Aquaculture institute a catalyst for Blue Revolution in India

In the 1960s, India made headlines with its Green Revolution, using high-yielding varieties and improved technology to more than double its output of wheat between 1965 and 1972.

Today, India is pushing ahead with a Blue Revolution, the rapid increase of fish production in small ponds and water bodies, a boon to small farmers, the nation's nutrition and its gross domestic product.

CIFA technician holds a handful of common carp fry, while workers net carp from a pond

Workers net an experimental pond full of catla, rohu, miral, silver, grass and common carp at CIFA

The Indian fisheries sector, which 50 years ago produced only 600 000 tonnes of fish, today produces 5 million tonnes, including 1.6 million tonnes from freshwater aquaculture. Although the yield from marine fisheries has stagnated, freshwater aquaculture is growing at a healthy 6 percent a year.

How did the Indians achieve this increase and how far can the Blue Revolution go?

"Fish culture was an art in India. We had to make it a science," said Dr V.R.P. Sinha, the founding director of the Central Institute of Freshwater Aquaculture (CIFA), India's largest centre of its kind and the source of much of the science that has driven the growth of Indian inland aquaculture.

The institute began the challenging task of turning what was a minor village tradition into a science that not only could increase the tonnage of fish per volume of water but also cope with inevitable problems that come with more intensive production, such as how to feed fish economically and how to deal with sudden outbreaks of disease brought on by crowded conditions.

Founded only 11 years ago, CIFA was born on a tract of empty land not far from the Bay of Bengal in Orissa State, about nine hours by train south of Calcutta. Today, it has over 500 ponds, laboratories, training facilities and hatcheries and conducts research on carp, catfish, prawns and molluscs. Sixty-eight scientists busy themselves with problems in every area of fish farming, from genetics to health, from nutrition to transfer of technology to the village.

"I hired my scientists young; I was telling them what to specialize in since we were all primarily zoologists. Today, these pioneers have gone far, they are directors of other institutes," said Sinha.

Asked for assistance by the Government of India, FAO was there to help CIFA get started.

"There was continual input from FAO in the form of fellowships, equipment and consultancies. The fellowships especially were sorely needed because we had no funds to send scientists abroad. With FAO's help, we sent them to Hungary, Yugoslavia and even a few to the United States," he said.

India farms 1.6 million tonnes of freshwater fish per year. Is that the limit of domestic demand?

Not at all, according to CIFA's current director, Dr S. Ayyappan. The Indian market can absorb an estimated 4.5 million tonnes. Of the 2.2 million hectares of freshwater bodies, only 800 000 hectares are currently utilized. Even India's vast distances, hot climate and vegetarian tradition do not place insurmountable obstacles in the way of expansion.

"While it is true that India is known as a vegetarian culture, in fact 55 percent of Indians are non-vegetarian. Our present annual per caput consumption of fish is 8 kilos per person, while the global average is 12 kilos. So we feel we have a lot of room to grow," Ayyappan said.

Outside his air-conditioned office, the midday temperature is 37 C or almost 100 F. How do farmers prevent excessive spoilage? Fish is packed on ice and trucked long distances in refrigerated trucks. If the ice melts, a stop is made at an ice plant en route to redress the fish, which is sold fresh.

India is very much a nation that helps itself, for example, building a huge manufacturing sector from virtually nothing at Independence in 1947. Another Indian virtue is creating technology and products that may seem somewhat old-fashioned to trendy Westerners but are suited to Indian conditions. A 1998 edition of the solid all-Indian car, the Ambassador, for example, looks exactly like a 1958 version. Putting out a new model every year is considered a luxury. Ayyappan himself, a hands-on manager, is leader of a project that has developed a low-cost method of treating sewage through aquaculture. Although the treated water is not potable - as would be the output of an expensive, state-of-the-art Western plant - it can be used for agriculture, again appropriate for Indian conditions.

Notwithstanding such self-sufficiency, the director stressed that in aquaculture science he needs and welcomes suitable assistance from more advanced countries. "We really need study tours of three to four months for our scientists to learn new techniques. We need to expand our research, in genetics, for example.

"You will see that in the next 10 to 15 years India will be the leader in the world," he said. "We are slow but sometimes it is better to be slow. In India, technical support is of a high order. The science is here."

Dr Ayyappan can be reached at [email protected]; or c/o CIFA, Kausalyaganga, Bhubaneswar, 751002, Orissa, India.

20 August 1998

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