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Jal Shramik Sangha, (Bihar)

Jal Shramik Sangh

GANGA MUKTI ANDOLAN (GMA)

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Name:                                    Jal Shramik Sangh

Address:                                Kagzi Tola, Kahalgaon, District – Bhagalpur, State – Bihar

Establishment:                   1983

Coverage:                             7 districts – Bhagalpur, Paschim Champaran, Munger, , Saran
(Chhapra), Samastipur, Katihar, Naugachiya

Members / Followers:       Approx 10000 fishworkers are connected with Jal Shramik Sangha.

Office Bearers:                   State Convener-                                           Yogendra Sahni

                                                GMA Main organiser-                                 Rampujan Singh

                                                District Coordinator (Bhagalpur)          Sunil Sahni

                                                District Coordinator (W. Champaran) Bunni lal Sahni

                                                District Coordinator (Munger)                Yogendra Sahni

                                                District Coordinator (Saran)                  Bhola Mukhia

                                                District Coordinator (Samastipur)         Umesh Sahni

                                                District Coordinator (Katihar)               Hemlal Sahni

An Anecdote:

Ganga Mukti Andolan (GMA), apeoples’ movement to free river Ganga from the stranglehold of zemindars and mafias and Jal Shramik Sangh, an organization of fisher people and boatmen, whose livelihoods directly depended on river Ganga, were born in the resistance movement of 1982 in Bihar’s Bhagalpur district. The movement mobilized thousands of fisher people, peasants, and boat operators against the infamous “panidari” system–which ensuredexclusive rights of zamindars (landlords) to fish and run boats over an 80 km stretch of river Ganga from Sultanganj to Pirpainti.

“Panidari” had flourished over this stretch of the Ganga from the times of the Mughals, and it continued even after zamindari was abolished in 1954 in the rest of the country. The stretch was divided into two strips, each under one zamindar, and contracted out. The contractors, in their turn, leased out the river to individual fish workers, collecting hefty charges annually. Many criminal gangs of the region also extracted money from the fishers and often took away their boats and nets.

During the first eight years of its struggle, GMA organized various marches, dharnas, and meetings that mobilized the fisher people and drew support to their movement from different quarters. Till today, every year on February 22, its birth anniversary, GMA organizes a festival at Kagzi Tola in Kahalgaon, to make the people at large aware of the problems faced by the fishing communities.

GMA attained a major victory, when in January 1991 after a long struggle, zamindari on river (Panidari) and contract system were abolished and traditional fisher people were given free fishing rights in 500 km stretch of Ganga and all rivers passing through the state of Bihar.  

But the victory had also posed new organizational challenges for the GMA. Although not on paper, after the so-called abolition of the “panidari” system, the local mafias became the new zamindars and continued exploiting the fisher people in whatever way they could. With growing ecological degradation of the river and rapidly declining fish stock life became even more challenging for the fishing communities.

It would be good to point out here that in 1991, the very year in which the river became ‘free for all’, the Department of Environment and Forests of Bihar designated a 60 km stretch from Sultanganj to Kahalgaon as the Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary (VGDS) to protect the endangered Gangetic river dolphin (Platanista Gangetica). The designation of VGDS was in no way directly connected with the advent of open access regimefor the fishers. The fishing communities took it as a government ploy to exert control and ban fishing from the sanctuary. This was obvious because the fisher people, who had been the largest primary stakeholders of the fish resources borne by the river stretch, were never consulted in the process let alone taking their informed consent. Further, promulgation of Dolphin Sanctuary entailed harassments and extortions by the forest staff. Although fishing was never banned inside the sanctuary, fishing rights were also never settled giving rise to arbitrary actions.

ECOLOGICAL DEGRADATION DUE TO FARAKKA BARRAGE

According to GMA, the construction of Farakka barrage across the river Ganga in West Bengal state territory had proved to be inauspicious on many counts, the river rapidly lost its entire ecology, deposit of silt emerged as the main obstruction in the smooth flow of Ganga. High-intensity floods became a recurring affair in Ganga basin, the pattern of crops also changed in Ganga’s fertile catchment plains. Due to the Farakka barrage, the immensely productive fisheries of the region nearly collapsed, as Hilsa and major carps declined substantially. Decline in fisheries productivity worsened after the construction of the Kanpur Barrage and the Tehri dam upstream on the Ganga (by 1999). If proper attention is not given, GMA fears, the days are not far away when river Ganga will disappear with its fisheries.

DEPLETING FISH STOCK & INJURIOUS FISHING PRACTICES

The decreasing number of fish has been a direct outcome of the siltation and destruction of the river’s micro-ecosystems caused by injurious fishing practices and the increasing pollution of the river Ganga. As per the fisher folk of Kagzi Tola, the number of fish has declined by nearly 75% in the last decade. The big varieties of fishes have just disappeared, and the fishers get only 2-4 kg fish a day.

