Riverine ecology and institutional interplay: a study of conflict and adaptation in Gangetic fisheries

Riverine ecology and institutional interplay: a study of conflict and adaptation in Gangetic fisheries

26.05.2021, Wednesday

Millions of fishers depend on capture fisheries in India’s Gangetic river-floodplain ecosystems for subsistence and commerce. Fishers have been witnessing protracted and violent conflicts over fishing rights and access in a dynamic riverine environment. These conflicts have multiple dimensions: social stratification by class and caste, inter-group differences in fishing practices, changing state-fisher relations, and unpredictably shifting land-water boundaries. The result has been insecure fishing tenure and modes of access, which have given way to increasing criminal takeover of fisheries. Further, degradation of riverine ecosystems through altered river flows from upstream dams, embankments, loss of fish habitats, and pollution has aggravated impacts of conflicts on fisher livelihood security.

Studies of resource conflicts usually provide structural explanations of why conflicts occur and persist, dependent on different normative and political concerns. Economic and ecological theories focus narrowly on scarcity (through Malthusian overfishing or environmental uncertainty), and factors constraining institutions (transaction costs or rigid and opaque bureaucracy) in addressing conflicts. Historical and sociological explanations, on the other hand, emphasize socio-economic discrimination (by caste or class), colonial capitalism (e.g. focus on land-based agricultural revenues and control over rivers), and state-local power relations, often without acknowledging or underplaying the ecological underpinnings of conflicts (e.g. trends in fish yields over space and time). These partial explanations, dominated by one of either ecological or social dimensions, are not only simplistic but also problematic. Resource conflicts in reality are both social and ecological, although shaped by contested narratives, history, and changes in institutional structures and and political discourse. It is thus important to understand why and how resource conflicts originate, how they get transformed, and what their socio-economic and ecological outcomes are, especially in dynamic socio-ecological systems such as riverine capture fisheries.

My PhD research presents an interdisciplinary socio-ecological study of long-term conflicts in riverine capture fisheries of India’s Gangetic floodplains, focusing on Bihar. I integrate extensive long-term fieldwork and statistical analyses of river hydrology and fisheries catch-effort data collection, with interviews and interactions with over 200 fishers, remote-sensing, and archival methods in my thesis. The seven thesis chapters (introduction, five research chapters, conclusion) explore fishery conflicts in relation to historical and recent shifts in institutional management of river-floodplain fisheries, ecological responses of fish yields and fishing effort to hydro-climatic change, and caste-based identity politics. Implications of conflicts for fishing rights, social justice, and ecological sustainability are further examined.

I show that these conflicts, and the narratives that evolved around  them, have shifted between material motivations and symbolic interests in response to the interplay between state and non-state institutions on the fluctuating canvas of river-floodplain ecology. Colonial fishing regulations continue to influence contemporary fisheries management. State institutions retain rigid jurisdictional boundaries on capture fisheries in a spatially and temporally dynamic riverscape, making them incapable of adaptive management. In contrast, non-state actors such as criminal “mafia” gangs are more adaptive in tracking river course changes and thus able to exert control over fishing areas by violent means and illegal gears, triggering conflicts over fishing practices. Gillnet-using ‘traditional’ castes of fishers allege that illegal, ‘destructive’ and ‘non-traditional’ gears such as mosquito nets have proliferated under the new mafia regime, causing severe depletion of fish yields. However, my ecological analysis shows that increasing environmental uncertainties and hydro-climatic fluctuations have contributed more significantly to declines in fish yields as compared to  fishing effort or the use of particular fishing gears. But now, gear-use conflicts, real and perceived, have transformed conflicts over fishing rights and access, into political conflicts over traditional and caste identity and entitlements.

I call this the “post-river” stage of fisheries, where the river and fish resources themselves cease to matter to fishers, who now focus on competing for the symbolic resources of fisher identity, even as riverine fisheries continue to decline. Assertions of identity, despite their political agency, unfortunately appear delinked from prospects of adaptation to secure fishing livelihoods and sustainable fisheries. Most fishers are now exiting fisheries permanently, and the river is seeing a “post-fishery” stage. These grim findings unpack some problematic binaries in fisheries management policies, and a complicated relationship between discourses of ecological sustainability and social justice in the Gangetic plains. In conclusion, I suggest that future management of resource conflicts needs to critically engage with this relationship, by tracking the dynamic interplay between ecological variability, institutional and cultural change, and identity politics. Ecologically informed river flow management, and socially sensitive fisheries institutions and policy changes, can contribute to positive outcomes for riverine fishing communities.