As we reached the dense banks of River Simsang, lined with blooming Kachnar Trees, first thing I heard was not the gush of a free flowing river, but a symphony.
I thought it was my ears, buzzing after the constant travel around West Garo Hills of Meghalaya. But the music was persistent, so resonant at times that we could not hear each other. It sounded like a jalsa of musicians with several tautly-tuned sarangis by the banks of the river. Vaishali Sangma, a repository of local knowledge and an anti-mining activist, was accompanying us on the journey and had a saner answer. This was the cicadas.
Meghalaya, the tiny state in the North East corner of India, boasts of many bounties: rolling hills and rivers, remarkable biodiversity, varied tribal groups and over 40 species of cicadas. Their music accompanied us for all our days in Garo Hills and now Simsang has its own Nishad for me.
All along the Tura-Williamnagar Road, Simsang was gushing and the waters were clear. Not the brilliant, glowing turquoise of the Umngot river in Dawki perhaps, but a deeper, shaded emerald. Roger Marak, Superintendent of Fisheries, West Garo Hills District, was leading us. Marak is a man of few words, partly because he observes keenly and partly due to the ever-present arecanut, which he is happy to offer to you: wrapped in a fresh betelnut leaf and a dab of slaked lime.
As we reached the Wachi Wari, a deep pool by the river, he exclaimed, “Baccho ka khana gaadi me bhool aya” (“I forgot snacks for the kids up in my car”). He ran back with bags full of puffed rice and packs of biscuits. We followed him to the river as he made a flourish of his hand like a wand.
There was a rustle on the fabric of water and just like magic, hundreds and hundreds of Chocolate Mahseer fish appeared under water and followed the movement of his hand. The shoals swam like a murmuration of swallows in an evening sky. In a minute, the fish were not as tame, jumping and frolicking on the surface, eager to claim each rice puff. It was as if calm-looking Marak had started a riot in the underwater world.
These are rare fish. Chocolate Mahseer (Neolissochilus hexagonolepis) is not a fish you encounter in every river. I’ve not seen them in any river thus far. To see them in hundreds like this was bordering on the surreal.
We were at the Wachi Wari Community Fish Sanctuary at the Simsang River, where Chocolate Mahseer have found a safe haven from fishing, blasting, dynamiting, pollution and poisoning for decades now. And the villagers have in turn secured a thriving (and thrashing) protein source all along the river, away from the sanctuary.
“Wari” is a deep river pool where fish congregate when the water levels are low. There are several such Waris all along the Simsang River, which flows for nearly 100 km in Meghalaya and goes on to become Someshwari river in Bangladesh, as it exits from Meghalaya’s border town of Baghmara.
Rivers of the Garo Hills like Simsang, Chibok and Ganol and several other rivers in Meghalaya are home to many such gems of community conservation. Without spending millions of rupees, without passing through several tiers of experts and organizations, without being tied in the unresponsive walls of bureaucracy and expert speak and without having a single farcical “hatchery” or “Fish Breeding Center”, fish sanctuaries of Meghalaya teach us a rare and precious lesson: that conservation works best when it comes from the people, when communities are respected and trusted and when the government and experts are facilitators at best.
I have visited and tried to document several community protected Fish Sanctuaries in India, spread across a wide region. From Haridwar in Uttarakhand to Vaitarna near Mumbai, from Teerthahalli in Karnataka to Mahanadi in Odisha, many rivers in India have beautiful protected stretches where fish are worshiped and not fished out of their waters. Fish Sanctuaries lend protection not only to the native fish, but also to the rivers, which are otherwise polluted, dammed and dried out.
Rivers in India receive very little formal protection and we have next to none riverine protected areas. Unfortunately, most of these sanctuaries receive no formal protection as well and we have lost many of these to dam building and pollution. From example, Sahasradhara in Narmada or Alandi in Pune on the Indrayani river had renowned sanctuaries of Mahseer, but no traces of them can be found now.
All “temple” sanctuaries were/are aimed towards protecting a specific species of fish: The Mahseer (Tor species), known as the Tiger of the Waters: an important game fish and a very tasty and nutritious protein source. But in Meghalaya, fish sanctuaries do not have a religious spin off, at least I did find one. They are a culmination of centuries old community knowledge of managing natural resources wisely: “sustainable” use, much before the word was coined.
Wachi Wari on the Simsang had a small viewpoint to observe and feed fish. It was also a picnic spot where families and friends gathered around the sandy river banks, cooked food and had a glorious time. Tourism Department and Meghalaya Aquaculture Mission, under the Meghalaya Fisheries Department has built this view point and provide logistics support to the community, if they need. But the main task of protecting the fish sanctuary is done by the villagers themselves.
