Barnamala Roy: How did you decide to farm ornamental fish?
Sujata Gure: We had witnessed ornamental fish being successfully farmed at a nearby place, which inspired us to take up the farming. We started the venture in ten earthen vessels ('majla').
B.R.: Which fish did you begin raising first?
S.G: We started out with swordtails and molly fish of various varieties - white, black and red.
B.R.: So, the farming here (at Jafarpur Mahila Samity) mainly started with mollies?
S.G.: Yes. After keeping mollies for some time, we realized that the mollies directly give birth to their young (without laying eggs). So, the ten 'majla'-s could not provide us with sufficient space for breeding and rearing the fish. Then, we constructed twelve cement tanks and kept gold fish along with our previous lot of mollies and sword tails.
Having started the farming on our own, one day, my husband (Ranajit Gure) went to the block to find out if we can receive any opportunities to better our prospects in this regard. We were then informed that, yes, there are opportunities but not for individual fish farmers; to avail them, we have to form an association that too, with women.
B.R.: And this was round which year? 2001?
S.G.: We individually started in the majla-s in 2001. The Samity was formed a bit later.
B.R.: Both of you?
S.G.: Yes, both of us (after marriage). We then found out that we would have better prospects if we formed an association, and we began visiting households in different localities. In due course, we founded the Ornamental Fish Society with fifteen women.
B.R.: And this was (wholly) based in Jafarpur?
S.G.: Yes, in this Jafarpur village - Farda Block, Bongo Nagar 1, Uttar Jafarpur, to be precise.
R.G.: We registered the society first.
S.G.: Yes. In 2004, our society was granted registration. Then, we got a loan too, of the amount - Rs 65, 150. We got an exemption (on the loan repayment) of Rs. 20,000 as well.
B.R.: And from where did you get this loan?
R.G.: From Benfish.
S.G.: Yes from Benfish; we (the Jafarpur Ornamental Fish Cooperative) are also one of the participating members of Benfish.
After receiving the loan, we increased the number of cement tanks. This also facilitated the recruitment of more members; from fifteen, we are now thirty-six. We have also trained at various places.
B.R.: But initially, it was a self-taught craft for you, right - when you started the farming with buying spawns from the market?
R.G.: Buying spawns and working on fish production on our own continued simultaneously. Now, we directly produce (breed) the fish and don't need to buy spawns anymore.
S.G.: First, only a small volume of gold fish hatched from the eggs laid by the first lot of gold fish we bought from the market. So, we had to keep buying more (spawns).
Now, a huge population in our village is involved in ornamental fish farming apart from the thirty-six women forming the Samity.
B.R.: Did you yourselves teach the art of fish cultivation to the original fifteen women members of this Samity?
S.G. & R.G: Yes. They learnt by observing us. We instructed them to buy 'majla'-s with their own money, which they did (like us), and after receiving the grant, shifted to cement tanks. At 13 per cent interest, we received Rs. 67,150 (and subsidy of Rs. 20,000); other than that one time loan, we have not received any other monetary assistance over the years.
B.R.: And why was it started with only women members (at least officially)?
S.G.: We were told (from the Block) that women need to be prioritized over men in terms of opportunities. And the sujog would be endowed to women only. The APO sahib of the Block showed us how to go about it - like how to approach offices in Alipore or Benfish for grants.
B.R.: But I see, quite a few male members associated with the Society as well, albeit unofficially. How do you divide the work (of ornamental fish farming) among yourselves (between women and men members)?
S.G.: Yes, like the men mostly catch the insects from the surface of the water early in the morning. We, women, can undertake fish farming activities only after completing our daily household work. Once the men bring the insects home, both women and men undertake the task of feeding the fish. We need assistance from the men for collecting the fish from the ponds, because it's impossible for women to single-handedly do that. Also, men go to Howrah to the fish markets to sell our produce as well because often women are not very comfortable with that.
