To the nature-lover (and who at heart isn’t), the thought of sanctuaries to preserve the biota of our rivers “strikes deep to the heart on the river’s bank when the kingfisher suddenly flares across the water” or when a sunset flight of hornbills crosses the stream from the shaded side of the rainforest to the gleaming jungle on the other.

In the present tussle between defenders of the environment and protagonists of hell-for-leather industrialisation, both sides agree that our present economic model has placed wildlife in peril. (It is increasingly a threat to mankind itself.) Because fish don’t roar like the tiger, they do not plead their plight to man vociferously. The truth is that several species of aquatic fauna are more endangered than many land animals. And it is timely that a group has been activated under the aegis of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) for their protection. It met last August and took on the task of implementing a plan to save some habitats.

The project required a mascot. The search did not last long. There are 15 species of Tor and the glory of being the symbol of our rivers has gone to the king among Genera Tor, the mighty Golden Mahseer (Tor putitora). This is now to be the lead species for the preservation of aquatic life.

The Golden Mahseer has been selected because it is seen as the kind of game that will attract anglers and dollars from across the world. The politics of this country being what it is, the objective will be seen as “elitist”. But if the connection between its conservation is projected more in the light of fish and mankind rather than fishing and the burra-sahib, the chances of public support for Project Mahseer may be greatly enhanced. In fact the connection, as discussed below, is intimate. Fish is food and lives in water.

Mahseer are found across the subcontinent from 8°N to 36°N. Hopefully, naturalists will be as tenacious in fighting for their cause as this fish is in combat with an angler. Of all the fishing yarns extant, the majority would involve the mahseer. Some say the Golden Mahseer is the greatest sporting fish. If Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea is about the power of marlin, there are several non-fictional accounts of a tussle with mahseer that read like fiction, especially from the colonial era.

There were and are those who struggled late into the evening for their trophy, but had to call it a day and tied their line to a rock or tree to resume at dawn. Skene Dhu’s The Mighty Mahseer (1909) and Jim Corbett’s account of angling in the Ram Ganga tell many a story.

Unfortunately, these are tales from the past. Soon they will be like Mughal tales of lions abounding across northern India or Akbar’s kennels of captive cheetahs trained to chase the gazelle and the antelope in the Gangetic savannah. Our one-dimensional, poorly- researched “development” projects endanger flora and fauna alike and are now on the verge of endangering man himself.

But what is the connection between the preservation of aquatic life and the progress of man? Do we face as big, or worse, a crisis than China that The Economist holds to be the world’s greatest polluter? In a leader in an August issue, it noted that “a tenth of the country’s farm land is poisoned with chemicals and heavy metals. Half of China’s urban water supplies are unfit even to wash in, let alone drink. In the northern half air pollution lops five-and-a-half years off average life.”

Such is the havoc created by breakneck economic growth that Hal Harvey, chief of Energy Innovation, who is working with the Chinese government on getting air pollution under control, asked the question: “What if China meets every criteria of economic success except that you can’t live there?”

Our fish and other aquatic life forms would, in large parts of the country, protest that any concept of development that leads to their extinction is a travesty. So would human beings if they knew what it is about. To lag well behind our neighbour in this particular area would be our greatest achievement.

It is evident from the speech by President Pranab Mukherjee in Sikkim on Education Day in 2013, that the mathematics of our development programmes needs to be revisited so that the cost of a degraded environment is subtracted from the positives of GDP growth.

He said “There [i]s a need to define the concept of development in a wider perspective and there should be no confrontation between environmental considerations and development requirements [sic] ... There is a need to make our children aware of the nexus between problems like unchecked population growth and energy crisis, depletion of natural resources, pollution of the environment.”

It is worth examining what is involved in the journey between awareness at the top and implementation at the bottom. No visual shows up the plunder of our natural resources quite so painfully as the sight of a shoal of fish torn, mutilated or just shock-dead, floating on a river after a stick of dynamite has been thrown in.

To doubly underscore this imbecilic destruction, those who go to river banks for spiritual elevation find their repose increasingly disturbed by lorries loading up with sand, gravel, stone or rock, so critical for spawning, to be used as construction material. Those who know will tell you the rate per truck that is the share of officials supposed to enforce the three statutes for the preservation of our wildernesses: the Indian Forest Act, the Wildlife Protection Act (1972), and the Indian Fisheries Act.

