Fishermen Struggle to Survive as Assam’s Largest Wetland Shrinks Away

Text by Aatreyee Dhar

  • Son Beel, one of the largest wetlands of Assam is shrinking. This depletes the fish catch in the waters, thereby truncating the incomes of fishermen.

  • Unsustainable fishing, pollution and agricultural encroachments are other issues that challenge Son Beel’s ecosystem.

  • Some experts say that declaring Son Beel as a Ramsar site is important, while others call for the fisherfolk to fish sustainably and the government to introduce better policies.

Son Beel, Assam’s largest wetland

Photo by Rahul Choudhury

When the night’s darkness descends over the waters of Son Beel, the largest wetland in Assam and the second largest in Asia, Rotish Das, 33, sets out to catch fish in his boat. He fishes in the placid expanse of Son Beel through the night and sells his catch the next day, at a bustling fish market — the Kalibari bazaar, a few kilometres away.

The catch that once earned him 500 rupees a day, has now dwindled in volume drastically. The declined stock of carps, prawns and catfish draws him a little more than 150 rupees daily, which is not enough to go around the year. “Earlier I would catch the same quantity of fish both during the day and the night. Casting a fishing net weighing about 10kg doesn’t guarantee a decent-sized catch, whereas a 5kg net would suffice before. Fishes like Ilish (Hilsa) and Chapila (Indian river shad) are not available anymore,” says Rotish, the resident of Bagantilla, a village on the southern bank of Son Beel.

The wetland is spread over more than 3,000 ha in Assam’s Barak valley and is fed mostly by the Singla river, originating from the hills of Mizoram. The northernmost part of the wetland drains through the outlet Kachua into the river Kushiara in Bangladesh, after traversing a length of 19.3 km. A dam constructed in 1954 on Kachua was replaced by a lock gate to enable navigation and migration of fish. Home to at least 69 different species of fish, the veritable paradise supports rich birds as well as other vegetation in the region.

Joykumar Das, another fisherman, from Saija Nagar, a village on the eastern bank of the wetland, resonates a similar loss. His monthly income from fisheries would earlier earn him 10,000-12,000 rupees each month. Now, the income has dwindled with the business he refers to as “netting” or raking large unsparing synthetic nets over the wetland’s wate