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Aghanashini River: Communities protecting river rights

This brief writeup is based on the first RORSA Presentation and Discussion Series which was held on 9th Oct, 2021. Hemavati Shekhar, a PhD student at TERI School of Advanced Studies presented her study ‘ Rights of rivers in a situated context: the Aghanashini river’ (supported by Initiative for Climate Action and RORSA), followed by presentations by Vaishnavi Varadarajan, an activist and researcher and Dr. Prakash Mesta, a Coastal Ecologist from Honavar, Karnataka.


. The Aghanashini River. Photo Credit: Vaishnavi Varadarajan

Aghanashini is a magnificent river originating from Shankar Honda, a UNESCO World Heritage Center of the Western Ghats in Sirsi which joins the Arabian Sea at Kumta Taluk in Uttar Kannada. Dotted with natural wonders of the breath-taking waterfalls, the Moonbow, Yana caves, and various religious sites, she remains a virgin river and hosts rich flora and fauna along her course. In the light of rapid destruction and fragmentation of river ecosystems across the country, the Aghanashini river flows in her own spirit, untamed and wild and is one of the last free flowing rivers in India due to the relentless efforts of the communities which have been living in balance with her along the banks.

The Story of Co-existence

Different communities such as Halakki Vokkaligas and Namdharis (local fishing communities) have been protecting her rights for a long time. Recognising the human dependence on the river, they offered a reverential title to the river by addressing the river as ‘she who destroys sins’. The Aghanashini estuary, an interface between the freshwater and saline water ecosystems, is a very unique ecotone with high trophic level. It illustrates an example of sharing ecosystem services through community traditions and harvesting production from the river without any destruction nor investment.

The estuary is home to the Myristica swamps and mangroves which retain monsoon water like sponges thus reducing the impact of floods while acting as exceptionally good carbon sinks. In addition, provides safe refuge for young fish, mollusks like bivalves and the lion-tailed macaque (one of the rarest primates in the wild) which relishes on the uppage fruit found in the swamps and in turn aids the growth of the swamps through seed dispersal. Fishing women work in the mudflats during low tides as bivalve collectors which forms a part of their protein rich diet. The Babrulingeshwara grove, which is guided by age-old tradition of abstaining from any deforestation by the communities, still remains the sacred part of this estuary.

Image of fishing in a Kodi. Photo Credit: Vaishnavi Varadarajan

For over 3,500 years, farmers and fisherfolk living around this estuary have practiced a very unique technique of Kagga rice cultivation - a salt resistant paddy variety. The cultivation fields - ‘gazni lands’ were along embankments in the backwaters of the estuary. During high tide the saline water would come in through natural drainage channels - kodis wherein the flow of water was controlled by wooden sluice gates which facilitated drainage of fields. Once the paddy was harvested, fisherfolk would fish in these gazni lands. Customarily, only 3 to 4 families would practice natural fishing in one kodi. They fitted nets called gantivale, towards the mouth of the kodi, to trap the fish that would be leaving the gaznis during low tide. They also used a scooping net called gorubale, to fish inside the kodis, by placing it against the flow and also collected prawns and crabs from the roots of mangroves that were planted by gazni farmers on the side of gazni lands.

The community practiced a cooperative farming system wherein each gazni land was co-owned by a group of farmers who shared the returns amongst each other. There was no concept of landlords!

The Fight: Development VS Conservation

Unfortunately, this story of co-existence began changing when the Karnataka government introduced the scheme to convert the wooden gates and earthen bunds to stone dams to prevent salt intrusion in 1973 under the Kharland Development Scheme. As the mangroves and sluice gates were removed, the linkage between saline water and freshwater was broken down and kagga cultivation practice came to a standstill. With the 1980s blue revolution, aquaculture companies began replacing traditional farming and fishing practices which brought in chemical and factory feeds which led to diseases in prawns and subsequent damage to shrimp farms. Fishermen began auctioning fishing rights to private contractors. Further, the gazni lands were ruined by the caustic soda factory. Due to dwindling shellfish availability because of shell mining and unregulated sand mining, the women from the Hakkali Vokkaligal community who were once farmers have now become vegetable vendors. Reminiscing their past, they continue to sing songs of the land and their work in kagga fields.

Hakkali Vokkaligal community women. Photo Credit: Vaishnavi Varadarajan

In spite of these obstacles, small collectives of kagga farmers continue their farming practices as the way of preserving the indigenous rice cultivation. These farmers along with community members and religious leaders together opposed a thermal power plant which was proposed in this region. Owing to their protest, the proposal was changed to a gas plant. However, although the project was shelved it was not terminated or cancelled - so still remains a sleeping threat.

