Scouring for prawns to shake off neck-deep debt

Scouring for prawns to shake off neck-deep debt

Scouring for prawns to shake off neck-deep debt

Shibi Nandan and SR Pearson Lenekar

Dalit women in Talainayar block of Nagapattinam scour the wetlands for prawns even as the catch dwindles and income dips due to the construction of a tail-end regulator and aquaculture farms

Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu: With a handwoven basket and a small purse containing betel quid, Chandra(55) leaves her home in Pazhankallimedu early in the morning. Her destination is the wetlands of Talainayar, where she stands half-submerged in neck-deep water all day long while scooping up prawns.

Pazhankallimedu comes under Talainayar block in Nagapattinam district and its inhabitants are solely dependent on the wetlands for a living. While the women mostly use their bare hands to collect prawns, men fish using small nets.

As they approach the wetlands, the Dalit women undo their sarees and tie them over their heads, tucking their belongings within. Some others wear shirts over their sarees and use a piece of cloth for their turbans. They wade through the brackish waters and caress the mud with their bare hands looking for prawns. The catch is collected in the baskets, which they hold on to with their teeth.

This goes on for hours; the only break they allow themselves is when they place betel quid into their mouths.

Chandra, half-submerged, catches a break from scooping prawns, to prepare a betel quid for herself (Photo: SR Pearson Lenekar)

“My eldest son has completed his engineering course, but he did not get a suitable job. He now works in a bakery in Chennai, earning Rs 10,000 a month. I thought this exhausting work to fund his education will yield good results soon. But he is yet to get a good job, and hence unable to support us,” says Chandra, whose ailing husband and college-going daughter are also dependent on her income.

“It has been four years since I graduated. But I have had to take up odd jobs in various shops in Chennai for a living. I returned home a few months ago. Now I am looking for jobs abroad,” Ranjith, an engineering graduate, tells 101Reporters.


Dwindling catch, tough survival

Fishing in the wetlands has taken a hit, following the construction of a tail-end regulator at Adappar a few years ago. Built as part of the climate adaptation initiative in the Vennar sub-basin of the Cauvery delta by the State Water Resources Department, courtesy an Asian Development Bank loan, the regulator was meant to prevent saltwater intrusion into the wetlands and control groundwater salinity.

Unfortunately, blocking tidal influx prevents the flow of fish and prawn into the wetlands. “After the shutters were built, we were unable to get a good catch, despite working extra hours and scouring a lot more areas. We now earn just Rs 200 to Rs 250 a day,” admits Chandra. The catch is so low that most men have stopped fishing, too.

Dalit women of Pazhankallimedu and Vellapallam, Tamil Nadu scoop prawns bare hands and sell them in local market for meagre income (Photo: SR Pearson Lenekar)

The Adappar bridge on the Nagapattinam-Vedaranyam road serves as the main market for their catch. The government-constructed fish market near Kallimedu bus stand serves no purpose as the customers do not deviate from the main road to come to the market.

If I do not sell this by evening, I have to take it home and make a curry. But for that, I need masala, salt and vegetables, which means borrowing money,” rues Malar, while yelling out at motorists, in a bid to sell her prawns.

Explaining why she is so desperate, she says, “My daughter has been pestering me for money. She needs it for the bus fare to attend college at Vedaranyam tomorrow.”

Also Read: Aquaculture farms threaten livelihoods of small-scale fisherwomen on TN island

As darkness falls, the women return home, buying some masala, oil, vegetables and fish to cook their only meal of the day. Dependent on free rations given under the Public Distribution System, each of them must set aside an amount off their daily income to repay loans taken from private microfinance institutions through women’s self-help groups. Understandably, all are highly undernourished, and look much older than their age.

“This is definitely not easy. Standing in water all day causes a severe pain in my abdomen. But I need to do this, for myself. My son or daughter-in-law will only feed me for a few days, never more,” says Paapa, for whom it is all about self-respect and independence.

Swarnam (name changed on request) had a narrow escape when a mound of earth slid on top of her at the river bank near the Adappar regulator. “I had to spend two months in a hospital. I have not gone to work since then,” she says. 

Aquaculture farms thrive

The fisherwomen of Vellapallam limit their activities to the Vedaranyam canal and the small stream next to the new bank, built under the climate adaptation project to separate the wetlands from the canal that is directly fed by the sea and is highly saline throughout the year.

Hundreds of aquaculture farms are located on the banks of the canal. They not only use the saline water to breed shrimp, but also discharge waste water from the farms into the canal.

The tail-end regulator at Adappar, prevents the flow of fish and prawn into the wetlands, impacting the livelihood of the fishing (Photo: SR Pearson Lenekar)

“The farm managements do not even let us walk on the banks. They snatch our baskets accusing us of stealing their prawns,” complains Kiliyamma.

The women in Vellapallam usually sell their day’s catch to small local marketing companies that offer them Rs 50 to Rs 100, depending on their catch.

The meagre income barely meets their needs, though. “I suffer from severe abdominal pain. When I feel very sick, I visit the government hospital. They tell me to take tests, and suggest revisits. I cannot afford that. I just take an injection and return to work,” Kiliyamma adds.

Flood risk prevails

Vedhavalli (43) from Pazhankallimedu wants to build a new concrete flooring for her tiled house. “We removed the old flooring in the hope of putting in a new one before the rains, which arrive mostly in a month’s time. I am still struggling to save enough money.”

Though she earns only up to Rs 300 a day, she has multiple loans from microfinance institutions to repay both monthly and weekly. The companies do not tolerate delays in repayment, and diligently send their agents to intimidate debtors if there is a lag. She took loans for house repairs and to pay off the social debt her family owed to kin, which is similar to the moi system prevalent in the State.  


According to Vedhavalli, most houses here have two to three families living together. “The number of members in housholds is up, but not the facilities in our living spaces,” she adds.

The villagers moved from their old settlement of thatched houses to the present location, when the Land for Tillers’ Freedom, an organisation led by Gandhian Krishnammal Jagannathan, helped landless Dalit farmers own land in the delta region and build tiled houses. CASA, another NGO, helped some to built concrete houses during the post-tsunami period.

Vedhavalli(43) from Pazhankallimedu, earns Rs 300 per day, but spends most of it to repay her loans from microfinance institutions (Photo: SR Pearson Lenekar)

Agriculture in not remunerative as flooding is quite common during the northeast monsoon. “When it rains, the entire village will be flooded, and water from the wetlands will enter houses,” Vedhavalli says.

Saline water from the wetlands inundate fields, but women manage to get work in paddy fields of nearby villages during the cropping seasons. However, the number of work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act Scheme fluctuates. In Pazhankallimedu, women get around six days of work a month, while it is just 10 days a year in Vellapallam.

Edited by Rina Mukherji

The cover image is of Kiliyamma from Vellapallam, Tamil Nadu, captured by SR Pearson Lenekar


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