B.R.: But women too are going to the market to sell the fish, aren't they?
S.G.: Yes, they are going if they cannot depend upon any other family member (male) to undertake the work. Like some think, why would we hand over the fish we have cultivated to someone else? In those cases, women are going; but mostly, it's the men who handle the retail.
B.R.: Where are you doing the cultivation work?
S.G.: In our homes (plastic and earthen vessels, pots and tubs), in the ponds and tanks.
B.R.: Do you own the ponds in which you farm?
S.G.: Some of them are our own, the rest are taken on lease. The lease is usually taken for a duration of three or five years.
B.R.: The pond in which your family is farming now is your own?
B.R.: How many kinds of fish approximately are you farming within the Samity/Cooperative?
R.G.: Around twenty kinds of fish.
B.R.: If you can name some of them...
R.G.: Red cap, gold fish, oranda gold fish, green tail, rosy, gourami, molly, sword tail, guppy, zebra, jewel, rainbow, red rail, shark ...and a few more varieties.
B.R.: Are these fish mostly of Indian origin?
S.G.: Originally, all are from abroad.
R.G.: These are all from India.
B.R.: No, like the gold fish..it has been imported, right?
R.G.: No, all these are now our native products.
B.R.: You mean, they have got acclimatized and now breed here?
R.G.: The ones we are now displaying originate from here in that we no longer need to import these varieties. Some species like discus and feather (fish) are still being bought from abroad. The feather fish could not be produced here - in this climate - previously, but now that is happening too. Same with angels and crocodile fish.
B.R.: Crocodile fish are non-native?
R.G.: No, the crocodile fish is Indian in origin. Tiger sharks, too.
B: So basically, you are raising a blend of native and non-native fish?
R.G. & S.G.: Yes, yes.
B.R.: Because all varieties have gradually adapted to this weather?
R.G.: Like, there are these yellow snails, which I cannot show you now - we are raising that as well. That generates income as well. Then, there are fish which we bring from the Sagar Islands. Argus, too.
B.R.: How do you understand how to care for the different varieties of fish?
R.G.: The different items? We have arrangements for every variety; we use different nets. In each net (placed in the ponds), we release around 2,000 to 3,000 spawns, where they are kept, raised and sold eventually. We deliver fish in wholesale directly at the market.
S.G.: Visiting to the market also involves observing trends like the budget and demand for each variety of fish. On the basis of these observations, we can determine cultivating which fish will yield maximum profit.
B.R.: I meant...since these fish (the different varieties) of them are coming from various places, you know the specific procedures to tend to each species? When they are first being brought here, don't they face any problems in inhabiting the local ponds?
R.G.: No, generally they face no problems. The only trouble arises when the water temperature drops; we then supply oxygen through pumps.
S.G.: We face the most difficulty during the summer months, in terms of water. Fish farming reaches a standstill round that time, as the water in the ponds dry out and the fish cannot thrive. We do not yet have supply of water suitable for the fishes (in terms of ph consistency), which is why we suffer the maximum losses.
B.R.: It would be better for you if you received some assistance to abate the water crisis?
S.G.: Yes. We have made appeals for this many times at many places but to no avail.
B.R.: Can you briefly talk about the seasonal breeding patterns of the different species of fish?
R.G.: More or less, breeding continues throughout the year. Around this time (winter), the live bearers (the fish who give birth to their young directly from their bodies) won't breed. They will start breeding from spring, and produce babies till the end of summer. Also, in monsoon. they easily breed.
S.G.: During the monsoon months of Sravana and Bhadra (July/August), we get very good production. The best time starts from the fifteenth day of 'Magh' (January/February). The months of Falgun and Chaitra (late spring and early summer) are also conducive for breeding.
R.G.: The gouramis, for instance, breed best in 'ashar'/srabon- during monsoons. They are the egg layers. All fish kept here, in this aquarium - gourami, gold fish, rosy, green swordtail reproduce by laying eggs.
