When a terrestrial lifeline like the river Ganga meanders and changes course, it rewrites human destinies.
As has been done for centuries, people believe that they can shape this river to their liking. My friends in the fishing communities along the southern banks of the Ganga in the Bhagalpur district of Bihar, India light-heartedly laugh at such commonly held beliefs. They watch as the river builds exquisite sand sculptures only to destroy them – an endless process of creative destruction. An iteration that sustains them
This stretch of the Ganga is constantly in dynamic flux. It meanders through the state of Bihar, home to some of the world’s most ancient civilizations and centers of culture, including India’s first – the Maurya empire. One of its largest cities, Bhagalpur, is surrounded by the incredibly fertile Gagnetic plains. Extreme seasonal flooding characterises the landscape and its people, who live at the behest of its high waters from June through November
Throughout history, state government initiatives have attempted to control the river. Even today’s policies have allowed urban and industrial needs, hydropower, and irrigation to significantly alter the quantity and quality of water that flows down the Ganga. However, these natural fluctuations are critical to the biodiversity and productivity of the river system and the livelihoods of the local fishing communities who depend on the river’s diverse aquatic life. The Ganga is home to 90 varieties of indigenous fish, 200 birds, turtles, crocodiles, smooth-coated otters, and the Ganges river dolphin. Their life cycles depend on the water, nutrients, and oxygen levels brought by the river’s flow of freshwater. Without the river’s movement, this aquatic biodiversity would fail to regenerate. For centuries, fisherfolk have learned to read the river’s movement, embracing its mighty shifts of sediment and the life it brings.
Pushtaini fishers – i.e., those who have fished for generations – along this stretch of the Ganga are of the Mallah caste-group, a combine of multiple groups referenced as fisherfolk in ancient Indian sanskrit texts since the 7th century BCE. Their experiential knowledge about the breeding and migratory habits of fishes, turtles, water birds, river dolphins, and flow dynamics of the river itself is phenomenal and detailed. Such knowledge is distilled through years of fishing in the river. The Mallah fishers in the Gangetic Plains of Bihar have lived in the area for centuries, throughout which they have navigated the throes of British colonialism and India’s Green Revolution. Today, many in these communities depend on the Ganga River for their livelihoods, but due to political and environmental impacts on the river, experience poverty, landlessness, marginalisation and discrimination. The fishers that continue to fish the river also navigate the increasingly dangerous social and political complexities that govern its waters, their livelihood needs from the river’s ecosystem becoming more complicated each day, and their identity getting eroded and altered along with it.
As a river ecologist, I hesitate to personify the river as the pushtaini fishers do. In my studies, the river is merely a physical force; the flux of its sediments is neither intended nor purposeful. But as I listen to the fisherfolk’s reverence for the life of the river and its governance over their lives, built over centuries of observation, I hear wisdom. Their lifeways are intertwined with the preservation of biodiversity and the lives of those who live on and along the Ganga. Today, I come to listen.
The fishermen of Barari Village in Bhagalpur always talk about the Ganges River, called Ganga in Hindi, as Gangaji – as if the river were a person among and above them. The river moves, talks, gets angry, and becomes calm. Ask Jogi Babu. He is from the Gonrhi subcaste of the Mallah. Over the last twelve years, the river has been a constant and recurrent theme of our extended discussions. Recently, our conversations have revolved around the bend at Lodipur, about 10 km upstream of Barari, and when it will give way to a straighter path.
We are on the river on a warm but moist October morning. Jogi Babu is rowing his small fishing boat – a denghi – towards the large sand peninsula opposite of the Barari ghat, his current fishing spot. As he rows the small fishing boat closer, I ask him, “will it be this year?” Jogi Babu is not so easily drawn in. “What can be said?” he replies. “It all depends on Gangaji. Jab Gangaji ka marzi hoga tabhi na diara katega (The island will be breached only when the river wishes).” The trained ecologist in me thinks better of further inquiry and accepts his explanation. It is indeed hard, if not wildly complex, to predict such a thing. Unavoidable is the fact that the river will dictate its own movements in its own time. Gangaji is in control of their intertwined destinies.
