A new fish startup is born in Bihar. Ponds replace acres of once-productive farmland, housing thousands of eggs that will soon become fish. These mature, sentient fishes are slaughtered by poorly-paid workers, their carcasses shipped to far-flung countries to land on someone else’s plate as exotic food. Meanwhile, the land becomes unfit to grow crops, the water becomes unfit to drink, and the startup shifts elsewhere, leaving the workers with ruined land and water, and no work.
Can this startup be the blueprint to an Atmanirbhar or self-reliant India?
Eyeing the Bihar Assembly elections, Prime Minister Narendra Modi in early September announced the expansion of the fisheries sector within the state under a scheme called Matsya Sampada Yojana. The scheme would boost fish farming in Bihar by establishing brood banks, more fish ponds, and ice cages, and using other modern technology. Fish production would be increased by an additional 70 lakh tonnes per year.
Fish exports to major markets like the US and China—for food, jewellery (in the form of oyster pearls), and viewing aquariums—would be doubled by 2024. Under the scheme, the focus is on “species diversification,” specifically the production of high-economic value species like seabass, scampi, mud crab, and shrimp.
The scheme claims to be sustainable, but is it really? Aquaculture is notoriously resource-intensive. Many species of farmed fish are carnivorous, consuming millions of wild-caught fish. Fish farms leave behind a hypersaline, acidic, and eroded soil, rendering the land unfit for agriculture.
Runoffs into rivers and ponds make water unfit for drinking and farming, compromising the livelihoods of people dependent on these natural resources. Farmed fish often escape from their small ponds into rivers, where they may disrupt river ecosystems and contaminate the native fish gene pool by mating with their wild counterparts.
The proposed scheme also fails to consider the well-being of the billions of fish themselves, who lose their lives and freedom by being farmed. Fishes are sentient, conscious, and intelligent beings. Their scientifically demonstrated abilities include the ability to use tools, individual recognition of other fish as individuals, self-awareness, observational learning and planning abilities, long-term memory, and culture.
But crowded into squalid ponds to increase profits, they are susceptible to disease and injury. Parasites flourish; sea lice chew into their skin, often exposing their skulls. No legal framework exists to protect them from cruel treatment, such as having their bodies mutilated without painkillers. The practices that supposedly render fishes unconscious before slaughter often do not work, resulting in the fish being alive and aware of what is happening to them while being killed. They take many minutes, or even hours to bleed out and die.
Life on a farm can also lead to deleterious emotional and mental effects in fishes. Even when farms purport to be following humane practices that attempt to reduce stress in fish throughout their lives, fishes can die from depression and stress; unable to cope, they float lifelessly to the surface. Fishes bred for and subsequently kept in aquariums express frustration, boredom, and stress owing to being trapped in one single place for the entirety of their lives. These fishes who are transported for, or put in aquariums die prematurely.
The consumption of farmed fish and crustaceans, in addition to being fatal to these animals, presents many health hazards for humans. Hazardous chemicals like dioxins, mercury, and polybrominated diphenyl ether, which concentrate in the bodies of farmed fish, can damage the human immune system, undermine brain health, and increase cancer risks.
Shrimp in the U.S. imported from India have been found to contain harmful bacteria, like E. coli and salmonella, as well as antibiotics banned by the U.S. government. Tellingly, the Matsya Sampada Yojana scheme does not address the human health impacts of promoting the consumption of farmed fish and crustaceans.
Modi claims that the scheme aims to benefit scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, women, and persons with disabilities. The scheme claims to assist state-funded projects for these groups by assuming financial shares of up to 60% of the costs required to establish new fish farms. However, opening a farm requires first owning land, and the groups that the scheme purportedly aims to benefit are not major landowners.
The Agricultural Census for 2015 through 2016 highlights that scheduled castes own just 9% of the available agricultural land in India. According to both official records and media reports, scheduled tribes in Bihar own no land.
About 52% of persons with disabilities in Bihar are employed as seasonal workers growing non-perennial crops, suggesting that many of them also do not own land or possess other substantial monetary resources. Fisheries businesses employ women’s labour at cheap rates, and Modi’s scheme contains no provisions to increase the returns of women workers or address the patriarchal and caste barriers that hamper women’s prospects of opening farms.
The scheme purports to benefit marginalized groups but does not account for any of the structural barriers currently in place.
Instead of financially supporting resource-intensive, high-cost fish farming, the Indian government could invest in more and better support to the millions of existing farmers growing crops. Landless scheduled castes and scheduled tribes could be given ownership of public land. For example, the government could implement the Telangana model of the Land Purchase Scheme, wherein the land is bought from landowners by the government and redistributed among Scheduled Castes.
The government could also enhance an efficient storage system for crops. With quality storage, farmers could sell grain and produce throughout the year and be adequately compensated, rather than selling their entire harvest, before it perishes, at lower prices, or resorting to private warehouses. Adequate storage could also break farmers’ dependencies on government and other private entities, reduce post-harvest loss, and help to increase India’s domestic consumption and international exports.
Crops can be stored without refrigeration, making them much more stable and less perishable than fish. A model that truly focuses on self-reliance for farmers would be immensely beneficial to both farmers themselves and the Bihar economy.
Modi’s fish-farming scheme, in addition to not meaningfully supporting marginalized groups, does not include any relief component for fishermen affected by COVID-19. The government could provide fishermen impacted by the pandemic with immediate financial assistance, in addition to sponsoring pathways to transition to more sustainable and economically viable modes of work. Successful case-studies of fishermen transitioning to alternative means of livelihood in the Philippines and Hong Kong could inform a comprehensive policy for Bihar, incorporating the willingness and needs of fishermen.
An export-oriented fish-farming policy is not only expensive but comes at the cost of people’s livelihoods and the fishes’ loss of life and freedom.
Being truly Atmanirbhar (self-sufficient) is to support marginalized people with investments in local industries that improve their lives. A people-oriented and not export-oriented scheme will make their votes count this election. Self-reliance means not relying on the lives, pain, and misery of billions of fishes, and the devastation of the environment for profit. In the meantime, the government could look for existing alternatives that help sentient beings—fishes and humans alike.