last month, Sahoo spoke to Mongabay-India with excitement, about his “dream come true” moment that brought his small village – Sarkana in Odisha, to the national limelight.

Journey to fame

Sahoo entered the trade of fish farming long back in 1986. He previously practised paddy cultivation but did not find it very profitable. In the 15 acres of land he had, he used to sow paddy and other crops. He was able to generate income of around Rs 10,000 per year, from farming.

From his lived experience, he found that agriculture was not profitable. This persuaded Sahoo to undertake training from the Bhubaneswar-based Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture and Krishi Vigyan Kendra, located about 10 km away from his village.

Sahoo acquired a panchayat pond near his village on lease and started fish culture. “I applied and I got the lease for three years at Rs 12,300. I visited the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture and Krishi Vigyan Kendra, interacted with the scientists there and learned how to make fish farming profitable.

The scientists explained to me that I would be able to recover all the money I invested if I listen to their suggestions,” he told Mongabay-India. Sahoo, within the next year, earned around Rs 24,000 from the pisciculture work which compensated the initial lease amount and overhead expenses.

Batakrushna Sahoo sits by one of the circular hatcheries in his village. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/Mongabay

He meticulously followed the instructions and suggestions of the scientists regarding the quality food provided for the fish, weeding out predatory fish from the pond, and securing the pond to avoid stealth.

The septuagenarian, however, was rearing fish at a time when advanced transport systems and other complementary support systems were not available. “Those days, we used to carry fish to the market in aluminium vessels due to which, a lot of fish used to die,” he narrated “There were bad roads, no provision of oxygen cylinders or better preservation models which could have reduced our losses. So, under these circumstances, I jumped onto the bandwagon of growing spawns myself, instead of depending on the market.”

“Scientists from Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture and Krishi Vigyan Kendra introduced me to spawn production with hapa technology (use of fixed nets in ponds) in which, with the help of growth stimulators, we can produce egg seeds early and make this a more profitable business than pisciculture in the ponds,” Sahoo said.

The fish farmer experimented with this in the late 1980s and released four lakh spawns into the pond from the fish eggs and within two months he generated an income of Rs 7,000 which intrigued him to experiment more.

Transforming barren lands

In the late 1980s, Sahoo started pisciculture in five ponds with loans from the Odisha state government. “Later on, I exchanged my irrigated land with barren lands from some local community members by paying the same price to ensure that I can use such lands for creating ponds and for spawn production,” Sahoo said. “With this, I was able to create around four acres of land which was used for spawn production. In 1994, I got four more acres of land through the same exchange offer and created a total of eight ponds.”

He continued to use ponds for producing spawns with the hapa technique till 1997 and later shifted to circular artificial hatcheries (Chinese hatcheries) to ensure better control over the water body where the fish and eggs are taken care of.

His village in the Khurda district, about 60kms away from the Bay of Bengal in Puri was prone to natural disasters like cyclones and had seen bouts of cyclones in the past. In 2019, during cyclone Fani, Sahoo also lost around four quintals of fish to due destruction triggered by the cyclone.

“In 1998 I started constructing circular hatcheries,” he said. “In ponds, you cannot control the affairs much due to rains, strong winds and predators. So, I started using circular hatcheries since then to protect the fish and ensure the least losses.”

Several years down the line with the consistent efforts by Sahoo and his family, he now owns 22 ponds in his block, where spawn production works centred on 10 different species of fish like rohu, catla, mrigal and some ornamental fish are undertaken. However, spawns of edible varieties of fish are the most in demand.

In the past several years, Sahoo has also conducted training programmes for prospective fish farmers and rural entrepreneurs after proving his virtues as a rural entrepreneur. He has been training around 1,000 fish farmers every year with live demonstrations about giving growth-stimulating injections to fish, taking care of hatcheries and other techniques. He was declared as a resource person at the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture, where he mentors other fish farmers, rural entrepreneurs and fish scientists.

Batakrushna Sahoo stands near one of the ponds in which he grows fish and spawns. Photo credit: Manish Kumar/Mongabay

The residents of his village claim that Sahoo was a pioneer in introducing spawn production with the latest techniques in his block which was earlier confined mostly to government setups. “He was a pioneer in bringing this technology to the village to the whole block in the 80s when nobody thought about this,” Hrushikesh Panda, Sahoo’s neighbour said. “Not only this, but he also used all the latest available scientific technologies as he was exposed through training at Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture and Krishi Vigyan Kendra.”

He also said that Sahoo was awarded the Padma Shri for his pioneering work in the region when no one used to talk about this and everyone depended on the government for the supply of spawns.

Currently, Sahoo has been producing around 40 million-50 million spawns of improved varieties each year and has become a well-known face in the fish seed business in his state. Sahoo’s household is now able to earn more than Rs 12 lakh per year. He says compared to agriculture, fish farming has very few associated risks.

Scientists from the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture and Krishi Vigyan Kendra told Mongabay-India that it was because of Sahoo’s consistent interaction with scientists and using the latest available scientific technologies, that he was able to create a viable and self-sustaining model of aquaculture.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.