Jogi Babu points toward a spot on the river. At the edges of ripples crossing, I see the water’s hue change from a deep grey-brown to a milk chocolate, likely where a sand bar could emerge once the floodwaters recede. Jogi Babu sees it too. “Yahaan jaagega kachhaar! (The island will awaken here!),” he thunders. “This is the tongue of the growing peninsula. It will be a long time until the river can break through,” he says, gently touching the spot with his oar, patiently awaiting the shift. Despite Jogi Babu’s inability to change the river’s course, his experience has given him the awareness to predict it and respond accordingly.
People around the world have been vainly fighting rivers or fleeing them for thousands of years. Modern technology and centralized state control of rivers have intensified such responses. In India, colonial and postcolonial drives to ramp up food production and agricultural land revenue created massive engineering intrusions into the river’s course and extensive pollution of its waters. Since the Mughal Empire of the 16th and 17th century CE and British colonization, state revenue-generating policies through the privatization of the river and its shores have undermined local communities in various ways.
The riverine fisheries of the Ganga support one of the largest fishing populations of the world. However, its fish resources are rapidly declining due to large dams, barrages and hydropower projects, pollution, sand mining, riverfront encroachment, and excessive exploitation of fish resources in some areas. These impacts cumulatively disrupt the flow dynamics and connectivity between rivers and wetlands, increasing irregular sediment deposits and damaging the biodiversity of local ecosystems.
Since 1975, the Farraka Barrage on the Ganga has blocked enough sediment to affect its fish ladders, drastically reducing the abundance levels of migratory fish. The breeding of native fish and shrimp species like hilsa, jhinga, or Pangas, vital to the local fisher people and markets throughout India and Bangladesh, were adversely affected by the silting of the fish ladder once they were unable to move up the river to spawn. The same siltation raised the upstream river bed, causing even heavier floods during the monsoons and is fast depleting the river’s numerous varieties of algae, a major fish food.
Socio-political oppression over centuries of a private rent-seeking regime controlling th fishery, and ecological degradation, led fishers to organize the Ganga Mukti Andolan, a social movement which succeeded in convincing the Bihar state government to end the private control over fisheries in 1991. Fishing became open-access, however, in the absence of localized institutional control by fishing communities, criminals and fishing mafia have now come to dominate the open-access fisheries.Today, local criminals extort rents from fishermen working in the side channels of the Ganga.
They also harvest fish, setting up large mosquito nets as barricades. These nets extract some of the smallest life in the river, causing mass mortality of larval and juvenile fishes, and suppressing vital food sources for indigenous marine life. Local mafia have also been known to poison channels, which is obviously illegal, but legal ambiguities leave loopholes to exploit.
The absence of government protection and inclusion for local fisher people in fisheries management schemes has allowed the impact of the local mafias to worsen. Between 1987 and 2017, reports indicate that at least 80-100 fishers were murdered by fishing mafia criminals for refusing to part with their fish catch. Traditional fishing practices are becoming more and more difficult to sustain under these pressures. Many fishers have started leaving the fisheries and migrating to distant locations in search of construction and farm labor jobs, which further adds to their overall vulnerability and poverty.
“If the river cuts across and Gangaji flows straight, we will have to worry less about being harassed by the local mafia who control this inlet now,” Jogi Babu sighs. The threat of the mafia is smaller in the main navigable channel of the Ganga. He tells me that the peninsula across Barari has been growing a large tongue since 2015. The main Ganga river has moved slightly north since this sand mass started growing. This caused the side-channel at Barari, the Jamunia channel, to lengthen and get enclosed. “We now have to spend a lot more time to reach Gangaji. Hamare liye channel khulana zaroori hai (for us it is critical that the meander breaks and the river cuts through),” says Jogi Babu with a sigh. The meander’s breach could straighten the Ganga’s course and wash away this threat to Jogi Babu and his folk for some years to come. When a meander will reopen again, the fishermen would adapt to a different context – the changes in the meandering course deeply interwoven with their lives.
For many others, such a breach would be a problem. Farmers complain when their lands erode and fresh conflicts begin over the new boundaries that the river draws on the floodscape. The river will also flow right alongside Bhagalpur city. Without adequate government regulations, pollution of the river would increase. The peninsula opposite Barari has been growing fast. Large man-made riprap embankments along the banks of Raghopur Village (between Lodipur Village and Barari) have exacerbated rapid erosion. Raghopur’s politicians and local contractors have been fortifying these embankments with stones, cement, plastics, and whatever construction material they can lay their hands on. But this has also made the river flow fast and furiously, producing excessive sediment. Attempts to dredge the river and deepen the channel near Bhagalpur for ships have also added to unpredictable sediment deposition patterns.
