Diving deep for a living: Meet Tamil Nadu’s saree-clad women seaweed collectors

8th Feb 2019
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From harvesting seaweeds to saving the marine life, these women seaweed collectors from Tamil Nadu are braving odds and sustaining their livelihood with seaweed plucking.

For many of us, scuba diving is perhaps the best way to explore the fantastic underwater world. While many see it as an exciting adventure sport, for this army of women from Tamil Nadu it is a source of livelihood.

Seaweed Collectors
Source: Frontline

Around 300 women, aged between 20 and 60 years from Chinnapalam in Tamil Nadu, deep dive into the sea to pluck seaweed that grows on underwater rocks adjoining the islands in the Gulf of Mannar. They say they depend on seaweed harvesting for their daily income.

However, they neither possess a formal scuba diving suit, nor an oxygen cylinder. But they dive in their sarees!

Seaweed collectors
Source Frontline

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Braving the tides, the women divers wear rubber slippers to protect their feet. Since collecting seaweed with bare hands is considered harmful, they wrap their fingers with cloth and wear a mask. They also carry a plastic bag on their back to collect the seaweed underwater, reports Frontline.

Seaweed collectors
Source: Frontline

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Speaking about the difficulties to The Logical Indian, Bhagwathy S, Head, Seaweed Collectors Group said,

 

“You can see that we enter the water in whatever dress we are wearing, and bruise our hands and feet while harvesting the seaweeds. To safeguard our lives and limbs, we need protective suits, gloves, and shoes.”

The seaweed, which grows on hard surfaces such as rock, stones and dead coral, is a common name for various species of marine plants and algae growing under water. Reports suggest that it has the potential to be a $26-billion market in India by 2025.

While seaweed mostly finds its use in cosmetics and medicines, it also plays a crucial role in maintaining marine life. Hence, the government had banned seaweed harvesting in 2002, and declared the region as a marine reserve.

Speaking to The Logical Indian, Bhagwathy said:

“Most of the seaweed is found within half a kilometre radius of the islands. If they block our access to the islands, how are we supposed to harvest? How will we take care of our families and tend to our loved ones?”

Hence, to protect the livelihood of these women and save the marine life, Laxmi Moorthy, Former Head, Seaweed Collectors Association, set up a federation. Laxmi said:

“We curtailed harvesting to 12 days a month i.e., six days from every pournami (full moon day), then a break of nine days. And then again do harvesting from amavasai (new moon day) followed by a break of nine days.” This allows the seaweed to regenerate and enhance the overall harvest, she added.

In 2014, to help these women divers, the Tamil Nadu government also issued biometric cards to identify them as a unique group of fishermen. It would also stop officials from intervening in their work.

For her efforts, Laxmi was given the Seacology Award in California in 2016. Laxmi donated the award money for the construction of a school in the area to help the families.

She says, the profession isn’t an easy ride after all, and education is a must to help the younger generation avoid this profession.


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