Cherai is a small coastal village near Kochi in Kerala, and its scenic beach and stunning backwaters are much sought after by people who seek a tranquil travel experience.
However, Cherai also happens to have a very unusual attribute to its name—one that has been drawing farmers and agriculturists from across the country.
From 2016 onwards, Cherai has the unique distinction of being India’s first aquaponics village.
Aquaponics is a sustainable mode of organic agricultural practice that involves a symbiotic combination of aquaculture and hydroponics. Let’s break this up for better understanding.
While aquaculture constitutes the breeding, rearing, and harvesting of fishes and other aquatic organisms, hydroponics involves a method of growing plants without soil by using mineral nutrient solutions in a water solvent.
So, when these two different practices are combined, the benefits include the plants feeding on the discharge or waste of aquatic organisms as they keep the water clean for the fishes. In addition to this symbiotic dependence, there is also room for microbes, which play a very important role in the nutrition of the plants, in this space.
As they gather in the areas between the roots of the plants, these beneficial bacteria help in the conversion of fish waste and other solids into compounds that encourage better plant growth.
All in all, across the world, this self-sustaining system is being touted as a big hope for sustainable organic crop production, aquaculture as well as water consumption.
So how did the villagers and farmers of Cherai decide to plunge straight into the world of aquaponics?
It all began two years ago when the Pallipuram Service Co-operative Bank (PSCB) decided to launch a pilot aquaponics project with the sole objective of helping farmers grow chemical-free food.
Teaming up with MPEDA (Marine Products Export Development Authority), the bank gave guidance and financial support to interested farmers. They were also supplied with fish seeds, feeds, water quality detection kit and technical training by MPEDA.
To introduce a new concept to people who have been steadfastly practising conventional methods doesn’t come without obstacles, and the farmers of Cherai were no different.
According to Sathyan Mayyattil, the former president of PSCB and one of the masterminds behind the project, the team began on a small scale as only a few farmers had signed up and that too after a lot of convincing.
“As they moved into this farming system, they realised the importance of natural and common resources for sustaining their own livelihood. Now, [there are] more than 200 aquaponics units, and so many people are interested [in] starting this” said Mayyattil to Krishi Jagran.
A year into the project, the number of people taking an interest in aquaponics and wanting to practice the same in Cherai began ascending and soon, the initiative was expanded as ‘Cherai Aquaponics Gramam.’
While the bank officials state that the initial investment can be quite high, they also add that one can easily recover this amount in a year.
The bank’s commitment to the project has been invaluable for the success of the project, and they intend to continue assisting the farmers in all of their endeavours, adds Ashadevi, the bank secretary.
To gauge the scale of the initiative, let’s take the example of Sasidharan, who was amongst the first group of farmers who took up aquaponic cultivation. With a 14,000-litre capacity fish tank that houses more than 1,500 fishes, he has been successfully growing vegetables in about a hundred bags.
In fact, this method is not just being practised by farmers in Cherai, and people from different professions have also taken it up. For instance, Dileep, an entrepreneur, is now experimenting with different styles of aquaponics in his terrace while Kishore Kumar, a retired forest officer, took to farming after retirement.
However, Kishore took his initiative a notch above, by integrating a solar panel to the roof of his farm. The purpose behind this was to was to ensure a continuous source of power supply that was also cost-effective.
While the fishes meet their daily dose of food intake through natural feed such as rice bran, coconut and groundnut oil cakes, Kishore has developed a compost bin by routing kitchen waste for fishing worms.
“Plants and fishes have equal importance in an aquaponics system. They are interdependent, and you simply cannot have one without the other, so it’s vital that both are well looked after,” he said.
Kishore was among the first people to start the unit in Cherai, and he is now looked upon as an expert in aquaponics and has been entrusted the responsibility of taking classes on the same by the bank.
Today, Cherai is being hailed as a model across the country for those interested in aquaponics. This farming system is considered innovative because of the hope that it gives to farmers and fisherfolk, who have been bearing the brunt of the consequences of climate change in recent times.
In addition to advantages like the production of organic and healthy crops, low-water consumption and zero environmental pollution, aquaponics inherently promotes the coexistence of species in harmony while helping each other grow.
As for us, it is the possibility of a green future that is also sustainable and self-sufficient, which should be motivating.
(Edited by Gayatri Mishra)