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Livelihood Challenges In Coastal Odisha Women Fishers show the way

Updated: December 1, 2012 12:03 pm

Odisha, located on the east coast of India, is endowed with rich natural resources. Along with mines, minerals and forests it has a coastline of 482 kms stretched over six coastal districts. The fisheries sector is an important source of life and livelihood for millions of people around the world. As the world’s largest wild food harvest, fish provides a vital source of protein as well as cash income for many families in the developing world.

Fishery is a traditional occupation of the coastal inhabitants of Odisha, where the 482-km stretch of coastline is a natural support system for survival of marine fisher people in the state. Through the generations, the fishing community has been completely dependent on marine resources. A majority of the fisher folk use traditional boats to meet their subsistence requirements. The ‘small wooden craft’ confronts the vagaries of nature as they set out before daybreak to fish in the sea with the hope of making a livelihood. The state has been gifted with an abundance of natural water resource in the form of fresh water, brackish water and marine water. All the water resources are major contributors to the economy of the state. The total production of the aquatic produce has been varying over the years. The fresh water production and the brackish water production have been on the rise after the year 2000 owing to the intensive efforts of the state and other institutions to promote the culture of these.

On the other hand, the production of the marine fishes has been dropping due to several reasons ranging from climatic changes to the unsustainable fish harvesting. In recent years, changes in climatic conditions, rise in sea temperature, sea water pollution from an ever-increasing number of industries, and fast-vanishing mangroves from the coast have resulted in a drastic fall in the local fish catch. This has had a negative impact on the lives of fishing families across the eastern coast of India.

Data available from the Department of Fisheries, for the years 2007-08 and 2008-09 shows a significant decline in fish catch by 15 per cent and 27.8 per cent respectively which has resulted in unstable household income and increased risk of the communities falling in trap of indebtedness to unscrupulous local money-lenders. The debt trap, combined with the strong presence of outside traders at fish landing points and lack of information regarding external market, has further hindered fisher folk communities to get a fair price for their catch.

The survival of the fishing community depends upon the sea, the processing of the fish and the market. The problems faced by the fisher folk, especially the traditional ones, are many: declining fish catch, lack of market facilities, lack of value addition knowledge and skills, lack of credit facility etc. The situation further deteriorates with the frequent disasters. After the tsunami in 2005 there has been significant decrease in the volume of fish catch. This has affected their livelihood systems and forced them into further debts.

For millions of rural artisans and coastal communities, it has been the dual threat of growing degradation of natural resources and increasing government control over resources and ecological services. As a result of which they have been living with constant fear of nature’s fury and fast losing their livelihood.

That’s why the known developed and dominant coastal region has the poverty ratio of 32 per cent as against the state average of 47 per cent. They are more prone and exposed to ecological threats than other regions of the state with the ever-changing climatic conditions, besides upcoming development projects in terms of ports, steel plants, SEZs, jetties, hotels and large tourism projects. Such has been the situation in coastal areas that thousands of coastal artisans, salt workers, fishermen both marine and Chilika have left the area for Surat, Mumbai, Kerala and Bengaluru in search of alternative job.

The proposed new Coastal Zone Management Programme will replace the CRZ notification of 1991 and will pave the way for development projects such as industrial estates, mining sites, exclusive economic zones, tourism projects and ports in the notified areas, tourist resorts, mining and similar activities in large areas of the coastal zone. It would lead to the displacement of fishing communities from their habitats and the areas they have traditionally used.

When asked, Mangaraj Panda who has been working with coastal communities for last twenty years said, “The very existence and future of fishing and other natural-resource dependent communities is linked to the health of the coastal ecosystem. Effective protection of coastal habitats and regulation of activity in the coastal zone is very much in the interests of coastal communities, and fishing communities have taken several initiatives to protect coastal habitats and resources.”

He further added, “The fishing community, other coastal communities and their supporters demonstrated total rejection of these non-participatory, undemocratic and whimsical actions of the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) through massive protest along the entire coastline of the country and demanded adequate consultation before taking any further step on this matter.”

