A catch in Andhra Pradesh’s aquaculture success story 

The State is a leader in fish and shrimp production in the country, but the allure of quick success has led to unregulated expansion, leaving behind a trail of destruction. Unauthorised shrimp farming has resulted in contaminated water leading to health complications, rendered hundreds of coconut trees lifeless, and made people dependent on water tankers, finds Nellore Sravani

Updated - February 08, 2024 03:36 pm IST

Published - January 26, 2024 08:27 am IST

Two men fishing in Kolleru Lake, the largest shallow freshwater lake in Asia.

Two men fishing in Kolleru Lake, the largest shallow freshwater lake in Asia. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

There is water everywhere, as far as the eye can see — in the fields, in the sea, in the canals and in the ponds. Yet, people here, at Antarvedi of Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district, depend on tankers for drinking water. The region is lush with greenery, but here and there, the sight of dying coconut and palm trees, both inland and on the coast, is a warning sign. Conversations with people living in the composite districts of Krishna, East Godavari, West Godavari in Andhra Pradesh, reveal that the groundwater is contaminated with harmful chemicals, leading to skin allergies and loss of agricultural crops. The reason for this ill-health, of both land and locals, is high aquacultural activity.

The State, with a 974-kilometre coastline, the second longest in the country, had 2.12 lakh hectares of aquaculture area as of 2021, according to the National Fisheries Development Board website. Shrimp from here is exported to America and Europe. Andhra Pradesh produced 46.23 lakh metric tonnes (MT) of fish and shrimp in 2021, the highest in the country, and 6.40 lakh MT of the country’s overall shrimp production of 8.52 lakh MT in the same year.

Behind this data lies a story of destruction: of the environment, of health, and of livelihood.

“From the time it came into vogue in the 1980s, aquaculture has been a source of income for many farmers. A majority of farmers in coastal areas, where paddy is mostly grown, battered by frequent cyclones and low yield, turned to aquaculture for income and became successful. When others saw how quick success came to their neighbours, they also took it up,” says Y. Rajesh, State general secretary of Human Rights Forum (HRF), which has been raising awareness about the ill-effects of unauthorised aquaculture in the affected regions for more than five years now.

Aquaculture in coastal areas comes under the purview of the Coastal Aquaculture Authority Act, 2005. It must be taken up in designated aquaculture zones, and as per the rules, officials must ensure that agriculture, salt-pan areas, mangroves, wetlands, forest lands, and village lands are not used.

“But culturing of shrimp is done in non-aqua zones, without permissions. On paper they say it is a freshwater farm, but they do shrimp farming. There are several illegal ponds, converted from agricultural lands, where people mix fresh water with sea water,” Rajesh says.

Shrimp farming needs brackish water. Except near creeks, brackish water is not found in inland areas, says P. Ravi, who retired as a senior environmental engineer from the A.P. Pollution Control Board. In inland areas, the other way of accessing the salinity required for shrimp farming is to sink borewells 40-50 feet.

Ravi explains how aggressive aquaculture can harm the environment: “The faecal matter of shrimp and fish that settle at the bottom of the pond have ammonia, which gets mixed with the air when a farmer cleans the pond. Its concentration is high during harvesting that takes place every twice or thrice a year. This affects the vegetation nearby.”

Also, shrimp ponds require a salinity of 5 parts per thousand (PPT) or more, while the normal PPT where other crops grow is not more than 0.5. The upper layer of the groundwater remains fresh, so farmers pump the water from deeper levels, say 50 feet, to get the water of required salinity, Ravi says. While discharging, the wastewater is let into drains. In Antarvedi Pallipalem and nearby places, the same drain water is used for crops, leading to damage. L Vannamei variety of shrimp that farmers these days grow is prone to diseases, the scientist says. To prevent disease within the ponds, farmers use chemicals, often unlabelled, available in the open market.

Coconut trees dying

The region of Konaseema, now a district, was known for its coconut trees. “They used to be called the Kalpavruksham (a tree that fulfils desires) of Konaseema. Coconuts from here used to fetch us a good sum. One coconut would yield more than 500 ml of water. Today, it has come down to 100 ml. The trees in more than 10 villages in this region have been affected. They all now have a stunted growth, and the leaves bear a reddish look,” says Kollabathula Rambabu, a coconut farmer in this village.

His coconut trees on 6 acres died after aquaculture was taken up in the surrounding area. He did not receive any compensation for the crop lost. Before aquaculture came, crops of millets, paddy, fruits used to grow here. There are hundreds of farmers in the region who went through similar losses. “But none could raise their voices beyond a point,” says Babu, adding that they understand that their land is already polluted, making it unfit for paddy. That is why we see lakhs of hectares dedicated to aqua farming, explains Babu. Those who did not have enough capital required for aquaculture have moved to other places for livelihood.

A land being cleared for setting up of aquaculture pond, near Kolleru.

A land being cleared for setting up of aquaculture pond, near Kolleru. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

He and only a few others have resisted converting his land, because he feels aquaculture is not here to stay, and there will come a time when a reversal starts. “I know the land has become useless for any crop now. We are hoping it will improve in future and will be of some use to my children,” he says.

Impact in inland areas

In inland areas where there is no creek, only fish culture can be taken up. But fish is not as lucrative as shrimp. Where 1 kg fish fetches ₹100 to ₹150, the same quantity of prawn is sold for more than ₹200. “We see people bringing salt water to mix with the water to grow shrimp,” says Mariyaraju, a daily wage earner from Kanukollu town in Eluru district.

