Neelkanth is linking fragmented components, farmer groups, government schemes, fishery research institutes and the market to unleash the full potential of the fish and water plant farming industry.
The New Idea
Neelkanth believes farming of shared resources will enable farmer groups to become economic forces that will spur growth in their communities. He is demonstrating this by using the most commonly available shared resources in villages- in-land water bodies like ponds, lakes and watersheds.
Neelkanth is building the inland fisheries industry in India, run and owned by landless and marginal farmers. By helping farmer groups and cooperatives see the economic opportunity in tapping and acquire rights over water bodies, Neelkanth places shared resources owned by collectives at the center of the model. He supports the entrepreneurial growth of farmer groups through diverse linkages and capacity building. He links them to existing government schemes that provide funds, seeds, and fishing nets, to fishery institutes for training on best-practices, and to markets for product sale. In this process, Neelkanth empowers farmer groups to realize their economic potential and builds capacity in them to advocate for further support and regulation from the government in the fisheries sector.
At the state and national level, Neelkanth is integrating in-land fisheries into existing fisheries CSOs, funding agencies, and government ministries to support the growth of the sector. Neelkanth has successfully integrated in-land fisheries in six states livelihood programs (Madhya Pradesh, Jharkand, Orissa, Bihar, Telangana, and West Bengal) and is currently scaling his model in Andhra Pradesh with the Tata Trust.
74% of the 273 million farmers in India are small or landless farmers, whose only recourse for livelihood is as agricultural laborers, making them vulnerable to exploitation by landowners. The government is spending over 36,000 crore rupees ($5 billion USD) in agriculture schemes every year, yet the majority of farmers continue to live below the poverty line.
With landholding being small for such farmers (below 5 acres), inland fisheries present a huge opportunity for these landless farmers. India is among the top ten most water resources rich nations in the world of which almost all are shared resources leased by the agriculture ministries, providing the opportunity for large-scale fisheries farming. Though production output has surpassed the marine fisheries sector in recent years, inland fisheries remains a cottage industry producing 10 folds below it’s measured potential.
This has been mainly due to the fragmented nature of the industry. Starting with access to the water resources, there is no standard code of conduct and leasing policy for these lands. In many cases, local middlemen are given the responsibility to lease the lands that take a large share of the output profit, leaving landless farmers to remain as laborers. Moreover, the farmers do not have access to markets to be able to sell the fish they farm and catch, so they remain dependent on middlemen to access markets. Historically, fisherman engage in fish catching, and thus do not have the knowledge or expertise in fish farming, a much more diverse and complex industry, with different methods and resources needed for each type of fish or water plant. Though government schemes and programs have mandated agriculture research institutes (ICAR) to extend input resources, knowledge, and training to these fishermen communities, ICAR are not linked to these communities, leaving critical resources underutilized.
These gaps are aggravated by the fact that these landless farmers operate individually, and Neelkanth believes that they can only be a strong body, advocating for access to shared resources, controlling their means of production and negotiate best rates with the market, if they come together as a united body of a Farmer Producer Organization. He is aggregating an unused resource with an underdeveloped market to address the unsolved, everlasting challenge of creating an economic base for the rural poor.
As Neelkanth is building a new industry of in land aquatic agriculture, he has to build everything from knowledge and information in the sector, to input resources, advocate for conducive government policies, access to finance, and the entire value chain of farming to processing to value addition.
The foundation of Neelkanth’s strategy is built on building resilience of farmer groups, such as cooperatives, women self-help groups, and fishing collectives, and placing shared aquatic resources and all value addition in their hands. He begins by acquainting the farmer groups with their rights to the local water resources and on how to access them following government requirements
(documentation, applications, …etc.), and hiring a local resource person who maintains the records.
After gaining access to the lands, Neelkanth introduces them to the potential of aquatic farming. He creates a sense of abundance in this sector by showcasing the entire fisheries value chain, from seed production, net making, breed diversity (fish and water plants), value addition processes (filet, fish fry…etc.), sales, and marketing. Jaljeevika supports the pilot of a fish harvest, based on the available government schemes or local resources. In one instance, Jaljeevika provided 10,00 rupees seed investment for a bamboo water cage, which in only 6 months yielded a harvest worth 50,000 rupees. In another, an existing government scheme provided free boats and nets, and Jaljeevika trained farmers to farm tilapia fish, reaping 70,000 rupees in 6 months. Seeing the rapid turnover and high profit from the harvest, the newly organized farm group begin demanding access to more knowledge and resources to increase their output and identify new areas of value; from access to credit, aquatic expertise, and markets, …etc. Jaljeevika quickly teaches the local farmers how to farm fingerlings, essential for fish feeding, and enabling farmers to be self-sustaining in their growth.
