The unsung women fishers of Wular lake
Nestled in the north Kashmir region is Wular lake, India’s largest freshwater lake or wetland. It spans across 11,277 hactor area and has been designated as a wetland of international importance in 1986 and subsequently as a Ramsar site in 1990. Communities’ depend on fish (snow trouts and common carps) and trapa (water chestnut) harvesting for their livelihoods.
Poet Nazir Ahmed Shawl says in Speaking Silence (2010), “What to Egypt is the Nile River, the same to Kashmir is sweet Wular.” The lake sustains about 30,000 to 35,000 families including 3245 fishers and 900 trapa harvesting households living beside it. Wular contributes a significant 54% of the total lake fish production of the state. During 2017-2018, the annual fish production from the lake was 3728 tons.
The study on women fishers of Wular lake tries to examine their role, issues faced and suggests a way forward. The author visited 9 of the 50 villages on the Wular lake periphery namely Nanninara, Lankreshipora, Laherwalpora, Kanibathy, Zurimanz, Watlab, Muslim Peer, Maharajpora, and Ningli Bala. Data were collected through key informant interviews, focus group discussions, and participant observation methods from December 2018 to February 2019.
Role of fisherwomen in pre-harvest, post-harvest, and marketing activities of fishes
Fishing in the lake is done throughout the year. More catch is observed in the 7 months from April to October, which corresponds to higher water levels and greater lake spread. For fishing in Wular lake, an annual fee of Rs. 500 is charged.
Women of Wular wake up at pre-dawn and continue working till night. “We wake up at 5 a.m. and after prayer I start my day by preparing tea, packing lunch and other essentials for my husband who goes fishing. Then I prepare my kids for school, provide fodder, care and maintenance to livestock and then do household chores such as cleaning, washing, cooking, etc. which is a never-ending work (gharas cet chene zah maklan),” said 25-yr old Zareefa of Ningli Bala.
Small traders transport the catch to the market place where women wait. In case there is no intermediary, men carry their catch home in baskets (obb). Women carry this from home to the market place in a tub over their head. Fisherwomen are also involved in drying (hokh gad) and smoking (phary) of fishes, which are in high demand especially in winter.
Marketing of fishes of Wular is usually done in the main and Iqbal market of Sopore and main Bandipora market. Marketing activity in Sopore is dominated by men while 30 fisherwomen dominate the Bandipora market. The annual income of fisherwomen from fish marketing is about Rs. 54,000.
Dwindling fish catches
During the lean season, from November till March, the fish production from the lake is generally less. It becomes very difficult for a fisher to rely on fishing alone even for subsistence. “It is not unusual for a fisherman to come back empty-handed even if he spends time in Wular from dawn to dusk,” said Haleema (60) of Watlab.
Instead of relying on fish catch only, people resort to other options. “Last week I bought fishes from a trader in Dal Lake and sold the same in Bandipora market,” said Bakhta Begum (55), Lankreshipora. The dwindling fish catch has led fishers to shift to other activities e.g. labour, sumo drivers, auto drivers, etc.
Role of fisherwomen in trapa related activities
Trapa is known as ‘gaer’ in Kashmiri, ‘singhara’ in Hindi, and water chestnut in English. Wular lake fishers have been harvesting trapa traditionally, and this involves a lot of time, effort and energy. It encompasses harvesting, steaming, peeling, baking, crushing, winnowing, and then marketing where women are mainly involved. Trapa represents about 49.8% of the lake vegetation of Wular. In 2018-19, about 1200 women were registered with the Revenue Department for trapa harvesting.
In winter i.e. from October to February, the collection of trapa is mainly carried out by men. In 2018-19, winter licenses were issued to about 900 people (all men). However, in some villages like Laherwalpora, women also go to collect trapa in the winter season. Chestnuts are collected using net (kashop), which is dragged over the bottom of the lake.
Trapa collected during winters is processed in the form of peeled water chestnuts (gaer goge) and crushed nuts (gaer) where women are exclusively involved. For peeled water chestnuts, each woman wears a thumb ring and has special folded wooded traditional knives to peel off the skin of trapa.
Trapa is a thorny fruit and their collection and peeling is a tedious job and causes injuries to hands due to the thorns and knives used in the process.
Peeled ones are directly sold in Bandipora market, where women sit on the road near offices and mosques. A kilogram sells for Rs. 100.
After smoking they used to be ground into pieces (gaer) using traditional crusher ‘indermohul’, which engaged a minimum of three people. This has been replaced by mechanical crusher in all villages. Crushed nuts are taken home by women for the winnowing process (gaer tcathin). The shells are then collected separately and stored and then used in traditional fire pots (kangris) for providing heat during winter.
“Sheikh che sane khot asal (our situation is worse than that of a sanitation worker). During smoking, it is very difficult to recognize us as the smoke envelops our body. During the winnowing process, black dust settles on our face and clothes. In this life, we have seen only hardship; we have no time to take rest,” said a fisherwoman from Watlab.
For household consumption purposes, hard nuts (gaer) are transformed to flour (gaer oat) using a traditional hand mill locally known as gratt. A kilogram sells for about Rs. 30 to a contractor. The annual income of fisherwomen from trapa related activities is about Rs. 26,575.
Problems faced by fisherwomen in marketing
There are no regulated markets for fishers where they can comfortably sit and sell. In the absence of access to formal credit mechanism, fishers are compelled to approach middlemen, who offer credit on easy terms but fishers are contractually obligated to sell the fish directly to them at prices lower than the market price.
“Municipal Committees do not even allow us to sit by the road and sell the produce; we are always targeted,” said 40-year old Hajra Begum, who does fish marketing at Bandipora.
“Everyone in this village has a debt of over Rs 1 lakh from the trader. They decide the rate. We are helpless and are being exploited for generations,” said 55-year old Mohammad Yousuf Dar of Maharajpora.
“We depend on Wular for everything from fishing, washing, cleaning, bathing to transporting. We have no other option and survive this way,” said 25-year old Zareefa of Laherwalpora.” The area is marked by poor roads and other infrastructure.
Fishers of Wular as individuals are small scale producers with low bargaining power. There is a possibility to aggregate them through Cooperatives/ Self Help Groups /Farmers Producer Organisation to increase the total quantity produced and fix a price that can generate additional income to fishers.
Water chestnut enterprise is a good business model of contract farming with individuals or Self Help groups (SHG’s). Processed water chestnut in water, brine or soybean sauce are in good demand and are being exported to China, USA, UAE, and other European countries.
Fisherwomen should be trained on providing services, inputs, mobilizing resources, activities like processing, and in turn, they will go for ‘buy-back’ at a predetermined price. This will result in an assured market and will enhance the value.
Various awareness programs can be carried out on Fridays (holiday for fishers) in the village to educate the fishers on the importance of education, family planning, benefits of being in an organization, etc.
Overcoats/uniforms for fishers can be given which will not only protect fishers while performing their diverse activities but will also reduce the workload on fisherwomen.
There is also a need for providing special value addition for example setting up of processing plant, training on fish product development, capacity building, and hygienic handling, etc.
An effective and judicious system will surely be a boon to the local populace engaged in the sector.
By Atufa Regu, P S Ananthan