Ajitpur, a small village situated some six kilometres downstream of the holy town of Hardwar, is home to the traditional fisherfolk community of Kashyap and Jhunwar. "The new generation is not keen on taking up fishing as their occupation because of less earnings," says Mayaram, the head of the village. Although they have quit fishing, their story should act as an eye-opener for policymakers.
The formation of Rajaji National Park brought the upstream of Hardwar, which once was big fishing ground for the fisherfolk, under the protected zone, thus prohibiting them from even entering the areas to protect the endangered Mahseer fish. "But this has not helped in saving the Mahseer," says S K Mallick, professor at the faculty of environmental sciences, Gurukul Kangri University (GKU), Hardwar. Villagers say that prohibition has given rise to 'fish mafias' who in order to get a big catch use unscientific and dreaded means like spraying kartoos (a kind of raw chemical) which kills even the young fish.
Another reason that forced the community to give up its traditional occupation is the thekedari system, which robbed them of the little opportunity they had. The social forestry department auctions permits for fishing every year. The rich and powerful use their influence and money to get the permit, say the villagers. The system, which started some 20 years ago, has forced these fisherfolk to work as labourers with the contractors.
They say that a license system could revive their fortune and put an end to the notorious system of the contractors. "The government must issue a pass for a fee to grant our rights to fish on a lease system," says Mayaram. The authorities, however, believe there is nothing wrong with the system. "The people who buy the auction are not rich," says S P Singh, regional director of the social forestry programme in Hardwar.