In fishy waters: How small scale fishers in Odisha battle all odds to eke out a living

8th Jul 2015
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L- Fisher Doli Gyne in front of her modest home in Khairnasi village. R- Women have to trek long distances to sell their catch everyday

Doli Gyne is not your usual urban entrepreneur, struggling to keep her boat afloat in a competitive startup ecosystem. 36 year old Doli is a fisherwoman who lives in Khairnasi village in Kendrapara district of Odisha. Doli started very young – at the age of 10, to be precise. She’s been an entrepreneur for more than two decades and over the years has witnessed an interesting trend in fisheries in her state.

“Tokhon onek maach pawa jeto, kom poishay hoto. Ekhon olpo macchhe beshi poisha. Tokhonkar din beshi maach pawa jeto. Kintu poishaar belay kom. Ekhon olpo maach pele beshi poisha.” (Earlier there was a lot of fish available but even with a good catch the money that we earned wasn’t much. These days the fish population has dropped drastically, therefore the price of fish has gone up.)

As an entrepreneur, women fishers like Doli are involved in every aspect of the fishing activity – from catching the fish and crabs, to sifting them, and then taking them to the markets to sell. That often means trudging for miles from remote coastal villages to the centres where they finally sell their catch. Doli doesn’t depend on the local ‘haat’ or market alone for her sale. Sometimes she sells to big ‘companies’ or larger conglomerates who then export the fish to different centres across the state or even outside it. Selling to these ‘companies’ fetches her more money than the local bazaar.

“Ek din-e temon dhoro ek jone jinish ta guchiye thoiyeche…tare bhaag dite hawbe, aabaar nijore thaakbe. Ta bolle kono din 200, 100…je je din income jerokom. Orom theek kowa jay na.” (From the money that I earn I have to pay off different people involved in various aspects of the trade, like the fish sifters, etc. In a day I could earn anything between Rs 100 to Rs 200. There’s no guarantee.)

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L- There are 8-10 people in Doli’s family and she and her husband are the sole bread winners. R – For Doli, everyday is a struggle to feed the many mouths at home and keep the hearth burning

Doli’s life, therefore, is fraught with uncertainties. For women like her, every day brings with it a fresh set of challenges.

“Maashe, shemon khaiya daiya kichhu na thaakteo pare. Aamaader eto masher income jana jay na. Aamaago din choilye gelo…aamraa toh maach kankra kheye eto ki bojhaar ki aachhe. Aamaar thobaar moton poisha aachhe? Pet cholbe na poisha thobo?” (It is tough to calculate our monthly earnings. Sometimes we may have nothing left by the end of the month. We are thankful if we have enough for the day. The idea is to feed the stomach, not save money.)

Women fishers are by and large an invisible entity, especially in terms of government policy. There is very little understanding of the role that women play in fisheries, particularly when it comes to making allocations in the planning process.

This is because the fisheries sector is typically seen as male dominated. The focus is and has always been on fishing. The emphasis, particularly in the early decades after Independence, was on increasing fish production, modernisation of the fishing fleet and motorization. Therefore, there’s a clear bias towards production and the role that women have played has not been very prominent or recognised at all.

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L – Most boats are mechanised. R – The fisheries sector is seen as male dominated

According to the Handbook of Fisheries Statistics, 2014, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, there are an estimated 35304 full-time fishers in Odisha. Of these, 7973 are women.

According to Debika Sahoo, a development consultant and gender specialist, and someone who has been working with fisher communities in the coastal areas of Odisha, there is very little assistance forthcoming from the government. She says, “In Kendrapara, Kharnasi village, the women are mostly involved with catching crabs and small fish. This can be hazardous to health. To give you an example, if one were to go to any village in Kendrapara, most of the women have injuries to their hands and legs. There is no technical up-gradation to catch crabs, or for that matter, even fish. So for the last 30 years, fishing practices have not changed, their traditional way continues. No support has been given to them.”

