It is mid-April and the river surface is glaring hotly at us. The Ganga at Bhagalpur, where we are, is nearly 2 kilometres wide, and on the hot day when everything seems limp with exhaustion, winged fishers are in action. Ramdev Nishad, a happy-go-lucky fisherman and friend on whose boat we are, cannot take his eyes off the little terns: they fish with raw energy and surgical precision, skimming off little river shads (Gudusia) from just beneath the water surface. The ternlets, as these birds were once called, are so accurate that Nishad cannot help but exclaim and sigh, again and again.
It is nothing new for him, having fished in the Ganga for over 30 years. But he cannot but envy the bird. “Had this bird been around in greater numbers, that would have meant the end of all fish in the Ganga!” Now a cormorant emerges near our boat, with a silver Mystus catfish gleaming in its beak. “And this one, too…” Nishad continues in his dramatic and tragicomic style, “God did not give us such good eyesight, or even we would have caught more fish and been richer.” Subhasis, who has been working with fishing communities in this area for a long time, says, “God has given you a brain. What about that?” Nishad is quick to respond, “The poor have less of that also. We are all stupid ( Hum sab to moorakh hai ),” referring to his illiteracy.
River animals and river people have a complicated relationship. There is no particular harmony of any sort, but there is no inexorable animosity either. If anything, there is a deep visceral connection between them, one that connects their tissues to river sediment—through fish.
The act of fishing, for river animals and river fishermen, is an expression of their love, which is, quite paradoxically, realised only through deception, ambush, and killing. In Bihar’s Gangetic floodplains, where the ‘law of the fishes’ prevails, the act of fishing is also one that can lead to murder, threat, and harassment. “Make no mistake,” warns Nishad while we eat fried fish, “one day we are all going to be this fish.” For Nishad and his fisher clan living in the Naugachhia town, fish are both animate and inanimate—they live only to be caught. Among humans, the fishing community knows the river and its ways unlike anyone else. But among animals, they feel they are lag behind: nothing can match a wild animal’s instincts. The feeling of ‘backwardness’ among a community as marginalised as theirs, is not limited to the socio-political reality, but includes their shared ecology with river animals.
A dying river
Illiteracy might be the least of the troubles that the Nishad or Mallah community face. For over 100 years, they were oppressed under a private fishing and boat-ferrying regime, based on extracting rents and taxes from fishing communities on the Ganga. After that regime ended, they now find themselves at the receiving end of brutalities by criminal mafia who dominate the fishery sector by setting up destructive nets and cutting off access to fishing grounds. Many fishermen are now rapidly exiting the the occupation, moving to construction labour or farm work in Punjab and Haryana. And the fate of their counterparts, the river animals, is not very different.
The Ganga, despite the proclamations and chest beating, is gradually dying. Fish stocks have declined considerably, and embankment construction and waterways development (dredging and large ship traffic) continue to threaten its endangered wildlife. In such a tight space, the relationship between the fishing community and animals teeter somewhere between desperation and animosity.
Naresh, an elderly fisherman who lives in Nishad’s locality, is our philosopher and guide. “You might not believe in rebirth, but we do. I would want to be a river dolphin in my next life — there are more people who care for it.”
The Bhagalpur and Naugachhia fishermen often find ways of comparing themselves with the dolphin, in a way that reflects their strongly connected fates. The rhetoric that “the Mallah fisherman will survive only if the dolphin survives” may be subject to ecological scrutiny, but carries major political traction in the conservation politics of the place.
The Vikramshila Gangetic Dolphin Sanctuary, a protected area in which Bhagalpur lies, poses an additional risk to life for many fishermen. The Forest Department staff in a bid to make a quick buck, seize their nets at whim, while entirely ignoring the highly destructive fishing gear set up by the mafia. No fishing rights to the space have been settled, so fishermen have found the best way out: always pledge support to dolphin conservation, even if it means they do not have to do anything specifically for it.
Although targeted hunting has nearly stopped, the accidental bycatch of dolphins in gill nets makes up for a similar amount of mortality. With a highly damaged habitat, exacerbated during the dry season and waterway dredging, this mortality rate is expected to increase. It may be the case that an otherwise casual relationship between fishermen and dolphin has been worsened by the destruction of the Ganga, the ultimate consequence being the death of dolphins, and the erasure of the fishing community from policy makers’ agendas.
Otters are people
But amid this depressing scenario, there are bonds of a strange—but hopeful—kind. As we move along the river’s side-channel, Naresh bends forward and cups his ear. “ Ud bol raha hai” , he says: the smooth-coated otters ( Ud ) in the tamarix bush on the islands are ‘talking’. Sure enough, we see two round heads looking at us through a dense reed patch along the inner channel. They squeak, whistle and flee. Then one pup and a larger otter return to the sand spit again, rolling and playing with a fisherman’s abandoned net. Soon, more otters join in, with the sentries of the pack standing erect on their hind legs every now and then, and squeaking at us.
They carry on with fishing and within the next 20 minutes, the pack returns to the scrub patches. In Bhagalpur, otters are not killed or hunted by fishermen, and as a result it is easy to see them closely on the floodplains. Many believe that killing an otter brings bad luck, and can lead to disease and deprivation. Naresh continues, “Otters are not animals, they are people. They are us — a fishing community.”
River animals include humans, and river humans include animals. The line between them is artificial and thin, the stories of loss similar.
The writer studies river biodiversity and fisheries in Bihar’s Gangetic floodplains.