Has the time come for a grand project to protect our aquatic biota on the scale of Project Tiger? Is the mahseer the right choice? Or has the time passed and is riverine life on the way to certain extinction in many stretches of our rivers (as the Yamuna in Delhi) or even in their entirety? Will the mascot trumpet the desperation of our times?

To the angler, mahseer is synonymous with kushti, the tug of war that commences as soon as it takes the bait. Its fame is so widespread and has lasted so long that years ago, looking for bait in Scotland, I bought a Punjab spoon: specially designed for mahseer in the Beas. It was designed three-quarters of a century earlier.

I can’t imagine when last a Scot fished in this basin but such was the lure of this game that bait was designed in the highlands of northern Britain. Sadly, it has outlived its quarry but it is probably true that the mahseer’s name will ring a sympathetic bell in the far corners of the Commonwealth (there is a mahseer conservation trust in England) though it may not be known in the United States.

Yet there are those who are more given to the theme of preserving nature for the future of the planet. The power of a general principle, respect for natural beauty, and biological heritage is always greater than the claim of its part, recreational tourism. But before we go into the merits of each contention, let it also be said that mahseer account for 40 to 60 per cent of the catch of fisherfolk who (or should it be used to?) depend on it for a livelihood.

I have no figures for the numbers of our machwadas but it can be safely estimated to be vastly larger than the number of tourists we can attract. But the point is not contentious. There is room for both: if fish survive in good numbers.

The situation is bleak: there are 15 species of Tor identified, from the Indus and the Gangetic systems, right from Afghanistan in the north to Arunachal and the Irrawady in the east, the Tapti and other systems in central India, the Western Ghats and Kerala, to Karnataka on the plateau and the Mahanadi in Odisha.

Tor inhabits waters between 15°C and 29°C, at altitudes between 500 and 1,200 metres above sea level. It derives its name from the Sanskrit matsya (fish) corrupted to macha to machi to mahee; and sher (tiger): big cat of the river. (Any angler will tell you it more than lives up to its name.) It is thus a truly national fish. Unfortunately it is also nationally endangered: five species threatened by polluted waters and the almost non-existent implementation of laws, and others owing to the wanton destruction of the waters and poaching.

From our experience with protecting the tiger, it is clear that a flagship species provides a protective umbrella for the entire ecosystem—the complete food chain—plant life included. The vibrancy of most of our reserves is a tribute to the big cat’s principle of restricting kills so that there is “enough for everyone’s need but not for everyone’s greed”. The conservation of resources is a part of the nature of carnivores and herbivores alike. Perhaps Mahatma Gandhi coined the aphorism by observing nature.

Man is singular in not having this principle naturally built into his psyche. Other than natural calamities, it is he who causes an imbalance that engulfs other species. But it is now evident that as he sows so he reaps. What has he sown in our rivers? A time bomb—of poison, excreta, effluent, damming, material extraction—that is ticking towards an irretrievable upheaval in the availability of drinking water, bathing water, water for wildlife.

According to Dr R. C. Trivedi, water expert member of the National Green Tribunal, water quality objectives for a mahseer sanctuary in the Vyas Ghat-Rishikesh stretch of the Ganga must take note of the following two major objectives: To improve the quality of water fit for survival and propagation (effective reproduction) of mahseer in the river; and restore the ecology of the river by providing minimum environmental flows required for this purpose.

The first is technically feasible, although keeping the economic cost to acceptable levels is the primary challenge. The second is far more difficult and will require a greater intervention in the control of the flow regime within the river basin. This is at odds with the current practice of diverting the entire flow (except for a token legally enforced mandatory release) for hydel projects. The flow diversions also place severe limitations on the ability of the river to assimilate pollutants through natural processes of self-assimilation and dilution.

The connection between fish and man, water, is of immediate consequence to both. Dieticians have written tomes on fish as a healthy source of nutrition. It is, therefore, in everyone’s interest to ensure that they ingest nothing infectious or toxic.

The pathogens to be guarded against include coliform bacteria (E. coli, salmonella, cholera, typhoid, jaundice, i.e. water-borne diseases). These lodge in the stomach or skin. Fish that carry bacteria are risky to eat. Another hazard after industrialisation is heavy metal (mercury, cadmium, etc.) build-up in the flesh and muscles. What are the Central Pollution Control Board and Bureau of Industrial Standards’ criteria for water quality?

