Water-guzzling aquaculture eating into paddy lands in coastal Andhra

Water-guzzling aquaculture eating into paddy lands in coastal Andhra

The environmental cost of this transformation is beginning to unfold as it has led to poor quality of soil and water as well as crop deterioration. Drinking water sources too are getting polluted

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Amid the conversion of agricultural croplands into aquaculture areas at an alarming rate in coastal Andhra Pradesh, two environmentalists have called for a ban. The duo, who have been fighting for the preservation of coastal ecology,  have urged the state and Union governments to put the brakes on the unregulated exploitation of freshwater for fish and shrimp farms.

Dr EAS Sarma, former secretary to the Government of India, and K Mrutyunjay Rao, noted activist from coastal Andhra, have written to the state and Centre against allowing lakhs of fish and shrimp farms to draw freshwater from irrigation canals and borewells. If let unchecked, it would put enormous strain on the scarce drinking and irrigation water resources of the state with serious consequences, they said.

“Due to the application of chemicals and unscientific practices adopted, aquaculture has caused pollution of not only the lands under aquaculture but also the surface and groundwater resources. Consequently, aquaculture is deteriorating the quality of the water with its associated adverse impact on agriculture and public health,” Sarma wrote in a letter addressed to Manoj Ahuja, Secretary, Union Ministry of Agriculture, and Dr Trilochan Mahapatra, Director-General, ICAR, which also comes under the Ministry.

Agriculture losing ground

Agriculture in the coastal region is gradually losing its dominant position with the advent of aquaculture. Water-intensive and lucrative commercial fish farming is making inroads into areas historically known for paddy cultivation. Many fear it has the potential to create intra-state tensions in Andhra Pradesh.

Despite the transition, the impact of aquaculture on freshwater resources has largely been an ignored subject. The realisation that mushrooming fish and shrimp farms are consuming enormous volumes of freshwater that, in fact, runs into hundreds of TMCs, is dawning upon people amid growing tension between the two Telugu states and clamour for assured water for the backward region of Rayalaseema.

A luxury, per Rayalaseema

People of water-starved Rayalaseema often view the coastal practices a luxury. “Rayalaseema is being denied its legitimate share in waters of the Krishna by not completing the projects. But these delta regions are allowed to draw water for aquaculture in addition to agriculture. This is unacceptable,” said Bojja Dasaratharami Reddy of the Rayalaseema Sagu Neeti Sadhana Samiti.

Also read: Enraged Rayalaseema farmers demand small dam on Krishna river

The conversion of paddy croplands into fish and shrimp farms is so widespread that the districts once known as the rice bowls of the state are losing the tag. The lush green paddy fields which provided the romantic backdrop to many Tollywood duets are becoming a thing of the past, giving way to sprawling and unwholesome aquaculture tanks.

“The freshwater aquaculture is spreading like a weed by  drawing water indiscriminately from irrigation canals and borewells,”  Rao told The Federal.

There are 2.7 lakh acres under freshwater aquaculture in nine erstwhile districts of the state. The practice is spreading from coastal districts to non-coastal areas too, replacing paddy cultivation because of the lure of high returns.

According to government sources, Krishna district tops the list with 1.28  acres under aquaculture while West Godavari is in the second position with 94,477 acres and East Godavari occupies the third slot with 37,463 acres. Other important districts are Nellore (9,150 acres) and Guntur (3,049 acres) Kurnool (727 acres), Srikakulam (647 acres), Visakhapatnam (294 acres) and Anantapur (74 acres). Another 15,051 acres are developed in the Kolleru wildlife sanctuary.

Commercial fish farming began in Andhra Pradesh in 1975, when the government opened the famous freshwater Kolleru Lake’s shoreline for aquaculture. The success of these farms heralded what is called the Blue Revolution in the coastal region of the state.

The returns from the aquaculture were so huge  that farmers started abandoning paddy in favour of fish and shrimp farming. Attractive returns, employment opportunities for local youth, work throughout the year, export potential and potential to meet the nutrition needs of local people spurred the state to promote aquaculture in a big way. The contribution of aquaculture to the SGDP is 6.4 per cent.

Decreasing agriculture land

According to Dr Swarna Latha from Andhra University, Visakhapatnam, agricultural land had seen a phenomenal decrease to 213 sq km in 2016 from 462.6 sq km in 1996 due to rapid conversion of lands to aqua ponds.

