As the sun moved above the horizon dividing the sky and sea, five boats approached the coast at Sana Nolia Nuagaon, a fishing village in Ganjam district in the eastern Indian state of Odisha. The quiet beach instantly sprang to life as the boats, which had gone to sea in the wee hours, returned with the day’s catch wrapped in nets. Buyers huddled around the heap of fish they unloaded to procure them through auction.
Among those bidding were around 50 women from the local fishing community, all members of various self-help groups (SHGs) that collectively pooled their money for economic activities.
Within no time, the women had bought the whole catch. “Twelve of us women collectively bought fish worth Rs5,000 [US$65] and will sell them at the local market,” said A. Aramma, a leader of one of the SHGs.
The scene was starkly different two decades ago, when outside traders monopolised the fish trade. The traders would pounce on the day’s catch first, sorting out the best quality fish that fetched higher prices in the market and taking them away. The women, who have always played a vital role in the supply chain, mostly as retail traders at their local markets, were left with rejected inferior species of fish, most of which were sold in local market as sukhua (dry fish) that fetched very little money.
The making of a trading racket
Odisha is endowed with a 482-kilometre-long coastline with 24,000 square kilometres of continental shelf. Over 600,000 people from the traditional fishing community in 813 villages in six districts of the state are engaged in the marine sector. Almost half of them are women.
The Telugu speaking landless and illiterate fishermen living in villages at Ganjam coast are particularly vulnerable to exploitation because they are landless, making fishing their only source of income.
In the 1990s, there was not much government support, and few subsidies or institutional loans for traditional fishermen. Most depended on moneylenders for a loan they could use to buy boats and nets.
Often the moneylenders were also traders, who dictated the price of the catch. Fishermen received their payments months after selling their haul. Worse, they got no payment at all if they had received some advance or loan from the traders.
“Things were pretty bad in Ganjam 20 years ago. For fisher families, it was a vicious circle of debt and poverty,” said Buguru Chitamma, who took the lead in empowering the women, in particular, and fisher community more generally.
Sitting on a plastic chair in her modest dwelling in Sana Aryjapalli, which neighbours Sana Nolia Nuagaon, 75-year-old Chitamma reflected on the struggles she took up to empower the entire fishermen community in Ganjam.
Half a century back, Chitamma came as a bride to a Sana Aryjapalli that had nothing – no road, electricity or school. Only a few of the boys went to a school 10km away. Though steeped in poverty, men blew up the family’s meagre income from fishing on liquor. Women were completely at the mercy of their husbands, children malnourished and families perpetually in debt.
In the 1980s, Chitamma, a resolute woman who had received no formal education, moved from village to village organising other women. She launched an anti-liquor movement, fought against child marriage, supported girls’ education and mobilised funds to build a high school by 1995. Along the way, her stature in the community grew in Sana Aryjapalli and six other neighbouring coastal villages, having a combined population of over 10,000 people.
The rights-based social work by Chitamma drew the women towards her, and she inspired them to form SHGs adopting a saving-credit system. The women contributed between Rs25 and Rs100 towards the revolving funds of their respective SHGs and started exploring options for investment in the fish trade.
“Chitamma suggested that procuring fish catch collectively in auction would strengthen the women’s bargaining power and help them trade on a larger scale,” said P. Kamudi, a fisherwoman from Sana Nolia Nugagaon.
However, it was not easy challenging the monopoly of the traders and moneylenders. The women started gathering information on the fish trade – where traders sent their consignments and how they got payment – by enlisting the support of voluntary organisation United Artists’ Association based in Ganja town a few kilometres away.
They discovered that the traders were running their businesses by essentially recycling the poor fishermen’s capital. This is how it worked: The traders took the fish catch from one group of fishermen in one village and supplied it outside Odisha. However, instead of making payment to the fishermen, they forwarded the money from the sale of the fish to another group of fishermen in another village as an advance or loan. That first advance is the traders’ initial investment and it multiplies based on how high the price of fish or interest rate they charge.
