The fishing scheme that landed VIP leader Mukesh Sahani in troubled waters

On Sunday, before Vikassheel Insaan Party (VIP) head Mukesh Sahani was removed as Animal Husbandry and Fisheries Minister in the NDA government, the BJP alleged that he had caused major damage to the fishing community by tampering with the organisational structure of the Prakhand Matsyajivi Sahyog Samiti, a registered society, through an order earlier this month. The Samiti allots fish ponds to people of the Extremely Backward Class (EBC) community of Mallahs across the state.

What is the Prakhand Matsyajivi Sahyog Samiti?

One of the oldest cooperative societies registered under the Bihar Cooperative Society Act, 1935, it works in close coordination with the Animal Husbandry and Fisheries Department to allot ponds to members of the EBC Mallah community in each of the 534 blocks of the state. About 20,000 of the 30,672 government ponds in the state have been allotted to members who are encouraged to rear fish and sell in the open market.

How are the ponds allotted?

The district fishery officer monitors the allotment of ponds to people of the EBC Mallah community who are members of the block-level fishery cooperative society. Traditional fishing communities that bear the surnames of Sahani, Nishad, Kevat, Bind, Mallah and a few others have been identified by the state government as potential beneficiaries of the scheme. Each cooperative society has around 500 to 1,000 members and is governed by a 13-member body that has a mantri, secretary, treasurer and an executive committee of 10 members. Potential beneficiaries are chosen from among members of the cooperative society with preference given to widows, the physically challenged, women and those living in proximity of the ponds. There are usually about 20 ponds in each block.

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The government fixes an annual allotment rate that can range from Rs 7,000 to Rs 50,000 depending on the size of the pond. The society allots the ponds to beneficiaries from among its members.

Though each pond is allotted for five years, a review is done every year to ensure the government gets its revenue and the fisherman or fisherwoman who has been allotted the pond is following government norms.

The EBC Mallahs, who make up about 2.5 per cent of the state’s population, are concentrated in North Bihar, Mithilanchal and Kosi regions.

What is the controversy about?

BJP’s fisheries cell convenor Lalan Sahani alleged that Mukesh Sahani tampered with the organisational structure of the society by saying that only one of the two posts — mantri or secretary — would remain in the 13-member block-level society, and that the body would be under the control of a government official, effectively giving more powers to bureaucrats than to the fishermen in the body.

Starting March 16, the Animal Husbandry and Fishery and Cooperative Department, which Sahani headed, issued a circular inviting online applications for membership to the block-level societies, saying “Matsyapalak” (who are fishing communities but not necessarily Mallahs) and “Matsyajivi” (usually the EBC Mallahs). The BJP alleged that no circular was issued, nor were amendments to the Bihar Cooperative Society Act, 1935, cleared by the Cabinet.

Several Mallah community members have been objecting to society membership being opened to Matsyapalaks, contending that pond allotments are exclusively for them under the cooperative society rules, and that other caste groups engaged in fishing have anyway been getting government subsidies for digging ponds and buying fish seeds.

Cooperative Minister and BJP leader Subhash Singh said he had written to Sahani asking him to explain why cooperative rules were allegedly violated and why the list of the castes now eligible for the scheme were not made public.

How did Mukesh Sahani respond to the allegations?

Saying the BJP or even Chief Minister Nitish Kumar did not point out the alleged anomalies in the circular until his statement regretting his decision to join the NDA, Sahani defended his decision saying he intended to extend the benefits of the pisciculture scheme to more and more people.

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