Unlike those who can afford it, Mariyaraju and his neighbours, who live in SC Colony, do not depend on tankers. “It is too costly for us,” he says. People in the colony depend on a nearby well, one of the few not yet contaminated. Three out of seven wells in the town have turned saline.

In July last year, Mariyaraju filed a case in the Andhra Pradesh High Court against the owner of an aqua pond that was coming up barely 300 metres from the well that the SC Colony gets its drinking water from. “There are close to 700 small farmers who did not get proper yield because of pollution of the fields. They are now working as agricultural labourers in others’ fields,” Mariyaraju points out.

Women, who used to work in the fields nearby, have to commute long distances these days. J. Mariyamma, a neighbour of Mariyaraju, says she and 30 other women travel 40 km every day for work. “All the fields near our colony are polluted. While we get ₹300 as daily wages, we spend half of it as travel fare,” she says.

In this colony, people have complained to officials about developing skin allergies due to the contamination. Such allergies are common among people in Dr. B.R. Ambedkar Konaseema district and areas around Kolleru Lake in Eluru district too. But barring a few, people generally do not report it to government officials.

R. Ratna Raju, who is in the business of selling coconuts, left for Dubai for work in 2008. On his return in 2015, he observed a change. The water in the well outside his house had become saline. Many farmers were migrating to other livelihoods due to a fall in yield and income, and people around him were complaining of itchy skin. Near his house, within a radius of 1 km, there are around 15 aqua farms, the closest being right opposite the main gate of his house, some 50 metres away.

“We are scared. If it can harm our skin today, imagine what else can be impacted tomorrow,” says Ratna Raju. This fear prompted him to write to the mandal and district officials in 2016, seeking a stop to aquaculture. When help did not arrive, he approached the Razole court first, and then the High Court. The judgment was in his favour, and aquaculture in two ponds outside his house was stopped.

Now, after eight years of his fight, people in and around the area have begun using the water for washing again. “We nipped it in the bud. This is why we still have a few trees alive. If one goes to the Antarvedi Pallipalem side, 22 km away, one can see the trail of damage left behind by aquaculture,” he says.

Skirting rules

Laws mandate that the ponds have a minimum distance from agricultural farms, habitations, and the sea, and that each pond has an effluent treatment system. “It has become purely business now. Every official, no matter where they are placed in the system, is involved. I approached the State-level officials and the Ministry, but they either pass the buck to each other or express helplessness in regulating the activity,” says Venkatapathi Raja Yenumula, who filed a petition with the National Green Tribunal (NGT) in April 2020 against illegal sand mining and aquaculture in Konaseema district.

A man throwing a net to harvest an aquaculture crop, near Kolleru Lake in Eluru district.

A man throwing a net to harvest an aquaculture crop, near Kolleru Lake in Eluru district. | Photo Credit: G.N. Rao

Post the petition, the NGT had ordered that a committee be formed to inquire into the issue and submit a report. The joint committee comprised scientists and officials from the Central and State departments of whom Ravi was one. The report was submitted in 2021. The report identified illegal farms owned by 30 persons in 10 villages of Malkipuram, Sakinetipalli and Mammidikuduru mandals. Later, the Collector and the State Fisheries Department filed a counter-affidavit saying the farms were not unauthorised.

The law mandates registration of all coastal aquaculture farms operating in the coastal area. The Sub-Divisional Level Committees (SDLC) and District Level Committees (DLC) receive applications for new registrations. Between March 2022 and April 2023, as many as 2,585 applications for registration of farms were received across the country. Of this, the maximum number of applications were from Andhra Pradesh (1,409). There’s a discrepancy between people that receive a permit to run the establishment and those present on ground.

To operate a shrimp pond, a farmer must approach the DLC. Once permission is obtained, the Electricity department provides power connection to the pond to run aerators. A source in the department who works on ground, says, “Once the go-ahead comes from the committees, we give the connection to the pond, even when we know it has come up illegally. Lakhs of money change hands in these areas.”

While Eluru District Collector Prasanna Venkatesh did respond to text messages on the extent of damage suffered by Kolleru Lake, the largest shallow freshwater lake in Asia, District Fisheries Officer, Konaseema, says: “We are trying to designate more areas as aqua zones in the district. We must get approvals from Gram Sabha, Village, Mandal, District Level Committee on if an area can be converted into an aqua zone. The process is tedious. This is why many go ahead without permission. We are acting against owners of unauthorised farms.”

“Aquaculture is good so long as it remains an activity carried out for sustenance. The moment it became commercial, the environment went for a toss,” says T. Patanjali Sastry, award-winning Telugu writer and environmental activist, who stood against the illegal digging of aquaculture ponds in Kolleru. Today, aqua farms have come up in more than 20,000 acres of the lake spread across 2,25,250 acres. Fuelled by money and power, encroachment on the wetlands continues, and more land keeps getting converted to aqua ponds illegally.

HRF activist Rajesh feels the government must first ensure minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural crops. “If MSP is ensured, farmers will not have to go for aquaculture, which, though is profitable, has many pitfalls. The government should provide alternative livelihoods to the farmers,” he says, adding that this may be the only way of protecting the environment and the people who live here.

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