The four listed for raw water to be treated for drinking are coliforms (bacteria), pH (or acidity or alkalinity), dissolved oxygen, and BOD (biochemical oxygen demand: the amount of oxygen required for naturally decomposing biological matter such as human and animal carcasses, kitchen waste, solid excreta, etc., thus purifying).

Laymen may be curious, as I was, why only two criteria—pH and BOD—are included and a third, dissolved ammonia, added in the provision for “Propagation of wildlife and fisheries”. While the addition of free ammonia can be understood as it is highly toxic to fish—witness the destruction of life in the Chambal river owing to fertiliser factories in Kota—the exclusion of coliform and dissolved oxygen would leave people guessing.

Are fish and other biota immune to the infections that sewage carries? They are generally not affected by human bacteria. In fact, some species even clear them from streams. But while aquatic life may tolerate and harbour coliform in their natural cycle, this immunity is not passed on to us when they enter the food chain. That is true of toxic chemicals as well. Insofar as it is hard to imagine that mahseer reserves will not allow for the passage of fish to run where locals net them for commercial purposes, this standard would have to be established.

The task is not that simple; religious yatras to the source of rivers such as the Ganga, Narmada, Krishna, etc. ensure that coliform and bio-mass are high even in the upper reaches. To this add contamination by herdsmen moving their animals upstream in summer. Fish is food and any contamination carries to man.

What about BOD? This criterion and dissolved oxygen have an inverse relationship. As the former increases, it consumes the latter at a higher rate than the rate of replenishment and thus oxygen decreases. The tipping point is reached when dissolved oxygen drops to 4 milligrams a litre (mgs/lt). Those who live along rivers know that every now and then a shoal of fish will float dead to the surface much as in the case of a dynamite blast. They have been asphyxiated.

What rivers gain in oxygen while frothing over rapids and tumbling over waterfalls, and even in calmer stretches, they lose in combat with bio-mass. The more oxygen a river needs to purify itself, the more it uses what is in the water. Fish die because the river is dying. It has lost the capacity to purify itself for lack of oxygen. The danger signal for man is clear.

To maintain water quality, treatment plants of adequate capacity have to be set up and kept running to deal with the increasing quantity of sewage released into the river. Neither is the case now. Even in the national capital the Delhi Jal Board is unable to do the job. The condition of other municipalities/villages is abysmal.

Hopefully, Project Mahseer will succeed in the stretches it takes up. That it is possible to restore the self-purification capacity of a river is evident from the Narora section of the WWF’s Ganga Dolphin Project where oxygen levels are reported at 9-12 mgs/lt.

Maintaining “environmental flows” is a first requirement for river health. Are these the same as “minimum flows” engineers favour? They are not. The flow in a river should at all times support life.

As Dr Lalit Nath, a former director of the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, notes: in India, as elsewhere, water in the rivers is used for irrigation, industry, recreation, hygiene, washing and human consumption (either as such or after processing). Water is also home to many forms of life and a source of sustenance for other fauna and flora including humans. The mahseer and other fish too are aquatic lifeforms. In very simple terms we need to realise that if the water is free of toxic substances and fit for human consumption, fish can live and flourish in it. The aim must be to prevent all contamination of rivers—contamination by human waste and industrial effluents. If the water is clean enough for human consumption, it will also sustain fish. Save the mahseer and you are also saving mankind.

Is any attention being paid to water quality? China, Australia and South Africa are involved in river health assessments. They have many criteria such as river flow to judge its health. Even China has set itself high standards. This would be its first step to answering the question Hal Harvey has so succinctly posed. India is tardy in this respect.

Now we come to the second requirement: the movement of fish to complete their breeding cycle. It brings us to the amount of water required to keep a river alive. One eye-opener is the Environment Impact Assessment by the Wildlife Institute of India (WII) and IIT, Roorkee, on Uttarakhand’s hydroelectric projects. The former’s findings are a study in courage and a template for future assessments. While some may fault it on the premise that there isn’t enough raw data to support its conclusions, the fact is that it is vastly on the right side even on the basis of observation.

