Few readers know that India is the world’s second largest producer of aquaculture (fish and shellfish). Fishing was once dominated by ocean fisherfolk, but overfishing has led to virtual stagnation of the sea catch in the last decade. Meanwhile inland fisheries have grown fast and now account for 55% of the total catch of 7 million tonnes. This has greatly increased incomes and protein availability in rural India, apart from meeting rising urban and export demand. Most people associate agriculture with foodgrains. But foodgrains now account for only 26% of agricultural GDP, followed by fruits/vegetables and dairying at roughly 17-18% each. Fisheries account for 5.5%, and their share is rising. Between 1991 and 2003 foodgrain production rose only 30%, while aquaculture output rose 102%. Yet performance lags well behind potential. India’s global share is under
10% against China’s 57%. As incomes rise, grain is increasingly used as feedgrain for meat production. Producing one kilo of beef takes seven kilos of grain, but one kilo of fish needs only 1.6-2.0 kilos of grain. So fish are economically and ecologically efficient converters. Much fish in India are not fed at all. Natural organic wastes run into ponds and tanks and help the growth of plankton, which fish eat. Obviously, fish yields rise with feeding. Shrimp and salmon are omnivorous varieties that grow fast on animal matter. But carp (rohu), the most common variety in India, is herbivorous. Fish feed for carp is typically a mixture of husk, bran, oilcakes and grain. Centuries of experience have taught the Chinese to maximize the use of pond water. In each pond, they typically grow four carp varieties which feed at different levels. Silver carp and big-headed carp are top feeders, grass carp are middle-feeders, and common carp are bottom feeders. Such multi-level aquaculture is being attempted in India too through state fishery departments, but their extension and seed-supply efforts are woefully inadequate. I speak from experience: I have been a fish farmer myself. I can also tell you from experience that fish farming is hazardous. The quality of fish seed is unreliable: what you get may not be what you pay for. Fish feed is equally unreliable. Theft is a constant danger: your neighbour can cast his net into your pond in a couple of minutes, and walk off with half your fish. Birds and snakes constantly attack your fish. The cost of harvesting, ice and transporting fish to the mandi is so high that you have to accept whatever price traders offer, and that may be a quarter of what you expect. Despite all this, fish production is rising. But it faces limits. Thanks to free electricity, farmers are pumping water like mad, and so water in all ponds and tanks is falling sharply. Few ponds and tanks now have perennial water, which is needed for proper fisheries. Farmers can pump groundwater to fill their fish tanks, but those using diesel pumps say diesel is prohibitively expensive. How then can we expand fish acreage? The solution, it seems to me, is to convert all canals into fisheries. Every canal be divided into 100-metre sections separated by aluminium mesh (which will not rust), and each section can be leased out to local farmers. Water for irrigation will not
be disturbed by this arrangement, and will actually be enriched by fish faeces, which are a fertilizer. Irrigation departments will earn extra revenue from leasing, which they badly need. Aquaculturists will treat their canal sections as ponds, choosing what
fish to grow and when to harvest their catch. The hazards of theft and mesh sabotage by envious neighbours will remain, but may not be much greater than in the case of ponds and tanks. The greatest danger will probably be industrial pollution: many industries today pour polluting slime into canals with impunity. However, India has hundreds of miles of canals that are free of industrial pollution, and these could produce millions of tones of fish and shellfish. They could double the effective area of inland fisheries. Savvy farmers will resort to the traditional duck-and-fish system. Ducks provide eggs and meat, but can be expensive to feed. Traditional farmers drive the ducks through their fields in the cropping season to eat insects and fallen grain, and then let them come back to ponds to eat frogs, worms and snails. This reduces insect damage to crops and duck-feeding costs simultaneously. Duck droppings in water help generate plankton, which fish then eat. It is an ecologically harmonious and productive system. I have mentioned this idea to some government officers, all of whom think it is a good idea. Mr Chidambaram, here is your chance. In your coming budget, offer states a financial incentive to convert canals into fisheries. You can call the scheme Sarva Machhli Abhiyan (fish for all).