There is a common saying in and around Balasore. People here can't do without three things: dhaan, meen and paan. People may still love their paan, but the area is no longer a leader in betel leaf cultivation. You will see dhaan fields aplenty, but rice growers always have their fingers crossed—plentiful but erratic rainfall and frequent floods ensure that a good harvest is a matter of luck. Meen is a different story altogether. In terms of contribution to livelihood, the fish here really fly high! Playing a significant role in this fish revolution is the fisheries development project near Balasore-Kharagpur Expressway, supported by ITNL and started by Nalanda Foundation in association with Sparsha, a local NGO, in 2014. The primary objective was to create sustainable livelihood for marginal and small farmers frequently affected by floods and prolonged submergence. In other words, turn what rice does not like into what fish do and net the benefit of a more remunerative economic venture. By the end of the financial year 2017-2018, the project will benefit 700 farmers in 60 villages, helping them produce 700 metric tons of fish worth ₹70 million.

Not that the project taught them fishery from scratch. In fact, traditionally, people in the villages have cultivated fish, paddy and some vegetables. What the project did was it converted fishery from a release-and-forget subsistence occupation to a planned, successful commercial venture.

Those figures may not make sense to the average farmer. However, they are very clear that the project has been a boon for them.

Funding dreams

After they joined the project, Renuka and Rabindra Samanta of Balisahi village have seen their annual income jump fourfold from the ₹15,000 they used to get per annum from "haphazard" fish farming. It helps that the project field team visits their pond and monitors the health of the fish. Even if the Samantas are not at home, the field co-ordinator leaves behind the Farmer Support Card, which documents the health status of the fish farm and suggests remedial action, if necessary.

Their five daughters are all married and have settled down; the son is doing a course with ITI. What more would they like to achieve from their fishery farm? Renuka said, "Our agricultural plot is too small. The house needs repairs. And we would like to get one more pond on lease."

What the Samantas have achieved is the average increase in income that the project has made possible. Those who have larger holdings and are willing to put in the effort have gained a lot more. Unlike a few years ago, organised fish farming has enabled the villagers to dream big and empowered them to confidently work towards realizing those. Many have built new homes thanks to the income from the project; others are planning to expand or renovate their homes.

Ramachandra Mohanty of Dhenukhoja, who used to be a field co-ordinator for this very project, has leased several ponds. How does he find the time to manage it all? The answer is no secret. In fishery (unlike paddy cultivation), men and women are equal partners, both in terms of efforts and knowledge.

Rakesh Nayak, Nalanda's on-site Project Leader says, "Whenever our team visits the farmer, they interact with the women, as the men are not always at home. Thus, the women know all about the critical aspects of farming like pond preparation, selection of seed, feeding, disease management and harvesting. Yes, they would prefer the men to help with the heavy manual work, and handle procurement and marketing for which they have to travel."

The production company that will soon be formally registered is already making it easier for the women, leaving the men free to handle expansion or supplementary occupations. At a recent meeting at Bhitarabrahomottar, one of the first villages to implement the fishery project, a meeting about a forthcoming training programme at the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA) concluded with the suggestion that both women and men should participate in the training.

Every participant in the project, regardless of gender, has gained sufficient confidence and is keen to learn and do more. The production company has already started getting them feed at the doorstep. Very soon, the company would also take over marketing, ensuring a fair price, right on the banks of the ponds.

Talking of banks, vegetables and flowers cultivated on the banks of the ponds are adding both nutritional value to the daily diet and also some extra income.

Kabita and Pankaj Baug of Dundkut, who have set up a nursery for the first time this year warn that the farmer cannot afford to neglect the fish farms. It may not be as backbreaking an occupation as, say, paddy farming. But, the fish need attention every day, ideally, twice a day. You can safely abandon the paddy for a few days and it would still flourish; not the fish. So, Kabita has to be "not just a mother, but also a paediatrician for the little ones" at the nursery. Both of them are adept at what they need to do: feeding, keeping a close eye on the quality of water and for signs of distress or disease, and weighing and selling the seedlings according to size.

Champabati Roul of Sadanandpur manages her fish farm alone. The farm feeds her family—three children and her old mother-in-law. When thieves recently caused her loss to the tune of ₹90,000, what she really lost was the next instalment of fees for her son's hotel management course. However, she is back at work and has restocked her pond. The project team is trying to help her by setting up a camera—a solution that many farmers have adapted.

Says Deepanjan Biswas, Project Manager, Nalanda Foundation, "There are bound to be setbacks and the fish too are vulnerable to the vagaries of the weather. What is heartening is that the people we work with have learnt to cope with the challenges through sheer hard work and application. They are very competent and once the production company is formally set up, the villagers will run their own affairs with minimum support. Boosted by the success we have had here so far, we are now looking to expand to other districts."

The fish they grow in Balasore don't fly. But their growers are surely flying high in confidence and capability, thanks to the fish. Their favourite meen is fetching them enough dhan (wealth) to fulfil their dreams.

© Copyright 2015-16. All rights reserved.