S.G.: The gourami's eggs hatch within three days (of laying).
B.R.: Do you have to arrange for a separate container for the eggs?
R.G.: No. Before the female fish lays eggs, the male and female stay together. After the eggs are laid, we remove the female and only keep the male fish with the eggs. Within three days, once the eggs hatch, we remove the males as well.
Once the gold fish lays eggs in the net, we collect the eggs and keep them in a separate water-tank. We unthread a nylon rope and drop it like a basket in the water. Soon, it gets filled with eggs. Early in the morning, we either relocate the parent fish or the eggs to a different container to help the eggs hatch within three days.
R.G.: In summer, the eggs hatch within three days while in winter, it takes five-six days.
B.R.: And how do you distinguish the male/female among the fish?
R.G.: We have to keep the two genders separately.
S.G.: They can be recognized through their colours; like the males are of a deeper hue compared to the female fish. The males also sport shiny tails.
B.R.: So you have learnt to distinguish them through your own observations?
R.G. & S.G.: Yes, we have learnt through observation.
B.R.: How have training programs helped you in this regard?
S.G.: Training has helped but since it needs hands-on work, often the information gleaned from the training is lost from our memory.
B.R.: You went somewhere in Kolkata for the training classes?
S.G.: We had a one week residential training from Kalyani. Then, we availed a eleven day course in Pailan in groups of five or six (among our thirty-six member group).
R.G.: At Science City (Kolkata) too.
S.G.: Yes, at Science City, in Salt Lake (Central Institute of Fisheries Education, Kolkata). I am mentioning the places I have availed for training; other members have visited many more institutes for the same purpose. I have also been to Chennai for a week. A one month long training was also arranged in New Garia, with our Cooperative members attending it in groups of five every week.
B.R.: But you find self-taught methods more conducive...
S.G.: Yes. Now we have reached such a stage that we find that the training we received was just information we listened to. More than what we retained from those programs, through daily hands-on experience, we now face no problems in identifying different fish.
B.R.: Besides, through continual interaction with the fish, I am sure you have noticed interesting behavioral characteristics in the fish. Would you like to cite some examples?
S.G.: Like, I can observe that a couple of scales are missing from the body of this rosy fish. From that, I infer it has suffered an injury while being displaced. The fish runs a risk of infection. If a wound develops from the missing scales, the fish needs to be kept separately because the infection can spread and affect the other fishes. If one fish is infected in a net, all the other two thousand or so fish inhabiting that net will die.
B.R.: That means, you always have to keep a sharp lookout for such signs.
S.G.: Yes, they have to be looked after like children. We also have to observe whether they are taking the food we are giving them, or wasting it; whether only a healthy fish is eating up the largest share (of food).
I can also notice a gourami, here, which has developed a red mark on its mouth. In winter, they are more prone to diseases. They have to be maintained very well; they can't be displaced at will.
R.G.: The gourami fish, for instance, are very sensitive to change.
S.G.: This fish's mouth has turned wholly red.
R.G.: Yes, it is developing a wound...
B.R.: So, you have to remove it and keep it separately?
R.G.: Yes, we have to medicate it.
S.G.: We have to medicate it and keep it separated.
B.R.: Are they cured through these medicines you treat them with?
S.G.: They are cured, but not always; and sometimes, they do not recover in entirety.
R.G.: The treatment is not bereft of flaws.
B.R.: And how do you maintain the vivid body colours of these fish?
R.G.: If we raise the fish in tanks, the colouration will be entirely different. The fish will, then, sport much brighter hues, and have increased longevity. But we can't afford to raise all of them in tanks for our business purposes. A fish raised in a tank should ideally cost Rs. 100, but we have to sell it at a much lower price. So, we resort to nets placed in ponds for most of our cultivation work. The fish, which we transfer to the tanks from the ponds for seasoning, develop enhanced colours. The tank-raised fish hence have greater demand in the market.