By the time we recovered from the sight of jostling fish, we noticed that we were being watched closely by two men. An old, fierce looking man in uniform and a youth with smoothly polished axe tied to his waist. They were the keepers of the sanctuary. They told us the fish sanctuary was formed nearly 20 years ago by the community and some five years back, Meghalaya Aquaculture Mission helped by constructing the viewpoint and providing any support, when needed. They guard the sanctuary at all time and receive a remuneration from the village.
There is a nominal entry fee of Rs 5 per person to visit the sanctuary, which goes in the village fund. Penalties for fishing in the sanctuary or damaging it in any way are serious. These include “One pig, one cow, a bag of rice, a bag of sugar, packs of biscuits and Rs 10,000.” He also said that the fish population in the entire stretch of the river has risen remarkably after formation of the sanctuary and the villagers are now able to catch more fish in the remaining parts of the river. Using fish poison or dynamite is unheard of near the sanctuary and is declining throughout due to easy and ample availability of fish, which form the most important source of protein in the tribal diet.
Rules of the Wachi Wari Sanctuary are clear and straightforward. Nearly all these rules are common throughout the sanctuaries of Garo Hills.
- The river is protected upstream and downstream for 100 meters away from the Wari or pool. No fishing is allowed in the pool.
- Riparian area along the river is preserved and not cut down.
In the olden days, many Waris received community protection. They were considered as repositories of fish in lean months. They were fished every alternate year. But the protected Waris are not fished at all now. It is unclear when and how this idea took root. Some say it started from Amlayee Sanctuary in West Jaintia Hills, some say it was Songkhal Wari on Simsang where it all started.
A rare sanctuary
The main fish species in these Waris is Chocolate Mahseer, or Neolissochilus hexagonolepis, a near-threatened species with declining populations according to the IUCN system of classification. However, in India, drying rivers, dams and pollution has made Chocolate Mahseer a novelty in most rivers.
This part of Simsang however, teems with Chocolate Mahseer. The situation was not always the same and even today, in the Coal mining belt downstream at Williamnagar, the fish struggles to survive. And hence, the struggles of brave activiits like Agnes Kharshiing are so crucial. But in and around the fish sanctuaries of the Garo Hills, it looks as if Mahseer rules the waters and all’s well with the world.
From Wachi Wari we went further to Songhkhal Wari, one of the most impressive sanctuaries on the Simsang. Here too, there is an entry fee of Rs 5, collected by a shy lady who runs a small shop near a stone staircase leading down to the view point. She sells puffed rice, rice-jaggery laddus and biscuits of the fish and chai for the visitors. Livelihood of an entire household runs off the elusive, frolicking fish in the pool. Next to theshop, a group of tribal women sell gourds, leafy greens, scarlet chillies, forest honey, beer and some of the freshest pineapples I’ve ever seen: small economy of a fish sanctuary.
In the Songhkhal Wari, shaded by ancient Bombax and Syzigium trees, is a deeper pool. We fed fish from a raised platform and hundreds of Mahseer congregated in the river below to catch tidbits from above. It is a treat to see dark shoals move in synchronized motion like a single animal. We also saw large brooder females with smaller fish tagging along. This Sanctuary was formally protected by the Natural Resource Management Group under the IFAD Project (International Fund for Agricultural Development) of Meghalaya. Infrastructure was built by the Tourism Department and monitoring and protection is being done solely by the local community.
Not all is hunky dory though. In Bansamgre Fish Sanctuary, also on the Simsang, a feud between two villages meant that the sanctuary was destroyed by dynamiting. The river here is wide and deep and despite the impact, there is still a healthy population of Mahseer.
Simsang is a special river in many senses. It is free flowing from its origin near the Nokrek Peak (Nokrek Biosphere Reserve) till it exits India to enter Bangladesh, some 100 kms later. Banks of the “longest river of Garo Hills” are invariably covered with riparian forests, which Mr. Marak says, are the key in maintaining water quality, temperature and providing breeding habitat for the fish. The river is remarkably rich in fish diversity with over 64 fish species, most of which are threatened or near threatened, including some elusive species of electric eels, Mahseer and prawns.We will look at Simsang, its characteristics and problems in the next blog.
From Bansamgre, Simsang became a much wider and meandering river, lined with paddy fields and smaller villages connected to each other by deceptively precarious, but very strong swinging rope bridges. Many places in the riverbed flash signs over boulders: “No fishing and poaching here”.
Marak jokingly said, “Maybe we’ve reached to a point where we have too many protected stretches along the river.” The pride of an indulgent parent watching his offspring do well in the school beams from Marak. It was his brother, P Marak, who initiated work on fish sanctuaries in Garo hills. After his untimely demise, the junior Marak took his work ahead with passion.
