KASARAGOD: On April 15, Anil Kumar invited his friends, relatives, and neighbours over to his house at Munnad in Bedadka. It was a big day for him -- harvesting of tilapia raised in his biofloc fish tank.
Two years ago, he had quit as a finance manager in a private company in Dubai and returned home and dived into fish farming. He owns a natural fish pond but also signed up for biofloc fish farming, being promoted by the state government. That day, he got 170 kg of fish which he sold to his guests for Rs 300 per kg. Many returned disappointed because they did not get fish. Anil Kumar was also disappointed. He was expecting 400 kg.
He found that many of the 1,650 fish in his biofloc tank did not grow beyond 15 g in six months. The ones that grew attained up to 800 g. Anil earned Rs 51,000 after investing Rs 2.04 lakh in six months, including Rs 1.5 lakh on the infrastructure. "I was let down by the poor quality of seeds (fish fries) delivered by the fisheries department," he said.
In the same panchayat, Sreevidhya M, an award-winning farmer, was facing another set of problems. Her tilapias weighed up to 1 kg. But she was finding it difficult to find customers. The volunteers of DYFI came to her rescue by buying and selling the fish. "But that is not a sustainable solution. We need a cooperative society or a marketplace like Live Fish where we can always sell our fish," she said.
Both Anil Kumar and Sreevidya built one biofloc tank each of 20,000-litre capacity at an average cost of Rs 1.5 lakh under the state government's Subhiksha Keralam scheme, aimed at ensuring food security in society.
The state government is also promoting biofloc farming under the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana (PMMSY). Under the scheme, a beneficiary has to build seven tanks. The Department of Fisheries pegs the investment for the seven tanks and accessories at Rs 4.8 lakh. But farmers in Kasaragod invest anywhere between Rs 7 lakh to Rs 12 lakh to set up the infrastructure. "We invested heavily because the government's profit projections were tempting. Now, I am staring at a debt trap," said Balachandran P V, a farmer in Periya.
Under the scheme, the Department of Fisheries would deliver 1,250 fish fries for one tank every month. The idea is that farmers can start harvesting from the first tank at the end of the sixth month, and from then on they get a steady income for the rest of their lives.
In a note prepared by the director of fisheries, the projected steady revenue is an enticing Rs 1.5 lakh every month. According to the department, farmers are given a 40% subsidy, and it would take just two years to recoup the rest of the investment. "We bit the bait," said Balachandran.
He said nothing worked as per the proposal. He built the seven tanks at an investment of Rs 7.5 lakh in January. Despite multiple requests, he got the first set of fish fries (seeds) in March. "A two-month delay is a revenue loss of Rs 3 lakh," he said.
But the delay was the least of his problems. Of the 1,250 fries delivered in March, only 300 survived. "They died in two days. The plastic pack in which the seeds came was stinking. I think the government delivered sick babies," he said.
When fish fall sick or are dying, Balachandran said, he has no one to contact. "I invested Rs 7 lakh but I am not given any training or advice. I don't know what to do," he said. Anil Kumar and Sreevidhya also said the first batch delivered to them in September 2020 was infected.
The department pegged the mortality rate at 20% but farmers said they lost 80% of the fries. After their first harvest in April, the Department of Fishers has not delivered the fries again. "An idle tank is again a recipe to push farmers into debt. At least two disappointed farmers told me to take away their biofloc tanks," said Anil Kumar, who is now trying to get fries from private agencies.
Chandran Nair, another farmer in East Eleri panchayat, said he built seven tanks at a cost of Rs 12 lakh by taking a loan at an 8% interest rate. "My biggest problem is the delay in delivering fries. My debt will spin out of hand if I don't get fish to raise," he said.
When contacted, an official in the Department of Fisheries said there was a shortage of fries across India. "We get the fries from Andhra Pradesh, turn them into fingerlings (5cm) in 30 days in our hatcheries across the state and then deliver them to farmers," he said.
On giving training to farmers, he said the department did not have enough staff to spare. "In my office, there are no typists or clerks or a vehicle to go to the farmers. Programmes are launched but the staff is not augmented to train farmers," he said. That does not stop the government from bringing in more farmers to the biofloc fold. Farmers like Balachandran and Anil Kumar were surprised that the state government still did not have breeding centres in Kerala.
What the government should do
Chandran and Anil Kumar said the venture will still be profitable if the government ensured a steady supply of healthy fries. Considering that the government is not able to supply fries on time, it should allow farmers to buy fries without insisting on a licence. It should also subsidise solar power because conventional power is costly (Rs 42,000 in a year) and the initial investment for solar power is also exorbitant.
Importantly, the government should set up biofloc kiosks in all towns to sell fish and ramp up back-end infrastructure, he said. Chandran said the government should bear the interest of their debt for the months it did not deliver fries.
"Without doing all these things, the government is still encouraging more farmers to invest up to Rs 10 lakh in a loss-making venture," said Balachandran.
Also, it should revise its estimate and profit projections and make them more realistic, said farmers.
Anil Kumar said the Department of Fisheries should not have pushed farmers to build seven tanks at one go. "It should have trained farmers with one tank and then scaled up after they acquired the knowledge," he said.
Anil Kumar said he was ready to train farmers who have set up tanks. "I am working on setting up a cooperative society so that fish farmers can get good quality seeds, feeds, and technical support," he said.