From the effect of the Tehri dam on the Bhagirathi in the north it can be plausibly concluded that fish need to migrate to spawn and grow or they will be critically endangered. The WWF has also made a similar presentation to the Ministry of Environment and Forests (MoEF). A start has to be made even as data are collected. Even if the recommendations turn out to be too conservative, they will save wildlife.

WII’s report says: “The benefits of energy planning are often more immediate, important and obvious to society. The benefits of biodiversity conservation are often less evident and immediate, but are nonetheless important as biodiversity values continue to decline and threats associated with this loss to human well-being become ever-increasing.”

Cumulative Environmental Impact Assessment (CEIA) is intended to assist in defining the range of impact significance (very high, high, medium and low) associated with hydro electric projects to aid in presenting the acceptable trade-offs.

Assessment of cumulative effects is being increasingly seen as representing best practice in environmental assessments. As cumulative impacts can result from individually minor, but collectively significant actions over different temporal and spatial scales, their overall effect often exceeds the simple sum of previous effects.

The immediate gain on which engineers and GDP-growth economists focus is, on the face of it, compelling. In December 2011, over one-third of rural India lacked electricity, as did six per cent of the urban population. For those who had access, supply was intermittent and unreliable.

India ranks second lowest in electricity consumed per household, 900 kilowatt hours a year against Nigeria’s 570. In China the number is 1,349 while Canada leads at 11,879. Therefore the need for more power cannot be denied.

The second annual conference on hydro-power in India on April 15 and 16, 2013, noted that it makes up about 22 per cent of the total installed capacity. But utilisation is only 39,449 megawatt (MW) of the total estimated capacity of 1,45,320 MW; 68 per cent is yet to be developed.

Tapping this potential would require an enormous number of dams, almost all in the mountains as this provides the required drop to realise a river’s maximum potential.

The maximum resource is in the northern and eastern states. According to a study by the MoEF, “Uttarakhand’s potential is about 20,000 MW against which only about 3,164 MW (16 per cent approximately) has been harnessed.” A total of 70 projects of varying capacities exist, are being implemented or in different stages of planning.

About 87% of fish species would be affected, if all proposed hydroelectric projects are implemented in the basin.

Pristine Arunachal has 40 per cent of the total potential. Forty-two projects are in the pipeline. Among them is the 120 metre dam on the Subansiri, nearing completion.

Those on the Siang will generate 27,000 MW. While a country in desperate need of power may look with greed on such bounty, the assessment of those who see this from the environmental perspective is that “their overall effect often exceeds the simple sum of previous effect” should inform all choices. The impediment to migration has a hugely detrimental impact.

Engineers suggest fish ladders/passes to bypass dams. Europe and North America have long provided them. Often these are specific to species like salmon and trout. But they are not very successful, going by the experience.

Compared to salmon, mahseer and snow trout are poor jumpers/climbers. They therefore require larger flows to move further upstream. I can say from observation as an angler that in Kullu, the ladders provided in the inter-river Parbati hydroelectric project are not successful. It is reported that in many cases the design is lifted from Europe and not modified for our rivers. No design exists for Indian species or rivers and it is not known if there is any research project to develop them.

WII doubts the efficacy of fish passes in Himalayan rivers if dam heights exceed 16 metres. No comprehensive study has been carried out on how better fish passes for Himalayan fish may be designed. Meanwhile, a new way is being tried in Europe and the US where dams built in the 1930s are being demolished to restore flow and fish life to rivers.

By 2011, some 1,000 dams had been taken down over the previous 50 years. That was also when work began on the largest, a 210-foot dam over the Olympic Peninsula river, a three-year project expected to cost $325 million (Rs.20,150 crore) to return it to its wild state.

The massive cost for removal is one part of this double whammy—more would have gone into the construction. Can countries as short of capital as India afford to build dams worth thousands of crores only to have to take them down?

There is another method suggested. If dams block the movement of fish, they could be propagated and nurtured in hatcheries and then introduced downstream. Success is reported with certain species of mahseer being bred by Dr Shashank Ogle, formerly of the Tata Power Company, in Lonavala. The fry are introduced into lakes. While the production of fry may be successful for some species, fish need food and not all the biota and vegetation on which they feed or depend can survive the depletion of streams.