Neelkanth’s organization Water Livelihoods Jaljeevika builds institutional capacity in these farmer groups (record keeping, accounting, conflict management, leadership) to perform as a business entity, enabling them to access credit, government schemes for inputs, and the market in a more powerful way. At every stage of growth, the farmers launch new micro ventures within the collective in value addition processes such as filet making, or fingerlings (feeds) production, and in sales and marketing. For example, one collective provided salary to the women in the collective to create fishnets in a context where government scheme was not available. In another example, they realized local fish had a higher value if sold as fry-fish in urban markets and, with Jaljeevika’s support, they sought out training and were linked to the urban hotels and restaurants. As they grow in strength, cooperatives are able to fend off interest groups and abusive contractors. In one example, a contractor poisoned the pond as he sought higher rates. In previous scenarios, the local representatives would not have responded to the struggles of one farmer, but as an economically powerful collective, the higher authority had to investigate the issue and was able to bring the contractor to justice.
Neelkanth is preparing the fisheries ecosystem to support and sustain the growth of these farmer groups. At the government level (Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer Welfare), he has advocated alongside farmer groups for longer and standardization of leasing policies and ensuring that inland fisheries programs are included in the general water resource and agriculture programs- which focus more on marine fisheries and irrigation. His work was successful in extending Madhya Pradesh (MP)’s leasing policy from 1 year to 7 years, allowing them to more easily access credit, and invest in longer term and higher yield initiatives. Neelkanth is also showing investors, grant funders, and banks the opportunity in investing and providing credit to such fisheries groups. His
team is currently working in close collaboration with the Tata Trust in creating Andhra Pradesh’s inland fishery sector, while simultaneously building Tata Trust’s own inland fisheries vertical.
For knowledge and training, Neelkanth is using existing agriculture institutes, like India Center for Agriculture Research (ICAR), who have the mandate to extend their research and the latest state of the art equipment to these communities, to make fish farming more efficient and profitable. ICAR have provided boats, hatcheries, nets, and training to several groups in Andhra Pradesh (AP) and Madhya Pradesh (MP).
Neelkanth is partnering with existing large and reputed agriculture organizations like Pradan, Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture (RRA) network, the Tata Trust, and government agriculture departments like Maharashtra State Rural Livelihood Mission, and building the fisheries vertical within these organizations. By doing this Neelkanth has been able to affect policy and create fishery verticals in 8 states since 2012 years with a lean team of eight members, enabling state government and large organization to replicate his model through their own networks. His direct interventions have affected the lives of an estimated 11,500 men and women farmers in MP, Orissa, Jharkan, Maharashtra, and AP, organized as Self-Help Groups and farmers cooperatives, securing their livelihoods in the entire value chain. Neelkanth is building the capacity in the cooperatives, the ecosystem, and finally the sector, while continuously securing the small farmers’ livelihoods in the entire value chain.
Neelkanth is currently scaling his work in AP in collaboration with the Tata Trust.
Neelkan was born and raised an industrial town known for the Tata Steel plant Jamsheidpur, Jharkand.
When he was college, he and his classmates formed a science club, Akanksha Club, where they’d publish newsletters and invite dignitaries, famous artists, and professors to speak about the recent advancements in science. 20 years later, the organization still lives.
Neelkanth had a short attempt of journalism, documenting the horrors of witch hunting in Bihar and presenting them to the government assembly. His efforts led to a policy passed against the practice, which was later replicated in the state of Jharkhand.
Neelkanth worked at the grassroots in 2001, during the Right to Food movement. This was his first grassroots experience in advocacy, where he witnessed tribal farmers failing to access their rightful lands due to lack of knowledge of the law and how to exercise the right. It was only in 2006, when
he joined Oxfam, that he discovered the potential of inland fisheries to upscale the livelihood of small and marginal farmers. He led Oxfam’s livelihood program in Madhya Pradesh (MP) for 4 years, where he noticed early on the abuses farmers were facing with local contractors and middlemen. Building on his earlier experience in the Right to Food movement, Neelkanth advocated for the rights of the fishing community over shared water resources. He quickly realized, though access to the resources was critical, there were larger challenges limiting their economic growth, such as access to information, technology, and leasing policy. He built local knowledge networks and linked farmers to research institutes, accelerating their growth. In four years, his impact had reached 4,000 fishermen and women through cooperatives and self-help groups (SHG). The fishing communities in MP were organized and economically relevant, creating enough political capital to lobby for conducive reforms and regulations for the fisheries practice, successfully extending the land leasing policy from 1 year to 7 years. MP is the basis of his current work with Jaljeevika, though with a shift in strategy.
After a short break, he founded Water Livelihoods Jaljeevika in 2013, raised funds from RRA, Ford, and DFID, and partnered with large agriculture organizations such as Pradan, and Samaj Pragati Sanyod to incubate fisheries in their existing programs. Though he continues to advocate for the rights over water resources at the ground, he’s shifted his strategy to building capacity at the ecosystem level and using market forces to accelerate the growth and development of these communities.