With a view towards breaking the shackles of the traders, the women of Sana Aryjapalli started trading in 2006 using the fish catch of only eight traditional fishing boats with detachable engines under the banner of Samudram (meaning ‘sea’), a name they had registered as a non-governmental organisation in 1995, with Chitamma as its head. The women were successful in releasing the boats from the traders’ debt by facilitating institutional bank loans and enlisting the support of non-profit OXFAM in 2008.
The women collectively bought fish through auction and set aside the better fish to be sent outside Odisha to Howrah, Chennai and Bangalore by train. They supplied the fish to genuine outside fish merchants identified by the National Fishworkers’ Forum, a body of traditional fishermen. The rest were sold locally as fresh fish or converted to dry fish.
In 2010, Samudram, which had by then registered itself as a company, got a global award, the UNDP’s Equator Prize, in recognition of their local efforts in biodiversity conservation and poverty alleviation.
Around the same time, the state government started announcing welfare measures for fishermen, starting with Matsyajibi Unnayana Yojana (fishermen development scheme) that provided a subsidy of around 50% for boat and engine costs.
Later, the government unveiled the 2015 Odisha Fisheries Policy, which aimed to double fishermen’s earnings by 2020 by increasing their productivity. As per the policy, the government has announced a plethora of welfare measures, including subsidies for fishermen of between 40-60% for boats, nets, up to 10-horsepower engines, and mopeds or three-wheelers with iceboxes to improve their livelihoods. The measures also include annual scholarships of between Rs3,000 and Rs7,500 for meritorious high school students from fishing communities.
The 2019-20 budget for the different central and state schemes in the entire fisheries sector in Odisha is over Rs160 crore. Around 30% it is for marine fisheries. There are over 18,000 fishing boats in the six coastal districts of the state – around 2,000 mechanised, 7,000 motorised and 9,000 non-motorised. There is no subsidy for mechanised boats.
In Ganjam, the marine sector has 17 registered primary marine cooperative societies including nine women societies. “This year, each society has got a financial assistance of Rs2 lakh from the government for increasing productivity,” said Ganjam Additional Fisheries Officer Syam Prasad Panda.
The number of registered boats in the district is 1,700 -1,100 motorised and 600 non-motorised. Almost all the boats have availed of the subsidy. However, in many cases the traders are the real investors keeping the fishermen, who cannot afford to buy on their own boats, as their fronts.
The women of Samudram have succeeded in making the fishermen the real owners of the boats by facilitating funds for them from banks or helping them access government subsidies. Out of 500 boats in the 15 coastal villages of Ganjam where the group is active, 200 boats are completely free of the traders’ grip.
In a fishing family’s economy, owning a boat is a big achievement. After the deduction of the fuel, the fish catch is divided into seven shares – one each for boat and net, and five for five crew members. If two family members are part of the crew going for fishing, the family get five shares if the boat is with them. Besides, the women of the family get the chance to trade the fish.
Over the years, Samudram’s footprint grew to over 12 coastal villages in Ganjam and beyond it to three other districts – Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Balasore. They kept the fish purchased from fishermen at six procurement centres equipped with trays, crates, ice breakers, insulated boxes and deep freezers in Ganjam, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Balasore districts. They also engaged market supervisors who checked the prevailing market price to avoid getting cheated.
Samudram is now federated at the state level and comprises 4,000 members of 250 SHGs. A venture that started with an investment of a few thousand rupees reached its peak by 2016 with an annual transaction of Rs60 lakh (Rs6 million). It did business with a profit margin of around 3%, which was shared among all affiliated SHGs.
But Samudram hit a hurdle in 2017 after the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The group has stopped supplying fish outside Odisha momentarily as the women claim that they have not enough revolving capital to function under GST. Chitamma said they will resume operation under the GST regime after generating the required capital. However, the SHGs continue to run their businesses independently using the infrastructure of Samudram. Their collective annual fish transactions have stabilised at around Rs30 lakh (Rs. 3 million).
According to Chitamma, profit and loss or business growth was never meant to be the prime driver of Samudram. The idea was, she said, to empower the fishing community, especially the women, to achieve financial independence.