In 2016-2017, there was a local campaign against the Tadadi port which was proposed in 2009 which meant that around 1,400 acres of land near Nushikotte village in Hiregutti would be acquired for transporting iron, coal and steel. This meant degradation of 200 ha of mangroves, and shifting of mudflats which were to be dredged to create shipping channels.

As the port was proposed to be built right inside the mangrove, realising the threat communities came together to fight against the port. Fortunately, owing to their fight, the Tadadi port project was delisted in 2020. Carrying forward their fight, the Bivalva Collector’s Union have proposed that the entire estuary be declared as a ‘critically vulnerable coastal area’ to the Karnataka State Coastal Zone Management Authority. This effort has been further strengthened by the proposal of the Centre of Ecological Sciences of IISc to the Karnataka State Biodiversity Board that the biologically active mudflats near Aghanashini village and the mangroves near Kaggai and Masur villages be declared as ‘Biodiversity Heritage Sites’ under the Biological Diversity Act of 2002.

This effort of the communities is also being supported by academic researchers. One such example is a study conducted by the Energy and Wetland Research Group in the river basin related to mapping of natural resources of the Aghanashini Estuary. The study evaluated the economic value of the different resources in the estuary such as fishery, shells, salt, aquaculture, bivalve shells, firewood, fodder, mangrove, tourism and other such aspects in order to establish the link between human dependence on the river system and the importance for protection and conservation of the river basin.

Distribution patterns of fishing communities mapped during the study

The study summarised that the total economic value of the different resources in the estuary amounts to 142.98cr/yr (with aquaculture: 112.16cr/yr, fishery: 12.07 cr/yr, salt production: 5 cr/yr, molluscs and shells: 13.3. cr/yr, sand mining, firewood and fodder: 0.36 cr/yr). Therefore, highlighting the fact that if the estuary is not preserved, it would lead to loss in biodiversity which provides these rich ecosystem services and livelihood opportunities to many local communities.

Rights of Rivers, a legal framework

Although the communities are aware of the dangers and do rise up to action when their river is in danger, the threats looming ahead are much greater. There are proposals in place for diverting the river water to meet Bengaluru’s water demand. Currently, the pollution levels in the river from domestic sewage and runoff from agricultural lands are within the threshold. A study indicated that the presence of pollution sensitive taxa in the river is a good sign! However, with increasing projects these levels could easily change and the river could become a source of carbon and methane emission. Furthermore, the livelihood of the local communities is under threat due to climate change. Recently, flood events have increased due to climate change, sediment deposition is threatened by sand mining, and food and water security has also been challenged.

In this context, the Bioregionalism approach which respects nature’s laws over man-made political and administrative boundaries can aid in treating the entire river basin as one single entity. The linear integration of the region from the source of the river to its mouth where it meets the sea and spatial integration of all the administrative zones and departmental authorities could help in holistic management of the river basin. In addition, the Rights of Rivers approach can offer a legal framework to strengthen the work and role of the communities for protecting their river. Therefore, Rights of Rivers while being complimented with Bioregional Governance can be a solution to keep Aghanashini alive and free flowing in face of climate change.

Such a pluriversal perspective can help in prioritising the preference of the society for protecting the river.

'Communities have been the keepers and protectors of the river and her knowledge, having legal rights will benefit the communities. Currently, there is no legal mechanism in place due to conflict of interests. So having the Rights of River framework will allow us to go back to the relationships of these communities with the river.'

However, currently, the local community is fragmented due to complex resource use and access. So entrusting the rights of protecting the river with the local community as her guardian raises many questions and challenges related to the idea of community. Which stakeholders are we talking about, how do we bring them together? How do we deal with these variations and identity conflicts? Many such questions need to be answered and figured out. However, even from an anthropocentric, selfish perspective, protecting and conserving the river will ultimately help human communities as we are completely dependent on her for our well-being.

In order to overcome various challenges of coordinating with multiple stakeholders, the study mentioned above proposes initiation of a joint program which includes identification of stakeholders (such as fishermen, cattle keepers, fuel wood harvesters, honey collectors, tourists, and government officials), creation of self help groups, fishermen groups and proposes a plan of action to protect the river. All these efforts also bring out crucial discussions to explore the idea of decolonizing rights and move towards an idea of ‘collective or community rights’ from individual rights. The historical evidence of existence of co-operative farming and fishing practices in the gazni lands in the area (mentioned previously) is an example that such collective or community rights can indeed exist! Such collaborative activist-academic research studies and community action can help us move towards creating a strong foothold for implementing Rights of Rivers strengthened with appropriate institutional and educational basis.

Here's a recording of the session


Note: Photos in this article were shared in the presentations by the speakers.

This brief summary of the event is written by Radhika Mulay, a member of RORSA, currently working on a project titled the 'The Heads and Tails of Ganga - the Cryosphere and the Delta'

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