KAMAL KANTI BANIK

India,

Kamal Kanti Banik links river conservation to the livelihoods of local nearby residents. He is restoring fish populations in the Muhuri River in northeastern India by motivating local fishermen to preserve freshwater diversity and the river’s health while improving their own economic outlook.

This profile below was prepared when Kamal Kanti Banik was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2007.

INTRODUCTION

Kamal Kanti Banik links river conservation to the livelihoods of local nearby residents. He is restoring fish populations in the Muhuri River in northeastern India by motivating local fishermen to preserve freshwater diversity and the river’s health while improving their own economic outlook.




THE NEW IDEA

Kamal uses his experience with ecological conservation in India’s northeast to engage the fishing community around the Muhuri River in fish conservation and preservation of freshwater biodiversity. In the past, conservation groups have found it difficult to enlist the support of local communities, in part because it is so difficult to convince people that earning a livelihood and maintaining ecological balance are not mutually exclusive. Kamal established his organization, Dishari, in 1989 with the goal of recruiting the local community to save the river and help the people it supports. His campaign has been unusually effective in linking livelihood and conservation efforts.

Biodiversity in the Muhuri River has been rapidly declining due to pollution and overfishing. Kamal first took up the cause of the Ombok padma, a commercially valuable fish species that has disappeared from seven out of the twelve rivers in the state of Tripura. His efforts to promote captive breeding, river cleanup, and the restoration of the surrounding environment have helped repopulate the river with these fish.

Dishari’s advocacy programs have increased awareness and instilled commitment within the local community to restoring the ecological balance of the river. They have convinced local fishermen to set aside breeding zones and keep the river free of boats during breeding months. They have sustained their commitment to these changes in part because Dishari provides alternative income opportunities while helping them boost their earnings from fishing operations. Dishari also works to educate its members, and, together with women in the community, has set up a microfinance initiative with the encouragement of the Grameen Bank.




THE PROBLEM

Deforestation, pollution, indiscriminate fishing, and a lack of community involvement in conservation efforts are destroying the rivers in India. According to a study by the Indian Institute of Science, in the past ten years alone, almost 38 percent of inland wetlands have disappeared. As India’s rivers dry up, the life in them is dying out.
 
The northeastern state of Tripura is among the world’s 35 biodiversity hotspots; the region has a profusion of freshwater fish species and diverse flora and fauna. All of this is under threat. Kamal worked on a project for the National Fish Genetic Research Bureau in Lucknow, which was among many groups to gave alerted authorities to the rapid extinction of fish in the Northeast.

Nearly 95 percent of the population in Tripura eats river fish. The Pabda, the official state fish, used to be a common catch and a lucrative source of income for local fishermen. There was a time when Tripura supplied fish to markets as far away as West Bengal, Bihar, and Orissa. But the pabda is now extinct in seven of the state’s twelve rivers. Many fishermen have had to look for alternative means of supplementing their income. Those who work on the Muhuri River, where Kamal focuses, have struggled to find sustainable alternatives. Self-employment opportunities have proven difficult because of the area’s remoteness, high level of illiteracy, and lack of effective government programs. The decline of the pabda has also impacted the dietary habits of local residents, a large percentage of whom can no longer afford to eat what was once a staple food. Several other varieties of fish have also declined, leading to similar problems for local fishermen and consumers.

This has led to indiscriminate fishing practices and the exploitation of river resources, especially along the Muhuri River, where Kamal works. Although fishermen have traditionally avoided fishing during the breeding season, a lack of awareness, combined with economic necessity, has forced them to fish throughout the year. The government does not have a mechanism in place to ensure that fish stocks are able to replenish themselves during a fallow period. Neither is there any effort to keep the river clean. Industrial as well as domestic pollutants have clogged the river and its banks, making it even more inhospitable for fish and other life.

The river is also being threatened by the infusion of exotic species of fish. Driven by market demand and a dwindling catch of native species, local fishermen have teamed up with commercial fisheries to breed and introduce non-native fish that fetch a good market price. Some of these species have upset the ecological balance of the river. Low levels of awareness and a lack of community involvement in conservation efforts has trapped the Muhuri River and the communities that live off it in a vicious cycle that has made distinguishing between the causes and effects of the river’s destruction almost impossible.




THE STRATEGY

Kamal realized it would be impossible to tackle the pollution, shrinking freshwater biodiversity, and declining water levels of the Muhuri River without addressing the livelihood and other issues of the fishing communities that rely on it. He founded Dishari as a community organization that would involve local people to restore the ecological balance of the river.

First, Dishari enrolled fishermen as members and launched awareness and education programs. Its members began patrolling the river and identifying sources of pollution and species of fish that were dying out. Often, Kamal says, the fishermen would tell him about the breeding zones on the river that should be left untouched. Community elders helped him convince naysayers about the drastic fall in water levels in the river. He recruited teachers from local schools to speak about the impact of waste on river ecology and the need to preserve forests. An increased awareness of the problem prompted a rise in community involvement and helped Dishari convince its members that the river depended on them as much as they depended on it.

To help members commit to a long-term conservation program and stop overfishing, Dishari set up alternative livelihood programs, starting with small industries that enable members to become self-employed creating products like bamboo-based crafts and incense sticks using non-timber forest products. Dishari also set up women’s self-help groups and, with the encouragement of the Grameen Bank, launched a microfinance initiative. The self-help groups have nearly a 100 percent repayment record and use the loans to set up small entrepreneurial ventures that trade in foodstuffs and handicrafts.

To boost income from fishing, Dishari set up fish breeding ponds for non-endangered fish species that are commercially valuable. It provides fingerlings (small fish less than a year old) and feed to its members, then trained them in fish breeding techniques. This helps relieve fishing pressures on the river, since fishermen can rely on these ponds for their livelihood.

Next, Dishari began repopulating the Muhuri River with fingerlings of dying fish species. The fingerlings are bred in captive hatcheries then released into the river to accelerate the growth process. Seeing the quick results has motivated fishermen to continue with their breeding efforts and is helping to revive the river. It has also spurred the community to get involved in cleaning and greening efforts that help balance the river’s ecology.

Today Dishari has a team of forty-five employees and nearly 300 members. It works on the Muhuri River and covers a population of 200,000 people belonging to sixty localities. It is involved with organizations in Bangladesh and plans to take its conservation efforts upstream into that country. Once the Muhuri River has been successfully revived, Kamal hopes to take the Dishari model to other rivers in his state and gradually to other rivers in India.




THE PERSON

Kamal was born in a village in south Tripura, close to the Bangladesh border. He has been a conservationist for as long as he can remember and was deeply influenced first by one of his school teachers and later by his father.

His love for nature prompted him to become involved in the Indian Bird Conservation Network, of which he is currently a state co-coordinator. He plays an active role in natural resource management initiatives in India’s northeast and leads a campaign to save trees in Guwahati, Assam. Currently, his focus is river fish conservation and saving the Muhuri River.