We only season the fish in tanks when a few shopkeepers at the (Howrah) market demand that. Even within eight to ten days of being transferred to the tanks, the fishes change in colour.
B.R.: How many fish approximately can be kept in one of your ponds?
R.G.: In a pond, we can keep round 50,000 fish.
S.G.: That also depends on the size of the pond.
R.G.: Like in a 5 acre pond, we can keep 50,000 fish.
B.R.: So there are 50,000 fish in these ponds! You keep them in the separate nets dividing the pond?
R.G.: Yes the nets
act as partitions between the various sets of fish.
B.R.: And these are all ornamental fish?
R.G & S.G.: Yes, all of these are ornamental varieties.
R.G.: The fish, which are consumed as food, reside in the lower depths of the ponds.
B.R.: In the lower depths of the same pond? Cohabitation of food fish and aquarium fish creates no problems?
R.G. & S.G.: No. They can be easily kept in the same pond.
B.R.: And how do you collect the fish from the ponds?
R.G.: We use tubes made of bamboo, or we sit on thermocol sheets for collecting the fish from the pond. We select the fish needed immediately for selling, collect them from the pond in nets and transfer them to the plastic vessels. And from there, we transfer them to the tanks in our dwelling.
B.R.: How do you catch the food fish from the same place? In the same way?
R.G.: No, no. The fish which can be consumed live deeper down in the pond, beneath the nets where the colourful aquarium fish are kept.
B.R.: Do you yourselves consume them as food, or do you sell them as well?
R.G. & S.G.: Yes. We intake those as food.
R.G.: Yes, when we want to have them, we use fishing rods to capture them.
We count the ornamental fish, collect and keep them at home in order to sell them at the market early next morning. According to the orders we receive for the day, we pack and deliver specific varieties of fish.
B.R.: And how do you transport them to the market?
R.G.: In polythene filled with water and supplied with oxygen.
S.G.: The polythene has to be half-filled with water. the other half remains empty where we put in the oxygen supply. We secure the polythene packs with rubber bands and then put them in bags for delivery.
B.R.: You take the bus?
R.G. & S.G.: Yes.
B.R.: How much time does it take to go from here to the market?
R.G.: Takes 15 minutes from here to the bus stand. From there, it takes round one hour twenty minutes.
B.R.: And you have decided upon specific shops at which to sell your fish?
R.G.: Of course, of course...
B.R.: Would that be one shop at the market?
S.G.: No, no there are many shopkeepers to whom we can hand over the fish. There are round 30-40 shops which sell ornamental fish at the Howrah market. We can sell anywhere we wish.
R.G.: Depends on familiarity with the shopkeeper too, and on who will give us a better price for the fish.
B.R.: But can you not directly deliver or sell the fish to customers who keep aquarium fish at home in the city?
R.G.: No, they won't directly buy from us. We deliver wholesale to the shopkeepers, who then sell them to individual customers (fish-keepers).
S.G.: They will buy in small amounts. We take round 2000-3000 fish approximately on a daily basis. The ones who individually keep aquariums at home would need maybe round 5-10 or 15-20 fish. It would be risky to sell so few to them, when we are carrying a vast volume every day.
R.G.: Most of the fish cater to export import. The rest cater to domestic sales. How many households here buy fish? Only a few.
In a few exceptional cases, people do buy as many as hundred fish for their own aquariums. But most of the general populace (like us) interested in fish-keeping would hand pick one or two fish at a time from the ones in display at the local shops.
B.R.: And how many fish do you take to the market at a time?
R.G.: Around 1000 on average.
B.R.: And every fish gets sold?
R.G.: Yes. We sell all the fish we take by the end of the day. Every single packet.
B.R.: And do you know where they go from there?
R.G.: Yes. Bombay, Hyderabad, Delhi. A variety of places.
B.R.: And fish get imported from these places to here as well?
R.G.: Yes from Bombay, Singapore. Like the discus.
