Of prawns and shrimps

19 Jul

I am not a fish expert. But like any other Bengali worth her salt, I love eating fish. And chingri (a generic term for prawn and shrimp in Bangla) is my favorite ‘fish’. As an avid chingri fan, I know that there are several varieties of chingri such as golda and bagda. However, I was blissfully ignorant of the water management implications of growing golda vs. bagda until I started working in coastal Bangladesh. Golda is a freshwater prawn, while bagda is a brackish water shrimp. Yes, prawns and shrimps, my friends at World Fish Center told me, are two different things!

Before large scale shrimp (bagda) cultivation started in the 1980s, it was usual for polder sluice gates to be opened during monsoon season when fresh water could enter and flush out excess salinity from the soil. During the rest of the year, when salinity in coastal rivers went up, gates would remain closed. This allowed farmers to cultivate paddy crop during the rainy season and at best another less water consuming crop like sesame in the rabi season. Lack of water and high natural salinity build-up in the soil precluded any summer crop. However, commercial bagda cultivation changed the rules of the game. Now, bagda farmers want to bring brackish water inside the polder throughout the year. Shrimps thrive in brackish water, but nothing else does. This particularly affects paddy farmers – who almost always tend to be poor. Bagda farmers, on the other hand, tend to be wealthy – and indeed many of them are absentee-landlords and industrialists who have leased in land from local farmers for shrimp cultivation. Once shrimp cultivation comes in, natural vegetation dies, leaving behind miles and miles of shrimp farms uninterrupted by trees, crops and even livestock. Drilling of pipes in polders to bring in saline water also weakens the infrastructure, making it even  more damage-prone during cyclones.

In view of negative environmental impacts, several local NGOs like Nijera Kori and BELA have tried to discourage farmers from cultivating shrimp and shift to fresh water prawns instead. But, they have had limited success so far. We wanted to investigate why and realized that answer lies in economics. We compared costs and benefits of growing shrimps vs. prawns and  found that benefits from growing shrimp is so much higher than any other crop combination that it is almost impossible to convince farmers to do otherwise.

What can we do once we understand and accept this economic as well as environmental reality? I found two interesting things that are happening on the ground.  International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (BRRI) have developed a number of salt tolerant rice varieties which farmers can grow on shrimp farms during rainy season. Even though productivity of such varieties is low, it still takes care of family’s food security needs. World Fish and Bangladesh Fisheries Research Institute on the other hand, are experimenting with bagda varieties that can grow in either very low saline environment or in fresh water to ensure that bagda farming can be done with minimal environmental damage.

The solution, I reckon, will lie in innovative ideas as above that understand farmers’ livelihood compulsions and gives them alternative and more sustainable choices. And I for one, will think twice before eating shrimps.



10 Responses to “Of prawns and shrimps”

  1. Sujata Das Chowdhury July 20, 2012 at 11:24 am #

    Hopefully IRRI, BRRI will be successful in near future to find high productive rice variety at salinity water!

  2. ChuiyerChu July 23, 2012 at 7:13 pm #

    Interesting article! But whoever said – keep academics away from suggesting solutions – How true! For a paddy growing farmer to wait till a research institute develops a rice variety which can grow in saline water and achieve productivity levels as earlier – is hoping for a miracle. A typical private sector solution and one which would easily work is to tax the shrimp farmer to pay for the paddy farmer’s losses! The economics would still be favourable for shrimp growers and shrimp eaters like Aditi could still enjoy their shrimps-though they would have to pay more – which i am sure they can afford.

    • aditimukherji July 23, 2012 at 9:12 pm #

      @ChuiyerChu: Brilliant suggestion — taxing and yes, in most cases this is a good idea and will possibly work. Or at least taxing shrimp farmers would work and possibly will be easy to implement too. Whether or not the tax money so generated will be used to compensate farmers is what I really doubt. What seems to work better in reducing area under shrimps, year on year are international shrimp prices (and that’s where mine and your shrimp consumption comes in) and shrimp virus (that kills shrimps) — both reduce profits. We also found that in one of the polders where Nijera Kori had stopped saline water intrusion, few shrimp farmers had drilled deep tubewells and were pumping saline water instead! That of course increased his cost of production, but he still went for it, because the profits were still formidable…

      • ChuiyerChu July 24, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

        “Whether or not the tax money so generated will be used to compensate farmers..” As long as the current government or any of the opposition parties form the government – it will not. Since all the money will go to the black hole called Consolidated Fund of India. I would much rather prefer – that there is a local tax – just for that area – administered by the Panchayat – and distributed straight to the affected paddy farmer. Well International shrimp prices may reduce area under shrimp – but the affected paddy farmer – once affected is always affected.

      • aditimukherji July 24, 2012 at 8:30 pm #

        I was talking of Bangladesh where local government institutions are much weaker than even India. Actually Union Parishads do not much power or resources at all and the Central government does not want to give power to LGIs. And paddy farmers once affected always affected is not true in coastal Bangladesh where rainfall is as high as 2000-3000 mm, so the soil gets flushed in just one rainy season and good enough for growing kharif paddy. Perhaps yields will be low for a couple of years, but yields are known to recover fully in 3-5 years at maximum.

  3. ChuiyerChu July 24, 2012 at 9:01 pm #

    Point conceded – Bangladesh not India! Having said that the Bangladesh government’s budgeting process is as good/bad as the Indian one – so the point is still valid. Fall in yield for Poor paddy farmers in one season is bad enough – for two years – i would say is terrible. Would you and i take a salary cut for 2-3 years and wait for it to recover in 3-5 years while a neighbour has found an environmentally unfriendly way of making more money! My last comment on this post. let us move on to the rest.

    • Md. Chhiddikur Rahman, BAU, Mymensingh November 21, 2012 at 9:27 pm #

      Developing new shrimp varieties is uncertain and time consuming. The poor people of the coastal areas are suffering from salinity problem. We should consider the social welfare and the environment also. Availability of drinking water is a burning question even in the empolder areas. Rice takes the monopoly position to the staple food items through out the country. However, the marketable surplus of paddy is always negative in the saline water areas.So water management should consider drinking water availability and rice productivity for ensuring food security instead of maximizing profit.

  4. aditimukherji November 22, 2012 at 9:23 am #

    Thanks Chhiddikur for your good comments. I am looking forward to reading your thesis soon…I hope you will shed new light on these issues in your thesis.

  5. mmghosh January 12, 2016 at 4:00 am #

    Just discovered this blog – I hope you don’t mind my reposting on FB!


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