Swarna Latha, who studied the land use and land cover (LULC) pattern by using advanced satellite-based remote sensing technologies, said that between 1996 and 2016, the LULC in the Godavari delta region changed drastically. Now, the area under aquaculture is 418.6 sq km (41.8 per cent), against  164.6 sq km earlier.

Also read: Largest freshwater aquaculture project to come up in Telangana

“Agriculture as the dominant category had lost much of its shine as many farmers have shifted to fishery. The area under agriculture has shrunk to nearly half of its 1996 position with an almost three-fold rise in area under water bodies,” Swarna Latha said. 

“The fact that many cultivators changed their livelihood to aqua culture is evident from the fact that the loss of agricultural land is almost the gain of water bodies. And this transformation in land use and occupation took place in just two decades. Plantation too experienced some significant increase in area coverage. There has been a great decline in fallow lands too, which must have come under aquaculture or plantation,” she added.

Swana Latha’s study further said the environmental cost of this transformation is beginning to unfold as it has led to poor quality of soil and water and crop deterioration.

Soil quality 

“There are adverse impacts of this change which cannot be ignored. It was reported that the yields of paddy around the fish tanks are showing a decline in contrast to the normal yields of paddy. It is evident that the quality of land and water resources is affected to a large extent in most regions. The quality of the soil is getting damaged and polluted. The drinking water resources too are polluted,” Swarna Latha said.

Dr Thotakura Vamsi Nagaraju from the National Institute of Technology, Suratkal, Karnataka, also talked of the dark side of aquaculture in West Godavari district, which was showcased as a success story of the Blue Revolution in Andhra Pradesh.

While Swarna Latha studied the LULC pattern between 1996 and 2016, Nagaraju chose the period between 2016 and 2020 to study the negative impact of diversion of paddy crop area to intensive fish and shrimp farming in the western delta region of Godavari. He found a worrisome trend in the ever-spreading aquaculture ponds and operation of ponds without exchange of water for a span of two crops.

“LULC results during 2016 -20 revealed a significant increase of fish ponds by 6.08 per cent (43.18 sq km) while croplands decreased by 7.85 per cent (108 sq km) due to the rapid expansion in the aquaculture ponds and urban land. Poor laws coupled with the state’s economic concerns are encouraging the conversion of paddy croplands to aquaculture ponds in coastal Andhra,” Nagaraju said.

On the positive side, the large-scale conversion of paddy fields into ponds has resulted in a boom in the aquaculture economy, elevating the status of the state to the largest producer of fish and shrimp in the country. While India occupies the second position in aqua production, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh occupy the pre-eminent position in India.

Govt promoting aquaculture

In 2015, the then Telugu Desam government announced an aquaculture promotion policy. The present YSRC government led by Jagan Mohan Reddy too is aggressively promoting aquaculture. The  Andhra Pradesh State Aquaculture Development Authority  (APSADA) Act, AP  Aquaculture Seed (Quality Control) Act and AP Fish Feed (Quality Control)Act  were passed in 2020 to safeguard the interests of aquafarmers, streamline the process of acquiring the license and ensure seed and feed quality.

Jagan has asked the officials to expedite the land acquisition process for a proposed aquaculture university in the state, which means more and more paddy crop areas are expected to shift to aquaculture. The state is also planning to establish aqua hubs in every assembly constituency to promote aquaculture across the state.

Stating that the diversion of paddy fields to aquaculture is still continuing, Sarma urged the Centre to make sure that, “the area under paddy, which is the lifeline of food security, does not reduce any further.”

Mrutyunjay Rao, a BSNL engineer-turned-activist, wondered how issues with serious repercussions are being ignored in the brouhaha created by the success of the Blue Revolution.

According to a rough estimate, as much as 69 TMC of water is required for 2,89,458 acres for two crops in a year. During summer, the tanks are filled frequently to compensate for the fast evaporation and seepage. According to an irrigation expert, 10,000 acres can be cultivated with a TMC of water.

Also read: Drought fear in Gangetic plains: paddy sowing hit as rains play truant

Rao argues that a situation has arisen in aquaculture areas — even during the failure of monsoons, when people face acute scarcity of drinking water in other regions, these tanks need to be filled with freshwater. 

“There is an immediacy to ban the water-guzzling aquaculture. The governments have to initiate measures to encourage traditional fishing in tanks and other water bodies as an alternative to fish ponds,” Rao opined.

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