The good tidings are that the mathematics of growth is changing. A new accounting for evaluating habitat has been mooted. This places a money value on all the ingredients—land, trees, grass, etc.—of a site to be released for “development”. To this is to be added revenue loss or cost as a consequence of their consumption by a new man-made asset. If the approach is accepted universally, then environment accounting would lead to a reassessment of GDP calculation.

The Nobel prize-winning economist Jeffrey Sachs has already asked for a reassessment of China’s economic growth. (Beijing has budgeted $275 billion over the next five years just to improve air quality.) Environmental damage should be deducted from growth figures, he says. But if a number is put on the loss of income to river fishermen and loss of nutrition to a protein-starved population, this fruit may be as problematic for our planners as the apple was to Adam.

Would the minimum flow regime, if approved for downstream of hydro-electric projects, be sufficient for mahseer and other biota?

It makes the situation worse. Dr Trivedi points out that in such cases aquatic life is forced to face two extreme conditions: low flow at all times except the monsoon, when it faces floods. The natural cycle is broken. Furthermore, the concentration of BOD—and depletion of oxygen—increases. While the depletion of fish stock is inevitable, the consequences for man are obvious. A report from the north-east concludes that the record catches—from a high of 27 kilograms (kg) in the Jia Bhoroli to the low of 5 kg in the Kapili—are now history. In the Subansiri, the weight of mahseer has dropped from many 22 kg trophies to average sizes of 2.5 kg. The situation is grim.

Recognising that there was an issue, the government of India appointed a committee chaired by B. N. Chaturvedi, a member of the Planning Commission, to examine the contentious issue of biodiversity and habitat on which IIT Roorkee and WII had differed. It agreed with WII’s findings that not only should large tracts of the Ganga basin be kept pristine but also that the proposed 69 projects would affect the environment and biota.

The Supreme Court intervened in the matter and in its judgement of August 13, 2013 (Alaknanda Hydro Power Co. Ltd. versus Anuj Joshi & Ors.), it ruled: “The Ganga has been a pristine river. Over a period of years, it has been used for irrigation, drinking water and other purposes. The efforts to keep it in the pristine form have been minimal … it will be necessary to take measures for ensuring that several parts of it which have so far not been impacted continue to be in the pristine form.

“Secondly, it [is] consider[ed] necessary to take measures on pollution, particularly in the upper reaches and the two basins of Bhagirathi and Alaknanda ... Further, environment upgradation should be taken up in these sub-basins extensively.”

The executive summary of the Chaturvedi Report on “Environmental Impact of Projects”, reads: “Development of new hydropower projects has impact on environment, ecology, biodiversity, both terrestrial and aquatic and economic and social life. Sixty-nine hydropower projects with a capacity of 9,020.30 MW are proposed in Bhagirathi and Alaknanda basins ... The implementation of all the above projects will lead to 81 per cent of Bhagirathi and 65 per cent of Alaknanda getting affected.

“The cumulative impact of the various projects in place and which are under construction have not been properly examined or assessed, which requires a detailed technical and scientific study. In view of the above mentioned circumstances, we are inclined to give the following directions: “We direct the MoEF as well as State of Uttarakhand not to grant any further environmental clearance or forest clearance for any hydroelectric power project until further orders.”

It is telling that this intervention should come 31 years after the projects commenced in 1982.

Is it beyond a country sending a satellite to Mars to also develop energy technologies that reconcile all needs? What have the IITs to show by way of research?

From the threat created by ignorance, passivity or avarice we may progress, if that is the felicitous word, to premeditated intervention. Some of this destruction is even the consequence of high-minded legal intervention designed to conserve nature.

The other threat comes from the way we treat wildlife. Fish are dynamited, electrocuted, killed by poisoning streams, or any other scheme that comes to mind. Even the “closed (breeding) season” is not enforced. The promiscuity is appalling.

The finest mahseer fishing was to be had not in the north but in the south. The largest humpback mahseer, Tor khudree, caught by rod and line in the Kabini, a tributary of the Kaveri, were the 119 pounder (54 kg) by Colonel J. S. Rivett-Carnac on December 29, 1919, and the 120-pounder (55 kg) caught by J. Wet. Van Ingen on March 22, 1946. Now of course anglers catch and release their trophies, waiting only to take a photograph to place on their walls. Any angler would travel half way around the world to get that fish and that photo. The dam on this river has wiped out this handsome and now rare species.

