Gram panchayat tanks in Odisha have been brought under scientific fish farming as part of a gender-sensitive flagship programme, involving nearly 7,829 women self-help groups (WSHGs). The introduction of mola fish, a small indigenous species (SIS), has helped these WSHGs earn an annual revenue of over Rs 200 million. Scientific fish farming is also considered as an effective tool to tackle malnutrition in Odisha. The programme promotes nutrition-sensitive pond polyculture through farming micronutrient-rich mola alongside Indian major carps. Aishwarya Mohanty reports
Until a decade and a half ago, mola fish (Amblypharyngodon mola), a small indigenous species (SIS), was an integral part of Odia cuisine. However, with changing climatic conditions, pollution, excessive use of pesticides and fertilisers being washed away into water bodies, the fish variety slowly disappeared. In recent years, however, village-level programmes with women at the forefront, are working to revive the fish, known as mahurali (in Odia) or chunna maacha (in local parlance), while also adding a source of income.
In September 2018, the Fish and Animal Resource Development (FARD) Department of Odisha launched a programme to assist women self-help groups (WSHGs) with scientific fish farming in gram panchayat tanks. The programme focused on promoting nutrition-sensitive pond polyculture through farming the micronutrient-rich mola alongside Indian major carps.
Women lead the way
In Badasahi, a village in the Marapur Gram Panchayat in Mayurbhanj, a 12-member WSHG took up nutrition-sensitive pond polyculture through farming micronutrient-rich mola in 2019. “Our SHG had leased the village pond for fishing eight years ago. In 2019, we introduced mahurali fish in the pond. Fresh water fishing for us has been very profitable. Earlier we were confined to just selling fish but now we manage the pond, maintain it, feed the fish, monitor their growth and then harvest and sell them,” said Ashtami Killar, one of the SHG members, from Badasahi. The group had taken the five-acre village pond on lease, eight years ago. In 2019, they renewed the five-year lease contract and introduced the SIS fish variety. Through this programme each woman has added an additional Rs. 10,000 to her annual household income.
The Odisha Fisheries Policy, 2015, which intended to increase fish production across the state, promoted fishing in unused and underused gram panchayat (GP) tanks across the state. Through a multi-institutional strategy and collaboration between the Panchayati Raj and Drinking Water Department of Odisha, the Women and Child Development and Mission Shakti Department, FARD, and the self-help groups were roped in to breed fish in these tanks. In line with this, the GP tanks were leased out to the WSHGs for five years in all 30 districts of the state in 2018.
At present, 7,960 GP tanks in 6,742.36 hectares area of the total 68,000 hectares in the state has been leased out to 7,829 WSHGs. Odisha has nearly six lakh (600,000) WSHGs with over seven million members.
“For most WSHGs, fishing was a new concept. So, the women were trained and guided through the fish-farming process to ensure sustainable and profitable fish production through optimal use of these public water bodies,” said Debananda Bhanj, additional director of Fisheries, Odisha. The programme targeted an average fish production of 2, 500 kilograms per hectare crop in GP tanks. The fish is sold at an average of Rs. 170 per kilogram (kg) in the market.
The objectives and benefits of this gender-sensitive development programme are multi-layered. The programme has helped women increase their household income, socioeconomically empowering women in the state, while also making nutritious fish readily available in the markets. “This is a gender transformative approach, with women as the primary stakeholders in the programme implementation. With women taking up the lead role in such initiatives, it ensures an extra income which is used for the benefit of their children. It empowers them to walk with their heads held high in the community and people look at them differently,” said Shakuntala Thilsted, CGIAR scientist and specialist in nutrition-sensitive approaches to aquatic food systems.
A push towards improved nutrition
Nutritional gains were an important aspect of introducing the mola fish. The project made live and fresh fish easily available and accessible to the local village community at affordable prices and on a regular basis. Most of the self-help groups distributed small quantities of fish, especially mola, among themselves without any financial gain. This has become an effective tool for tackling malnutrition within their communities, because it has led to higher consumption of nutritious fish among the WSHG households.
Keeping women at the centre of the scheme is a calculated effort considering women play a crucial role in ensuring adequate nutritional inputs within families. The mola fish species is nutrient-dense and contains preformed vitamin A as retinol and especially 3, 4-dehydroretinol (vitamin A2). Sandhayarani Biswal, from the village of Mankidia said, “The fish is a major source of nutrition and we try to ensure that our children consume the fish at home too. We are now planning to process it and prepare fish powder for mid-day meals and anganwadi centres at our [own] and nearby villages.” The nutritional outcomes of the undertaking are yet to be assessed.
Innovative financing mechanisms for aquaculture
The programme provides an input subsidy of Rs 90,000 per hectare at the rate of 60 per cent against the total unit cost of Rs 150,000 per hectare. “For all critical inputs, we are providing subsidies. As the lease expires in five years, we are planning to extend further input subsidies as discussed with Mission Shakti department in a recently held meeting,” explained Bhanj. In the year 2021-22, the total revenue generated through the GP tanks stood at Rs. 29.07 crore (Rs. 290 million). “The financial risks from this business are very low and so far, the initiative has been profitable for the WSHGs with input subsidy. Once the profits reach a certain point, the women entrepreneurs will become self-sufficient to carry forward this initiative with more confidence,” Bhanj added.
Simultaneously, to increase availability of seeds, which still remains a challenge, a hatchery has been established in Jagatsinghpur District for mass seed production of mola to facilitate large-scale adoption of nutrition-sensitive carp-mola polyculture. “The hatchery-based breeding protocol developed under this GIZ-funded project can be followed by any individual or institution with an interest in mola breeding and makes an important contribution to the development of nutrition-sensitive aquaculture,” said Sourabh Dubey, an aquaculture expert with WorldFish, adding that the breeding protocol is simple and can be adopted by small-scale hatchery operators. WorldFish provides the technical support for the fish farming programme.
“This will be especially helpful in the case of Odisha and Assam, where the state governments have recognised and prioritised nutrition-sensitive approaches and included carp-SIS polyculture in their policies by launching new programmes under the auspices of the Department of Fisheries,” Dubey explained. The hatchery can produce up to 500 million mola spawns or hatchlings annually. But, Dubey says that its ability to produce SIS seeds is influenced by a variety of factors, including the availability of mature brooders, labour, favourable climate, and natural disasters.
(Courtesy: Mongabay India)