Sunderbans' women shrimp collectors live on the edge
By Atonu Choudhurri
The next time you order tiger prawns at a fancy city restaurant, spare a thought for Asharani Mondal, 30, and her 12-year-old daughter. They are two among the nearly two lakh faceless women prawn collectors of the Sunderbans, who enable diners the world over enjoy this high-priced delicacy. Wading out at the crack of dawn waist deep in saline water, a fishing net slung over her shoulder and her daughter swimming behind her dragging the net to catch tiger prawn seedlings they call "meen," Asharani, the sole earner in her family comprising an ailing husband and two children, has been a prawn fisherwoman for five years now. The risks are enormous, to her and her young daughter’s lives from crocodiles and crouching tigers lurking on the water’s edge in the Sunderbans swamps. And to illness like skin cancer, vaginal infections and bone and knee-related health issues from wading around six hours every day in water that is highly saline.
Asharani’s neighbours Pratibha Das 23, Bhadrosree Mondal, 60, Champa Mondal, 17, to name a few others, are all in the business prawn seedling collection, some of them in it for 40 years, earning Rs 300-400 a day. They use age-old knowledge about climatic conditions and the nature of the tide and the swirling water flow that indicates which parts of the river would provide a decent catch. “We just pray for low tide as during this time we get more prawn seedlings. We eagerly wait for Purnima and Amavas days that mark waxing and waning cycle of the moon. Collecting seedlings during these the time bring us maximum catch,” said Asharani. These women also make their own lightweight nets, or jaals. “It costs us around Rs 1,500 to Rs 2000,” said Pratibha. “We use light-weight jaal as collecting meen is a labourious and painstaking exercise. We even go out after dinner at times.”
Sitting on the dingee or canoe, Asharani talks about the health problems caused by spending long hours in saline waters and mud. “I feel constant burning sensation in my bod. I also face certain gynaecological problems,” she said. Almost every woman in every household of the total 45 blocks in the remote Sunderbans, a cluster of tiny islands located in the southern fringes of West Bengal’s 24 Parganas district with a population of 45 lakh, is involved in collecting tiger prawn seedling. With only one sub-divisional hospital 25 kms away from Basanti village, where Asharani and others live, for them to go for treatment. “I get sea-fatigue, nausea, limbs become motionless and becomes numb at times. I also have to do the cooking, taking care of my ailing husband, sending two children to primary school, all takes a toll on my health. Hundreds of people queue up for treatment at a small hospital that does not have proper equipment for check-up. The medical staff usually give me pain killers. There is no permanent relief as healthcare officials are not experienced enough to treat our diseases. Women and children are always at the receiving end,” Asharani lamented.
“Meen dhora,” as they call the practice, perhaps was once profitable as the price of 1,000 seedlings was Rs 600 till two years ago, but has now dropped to Rs 200. But lack of alternate means of earning and no effective government programme to support them, these women are left with no choice. “In my more than 40 years of association with this work, I have seen the plight of family members of women who were killed by crocodiles while netting fish,”said Bhadrosee Mondal. “Neither the government nor anyone else thinks of us. People only express pity.”
“Landless communities, who had struggled to eke out a livings elsewhere, made the Sunderbans their home,” said Bikarna Naskar, who runs an NGO Surojyoti Sangha, the only NGO in the area working on education of children of the fisherman families. “Fishing became the only choice for them. But fishing in the creeks running through the mangroves exposes them to life risk with the women fishing community the most vulnerable. Mamata Banerjee speaks of Kanyasree and Rupasree for girls' uplift, but these are all a bluff. My NGO took up women's issues with the government but to no avail. The village primary health centres are run by quacks, who have little knowledge about treating their diseases. The state government's efforts are limited to only announcing grand schemes.”
The Assessment of Ergonomic and Occupational Health-related Problems was a study done among Female Prawn Seed Collectors of Sunderbans, on randomly selected 60 female prawn seed collectors and 60 female control subjects from Sajenakhali and Sandeshkhali blocks, to evaluate and compare musculoskeletal disorders and physiological stress. Most participants suffered from discomfort in the lower back (98%), knees (88%), shoulders (75%), ankles (70%) and feet (67%). Also, a 2013 study conducted by the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases (NICED) and the international NGO Save the Children in Patharpratima block has found that the overall prevalence of anaemia in women in the Sunderbans is as high as 64 percent.
The biggest irony is that bagda, or tiger prawns, are a big ticket export item, earning the state Rs 1500 crore in foreign exchange. https://www.business-standard.com/article/economy-policy/shrimp-farming-boom-in-west-bengal-as-farmlands-shrink-114040800352_1.html. Sunderbans has the highest concentration of prawn hatcheries. Middlemen to whom these women sell their seedlings make a killing. The seedlings these women collect are cultivated for four months during which they grow before being sold in the wholesale markets of Canning, Barasat and Dhamakhali. The prawn collectors separate tiger prawn seedlings from other tiny fish and collect them in small vessels. The remaining seedlings are dumped. Tiger prawns from the sea lay their eggs at riverside embankments and at the roots of mangrove trees. When the eggs hatch, the tiny micro-seedlings are caught in fine nets and taken to hatcheries. Tiger prawns fetch upto Rs 1,000 per kg in the market.
Debabrata Mondal, a social worker and associate of Naskar, said there has been no in-depth investigation from the government on the health hazards faced by the women. Environmentalists too have been raising this issue. "Nowhere in the world will you find such a community of poor and suffering women fishing folk,” said Santanu Chakravarty, an environmentalist and an expert on Sundarbans ecology.
Local fishermen's organisation head, Malay Das, said his association has in vain raised the issue with the government. Even though the government created a Sunderbans affairs department with a minister in charge to look after the developmental needs of the delta, little has changed for these fisherwomen. The Sunderbans tiger gets more attention lavished on it.
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