Fish has been in the news in Meghalaya in the last few months. In June, the Meghalaya government ordered a ban on the sale of fish from outside the state after samples showed the presence of formalin, a chemical used in fish to prevent spoilage and extend storage life.
There are serious health and safety concerns about the chemical, with the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) of the WHO (World Health Organisation) describing formaldehyde (a constituent of formalin) as a carcinogen. In fact, the Food Safety and Standards Regulations 2011 strictly prohibit the use of formaldehyde in food.
But with local production being highly insufficient, there is no option but to import fish from states like Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, and Assam.
This makes the use of formalin almost inevitable. So, unless local production catches up with the rising demand, it is very likely that such issues are going to crop up in the future as well.
Local production being unable to meet the demand was recently admitted by the Fisheries Director, AL Mawlong, during the 7th edition of the State Aqua Fest. There she pointed out that, as against the requirement of 32,000 metric tonnes, current production is just 19,000 metric tonnes.
This has risen from 2010–2011, when it was only 4,558 metric tonnes, as per the figures provided in the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission 2.0 Document published by the Department of Fisheries, Government of Meghalaya. So there has been some improvement over the years. However, based on the trend, it will be a long time before the state can attain self-sufficiency in fish production.
In the eight-year period for which data was shared in the document and adding another five years to it, i.e., 2018-2019 to 2022-2023 (assuming that the data reported by the Director is for the 2022-2023 period), local production grew by 14000 metric tonnes. At the same rate, it will take more than ten years before local production can catch up with current demand.
But by then, demand would also have increased. So achieving self-sufficiency appears to be a futile exercise unless production increases by a factor greater than the rate of increase in demand. The question is whether this is possible.
Under the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission, increasing fish production is predicated on two main activities, viz., creating ponds complimented by supporting infrastructure like hatcheries, fish feed mills, modern hygiene markets, retail (mobile/kiosks), transportation, aquatic laboratories, diagnostic tools and kits, and encouraging the adoption of paddy-cum-pisciculture.
The creation of aqua parks and the introduction of ornamental fisheries are also part of the mission, but these are more geared towards aqua tourism and not specifically for consumption. According to the Mission Document, during the 2018–2019 and 2022–2023 periods, an additional total area of 1500 ha will be brought under fish production, with a total outlay of almost Rs 17 crore. Then there are the community ponds, 50 of which will be constructed in the same period with a total budget allocation of more than Rs 5 crore. The supporting infrastructure (described above) will incur a total cost of more than Rs. 40 crore. Furthermore, additional financial implications of another Rs 7.1 crore will be required for bringing 340 ha under paddy-cum-pisciculture.
Finally, there’s the total budget for capacity building and human resources development, amounting to more than Rs 12 crore. Combined with the costs under the components of convergence, administrative costs, and funds sanctioned under the Centrally Sponsored Scheme, the total mission cost is more than Rs 370 crore. How much of the money has actually been spent and whether the projected deliverables have been achieved is not available from the Mission Document.
But considering that the total fish production in 2017–2018 was around 12,000 metric tonnes, it means that more than Rs 370 crore must have been spent to increase the production by 7,000 metric tonnes. So to meet current demand, an additional Rs 740 crore would be required during the next phase.
But considering that demand would also have increased, an approximate figure of more than Rs 1000 crore would be realistically required to ensure that the supply matches the demand.
The Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission 2.0 is supposed to end by 2023. As far as I can recall, I have not heard of the third phase being announced. If it is done in the future, it will be interesting to check if adequate funds will be allocated for the Mission.
There is one component that has not been considered in the above calculation, which would have added another Rs 6 crore to the total allocation. This is the conservation of ‘Indigenous Fisheries Resources’ through the construction of fish sanctuaries and ex-situ conservation measures.
This component is a little different than the others in that it is more about conversation about existing resources rather than creating infrastructure (ponds, hatcheries) or introducing new technology (paddy-cum-pisciculture, new breeds).
