As a young child, Rithson R Marak got interested in fish farming after seeing his father feed the fish after long days in his field, in Meghalaya’s Nengmandalgre village.
Years later, when he was working as a peon in the state Education Department, he realised its potential, and began constructing a fish pond measuring around 0.3 hectares in 1983 to supplement his income.
With just his hands and a few implements, he painstakingly built the fish pond over the course of three years. By 1986, he began fish farming, becoming the first person in his village to take it up.
Today, Rithson, who retired last year from government service after working as a peon in the state Education Department, has three fish farms measuring a cumulative 0.6 hectares.
Assisting him are initiatives like the state-sponsored Meghalaya State Aquaculture Mission (MSAM) and Blue Revolution. Under MSAM, there are various schemes that enable local fish farmers to construct new ponds, fish sanctuaries, enhance their value chain and build infrastructure that includes fish feed mills, FRP Hatcheries, eco-hatcheries, etc.
Rithson has immensely benefited from various schemes under MSAM. Aside from fine-tuning his knowledge of fish farming with the latest techniques, the fisheries department also gave him resources to construct another 0.1-hectare pond, besides offering assistance in recent years for procuring feed and other equipment.
Thanks to these initiatives, from selling 300-400 kg of fish in a year, his yield has gone well beyond 500. He also learned about what type of fish to rear, and added two new varieties to his list.
“Back in the 1980s, there was no equipment and logistical help available. The village is still hard to reach as there are some streams to be crossed only when the water level is low. One can only imagine the difficulty in arranging things,” says Swapnil Tembe, the deputy commissioner of East Garo Hills district, who visited his farms earlier this month.
Oliver Sangma is an officer in the Fisheries Department of Meghalaya, who first met Rithson in 2012, and has seen his fish farm grew steadily over the years.
“Rithson rears chocolate mahseer (khasaw), rohu, grass carp, silver carp, catfish, rupchanda and chitang, among other varieties. The annual production ranges anywhere between 500-800 kg. He sells most of his fish locally, particularly in Nengmandalgre, which has more than 100 households, instead of the market in Williamnagar, which is 5-6 km away,” he states.
Rithson sells his fish for anywhere between Rs 200-225 per kg in Nengmandalgre, but in the local Williamnagar market, that price is raised to Rs 250. In a given year, Rithson earns anywhere between Rs 1-1.5 lakh or more depending on the yield.
A Pioneer of Fish Farming
Inspired by his work, others in his village and surrounding areas have taken up fish farming. Before 2011, he was the only fish farmer in his village, and today there are 18-20 fish farms.
“The current annual fish production in East Garo Hills is 750 MT against a demand of 1300 MT, and the gap is mostly met from Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal and Assam. With a great many small streams and springs, the district has great potential to surpass the demand,” says Tembe.
In addition to the streams, the district also has the Simsang River flowing through it which provides greater opportunities to enhance production. Also, there are some local plant species which act as good feed for the fish and are easily available. “We are also now experimenting with paddy-and-fish farming to enhance fish production,” adds Tembe.
“Dotted with hills, there are places feasible in the district for fish farming if you make proper embankments. There are a lot of plain basins, particularly paddy fields, that are perfect for fish farming. Also, the returns from paddy are dwindling. For each bigha of land, farmers used to get yields of 400 kg, but now they get on 120-160 kg because of lower soil nutrient quality. I converted my paddy fields into fishery ponds because those are ideal conditions. One doesn’t require additional machinery and the soil quality is high. ” says Rithson.
However, constructing fish farms isn’t easy, particularly with restrictions on using JCBs.
“If I want to construct a new pond, there are some things we have to take into account. The area has to be free from flood and contain high soil quality. It also depends on the topography of the land. For example, a paddy field is ideal in a lower basin area. Clay loam soil is the best for better water retention with a high percentage of clay and high cation-exchange capacity,” says Oliver.
Additionally, constructing a fish pond is an expensive endeavour, particularly in hilly areas. It takes up Rs 80,000 to Rs 2 lakh to construct each pond depending on the area and topography.
“Not everyone has this sort of money and that’s why the MSAM is supporting other individual endeavours. After all the hard work, all Rithson has to do is regularly feed the fish in the morning and evening. Having said that, in the early days poaching and poisoning the fish were major concerns. Despite repeated incidents, Rithson did not lose hope. Now, these elements have largely gone away,” says Oliver.
For Deputy Commissioner Tembe, watching the likes of Rithson pioneer fish farming offers real hope of achieving his aim of turning the district into a major fish exporter. In fact, he came across Rithson’s remarkable story after directing district fisheries officers to identify progressive fish farmers in the district.
“The experience of visiting his fish farm was very informative and encouraging. Till now, I had not seen such big fish ponds in the district. More than that I had not met fish farmers who were this passionate about it. All throughout our field visit, he was sharing his ideas and future plans, and also invited me to witness fish harvesting in November,” he says.
There some key learnings from this field visit.
“Firstly, we need to identify such progressive farmers and to tell others their example. Secondly, by interacting with them, we could understand the real ground-level issues and challenges in increasing fish production. And lastly, his story is an inspiration for all of us to strive for our goals, till we reach them,” concludes Tembe.