According to KS Bilgrami, head of Bhagalpur University’s botany department, who has done pioneering work on Ganga pollution, the breeding of saline water species like hilsa, which move up the river to spawn, has been adversely affected due to silting up of the fish ladder at the Farakka barrage. Siltation also raises the upstream river bed, causing heavy floods every year during the monsoons, right from Mokamma to Murshidabad, and is fast depleting the river’s 300 varieties of algae, a major fish food.

The dwindling number of fish, especially of the bigger and matured ones, triggered a struggle for survival among the fisher folk, in which even the juveniles were not spared. The use of cloth nets, though legally banned, has become rampant and that further destroys the fish stock. In the absence of bigger fish, fishers were forced to use monofilament nylon nets, so that they could catch small fishes, but even their number dwindled. This led to the use of cloth nets.

In addition to this, the river tributaries from Munger to Kahalgaon are often leased out. The fisher folk harvest juvenile fish weighing 15 gms, though they can attain a weight of 3 kgs in two years if allowed to reach the main river. The juvenile fish is caught and sold by heaps. Even gravid (pregnant) fish, which contain at least 200-300 eggs each, are caught.

The mafia started operating highly destructive fishing gears such as mosquito-nets (Kapda Jaal or Musahri Jaal) and river-seines (Kachaal Jal) with mesh sizes from 1 to 4 mm, which led to mass mortality of fish eggs, seedlings and juveniles – and caused heavy depletion of fish stocks. This continues till date.  Small scale fishers have continuously opposed this and even risked their lives while trying to get these nets removed from the river, but the criminals often have political patronage.  Not only that, the fisheries department and the forest department, who bear official responsibility to curb these illegal and destructive gears, have done nothing. Obviously for reasons related to corruption, nexuses with the mafia and exploitation of poor fishers).

As if this is not all, fish seedlings are taken out at least at 16 places in the region, often by landlords for their private ponds. Almost 90 percent of the seedlings is destroyed en route. But even the rest is highly profitable and the whole system is well-organized, with the railways having made special arrangement to transport illegally captured fish seedlings.

INCREASING POLLUTION OF GANGA

Heavy pollution has lowered the level of dissolved oxygen in the river, and destroyed algae and plankton, affecting the entire food chain of the fish. In 1985, four factories in the Mokamma region were identified for severely polluting the 256 kms of Ganga, from Barauni to Farakka.

The Bata shoe factory and the McDowell distillery discharged 250,000 liters of dirty water into the river daily. Experiments showed that fish exposed to the water in the Bata region died within 48 hours, while in the McDowell area they survived only five hours.

Another major pollutant is the petrochemical factory, effluents, and oil spills which caused a big fire in the Ganga in 1968. Yet another culprit is a liquor factory, Shiv Shankar Chemical Industries, in Jagadishpur block of the Banka region, against which the GMA had taken up cudgels

CORRUPTION

Another source of corruption is the fishing cooperatives, where the office-bearers, hand-in-glove with criminals and zamindars, exploit the fisherfolk. While fishing in the main river is now free, many of the river’s tributaries are leased from the state by fishing cooperatives at very low prices. Then high amounts are extracted from the fisherfolk for using these tributaries.

After the abolition of the “panidari” system in 1991, the local mafias became the new zamindars and started collecting arbitrary taxes. Not only do they control the leasing business, but they also extort exorbitant charges from the poor fisherfolk.

IDENTITY CARD

Meanwhile, identity cards are issued by the state to the fisher folk to lessen their exploitation, but these also entail problems. They are issued only through cooperatives, and hence restricted to members only. And getting the membership, too, entails exploitation. Further, the system, which is confined to traditional fisher folk, imposes area restrictions. The fisherfolk from one place cannot venture into another place for fishing. The people of Kagzi Tola have refused to accept the cards till the area restrictions and block demarcations are removed.

Steps Taken by GMA Since 1991

  • In the year 2004, GMA, under the banner of Jal Shramik Sangh, started a movement against the exploitation of the fisher people. The protest soon spread to large parts of the Bhagalpur district. Apart from the true abolition of panidari, the protestors sought a ban on using cloth nets and killing of spawn.
  • GMA activists, many of whom have been local fishers, also felt that the Farakka barrage should be removed as it had caused siltation and obstructed free movement of river water and fish, leading to a sharp decline of fish stock including hilsa.
  • GMA also expressed concern over the rapid pollution to the river and urged the government to take some concrete steps immediately instead of announcing mambo-jumbo projects. According to GMA activists, the Government has planned many projects for making the river free from pollution but there is not a single measure to make the river pollution-free from from Buxar, the point where Ganga enters into Bihar and Rajmahal where it leaves Jharkhand.
  • GMA urged the government to start various welfare schemes for the fisher people and others dependent on river Ganga.
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