Ever wondered how the smoking fish tikka ended up on your plate? The story is not limited to a kitchen and some condiments; it intricately laces the sweat, dreams and aspirations of hundreds of men and women whose lives depend on how much you enjoy your fish delicacy. And if you do, you ought to be thanking Neelkanth Mishra, the man who single-handedly pioneered a revolutionary change in the inland fisheries industry of India, generating ample employment opportunities for thousands of landless farmers and labourers.
Jaljeevika, the fishery-based non-profit organisation operated by Mishra and his team is the first of its kind, creating an elaborate network of aquaculture enterprises in India. Ashoka honoured Neelkanth Mishra in 2017 for his groundbreaking work, which is yet unnoticed by most of the Indians. In an exclusive conversation, he shares his journey, struggles and the millions of smiles he brought forth.
No one has ever become poor by giving
– Anne Frank
The youth icon of hope
Born and brought up in the steel city Jamshedpur in Jharkhand, Mishra had consistently been a diligent student. After graduating in Mathematics from the prestigious Banaras Hindu University (BHU), he pursued his higher education in social work and rural development from abroad.
During his school days, he joined hands with his friends to set up a General Knowledge and Debating Society. Thousands of job aspirants from his town, who lacked exposure to the global news, benefited a lot through a platform for group discussion. He organised a literacy club for slum children, collecting funds from the local community, which also encouraged co-curricular activities among underprivileged kids.
He also operated the Akanksha science club in college, which survives in all its glory even after two decades. While still in college, Mishra got actively involved in youth politics and participated in many student movements, paving the way for his full-time dedication to a variety of social causes in later life.
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Freshly graduated, Mishra engaged himself with the tribal community in Bihar where many women were being ostracised and tortured in the name of being witches. He realised that the underlying reality of witch hunting was merely to acquire the properties of widowed and single women without a family. Registering the help of a legal association, Mishra advocated these helpless women to stand up for their rights. Through community theatre, he extensively spread awareness about this malpractice. He collected over 150 case studies which served as ground evidence in his report to the State government. Within one and half years, the Bihar government became one of the first states to pass Anti Witch-Hunting Bill, which was soon replicated in Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Rajasthan and a number of other states.
In 2001, a lot of media reports were surfacing about hunger deaths in Jharkhand. Determined to find a solution to this painful crisis, he pursued a meticulous social audit for two long years. Unscrupulous land-owners were taking advantage of the illiterate tribal farmers and deceiving them of their rightful land. Mishra talked and listened to the helpless families, promising them a healthier tomorrow. His active participation in the “Right To Food Movement” bore fruit when tribal farmers were successful in exercising their land rights.
Later he joined Hyderabad based NGO Centre For World Solidarity and co-ordinated their human rights campaigns in Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Odisha, Jharkhand and Bihar. “I learnt a lot about the socio-economic rights and how to exercise them. I realised that a decent livelihood is also one of our fundamental human rights”, shares Neelkanth Mishra.
In 2006 he joined Oxfam where he was exposed to fisheries and aquaculture-based livelihood opportunities.
The journey of Jaljeevika
Working with Oxfam in drought-ridden Bundelkhand, he urged the grieving farmers to turn to inland fishery, utilising the unclaimed water bodies in the area.
“I approached many NGOs working in Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka to promote fishery among the unemployed population. Lack of technical know-how in pisciculture was the biggest challenge.” Mishra shares, “With minimal resources, it took me 5 to 6 years to scan through remote tribal areas, where I found over 15-20 lakh unused water bodies and even a greater number of small-scale farmers in pangs of hunger.”
Starting as a small team, Jaljeevika began their work with the landless farmers in Andhra Pradesh. On top of being severely exploited by atrocious landowners, these farmers were displaced from their homes due to a dam construction project.
“With no other option, they were collecting fish from the local reservoir and selling it to local traders at a meagre 35 rupees per kg. With our intervention, they learnt about the actual market price and negotiated with the unscrupulous traders. Finally, the traders agreed at 75 rupees per kg, which was even beyond a 100% hike.” Mishra adds, “The similar situation happened in almost 40-60 places.”
He recalls, “In many places, the farmer-turned-fishermen had no idea about differences in quality and rates of the fish feed. They were buying feed at up to Rs 3000/lakh from Andhra Pradesh and Bengal, whereas the standard rate was not more than Rs 500/lakh. Jaljeevika started teaching these farmers how to prepare own feed from locally available resources. This became a hugely remunerative activity with just 2-3 months of feed culture yielding an entire year’s profit.”
“This year itself more than 600 people have left farming to join fisheries.” he shares with a smile.
Infamous for being a Naxal-affected area, the villagers in Gadchiroli in Maharashtra were counting their days in terror. With three years of effort, Jaljeevika engaged over 3000 women providing them with a regular income source. “Today we are employing more than 5000 people every year,” says a proud Mishra.
Present projects of Jaljeevika
Feed culture still dominates Jaljeevika’s primary focus. Apart from this, they have also demystified the research and development in aquaculture. “Our R & D initiative has promoted the use of low-cost, locally procured eco-friendly materials like bamboo and wood in making the cages for fish cultivation. Can you imagine that we have reduced the cage prices from 2 lakh to 30 thousand?” Mishra expresses. Decorating and marketing of indoor aquariums is a very profitable activity for hundreds of tribal women working under Jaljeevika.
