Only the government can afford the heavy infrastructure required to farm trout, so farmers directly compete with it in the market.
At any government trout farm run by Himachal Pradesh’s fisheries department, you can purchase a kg of rainbow trout for Rs 550.
It’s a simple process, and the farm’s infrastructure is intriguing enough to attract tourists: An employee walks along one of several cemented raceways, sweeps three fish out with a net, measures their weight, hammers them with a rod, and exchanges them for money.
But behind this simple process lurks many complications for private trout farmers.
“The government must stop competing with us in the same market,” said Shakti Singh Jamwal, president of the Trout Fish Farmers Association, Kullu. “The government has full-scale infrastructure of large farms and competes with us. If they sell their own fish within the state, then who will we sell to?”
A fully-equipped trout farm, such as the government’s main farm in Kullu’s Patlikuhal, is infrastructure heavy. It has several raceways and tanks, a hatchery (that costs Rs 25 lakh) to process eggs, and a feed mill – that can cost anywhere from several lakhs to crores, depending on the quality and quantity of feed produced – to create fish feed.
Most trout farmers cannot afford this infrastructure. So, they’re forced to buy hatched trout, or seed, and feed from the government farms in order to grow trout privately and then sell it directly in the market.
This means that Himachal’s trout farmers currently rely on their biggest market competitor – uniquely, the government – to acquire essential farming components.
To better understand the tense relationship between the state fisheries department and trout farmers, Newslaundry spoke to farmers from the districts of Kullu and Mandi, and Satpal Mehta, the director and warden of fisheries in Himachal Pradesh.
The issue of infrastructure ownership
Rearing trout to a plate-size fish is a highly technical process; an error risks the death of the entire stock. It takes up to two years before a trout is mature enough to be sold, and the entire process requires vigilance.
This means farmers need training, and there is a high probability of collateral damage.
“I am still learning,” said Rajinder Kumar, a small trout farm owner in Barot, Mandi. “I have only been doing this for three years. I bought 6,000 seeds from the government farm but only 1,000 survived.”
The selling price for trout is Rs 550 per kg, as fixed by the fisheries department. But with infrastructure expenses and risk, farmers cannot make a profit at this price. The result is farmers raising prices to Rs 700-750 while the government sells the same fish at Rs 550, putting farmers at a competitive disadvantage in the market.
“The department produces more fish in big farms and sells at a low rate,” said Thakur Ram Lal, who has farmed trout for six years in Jogindernagar, Mandi. “We produce in small farms and sell at a higher rate. It becomes difficult to market our produce.”
Satpal Mehta, the director and warden of fisheries, admitted as much over the phone.
“Yes, you can buy trout at a government farm, it is true,” he said. When asked about the interests of the trout farmers, he said, “We have many farmers in Himachal Pradesh doing their business well, and they are making increased profit.”
The department aims to make farmers less dependent on government farms for seed and feed by subsidising the Rs 25 lakh cost of a hatchery, and providing a small feed unit for Rs 4 lakh. “We have set up 27 hatcheries on a 60:40 subsidy so far,” Mehta said.
But farmers don’t see this as a good thing.
“This is not empowerment, it’s desertion,” said the Trout Fish Farmers Association’s Jamwal. “Small farmers cannot operate the technical science behind a hatchery without long-term training. We must pay Rs 6-7 lakh even after the subsidy, and these small feed units make very poor quality feed. The government must continue to own seed and feed technology and sell its fish only outside the state.”
For farmers like Kumar in Barot, owning a hatchery is not possible even if he could afford it.
“I was approached for a hatchery,” he said, “but I don’t have enough land for one.”
Spike in cost of feed during the pandemic
With a two-year process to rear the fish, a disruption in this cycle means an even longer setback. During the flash floods and landslides in Kullu in 2018, many farms, both government and private, were damaged, adding to the financial burden on the farmers.
“I myself suffered a loss of Rs 10 lakh,” said Jamwal. “Some in our association suffered damages up to Rs 40 lakh.”
The government farm in Patlikuhal – described by Mehta as the “mother of all trout farms” in Himachal Pradesh – suffered damages of up to Rs 10 crore. According to Mehta, operations only resumed on December 15 last year.
The Covid pandemic hit as trout farmers were still recovering from this setback. With markets closed because of the lockdown, farmers were unable to sell their stock on time.
