December 2014 Filed in: Books
This post shouldn’t take away from Samanth Subramanian’s excellent book on the life in fishing towns around the Indian coast. It’s one of the most enjoyable travelogues I have read in a while. I only hope to add to it.
His is mostly an andocentric account of men who fish, men who drink toddy, and men who’ve adapted their life to the sociocultural history of fishing towns. His women are either in the kitchen cooking him a meal, or absent, with the exception of one or two, who he amusedly observes from a distance! Perhaps, this is because the life of fisherwomen doesn’t lend itself well to a lighthearted travelogue, or because women drink toddy in the privacy of their community. But, to me, this unwittingly makes plain the invisibility of two million working people of one gender, who collaborate with both those at sea and those on the shore! The nature of their work puts them quite literally front and center, in market squares, selling the product that runs the economy of their sector (Several research studies address the critical role of fisherwomen in India’s national food security); And yet, far from receiving maximum prominence, they are sidelined and tuned out. (Except in cinema, as Silk Smitha in a toddy shop, wearing a sexy Kaliakal saree and doing something fishy! Cinema has led me to take it for granted that behind every drunken man in a shaaaap, there is a woman, or more accurately, in front of every man in a shaaaap, there is a woman's behind!).
In the market too, fisherwomen’s trade is subject to the whims of solipsistic male competitors or big merchants (also male). Hired thugs of market contractors have been denying fisherwomen basic infrastructure (not only tables, chairs and iceboxes, or space to dry or salt their fish, but also drinking water and toilets, and prime market spaces). They are denied transport to carry their fish baskets, and are forced to walk miles with heavy loads of their perishable product over their heads from one market to another. There are very few places that provide special buses for fisherwomen. Even in the market, a lot of their stamina goes into escaping physical violence from men. As a result, they not only incur huge losses from poor quality product, but also suffer from ill-health compounded by poor access to health services.
Fishermen, on the other hand, are able to use vehicles to transport their fish (secured in ice boxes). They have also co-opted mobile phones and GPS technologies into their large list of cultural indulgences that only men ‘should’ have access to. Therefore, only men have immediate information on the prices and availability of fish throughout the country's vast coastline. Women are deprived of participation in economic decision-making. They suffer from severe wage disparities, are excluded from many cooperative societies, and are denied equal access to banking and credit facilities (because of both social and economic reasons). There is also very little support for fisherwomen in government policies, because women are mostly engaged in traditional fishing activities. Existing policies focus on increasing fish production and modernizing the fisheries. This also makes women easy prey to loan sharks. In spite of all this, because there are two million fisherwomen, working alongside four million fishermen, they remain a force to reckon with even without the powers.
The contribution of fisherwomen penetrates every operation of fisheries in both micro and macro levels. They perform every role, from that of auctioneers to retail vendors, and serve both producers and consumers. In many parts of the country, women are almost entirely responsible for fish and ornament trade in all landing and marketing centers, and have to compete only with the big commercial fishing trawlers and middlemen! Within their communities, from the time the fish arrives on land, it is mostly the women who manage the post-harvest operations! They work meticulously for long hours in sorting and grading, curing and drying, segregation and stocking, preserving and peeling activities. They work in processing plants as well. They feed and harvest fish, manage hatcheries, construct and maintain ponds, make nets, collect wild seeds, seaweeds, and shellfish. More recently, they have been very involved in conservation efforts, beach work, and running mobile food businesses for the workers at the landing centers and fish markets. Seasonally, they even play a supportive role in active fishing, both in marine and inland sectors, and especially during multi-day fishing. In addition to this, fisherwomen have almost the exclusive responsibility of running the family, and taking care of financial management.
Over the years, fishermen have struggled to compete with the big industry boats, forcing women to buy fish from outside contractors and also compete with powerful outside forces to make their sales. Only those women who buy fish at the auctions and market them at a profit are able to set a value on their labour. The defeated male-folk in the fishing communities have either diversified into other alternate industries such as tourism, or have forcefully taken over the jobs of women in the market. The worst of them have taken to alcohol and gambling. In Kerala, alcohol abuse is linked to 44% of road accidents and 80% of divorces. The fishing community is not immune to alcoholism. If anything, they are often both the cause and the victims of this problem.
Fisherwomen have found innovative ways to stay in the fishery business in spite of the tough market. For instance, in Kerala, women work all night to deliver late-night catch fresh off the boat to homes. In off-seasons when high-value fish are nonexistent, fisherwomen sell sardines and cheap fish to the poultry industry. They run petty shops or sell toddy (not always illicitly) to supplement family income from fishing. The fisherwomen of Vizag have broken into the IT market in big cities, and are selling their employees dry fish snacks for an impressive profit! With the help of non-profits, women are also slowly overcoming their dependence on traditional fisheries and are learning to adopt to new technologies. ICT training is also helping them take calculated risks during their active fishing trips. There are some women entrepreneurs who are also in the forefront of fishing technologies, with some technologies patented and licensed to them! This is a huge step, given the sociocultural barriers that have thus far prevented them from embracing technology. In another example of daring, after the tsunami in Tamil Nadu, several fisherwomen took swimming lessons (offered by Austrian trainers), and willingly wore swim suits with dupatta-coverings (shawls) in defiance of cultural taboos. Fisherwomen also work in conservation planning, such as the preservation of the lives and habitats of Olive Ridley turtles.
However, some of their ventures put their lives at risk. In Bhitarkanika National Park, fisherwomen work as illegal crab catchers, even though they face arrests by forest guards, or attacks by crocodiles because of improper safety practices. Government regulators often enforce conservation regulation without consideration for those who depend entirely on these lands for their living. What is needed in fact are more realistic regulations grounded in both science and social responsibility.
In the tourism industry, many young women are forced into sex work in “Ayurvedic massage parlors”, and even provide escort services to elderly tourists! The industry has also taken away much needed physical space from fisherwomen to perform their post-harvest jobs (and less importantly, for them to mingle privately within their community). Women play a huge role in continuing the cultural customs and norms of their fishing communities. Subramanian shares some detail on how fishing communities have done well to assimilate Christianity into their native Hindu traditions. Even in Hindu fishing communities, while some have retained centuries-old customs, others have created amalgams of two of more traditions. For instance, the Telugu-speaking Hindu community in Odisha have assimilated traditions of both States into their lives and customs. Hinduism too has several mythological stories about fishing communities, like that of Parvati living among the fisherfolk when Shiva banishes her from heaven, or the more famous Satyavati story. For some strange reason, this mythology seems more popular among the non-fishing communities! But, they are worth reflecting on, because the prominent figures in all these stories are women!
(The information for this post is entirely from the first few links on google from searching Fisherwomen + India + “Research Study”, or Fisherwomen + “National Food Security”, or some such.)