In the middle of winter, when the cold still air and the smoke of thousands of cow-dung fires hugs the flat landscape, the groundwater in Bihar is warm, and emerges steaming from the water pumps.
A legacy of its hot summers – Bihar shares its latitude with Saudi Arabia and Mexico – the warm groundwater shapes the state’s winter weather. When the warm, wet land and the cold, dry air meet, in an act of everyday alchemy, the moisture precipitates into fog.
At 5am, Darbhanga’s wholesale fish market is shrouded in fog and the bustle of thriving commerce. And yet despite Bihar’s wet landscape being perfect for rearing fish, most of the stock on sale here comes from Andhra Pradesh, a thousand miles to the south.
Thanks to India’s poor roads, and with its inefficient, unrefrigerated supply chains, this can mean the fish is as much as ten days old – with results as unappetising as you would imagine.
Why isn’t Bihar self sufficient in fish?
For the past few months, we have been working with sustainability charity Forum for the Future and the University of Stirling, and our funder the Global Innovation Fund, to find out what we can do to support the development of fish farming in India and Bangladesh as a source of healthy and sustainable protein for the poor.
The situation in Bihar, where we have just completed a round of fieldwork, is particularly challenging, but it also has enormous potential.
Bihar is India’s poorest state, and one of its most corrupt. Lying along Nepal’s southern border, and straddling a long stretch of the plain of the Ganges, it is home to over 100 million people, the vast majority of whom live in rural areas.
To most Indians, Bihar is a backwater. The country’s turbocharged economic growth is yet to make much of an impact here, with smallholder agriculture – tough and poorly-paid work – still the backbone of the state’s economy.
Peasants in rural Bihar are among the poorest people in the world. Houses are bamboo shacks, electricity remains patchy, running water rare. Most people don’t have access to a toilet, so roadsides are littered with human faeces.
Among this landscape of extreme poverty are numerous ponds and lakes. Fish is a popular food here – nutritious, and cheap enough that it competes with lentils, the local staple, on cost.
India’s last large-scale starvation happened in Bihar, just 50 years ago. Although the days of starvation are now past, malnutrition remains a constant threat.
Around the world, fish farming is a fast-growing source of healthy food. The sector has emerged from almost nowhere over the past fifty years to eclipse the production of global capture fisheries.
In most of the world, aquaculture has quickly established itself in the past half century – places as diverse as China, Vietnam, Scotland, and even other parts of India such as Andhra Pradesh have created large, industrialised and highly efficient fish farming sectors.
In Bihar, it has deeper roots – with ponds and lakes having been tended by the fisher castes here for centuries. That means it has long-established cultural and economic importance, but also that inefficient, outdated practices are deeply ingrained.
Bihar is lagging behind.
The large majority of ponds and lakes in the state are public property, leased to cooperatives of low-caste fisherfolk by the government. In theory this helps a highly marginalised group make a living. In practice, these shared ponds are a classic tragedy of the commons: it is in nobody’s interest to maintain them, to stock them with quality fish eggs, or to feed them. And like much that involves the public sector in Bihar, there is a whiff of corruption surrounding the allocation of the leases.
Moreover, fisherfolk are discriminated against – not just as a low-status profession, but as an economically and socially marginalised caste, considered unworthy of access to land or to financial services, if they want to improve, expand or set up their own farms.
Alongside these government ponds is a new breed of private fish farms, owned by local entrepreneurs, producing far more fish per hectare. But these are constrained in their access to the land they need to build their ponds, ownership of which is extremely fragmented, and with limited access to quality feed, seed (fish eggs) and support services that they would need to thrive.
And if budding entrepreneurs do manage to overcome all these barriers, the construction of new farms can often mean destruction of wetland habitats.
And so, despite a flat landscape with a high water table and impermeable clay soils – perfect conditions for building ponds; despite a tradition of fishing and fish farming – providing cheap, local skilled labour; despite fish being popular in the local cuisine – providing a ready-made market; Bihar ends up importing about half the fish it eats from out of state.
What can we do to support this sector in producing food that can support the poor? With this work in Bihar, further research carried out by our colleagues from Forum for the Future in Bangladesh in January, and a review of the academic literature by the University of Stirling, we are trying to figure this out.
We think there are products and services that could help support fish farmers boost their productivity here and elsewhere in the subcontinent:
We think that challenge prizes are a promising approach for a number of these – helping to develop and adapt new technologies and new business practices that make a real difference. What is clear, though, is that spurring this innovation is the easy part. Ensuring it is adopted and changes lives is the real challenge.
Sustainable feed is no use without customers. Diagnostic tools are no good without a service that delivers them – and gives advice on what to do with the information they give. Boosting aquaculture in Bihar needs self-sustaining business models.
If we design our challenge prizes right by incorporating these criteria, we stand a good chance of achieving lasting change in the sector – and we can avoid the mistakes of previous initiatives that have disappeared without trace once pilot funds ran out.