India's fish production has recorded an enviable growth reaching a production figure of 10 plus million tonnes. State like Andhra Pradesh which is a water deficient state as compared to ours is earning handsomely producing fish for North Eastern Region and other states. Why then state like Assam with a bountiful of water resource cannot produce the required quantity of fish is an often asked question. The answer lies in injecting the sector with modern technologies and techniques, which if applied properly can triple the farmers’ income and address rural poverty. In countries like Philippines, fish productivity has reached a whooping 15-20 tonnes per hectare against a meagre 1.5 tonnes in Assam. It is high time that we achieve at least 5.0 tonne productivity per hectare in the first place with appropriate production package and make the sector a viable vehicle to transform rural economy and thus the livelihood of poor and poorest of the poor generally engaged in this business of food production. And to realise this dream, following actions are needed:
The general notion that once there is a pond, we need not take much care to have our fish swimming there has to be done away with. For optimum fish production from the pond, water quality assessment is a must - more particularly the pH values since the fish like to grow more under a neutral pH which is 7. By virtue of the soils of Assam being acidic (6.5 and below), the water there also tend to be acidic. Application of lime therefore, is a must if we target higher productivity. Almost every fish farmer is apparently aware of this but the practice of enhancing the pH is hardly followed in right direction and doses. Fisheries department, therefore, will have to be much more proactive towards this. With this intervention alone, per hectare fish productivity could be increased by almost 50 percent and at this rate, from around 55,000 plus hectare of pond areas in the state which is presently giving us a yield of 1.50 tonnes per ha, will start giving us almost 2.25 tonnes taking the production figure to 1.24 lakh tonnes. Together with this is the feed intervention. In Assam, the practice of feeding fish is in an infant stage - call it pond fishery, riverine fishery or beel fishery. A mission mode program on fish feed security, in the line of food security for human being, has to be launched immediately which, if done, shall backstop adequately the move for animal food security for human. Our university has already developed and commercialized quality fish feed by the name of Sushma which the fisheries department may consider subsidizing. If this is done, the fish productivity shall go up by another 50 percent i.e. 2.25+1.25 = 3.50 tonnes i.e. a production level of 1.95 lakh tonnes from the pond fishery alone. Together with this, the good management practices like periodic de-silting of the pond and balancing the stocking density with the use of quality fish seed shall contribute to an additional productivity of 20 percent taking the per ha productivity close to 4 tonnes which will also address the target of doubling fish farmers income.
The second issue is to target the beels of Assam which provide us an area of 1 lakh ha. The present productivity in these beels varies from 250 Kg to 700 Kg per ha only. This productivity has to be increased to at least 3.0 tonnes per ha following the Good Management Practices, water treatment and feeding indicated above. For this purpose, all the beels will have to be registered and several Self Help Groups from the adjoining areas formed for their management thus enlarging the employment potential. At the rate of 2 SHGs per beel with 10 members in each SHG and initial targeting of 1000 beels, a total of 20,000 persons will get direct employment. The bio-security aspect will have to be adhered to in these beels since food safety is a prime concern today. Advance fish growing technologies like pen culture, cage culture shall have to be practiced in the bigger beels measuring more than 10 hectare to realise heavy harvest. Smaller beels could be identified for conserving and improving indigenous fish species. This way, an additional quantity of 2.50 lakh tonnes of fish could be produced from the beels i.e. against an average productivity of 0.5 tonnes per ha as harvested presently totalling around 0.50 lakh tonnes, the total production @ 3.0 tonnes per ha will be 3.0 lakh tonnes. With the additional production of 3.18 lakh tonnes (4.00 lakh - 0.825 lakh tonnes) from the pond fisheries, the total addition will be 5.68 lakh tonnes thus not only meeting the present shortfall of 0.34 lakh tonnes but also producing more than 5 lakh tonnes additional fish for trading and/or value added fish products.
We have then the rivers, the major source of capture fishery which unfortunately are drying up. Besides, the capture and natural replenishments are not at harmony. Replenishment by private and government bodies are also not in practice. In many pockets of the rivers, the water depth is not very much conducive for optimizing fish productivity. If the plan of the government to dig rivers like Brahmaputra gets underway, the scenario will change completely - there will be adequate water depth for different species of fish for optimum growth and thus to record an elevated production. Having met the deficiency from pond and beel fisheries, the produce from the rivers shall add to the fish basket for commercial trading as fresh running water fishes which will help in capturing the cross regional fish market paving the way towards an actual Blue Revolution and to bring that extra smile on the face of the fish farmers.
Preventing the escape of fish from pond and beels during flood period under the pressure of flood water is an issue. Technological options like raising the dyke height, making rural connectivity roads by the side of the beels, increasing the water retention capacity therein/ undertaking massive water harvesting infrastructure, use of geo-textiles, creation of excess water diversion channels are some of the options to deal with the problem. For such attempts, however, appropriate convergence building with sister departments/ministries will be necessary which is why I am advocating for Agriculture Cabinet in the state. Which department will take the credit in the event of an actual Blue Revolution is not the issue, the issue is to usher in a Blue Revolution collectively to encase the potential offered by the water resources of the state.
It is heartening that the state government is seriously contemplating to realise a rich dividend from this hitherto unexplored sector. The plan conceived for this purpose needs to be fine tuned and make full proof to realise the intended dividend. Together with the developmental plan, Research and Development will be a crucial factor particularly to address climate vulnerabilities in fishery sector as well as to keep on producing the desired input deliverables. Let us, together work on a mission mode to demonstrate our capabilities to economically explore this niche area of excellence called fishery sector of Assam.
Dr. K M Bujarbaruah