The selling weight for a single trout is 350 grams; three fish comprise a kg. But if trout is not sold on time, a single fish can grow to one kg, increasing its price and deterring buyers from purchasing it.
On May 14 and 19 last year, the Trout Fish Farmers Association sent two letters to the fisheries department on the “impact on Covid-19 pandemic on trout farming community of the state”.
“Farmers are not in a financial position to purchase the seed from the government authorities as of now,” the letters said. Out of the association’s 70 registered members, they added, only 15 had survived the impact of the 2018 floods. The pandemic would “prove to be a death-knell for the rest of us if necessary support is not given to us by the state authorities.”
So, the letters asked the department to delay the dispensing of seed and first provide “Rs 2-lakh per unit/raceway as per provisions already in place”, and only then provide feed and seed either for free or at a subsidised rate.
In its response, however, the department said it could not hold the seed due to logistical issues caused by the floods and that farmers who had not purchased the seed should do so quickly. It mentioned that 1,74,000 seeds had already been sold to farmers, and did not acknowledge the association’s request for subsidy.
Notably, this correspondence occurred in the last two weeks of May 2020 – the tail end of the lockdown. It costs Rs 4,000 for farmers to transport the seed and feed provided by the government and in May, public transport facilities were still suspended across the country.
Moreover, in October, well after these letters were sent, while the cost of seed remained at Rs 4 per fingerling, the feed cost actually increased from Rs 112 per kg to Rs 166.
However, when asked how the pandemic has impacted Himachal’s trout farms, director Mehta said, “There has been impact but it is not much because we continued to provide farmers seed.”
On the increase in feed prices, Mehta countered: “We also increased the sale price of trout from Rs 450 to Rs 550 to help farmers earn more. The product cost ranges between Rs 250 and Rs 270, and the ratio of fish sustained per kilo of feed is 1:1.5. So, they can turn a profit.”
Yet there are issues with the government-provided feed as well. Rajiv Jaswal, a large farm owner who has farmed trout for 20 years, told Newslaundry that he’s resorted to ordering feed from coastal states like Andhra Pradesh.
“Trouts eat floating feed, but the government feed sinks,” he said. “There is guaranteed waste with the government feed. Out-of-state feed has variety and can actually be cheaper by Rs 16.”
Jaswal emphasised the need for better feed from the government. Even though some out-of-state feeds are cheaper and sustain trout, they are not very nutritious, he said, and can produce lower quality fish. The best quality feed is not cheaper to import.
“The government says that giving everyone hatcheries will increase employment, but nobody will do business at a loss,” Jaswal said. “They can use this money wasted on hatcheries to improve seed and feed quality. Give us good quality material and let us sell good quality fish without competition.”
As the oldest farmer in Jogindernagar, he added: “I have seen many farmers start business here and not survive. Nobody will take losses more than twice.
Preventing a dry revolution
Under its Blue Revolution mission and the Pradhan Mantri Matsya Sampada Yojana, the Himachal government wants to boost the production of trout in the state. Jamwal agreed that the scope for trout is “massive”, but pointed out that farmers need government support.
“If they don’t give us good quality feed and good quality seed, and continue to compete with us while having larger infrastructure for them, it will be a Blue Revolution for them and a dry revolution for us,” he said.
Taking note of their counterparts agitating on Delhi’s borders, trout farmers in Himachal Pradesh told Newslaundry that their own needs are not very different.
“Our needs are not different from Punjab’s farmers,” Jamwal said. “The government should set up a processing unit, like a mandi, and acquire trout from us at a set price to sell it with a value addition outside the state. Where else does it happen, that the government makes money from farmers and then competes with them too?”
The farmers asserted that they must depend on the government for seed and feed. They want a mandi system – where the government buys from the farmers – so they can focus on growing and selling fish, and not be hampered by hatching the seed. “I have to focus on growing my own kids, not my trout’s kids!” said Jamwal.
While most of India’s fish demands is met by southern and coastal states, there is scope for Himachal Pradesh to send trout – which specifically needs cold, running freshwater that the region has in abundance – outside the state.
Mehta said more farmers have to “come forward” and take up trout culture themselves. But with the department not meeting the farmers’ needs, the farmers have no way to come forward and make this happen.