These 'fishwomen' are caught in the pandemic's net


An estimated 25 million people make a living from fishing and related activities in India. Photo: Reuters

In 35 years of selling the village catch, Jennet Cleetus said business has never been so bad for her and other women who make ends meet by hawking seafood along the palm-fringed coast of Kerala in southern India.

India – one of the countries worst-hit by Covid-19 – has eased most lockdown restrictions and sought to reopen its battered economy, but some curbs on informal vendors remain and many customers are too scared to go out shopping.

“First, our men couldn’t go fishing. When they did go and brought fish in, we couldn’t go and buy it. Now if we buy it, we can’t sell it outside our villages,” said Cleetus, 60, from her home in Valiya Veli in Thiruvananthapuram district.

Additional pandemic requirements are adding to their woes, she added.

“The government wants us to get an antigen test, produce the certificate and get permission from the police before we can enter the markets. The test is expensive but we have to do it now or we may die of hunger.”

Cleetus is among the tens of thousands of women fish vendors living along India’s 7,500km coastline who are battling to regain livelihoods hit by wary buyers, online sales and persistent curbs on movement and access to markets.

An estimated 25 million people make a living from fishing and related activities in India, government data states.

Women make up nearly half of the workforce, taking a lead in the procuring, processing and marketing of fish, said S. Velvizhi, who heads the Fish for All research and training centre at Poompuhar in Tamil Nadu state.

Traditionally, women known as headloaders sell fish door-to-door, carrying sardines, shrimps and other local fish in bamboo baskets or aluminium vessels. Others sit on pavements or operate out of fish markets.

“Many of them are single women and most of them use their income for the everyday running of their households,” said Velvizhi. “The pandemic has increased the debt burden on these women and pushed their families to the brink of poverty.”

Rising debts

In the middle of the lockdown, the Indian government announced broad plans to modernise the nation’s fishing industry.

“One of the thrust areas of the new plan is to empower women in fisheries ” Shankar Laxman, joint commissioner in India’s Ministry of Fisheries, said.

“We are aware that the pandemic has hit women fishworkers badly. The new scheme will benefit them. We are not encouraging roadside vendors anymore and will support them to set-up modern kiosks with freezers and display cabinets to sell hygienically.”

Lakshmi Kowada, president of the Traditional Fish Workers’ Union in Andhra Pradesh state, said he was not impressed by the government blueprint.

“Today’s ground reality is that women are not able to enter apartment blocks or housing colonies to sell fish,” said Kowada, who has been in the business for 20 years, demanding immediate financial assistance for the fish sellers.

Wearing a mask and carrying extra water to wash her hands frequently, Maharani Selvamani went out to sell fish at a street corner a few weeks back.

“I had just bought fish worth 2,000 Indian rupees (RM113) to sell but sold only 500 rupees (RM28) worth,” she said.

“I have never faced such losses ... Police and municipal officials keep shooing us away and shifting our location,” said Selvamani, whose husband died during the lockdown. Last week, she started saving the number of regular customers on her mobile phone and sharing hers with them.

“Sometimes I call them and tell them about the fish I have and where I am. I try but it doesn’t seem enough.” – Thomson Reuters Foundation

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