Azolla (an aquatic weed) propagation is the latest addition to their list of projects. It generates fodder for fish, livestock and poultry in around 700 farming families in Maharashtra.
Jaljeevika has introduced the concept of aqua-entrepreneurship which intricately connects all fish-based enterprises like hatcheries, feed cultivation and fish farming.
“We are planning to start an open source digital platform to share all our fishery-related knowledge and experience with the public”, informs Mishra.
Memories made along the way
“In Vijayanagara, we trained a group of tribal women whose joy knew no bounds when they were handed 20 thousand in cash for the first time in life. After one year, the Central Fisheries Institute of Bhubaneshwar awarded them the title of Best Women Entrepreneurship Group of the year. It was a great moment of pride for us,” recalls Mishra.
He adds, “In Vizag, we were approached by the Krishi Vigyan Kendra for signing a cage-building contract with them. It was an inexplicable joy for me considering that the Krishi Vigyan Kendra itself is mandated to train the local farmers about cage-building.”
Journey with Ashoka
Mishra shares that his engagement with Ashoka has been immensely rewarding. Ashoka provided him with the insights on how to implement his ideas on a larger scale.
“I learnt that a system must be designed rather than controlling the knowledge, that is how we are expanding today. Thanks to Ashoka, our dreams have turned into reality.”
In his own words, “It is sad to see how most of the technically skilled people are unwilling to venture into a rural area and help people at the ground level.” Neelkanth Mishra sacrificed a life of comfort to ensure a good night’s sleep to thousands across the length and breadth of India. His name truly deserves to be resonating in people’s hearts.
A person suffering from Tuberculosis (TB) not only battles the ‘Mycobacterium tuberculosis’ bacteria inside his lungs but also from the stigma attached to the disease. It weakens the patients in many different ways in their fight against the dreaded disease.
My fight with TB was also filled with stigma. I joined IIT Kharagpur for my PhD in January 2015. Two months later, in March 2015, I was diagnosed with TB. I had to take sick leave from March 2015 that eventually lasted till June 2016. Initially, I did not respond well to medication. Further tests revealed that I had multidrug-resistant TB (MDR TB). This meant that the type of TB I had was resistant to two or more of the antitubercular medication I was taking.
About a year after the intensive phase of my treatment, I felt better and applied for readmission to IIT in July 2016. A prerequisite for rejoining was that my faculty members had to verify my application. With the formalities completed, I resumed my education, but I felt that something was amiss.
My guide indicated that he did not want his work to suffer on account of my illness. I also heard from a senior colleague that my guide had said that I would spread the disease like an ‘infested animal’. I was disheartened at being subjected to this indignity by my supposed mentor.
However, my primary concern was defeating TB, so I didn’t dwell on it. Today, as I reflect on it, I realise the reasons behind the stigma were ignorance as well as fear.
Even among the educated, there are misconceptions about TB. People think all forms of TB are contagious. Others believe the patient is infectious for the entire length of the treatment. Some even believe that TB spreads through touch. This breeds the fear of contracting the illness.
As we know, people stigmatise and discriminate when they fear. I felt the impact of the stigma on two levels – in my professional life and my personal life.
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Professionally, the reluctance of my supervisor to mentor me and his discouragement affected me. I could not decide whether I should wait for the IIT authorities to tell me to leave or drop out. That decision was made for me by luck when I found out that my CSIR grant application was never processed.
This meant that I would have to pay for my education. Given the expenditure on my treatment, this was unaffordable for me. This was the final nail in the coffin. I was forced to drop out and could not go back to completing my PhD.
What I faced was not technically illegal. I was discouraged from doing my PhD, but it was still a form of stigma. The external stigma I faced led to depression and isolation.
Eventually, I realised I had to fight. The treatment for TB is difficult, requiring strict compliance and the management of side effects, and these demands resolve. I began motivating myself. I began following a proper diet and completing my treatment to ensure I could recover. I also turned to books as they transported me to other worlds and helped with my isolation. I also focused on reviving my old relationships.
Gradually, things improved. I could not proceed on my desired career path, but I am an educator now. I constantly realise that I have a role to play in shaping young minds.
Workplace stigma has tangible consequences. It affects an individual’s career, financial opportunities and their right to work with dignity. So what can we do to address this stigma?
First, we need to sensitise people by educating them about TB, and the impact stigma has on patients.
Another measure is group counselling involving the patient, the employer and the immediate supervisor. Informal versions of these sessions happen in the workplace in the context of illnesses like cancer. Why should it be any different for TB?
The goal of this session would be to ensure that the patient is in a supportive environment.
Finally, at a systemic level, there needs to be a workplace policy on stigma mitigation and a mechanism where the patients can anonymously register their concerns about stigma at the workplace.
A person’s career or job is often their calling and a provider of financial security. Workplace stigma creates a hostile work environment, affecting a person’s ability to do their job and their financial security. Financial insecurity and stigma make it harder for the patient to fight TB both in terms of means and motivation. Therefore, addressing stigma in the workplace is critical to patient well-being and recovery but also to their right to work with dignity.