Women Warriors of the Sea
"We can see the towers of the new port in the distance. We can also see our day's catch getting smaller and smaller. We are being slowly pushed further from the sea. But the sea belongs to everyone. The sea will not let us down," says an optimistic Jannatbai, a leading member of a fishing community at Mundra on the western coast of Gujarat.
Struggling to preserve their livelihood in the face of the rapid expansion of the over-Rs 70,000 million Mundra Port and Special Economic Zone (MPSEZ) promoted by the Adani group, the women and men of over 10 fishing villages in the area are trying hard to come to terms with a changing world. Their once bountiful sea is now flooded with trawlers, bulldozers, pipelines, towers and bridges of what is touted to be the country's largest SEZ, comprising an airport and a seaport spanning 28 kilometers of the coastline and 13,000 hectares of land in the Gulf of Kutch.
The environmental impact of this is already being felt. Says Aminabai, 55, the women take a smaller basket to the market, adding that the men have to go further into the sea in their small boats, dwarfed by the big ships. "We have to be really alert otherwise our boats can capsize," says Kasim Hasam Jam, 'sarpanch' (village council head) of Shekhadiya village.
Clearly, the fisherfolk have to be alert to more than just the bigger vessels, as there are also plans to create a 12-hole golf course next to the aerodrome on the 'gauchar' (grazing) land acquired from the state government.
Bharat Patel, an activist of Setu, a community network organization, says that forests on the seashore have been cleared, cutting off access of coastal villages to the mouth of the sea.
As if this wasn't enough, dredging for the port has resulted in the accumulation of silt along the coast and small boats cannot venture out into the sea even at high tide. "A month ago, after complaints from the fisherfolk, the SEZ authorities shifted the dredging site. But soon, they will be back. Where will the fisherfolk go then?" asks Jagdishbhai, an activist of Setu.
Last February, the construction of a wall enclosing land for the airstrip, effectively blocked all access of the 'pagadiyas' (traditional fishermen who fish on foot) of Shekhadiya, to the sea. Desperate and angry, they protested under the banner of the Machimaar Sagar Sahas Samiti, along with groups like Setu, Care and Ujjhas Mahila Sanghatana, and filed a petition in the Gujarat High Court. The company signed a settlement with the villagers that an access road would be provided around 200 meters away from the present boundary wall.
For the villagers, the protest - petitions, memorandums, signature campaigns and a historic 35-day 'dharna' (sit-in) outside the office of the 'mamlatdar' (local revenue officer) - was a novel experience. As Kasim Jam put it, none of them had ever been on a 'morcha' (protest) before because they had never needed to.
"We left our children at the village as we thought we would be back in a day or two. But we sat there for 35 days. We didn't budge," recalls a proud Jannatbai.
Aminabai had never met a government official in her life and "still does not know the bylanes of Mundra properly". Yet, she lashed out at the 'mamlatdar' for his failure to take action against the SEZ authorities. Sakinaben Siddique, of the neighboring Luni village, joined in the protest along with 40 others from her village simply because "it was everybody's issue".
Jannatbai spoke about it in 'Dariya Gher', a half-hour community radio programme on the fishing community aired on AIR Rajkot station every Thursday evening. The programme, which was initially started in September 2006 by Radio Ujjas, as an initiative of Kutch Mahila Vikas Sanghatana (KMVS), a rural women's collective in Kutch, played a major role in communicating the struggle of the Shekhadiya villagers to other fishing villages.
Mundra's population is unevenly divided between the majority Jain community and 10 villages of the Muslim fishing community comprising around 940 families. While a majority of the former has benefited from the sale of their lands to the MPSEZ at high prices, the latter are in a precarious condition. The fishing community earns around Rs 100 million, mostly through 'pagadiya' fishing, and they are able to command a better price as their manual handling results in less damage to the catch.
The women sort the catch, dry the 'bombil' (Bombay Duck) and 'mandeli' and go to market by 8.30 am, returning only when all the fish is sold. Few have any formal education. For eight months of the year, they live by the sea in gunnysack huts, without basic civic amenities, including sanitation, water supply and electricity.
Stigmatized for their 'paap no dhandho' ('sinful' livelihood), they were isolated by other communities and it was a struggle to bring them into the mainstream. "We had to work really hard to gain their trust," says Alka Jani, who started Ujjas Mahila Sanghatana (UMS) over 17 years ago in Mundra as part of the KMVS network.
Until three years ago, fisherwomen were not part of the over 4,500-member UMS. A survey revealed that over 300 families in five fishing settlements were in debt to the tune of Rs 100,000 (US$1=Rs 41). So, Self-Help Groups were started with the women, in collaboration with organizations like Care, and credit facilities extended to pay off the debts. "The fisherfolk had no practice of saving but the 'bachat' (savings) bank gave loans from Rs 150,000 to Rs 10,00,000 in the names of the women," recalls Jani.
Other initiatives have also made a marked difference in their lives. Setu helped set up eight 'Bandar Panchayats', comprising an equal number of men and women while the Yusuf Meherally Centre runs a community school. For the first time, children were vaccinated while women were trained as 'dais' (midwives) and fish pickle-makers. They were taught about market practices of fishing communities in other parts of India.
Even for Ujjas Radio, getting through to the fishing community was challenging. "Before we launched 'Dariya Gher', we conducted extensive research on the community," informs Bharati of Ujjas Radio. "At first, they would taunt me and ask me if I was here for 'timepass'," says Paro, a reporter with the radio team. But when a programme highlighting the difficulty of obtaining smartcards from the fisheries department for fishing permissions was aired, everyone sat up and took note.
Last year, five women visited Mumbai for a three-day training programme organized by Setu. Earlier, another group of 10 women visited Kerala. Both visits were eye-openers. "We learnt so much. We travelled by train, we realized that when buyers come, we can also set a price for our produce, we saw women in Kerala wearing saris and we wouldn't have known they were also Muslim like us. We heard so many other languages, saw buildings in Mumbai that were so high in the sky that our 'dupattas' slipped off when we tilted our heads to see the roof... if we had an education, we could ask many more questions than you," remarks Jannatbai.
"My life has been spent by the sea, but what will happen to my children?" asks Aminabai, worried her grandson would be forced to drop out from school. But Jannatbai is optimistic. Her grandchildren will get an education and perhaps, jobs. Change, whichever form it takes, will come...
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