The uphill task for tourism is illustrated by the second kind of disaster that has followed the dam. An excerpt from the mail of an avid angler and environmentalist tells the story:

“The stretch of river from the [Karnataka] state border to Muttathi, about 16 kilometres, was leased to the Wildlife Association of India (WASI) in 1972. WASI protected the waters. In course of time fishing improved drastically. My best fishing many years ago before Jungle Lodges came in the picture in three days was two fish over 90 lb, three between 80-90 lb. Jungle Lodges then leased the river upstream from Muttathi, a stretch of about 16 kilometres.

“When they saw the great fishing in the stretch controlled by WASI, Jungle Lodges took over the stretch of WASI and agreed that members could fish the river, and WASI would take care of anti-poaching activities. WASI hired and paid for the guards. They not only caught fish poachers, they also caught wildlife poachers, even a gang of elephant poachers. The day these poachers arrived they dynamited fish for dinner and hearing the dynamite, our guards went there [and] followed them and caught them in the camp, little realising that they were elephant poacher(s). Our guards were also lucky as they had the guns still wrapped up.

“A misunderstanding between the two eco-tour operators got one of them filing a case in the Supreme Court stating that fishing in wildlife sanctuaries should not be allowed. The Supreme Court asked the Centrally Empowered Committee to give its findings. Its findings were based on the Wildlife Act 1972 which states that ... baiting, feeding of wildlife, trapping, snaring ... is not allowed in wildlife sanctuaries. Feeding the fish was not allowed, catch and release was classified as trapping and snaring, so they banned fishing in all sanctuaries in India.

“Today dead fish are taken to the market openly in buses. There is intensive netting, dynamiting going on openly. Poaching around the river side is very easy in the dry months as there is a lot of wildlife along the banks. These are now being killed.”

Add to this the more recent experience of Himmat Kalsia:

“The last time we went to the Kaveri was in January 2012. Fishing had already been banned in parts of the river but there was confusion as to which bits fell under the ban. I believe that the bits that flow through the national parks were off limits, but those outside were not.

“Fishing had already suffered and our catch was ridiculously small. While fishing we heard gunshots from the forest on more than one occasion. I also saw and photographed dead fish floating belly up. This was a direct result of the ban, as JLR were no longer patrolling the river with anti-poaching teams. Nor were they feeding the river to keep fish in areas which were managed. I believe that our laws, made by do-gooders who understand little of conservation, are squarely to blame.

“In India, wild creatures cannot be fenced and belong to no one. Ergo they are no person's responsibility and no one looks after their interest. In South Africa, on the other hand, animals belong to the owner of the land on which they are. The owner therefore has an incentive to look after them and prevent poaching. In return he exploits the creatures either through hunting concessions or other forms of tourism. He therefore makes sure they are not overshot or endangered to the point of disappearing, but he manages them such that they thrive and his revenue from their exploitation increases. The net result is a thriving wildlife industry in South Africa. The problem here is that the do-gooders do not understand the incalculable damage to our forests and fauna brought on by their well-intentioned but misguided interventions.”

One other problem with fish is that they are food and hence not protected under the Wildlife Act. They come under the purview of the Ministry of Agriculture, not the MoEF. Clearly the time has come to put some species on the endangered list of the Indian Wildlife Act of 1972 or write a new legislation that will enlist NGOs like WASI and the Environment and Angler’s Association (EAA) in Dehradun to husband strategic tracts of our 38,000 kilometres of river. The present administrative system holds out little hope.

The Supreme Court has given mahseer a lease of life in the Ganga. But has it protected it from the poacher? The answer is an emphatic “No”.

Will the government use this breather to tighten implementation of the Fisheries Acts? Again, history must give us a negative answer. Do we need to take note of the Constitution of neighbouring Bhutan that states that “the Royal Government shall: protect, converse and improve the pristine environment and safeguard the biodiversity of the kingdom, prevent pollution and ecological degradation ... Additionally a Bhutanese citizen is duty bound to preserve, protect and respect the environment ...”

The preservation of the Golden Mahseer needs all Indians to follow the Bhutanese example. We started with the tiger; let us move on to the mahseer. Once the project gains traction, this fascinating fish will hook man rather than vice-versa.