“I saw the flood coming in front of my own eyes,” said Harish Dhanotia, a former trout farmer from Lohardi in Himachal Pradesh’s Kangra. “I was saving my fish by catching them with my hands.”
Dhanotia a formerly college-educated engineer for technology company HCL, quit his job to open his trout farm in 2015. But after a river flood damaged his already struggling farm into failure in 2020, he is now trying to run a shop after a spell of unemployment. “Ye jua hai [This is gambling],” he said about trout farming. “I gained no benefit from it.”
Dhanotia belongs to a series of trout farmers in Himachal Pradesh to start a farm which eventually failed due to a number of reasons including flash floods, and a system of reliance and yet simultaneous competition with the government.
The trout farmers of the North Indian state are dependent on the state’s Fisheries Department for the essential components of seed – hatched trout – and feed, needed for farming trout. But the same infrastructure-heavy government farms which supply the farmers, sell their own trout and compete with the farmers, putting them at a competitive disadvantage in the market.
With the government itself selling produce alongside farmers, a heavy reliance on the department for basic production components, and the quality and supply of these components not being sufficient, many farmers feel the business of trout farming is risky.
The Himachal Fisheries Department is counting on more private participation in trout farming, while several trout farmers are shutting shop and selling their farms.
Seed, feed supply
For trout farmers, the “seed” is essentially a hatched trout, which must consistently be fed and reared for two years before it is sold in the market. But with the production of seed and feed being highly technical and expensive, farmers buy these essential components from the government.
“I had to travel 36 hours to a government farm in Kinnaur for seed,” said Dhanotia, whose farm was in Lohardi. “When there was a government farm only 4 km away in Barot, Mandi. They said they will give seed to Mandi district farmers first.”
With the process of rearing trout being highly technical and long, a set-back in timely supply can have a tangible impact on the business. Notably, many farmers in Kullu today are suffering because of flash floods that occurred back in 2018 and disrupted the cycle of supply. The largest government farm in Himachal is in Patlikuhal, Kullu. This is the source of seed for most farmers and the only government source of feed for everyone.
“There is a great chance of failure in farming trout,” said Naresh Kapoor, a former farmer who owned the largest farm in Haripur near Manali from 2007 to 2013. “We would not get our feed on time, since only the Patlikuhal farm produces it. They order raw material from southern states and then take too long to make feed out of it.”
Many farmers also complained of very poor quality of feed. While Kapoor mentioned how the feed often caught fungus, most farmers said there is a guaranteed amount of waste.
Notably, in 1989, the Norwegian government signed an agreement with Himachal Pradesh’s state government for a transfer of trout culture technology. This technology has not been updated since and its produce is generally considered outdated.
The department says it wishes to decrease the farmers’ reliance on seed and feed by providing hatcheries and feed units on a subsidy. “My farm was considered the largest in the region,” Kapoor said. “I had my own hatchery, my own feed unit. Still, my farm failed.”
Even Ashu, a farmer still active in Kullu said the government should really not focus on giving everyone hatcheries and feed units. “Why would I want one when the government can provide seed and feed themselves?” he said. “It is expensive, and I will have to hire people to run it.”
According to Kapoor, who owned a 15-raceway farm, the issue was not a lack in infrastructure, but a highly technical process that was beset by many hurdles including the erratic supply of poor quality seed and feed, and the government competing with farmers by selling trout at cheap rates which put farmers at a disadvantage in the market.
“The government must really work to improve the quality of the feed and seed,” Ashu said. “Personally, I do not see the sense of farmers owning hatcheries. That money can be invested in updating their own supply of seed and feed.”
Floods and debt
With the heavy infrastructure of a trout farm being as alluring as it is expensive, many farmers take out big loans, to begin with. Balbir Singh began his project by taking a loan of Rs 48 lakhs and built a large 18-raceway farm in 2008, aided by government subsidy.
“The idea seemed very attractive at first,” Singh said over the phone. “But I faced great issues with seed supply and feed rates, and all the while there was the issue of competing with the government. I was managing, but after my entire stock was killed in a flood, I was unable to recover and sold the farm to pay off the loan.” Singh decommissioned his farm in 2013.
For Alam Chand, the matter was similar if not worse. “I had to sell my land to pay off a Rs 40 lakh loan. The government helped me set up the farm with a subsidy for three tanks, they gave me seed and feed. But the 2018 flood damaged the farm and killed my stock.” Chand said, adding that he drove a cab before starting his farm in 2013. Now he is doing odd jobs as a labourer.
There are 592 trout farmers currently registered with the Fisheries department, Satpal Mehta, Director-cum-Warden of Fisheries, told Mongabay-India over the phone. “This number only increases each year.”
However, there is no data available on farmers whose farms are decommissioned, said Mehta. Notably, a letter sent to the department by the Trout Fish Farmers Association in May 2020 claimed that only 15 of their 70 registered members had survived the impact of the 2018 Kullu floods.
“Natural calamities are the main cause of these issues,” Mehta said. “We have taken the measure of including an insurance now, for infrastructure damage and loss of livestock.”
On the issue of seed and feed supply, Mehta said that the government capacity for seed production is currently at Rs 14 lakhs when it needs to be 35 lakhs. This is why they want to give farmers their own hatcheries.
“Our Patlikuhal farm is not just a retail outlet where we sell fish,” he said. “Farmers are given anywhere between 1 day to 5 days of training there. It is just like training farmers to use a tractor. You teach them the basics and then they get good enough to teach others too.”
An assistant director at the Fisheries department who wished to remain anonymous said over the phone that there are some gaps within the department, the biggest issue being a shortage of staff.
“But then farmers often do not follow the department’s guidelines,” the assistant director said. “If farmers enter the business with appropriate resources and remain in touch with the department, the business is usually successful.”
However, farmers seem to have a strained relationship with the fisheries officers and the training programmes. “How will they train us? They themselves are not experts,” said Kapoor, reflecting the sentiment shared by other farmers Mongabay India spoke with. The training offered by the department is largely thought to be inadequate.
Shakti Singh Jamwal, president of the Trout Fish Farmers Association highlighted the need for better training and special schemes for trout farmers. “Farming trout is highly technical, and when the government, with all its funding and infrastructure, is unable to properly provide seed and feed, how will a lone farmer manage to do it?” he said. “A single day’s training means nothing.”
Jamwal went on to add, “The government needs to help us. There is a need for schemes that address our issues with floods. They must update seed and feed technology on their end and must stop competing with us in the state. It is as simple as that.”
When asked about the government’s insurance initiative Jamwal responded by saying that its mettle will be tested as people begin to make use of it now.
When former farmers were asked if they would recommend trout farming to newcomers, they were hesitant. Dhanotia said, “Mai toh karzai hua bas. Kuch fayeda nahi hua. [I received debt. I did not receive any benefit].”
This article first appeared on Mongabay.
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