It has a landscape management perspective since it is impossible to maintain a fish sanctuary in a healthy state if there are effluents flowing into it from households, agriculture fields, quarrying sites, or mining activities. So in effect, it is not just the water body that has to be managed, but the surrounding landscape around it as well. As such, if properly implemented, the initiative can have manifold benefits that go beyond the replenishment of fish stocks in the local river systems.
However, it appears that despite its great importance, it is also one of the most neglected components of all the missions. The Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission 2.0 had kept the target of establishing 50 fish sanctuaries by 2022-2023, with the total cost amounting to under 2% of the total budgetary allocation.
This is also reflected in the total area being protected as against the total potential area that can be brought under conservation. According to the Department of Water Resources, Government of Meghalaya, there are 16 and 9 major rivers flowing to the Brahmaputra Basin (Assam) and Meghna Basin (Bangladesh), respectively.
The lengths of these rivers vary widely, with Simsang and Umngot finding mention among the 111 officially notified Inland Waterways of India with a length of 62 km and 20 km, respectively. So there are potentially hundreds of kilometres of river sections that can be brought under the present mission. There are some that might be inaccessible, but since all the rivers are interconnected through their various tributaries, disturbances, especially in a few of the stretches, will affect the entire river system.
Thus, from a landscape perspective, conservation will have to encompass the catchment area and the entire stretch of the river itself. But a look at the existing river sanctuaries gives the impression that very little is being achieved in this regard.
It is not known whether the 50 additional river sanctuaries have been constructed, but the website of the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission 2.0 currently highlights only five, four of which are in Garo Hills.
But only in the lone sanctuary from the Khasi-Jaintia region has the length of the stream declared as a sanctuary been mentioned: 1.5 km of the Amlayee River in Nongbareh (West Jaintia Hills) for the Amlayee Mahaseer Fish Sanctuary.
Even if we assume the same length for the other sanctuaries as well, the target of 50 fish sanctuaries amounts to just over 50 km, which is a very low number. However, in the long run, if fish production has to increase to match the rising demand, the replenishment of fish stocks in the local streams and rivers is very crucial. Based on the budgetary allocation, it will also be highly cost-effective.
Local communities are still highly dependent on local fish for household consumption, particularly during the rainy season. This includes not just fish but crustaceans and amphibians as well.
The importance of the local aquatic resources was most evident during the COVID-19 pandemic when many people in the Sohra region (shared during a friend’s PhD fieldwork) reported going fishing and increasing the collection of wild foods to compensate for the unavailability of food from the market.
This was a very important factor that explained the FAO (Food and Agricultural Organisation) findings that food security among the indigenous communities in the North East (which includes Meghalaya) during the COVID-19 pandemic was much better compared to their non-indigenous counterparts in the region (i.e., South Asia).
This was reported in the 2022 FAO publication ‘The Future of Food and Agriculture: Drivers and Triggers for Transformation’. It is, however, not to be denied that overharvesting has severely depleted fish stocks compared to the past. This is where the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission can play a very important role by providing financial support and training to construct and maintain these sanctuaries.
However, budgetary allocation and targets have to be commensurate with the importance of the component.
While the Khasis do eat a variety of meat, according to the 1914 book ‘The Khasis’ by PRT Gurdon, the traditional staple food was mostly rice and dried fish. In fact, this continues to be so, with meat only available for a couple of days after the visit to the market or during the winter months.
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So, considering that the state has hundreds of kilometres of rivers and streams, an increase in fish production by supporting more sanctuaries and bringing more area under them will help people not only achieve food security but also improve their livelihood outcomes. So the content of the Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission 3.0, if announced, could be a very important intervention that will, in the long run, put the state on the path to achieving food sovereignty.
The only thing, however, that needs to be ensured is that wasteful expenditures like the Rs 1.44 crore spent on the Nongpoh fish market should be avoided. Unless that is avoided, the whole Mission will turn into a waste of taxpayers’ money.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the author and do not reflect in any way his affiliation to any organization or institution)
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