The Ministry of Environment and Forest has declared 60 species of fish endangered under the Wildlife Protection Act. Traditional fisher folk lack the technology to catch fish leaving out these species. Once they are caught they have to be thrown out, in order to escape arrest by the police. Thus, catching of the banned species continues at considerable loss. Coastal communities argue, also, that species that are landed in large quantities, and which have not shown any declining trend so far cannot be considered endangered or threatened!

The story of samudram

Samudram is a state-level federation of women fish workers’ organisation working in the state of Odisha for the development of marine fisherwomen and their families living on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. The organisation started functioning in the year 1993 from Sana Nolianuagaon (Ganjam) as a federation of women organisations of coastal villages in Ganjam district and got itself registered in the year 1995-96.The organisation is presently headquartered at Katur village in Ganjam.The area of the operation of the oraganisation are traditional marine habitations of 21 coastal blocks in Ganjam, Puri, Jagatasinghpur, Kendrapara, Bhadrak and Balesore districts. The basic thrust of the organisation is organising women fishworkers, health, education, water and sanitation, micro-finance, market penetration, eliminating middlemen, lobbying and advocacy and disaster preparedness.

Samudram women fish workers and their issues: Women in the community have been most adversely affected as they are most vulnerable as fish catchers (mostly in the margin while trading their catch and are largely engaged in peripheral activities like cleaning and drying of the catch which renders low wages) and also have to deal with the deplorable household situation due to decreasing fish catch and downsized income. Women who are involved in marketing face many problems like fluctuating market prices, unhygienic market places, lack of basic amenities in the market place, etc.

In order to address the situation, United Artists Association (UAA) has been instrumental in fostering a collective of fisher folk women in the name of Samudram in four districts of coastal Odisha, namely Ganjam, Balasore, Jagatsinghpur and Puri covering nine blocks and 46 villages. With the membership base of 3889, Samudram has been taking up issues of fisher folk communities in the state.

There are hardly any authentic statistics available on the number of women involved in fisheries-related work, though it is well known that women play important roles in the sector. Women are engaged in a wide range of activities in the fisheries and in fishing communities all around the world.

Some pertinent issues: The marine fishers, who are exclusively dependent on marine fishing are now undergoing crisis because of depletion in fish stock in the Bay of Bengal. As per Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute, a premiere institute in fisheries research in India, the migratory pelagic species are going to deep sea due to increase in sea surface temperature. The fishing gears used by traditional fishers prohibit them from going beyond five-seven nautical miles for fishing. Hence their catch position is dwindling.

Whatever productive assets they own are purchased by availing loan from traders or money-lenders. These situations keep them in chronic indebtedness and they are compelled to sell their catch to traders at whatever price the latter pays. Non-availability of adequate required infrastructure like preservation, improved processing, transport and auctioning point, un-interrupted credit flow from formal financial sources as and when required, are other causes for their chronic indebtedness. Though they are ever exposed to natural disasters like flood, cyclone, tsunami etc, they are not able to own a concrete/permanent house. There is also absence of proactive support systems from state and national government for protection of livelihood rights of traditional fisher folk community.

The women’s federation brings together over 160 women’s groups, comprising 2000 members and spanning 52 villages across Odisha. The organisation has the twin objectives of empowering local women and protecting the threatened nesting sites of the Olive Ridley Turtle. Capacity building, micro-finance and disaster risk reduction, planning all complement conservation activities are also its objectives.Turtle monitoring and breeding are combined with habitat restoration (e.g. mangrove reforestation and beach protection) to ensure the conservation of this threatened species.

Conservation campaigns on ecological destructive pollution and fishing practices accompany training for local fishermen on “Turtle Excluding Devices” and net types that are dangerous to turtles. Artificial reefs, co-restoration zones and “fishing holidays” have been introduced to improve fishing productivity, diversify marine life, and allow for natural breeding and regeneration cycles.

Local fisherwomen are provided with storage facilities (warehouses and refrigerators) and market access support, which improve their incomes. The combination of relatively simple social measurers and modern technology are bringing new life to an area devastated by tsunami in 2004.

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