The Pushtaini Fishers
The Ganga meanders its course in the plains through Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and then into West Bengal and Bangladesh, where it joins the Brahmaputra. Some channels, what I call meanders, are small but growing. Some are large and ready to break off into ox-bow lakes. The river floods every year with the arrival of the monsoon. The floodwaters flow like waves pulsing through the river’s course, depositing tonnes and tonnes of sediment along the way, forcing it to carve out new paths, testing the resistance of its silt sculptures.
I track these growing and dying meanders through satellite images. But fisher people like Jogi Babu have mental maps, made and maintained by their years of daily fishing trips. While I pore over contour maps, they read the river by the touch of their oars. “Look here,” says Jogi Babu, docking his boat and wading into the water flowing by a small islet. He beckons me over to feel the silt-rich water with my feet as we look for hard tubercles. Something pokes my foot. I reach down and in a few minutes, a little roofed turtle sits in my palm, its arms, legs and head withdrawn in the distinct shell that indicates its name. Jogi Babu calls it a “kachhua daawar” or turtle-dig. Where he finds this turtle, he explains, he can tell the sandbar is likely to spread. The turtles’ movements are vital to his reading of the river, and so its life is valuable to him.
Despite this value of turtles, many fishers also hunt them as they fish in the river. The same is not the case with Smooth-coated otters, despite the considerable damage they can cause to fishing nets when they attempt to extract fish caught in them. Smooth-coated otters are top predators of aquatic ecosystems and shape the aquatic species of the communities. Despite high losses, fishers do not mind otters. Killing an otter is seen as a sinful act that will lead to harm and ruin for the wrong-doing fisherman. This reinforces a positive and even caring attitude towards them. The elderly and kind Ramesji Nisad told me, “Otters have their own small societies, just like us, and are another community of fishers, just as we are”. Perhaps as a result, otter densities are remarkably high, and they seem to enjoy protection in the area.
We move further along towards Lodipur, where the river has been butting against a huge eye-shaped island. I tell Jogi Babu that I think the meander will breach the island only in the following year. He gives me a grave but thoughtful look. “That is going to be hard for us. For you, the meander breach is just a thing to study, but for us it means everything. What we are able to do tomorrow will depend on this meander’s fate.” I understand what he means. Simply put, the river dictates their lives; where they cast nets, when to weave new nets, how much to invest, when to wake up, when to sleep. The river may meander as she pleases, but Barari’s fishermen stake their lives on its course.
When the meander will breach
Colonial and post-colonial policies and practices impact the river and affect Jogi Babu’s expert meander predictions, but do not deter him. His confidence is such that he is willing to bet money on it. “Hum sau rupaiya ka sarat lagaye hai Raju Babu ke saath (I have a Rs.100 bet with Raju Babu on when the meander will breach),” he tells me sheepishly.
I too am willing to bet on Jogi Babu’s knowledge of the river. His folks’ ancestrally evolved and updated “pushtaini” understanding of the Ganga is built upon centuries of observation – and is like an indigenous science of the land. This science understands and abides by the biological and physical force of the Ganga. It has lent to these fishers resilience through centuries of colonization and globalization, and is a critical perspective that is missing from government solutions to hunger, poverty, and biodiversity loss in the region.
We start returning to Barari, floating down by the shallow sand deposits and turtle-digs, watching the receding milk chocolate brown flood water, by the manmade embankments, full of cement sacks and rebar, stretching for kilometers, and by the turn near the peninsula.
Along the way, we continue our predictions of Gangaji’s next move. Through the ebbs and flows of our conversation, I consider the ways that Jogi Babu and his community have been excluded in the management of this section of the Ganga, that which dictates their livelihood and that which they fight to sustain. As we float by the messy efforts to control the river’s flow, simultaneously altering and destroying plant and animal habitats, I see the critical understanding that is missing from policies and conservation efforts. That which empowers pushtaini fishers and their localized knowledge of the interconnected destinies between the river and the life that depends on it. Finding how their cultural practices and knowledge could contribute to locally sensitive decision-making and the decentralization of power to local communities is critical to support the region’s biodiversity and the fisherpeople themselves. As I listen to Jogi Babu, we float on, continuing our loud and entertaining discussion on when the meander will break and straighten the Ganga river near Barari Village.