B.R.: And those (the fish imported from these places) are better produced in that climate?
S.G.: Yes, those are river fish.
R.G.: The spawns of fish produced there are also delivered here; there are a few people who know how to season these before selling.
B.R.: Which fish is thriving best here, now - in this weather?
R.G.: At present, the goldfish is thriving best here. The gouramis will grow best in summer; the rainbow fish in monsoons.
S.G.: We still haven't managed to cultivate the rainbow fish well, here.
R.G.: The rainbow is being cultivated well in Howrah.
B.R.: Like you were saying once, that you would like to learn the art of cultivating certain varieties of imported fish (which fish farmers in Howrah grow better)...
R.G.: Yes, we would need hatcheries for certain imported varieties like the rainbow. It involves investing a lot of money; it is beyond our budget at the moment. So, we just buy their spawns from the market and rear them in our ponds and tanks. We do not breed these varieties yet.
B.G.: And which is the most costly fish (among the ones you breed) now?
R.G.: The green (sword) tail. The oranda gold fish, too; if it grows to a good size, takes a vivid colour and has been raised in tanks (instead of ponds), it can priced between Rs. 80-100.
Then there's the ice blue and the banana fishes.
B.R.: You also mentioned the green tail (which is at present, the most costly fish) is priced at Rs. 100 depending on its current size. How much will it cost when it grows to its maximum size?
R.G.: When it grows bigger, it can cost as much as Rs. 1000, Rs. 1200, Rs. 1500, Rs. 5000. Especially when the neon acara fish grows its cap, its price hikes.
S.G.: The fish has to be at least two or three years old to yield the best price.
B.R.: So, at three years, the fish matures to its maximum size. What is the maximum size?
R.G.: Around 8-10 inches.
B.R.: And their head caps grow in a year (after they are born)?
R.G.: Sometimes, later than one year. The caps will grow if we feed them fish.
B.R.: These fish eat fish? What fish do they eat?
R.G.: The guppy and molly spawns. They consume any small variety fish they are given.
B.R.: They even consume small ornamental fish varieties? Then, they must be kept separated from the smaller ones (the guppies and the mollies)...
R.G.: Yes, otherwise, they will eat them up. So, why will we keep them together?
The aquarium fish keepers buy these small variety fish in bulk. These are scrap (fish), as they will not grow colours, and are used instead as food for the bigger fish varieties.
B.R.: I see. If they develop brighter colours, they can be sold for their ornamental value.
S.G: If we buy around five thousand fish, we may see that one thousand or one thousand five hundred fish are remaining colourless. If a colourful fish costs Rs. 5, a colourless variety of the same will cost Re. 1. These low-cost (colourless) varieties are fed to the bigger variety fish.
B.R.: These live in tanks or ponds?
R.G.: The production (breeding) happens in the tanks; then we raise them in ponds.
We always hope to do something on a large scale, but we also need financial aid and governmental cooperation to accomplish that. We aren't getting any governmental cooperation for this, at present.
B.R.: And there's also the problem of climatic disasters?
S.G.: Yes, after one climatic disaster strikes, we suffer erratic losses in terms of fish production. Last time only, we were extensively photographed after most of our fish were ruined due to severe weather, but it bore no fruit; we received no aid to recover our business.
B.R.: A lot of fish die in the process?
S.G.: The whole setup collapses and we cannot save any fish when such a tragedy strikes.
B.R.: Which means you have to start the cultivation anew?
S.G.: Yes, we have to start from square one.
B.R.: That requires a tremendous amount of toil!
S.G.: Yes, we then feel like giving up the farming altogether. But our lives now are so intrinsically linked with these fish, that we cannot give up on them.
B.R.: So, you really wish to stick to this trade, and continue with it?
S.G.: Even my son wants to take this up. Well, we as humans won't live forever. Our son says, 'When father won't be able to attend to the fish anymore, I will keep up the farming in one or two nets at least, besides whatever else I do.'