In 1997, the Central Government as well as the State Government of Odisha declared the entire stretch from Dhamra to Paradip, extending from the shore up to 20 km into the sea, a protected zone. Thus was born the Gahirmatha Sanctuary; and as a result, nobody was allowed to fish in these waters. The boats and fish nets used by the fisher folk only allow them to fish within a distance of 5-10 km into the sea because their boat engines are between 5hp to 20 hp only. Therefore, when it became increasingly difficult for the fishermen to fish in nearer the coastline, the women were compelled to leave their homes and try and fish in the rivers and creeks.

Along with an indifferent government, Doli and other women fishers also have to grapple with a steadily depleting fish catch.

“Somudro te ei bochhor toh maach kichu nei …loke ki hawbe ta jaane na. Ek ek jon boat khoy kore bosiya aachhe. Ekhon je shomoy maach hawbe, tokhon toh somudro bondho. Tokhon toh aar sanctuary te jaite debena. Tekhon ki hawbe? Tekhon je jaar parbe opore duita khailo, je na pailo she gelo aar ki. . Aar Jodi jay, ekta boat dhorli , deo 1,50,000 taka. Kone paabo shei taka? DFO, ranger,…chalan hoye jaabe, case hoye jaabe. Je 5 ta lok jaabe she 5ta lok jar boater…tomar boat gelo tumi ekhon shei ta lok ke chariya aanba na tomar boat charaba aar na nije chaarba? Toh eishob korte gele pray 2 lakh taka korcho. 2 lakh taka ke debe? Ekhon lok ki kore…boat ghaate bendhe thoy. Kicchhu korar nei.”(There is hardly any fish available in the sea this year. Everyone is uncertain. All the fishermen have anchored their boats on the shore. When there is fish at sea we are not allowed to go fishing since the sanctuary is out of bounds. What do the poor resort to at times like these? Those who can manage to feed themselves, do. Others go hungry. On the other hand, if the fishermen go to sea and get caught, they have to pay up to Rs 1.5 lakhs to get their boats released. Who has that kind of money? The DFO or Ranger will impose a fine, and along with the boat, the fishermen will also be taken into custody. To pay for everyone’s release is not possible. So these days fishermen leave their boats tethered to the shore. There’s no other way out.)

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L – The docks are chock-a-block full of tethered boats when fishermen are not allowed to fish in Gahirmatha. R – Doli uses an old fish net as a temporary fence to protect her house

No wonder then that Doli is extremely sceptical of politicians, who never fail to show up when it’s election time.

“Ora aashbe. Konshomoy…vote aashuk. Vote aashuk…tokhon onek lok pawa jaabe, bhalo bhalo lok pawa jaabe. Ekhon pawa jaabena. Voter shomoy pawa jaabe. Tokhon dekhbe tomar koto maa, maashi, khuri korbe..tokhon pawa jaabe. Tokhon daily din duto ekta paaba…rasta ghaate barite paaba. Ekhon paaba na. EKhon more geleo keo dekhte aashbena. Aamaar ekta sansar…khaatnir lok ekta. Aami je maiya lok aami khaati bole toh aamar sansar ta cholte aachhe…aamaar purush lok ekta…aamaar 8,9,10 lok (in the family mouths to feed)…aamaar kono BPL aachhe? Aami lokkhir ghat bhenge poisha disi. Oderke aar amaar chinte baaki aachhe?”(What good are politicians? They’ll come only when they have to ask for votes. You won’t find a single one of them now. But come elections, they’ll be on the streets and in everyone’s homes begging. This family of mine is all that I have and I work hard to feed them. We don’t even have a BPL card. There are times when I have fed my family using the money that is offered to Goddess Lakshmi during festivals.)

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L – Women fishers are forced to fish in rivers and creeks because of restrictions on fishing. R – A woman fisher waiting to haul in the crab in one of the creeks near Khairnasi village

Doli’s entrepreneurial journey has been peppered with challenges and continues to be so. She does not enjoy the privilege to retrospect or mull over her mistakes. For Doli, and hundreds of women fishers like her, there is no question of carrying the tag of a ‘failed startup.’ Despite the obstacles, they will have to soldier on. Ordinary women, extraordinary entrepreneurs.

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