However, the community keeps facing new challenges.
“This is what we got today,” A. Areya said after returning from the sea, pointing towards a single medium-sized fish on his palm, and then added: “The catch is declining by the day.”
Data from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) corroborate Areya’s observation. According to CMFRI, India registered a 9% decline in marine fish catch between 2017 and 2018.
Areya and four other crew members go to the sea for 10 days in a month. On average, they get Rs500 worth of fish per head on a day. According to him, varieties abundantly available 10 years back are nowhere to be seen these days. He attributed the fall in catch to climate-induced disasters in the Bay of Bengal. The coast of Ganjam, highly vulnerable to cyclones and turbulent winds, faced two successive disasters in recent years, Cyclone Phailin in 2013 and Cyclone Hudhud in 2014.
In addition, infrastructure development along the coast, such as Gopalpur Port near the villages, has shrunk the fishing area of traditional boats, which cannot go far into the sea for fishing. Fishermen say that dredging along the coast for ship movement has damaged the habitats of the fish within 10 nautical miles of the coast.
The women SHGs of Samudram are exploring alternatives to meet the challenges. It has been easier in Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts where fishermen also own some land.
“Around 50 SHGs in our district have been doing inland fishery, goat rearing and dairying by linking up with the state government’s Mission Shakti scheme,” said Jharana Behera of Dakshinapantala village in Puri.
In Ganjam, which does not have trawlers, the women take the lead in driving away outside trawlers from Andhra Pradesh by repeated protests in front of authorities. Fisheries officials say that the coast here is not suitable for trawling as there is no fisheries harbour yet – though there is a proposal to build one near the Gopalpur Port. The traditional fishermen allege that the trawlers are their biggest enemies as they sweep away all kinds of big and small fish, and even eggs, from the bottom of the sea.
Odisha has over 1,500 trawlers, almost a half of them at the fishing harbour in Paradip Port in Jagatsinghpur district. The remainder are in Balasore and Bhadrak. Fisheries department officials said that the state government does not provide any kind of subsidy to the trawlers. Trawler operators say the lack of subsidies makes it far more difficult for them to work.
In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the trawler owners get a relaxation on diesel in the form of Rs9 per litre. Mostly, the trawlers from Andhra Pradesh invade the Ganjam coast for fishing.
Though Samudram has been a change-maker where it operates, it has mostly got support from non-governmental organisations. And though it works perfectly as a cooperative society, it has not been registered as one and is deprived of many government facilities, including relaxations under GST.
The women said that the state fisheries department officials often showcased Samudram’s exemplary work as a model to outside visitors but never seriously helped them. On the other side, the registered cooperative societies that get government assistance are remote-controlled by politicians and officials and mostly defunct.
“We have been reviewing the activities of the societies and taking appropriate action,” said the deputy director of fisheries, Siba Prasad Bhoi.
Government officials also admitted that there was too much officials interference in cooperative societies and Samudram would have failed to achieve what it did had it registered itself as one. They said that though women are almost 50% of the workforce in the marine sector, there is no subsidy designed specifically for them.
Apart from the national fishing ban period from April 15 to June 14, there is a seven-month ban from November 1 to May 31 for Olive Ridley turtle conservation at the mouth of the Rushikulya River on the Ganjam coast, Astaranga beach in Puri and Gahirmatha in Kendrapara coast. The state government started giving yearly livelihood support of Rs7,500 to 1,500 fishermen living in the area.
Samudram SHG members have been voluntarily protecting the turtle habitats in these areas for a long time. However, there are no incentives for such efforts.
“If the government sincerely wants to bring about a drastic change in the lives of poor people, it has to spot the potential in groups like Samudram and support them proactively with judicious use and planning of subsidies,” said Kanda Alaya, secretary of Odisha Traditional Fishermen Union.
This story has been produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.
Banner image: Chitamma, the woman behind Samudram, at her residence in Sana Aryjapalli village in Ganjam / Credit: Arabinda Mahapatra.