He is also evidently proud of his burgeoning work load, with several villages asking for Fish Sanctuaries to be set up in their rivers. Meghalaya Aquaculture Mission and Meghalaya Basin Development Organisation are trying to cater to all such requests put to them by the Village Employment Councils. Due to large percentage of tribal population, Meghalaya does not have the Gram Panchayat System, but a thriving village democracy with various forms of governance like Nokma, Village Employment and Development Council in every village in which each household has a member, minimum 50% women participation, a vibrant utilization of MNEREGA funds, etc.
Marak recalls the days when Fisheries Department meant no work. From there, due to more community-oriented schemes through the Meghalaya Basin Development Organisation, Fisheries and Agriculture have become the most popular departments in Meghalaya Government.
I have seen Fisheries Offices in many states, and I will only say that this is a refreshing difference, bordering to unbelievable.
From West Garo Hills district, we entered the East Garo Hills District and reached the town of Williamnagar where we visited the Fishery Conservation Office. I have never tasted bamboo-smoked fish or steaming rice wrapped in banana leaves or local fish delicacies in any other Fisheries Office so far. Fisheries Conservation Officer told us about the rivers in East Garo Hills, Fishery Conservation efforts and the impacts of fish sanctuaries on local communities and fish populations here. He made it a point to highlight that six fish sanctuaries in East Garo Hills are a culmination of local efforts and Fisheries Department and Meghalaya Aquaculture Mission only support them fully in their efforts. We were taken to Nengmandalgre Fish Sanctuary on the Chibok River, a tributary of the Ganol River.
Over 50 villagers had gathered to meet us at Nengmandalgre, but we were delayed and could meet only a few of them. Nengmandalgre Sanctuary was formally protected in 2014, but was being protected several years before that. Now, a village known earlier for an absconding militant, is known for an extremely rich fish sanctuary. There is a small tea shop lining the river selling rice puffs and snacks for the fish.
The population of Chocolate Mahseer here was astounding. The Fisheries Officer told us how fish population in the entire river skyrocketed after the formation of the sanctuary and how fisherfolk get around 80-90 kgs of fish per day in this river. The villagers gathered there wanted to tell us so much, but it was getting dark and I could not understand a word. However, Their smiles convinced us that the story they wanted to tell us was a happy one.
We also saw two smaller fish sanctuaries at Mandalwari and Gongnewari on the Ganol River and Selbalgre on the Didare River. All these sanctuaries had astounding number of fish, crabs and a very healthy riparian forest.
Marak told us that seed is being collected from these fish to be used in hatcheries in other states.
Where there’s a will
I am still trying to grasp the scale of what I saw in Garo Hills. Too many factors, which have now eluded our rivers in other places, have come together in a tiny corner of the world to culminate into a phenomenon: A free-flowing river rich with nutrients, less pollution until coal mining belt starts, no dams to stop the breeding migration of Mahseer and change river characteristics upstream or downstream, a vibrant community organically linked to the river and forests, and most importantly, a governance system which makes space for the people it tries to serve, which does not impose, but tries to listen and respond.
I told Marak that I have yet to meet Fisheries Officers who did not talk about seeding reservoirs, introducing exotic fish species, building hatcheries: in short everything apart from the river which nourishes the fish. The link is so simple: If we have a healthy river, we will have ample fish.
But Fisheries Departments all over the country are divorced from this fact. They do not raise their voices when dams displace entire fishing villages like in the case of GosiKhurd in Maharashtra, or when 10000 fisherfolk families downstream a dam like Sardar Sarovar, or when Barrages stop the migration of a cultural icon like Hilsa in the case of Farakka Barrage in West Bengal, or when indiscriminate dredging destroys dolphin habitat in Ganga, or when Hydropower Projects destroy the most fish-rich stream runs in Himachal Pradesh.
Maybe Meghalaya is yet to feel that pinch. Maybe the picture will be different then. But Marak has raised his voice against Ganol Small Hydro power project and Daribokgre Dam which was supposed to be built on a headwater tributary of Simsang was halted dramatically by locals for downstream fish.
Things are different here. When the world has either forgotten about the fish in rivers, or is carrying sturgeons or salmon for hundreds of miles over dams, in Simsang, Ganol, Chibok and other rivers of Meghalaya, fish appear underwater when we flick our wrists.
This is a world worth saving. It shows that it is possible to cater to local needs while protecting free flowing rivers and nurturing rare fish. The work of communities and Aquaculture Mission of Meghalaya is worthy of a very long standing ovation.
This article first appeared on SANDRP’s blog.