The annual Maund festival of the Aglar valley in Uttaranchal is both pure revelry and impure fun, says manisha viren singh
Force the fish up
At Suman Kyari, some 10 kilometre (km) downhill from Kempty Falls near Dehradun district, Uttaranchal, Roshan Rawat potters around his attic dusting old fishing nets. Rawat is not much of an angler; he is a dhaba owner actually. But Rawat must hone his fishing skills once a year to participate in the fun festival, Maund.
On June 28, every year, thousands of villagers from Uttaranchal's Tehri and Dehradun districts trek down to the Aglar valley to compete for the plumpest catch in the river Yamuna's gurgling waters. The villagers believe that the festival was started around a century back by the then ruler of Tehri. But they have very little idea that Maund could actually precipitate an ecological crisis in the region.
The villagers concur. But they have their own reasons for using the powder. Says one of them, "Once the powder is thrown into the river, the fish are not able to breathe inside deep water and so they come up right up to the water surface." Once this happens, enthusiasts spread over an eight km stretch spanning Maund Kot to Bunder Kot. They thrash the water with sticks and shove the half-conscious fish in basket-shaped nets, pattari, or into cloth pockets.
The catch comprises an eclectic lot including endangered species such as the golden mahseer (Tor putitora). The merry villagers also snare freshwater eels and catfish. Though the powder is washed out after a few hours, its toll lasts for an entire season. Says Uniyal, "The festival coincides with the breeding cycle of fish. By the second week of June, shoals of them leave big rivers and move upstream to spawn. Hill-streams that branch out from the Yamuna in the Aglar valley are good breeding grounds because they have abundance of dissolved oxygen and large stocks of food. These streams are also safe. The fish stay upstream till September before journeying back. The juvenile ones, however, stay on for another year." "Killing a gravid fish also means death for 2,000-3,000 yet-to-be-born creatures," he laments.
The merry-making also threatens other creatures including butterfly larva, snakes, tadpoles and many other small microorganisms including phytoplankton and algae that are food to fish and insects. Though Maund's effects are limited to the Yamuna's 10 km catchment area in the Aglar valley, the festival is bound to have long-term impacts on the river's ecology. Says A L Ramanathan, associate professor at the school of environment Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi, "Mixing alkaloid powder in the river disturbs its natural flow. In the long run, it could reduce population of many creatures and trigger other ecological changes".
Other scientists say the effects are not likely to be confined to the aquatic cycle. Maund activities could also threaten many avian species that rely on the river for sustenance. The Himalayan region is redolent with diverse diverse avian species: the babbler, bulbul, myna, khaleej pheasant, red jungle fowl, grey hornbill, kingfisher, lapwing and the bee-eater. Scientists apprehend that as Aglar stretch of the Yamuna runs dry of food these birds might migrate or perish. Already kingfishers have become very difficult to sight in the region.
It's time we educate the villagers about the harm done by their annual festival," says Ramanthan. Unniyal agrees: "Scientists and environmentalists should be sensitive to the culture of the local people. They should try and make them realise the value of Aglar valley's rich biodiversity.
So what are the tangible solutions? Some suggest shifting the timing of the festival so that it does not clash with fish breeding cycle. Others say that the festival should be celebrated in a smaller stretch. Yet others call for use of artificial pools. But none of these suggestions have been implemented as yet. Meanwhile, the Aglar valley's ecology gets even more jeopardised.
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.
Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.