In a coastal village in Odisha, women are working together to break away from the shackles of traders, empower the fishing community and achieve financial independence.Their non-governmental organisation, Samudram, is now federated at the state level and comprises 4000 members of 250 women self help groups.Over 600,000 people from the traditional fishing community in 813 villages in Odisha are engaged in the marine sector. Almost a half of them are women. 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 of eastern Indian state of Odisha. The quiet beach instantly sprang to life as the boat, 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 catch 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), who collectively pooled their money for economic activities. Within no time, the women bought the whole catch. “Twelve of us women collectively bought fish worth Rs. 5,000 and will sell them at the local market,” said A. Aramma, leader of one of the SHGs. The scene was starkly different two decades ago, when outside traders monopolised the fish trade. The traders 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. A woman drying fish at the sea beach to make sukhua (dry fish) at the Bada Nolia Nuagaon. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra. The making of the 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. Most of the people in the community are economically backward. Especially, the Telugu speaking landless and illiterate fishermen living in villages at Ganjam coast are more vulnerable to exploitation. In the 1990s, there was not much government support, subsidy or institutional loan for traditional fishermen. Most depended on the moneylenders for a loan they could use to buy boats and nets. Often the moneylenders were the traders, who dictated the price of the catch. The fishermen got their payments months after selling their catch. 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 in general. Members of a woman self-help group selling fish at a local market in Ganja town of Ganjam district. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra. Chitamma’s story Sitting on a plastic chair in her modest dwelling in Sana Aryjapalli, which neighbours Sana NoliaNuagaon, 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 few of the boys went to a school 10 km 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 on 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. The rights based social work by Chitamma drew the women towards her and she inspired them to form SHGs adopting saving-credit system. The women contributed between Rs. 25 and Rs. 100 towards the revolving funds of their respective SHGs and started exploring options for investment in 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 moneylender. The women started gathering information on fish trade – where traders sent their consignments and how they got payment – by enlisting support of voluntary organisation United Artists’ Association based in Ganja town 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 sold fish to another group of fishermen in another village as 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 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. Sustainable fishing The women collectively bought fish through auction and set aside the better fish to be sent outside Odisha to Howrah, Chennai and Bangalore through trains. They supplied the fish to genuine outside fish merchants identified by the National Fishworkers’ Forum, a body of traditional fishermen. 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, UNDP’s Equator Prize, in recognition for 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 subsidy of around 50% subsidy 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 Rs. 3,000 and Rs. 7,500 for meritorious high school students from fishing communities. The 2019-20 budget for the different central and state schemes in total fisheries sector in Odisha is over Rs. 160 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. A woman cleaning the icebreaking machine after the day’s work. Big ice slabs are turned into small cubes by the machines to fill the fish containers. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra. 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 Rs. 2 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 subsidy. However, in many cases the traders are the real investors keeping the fishermen, who cannot afford to buy on their own, as their fronts. Read more: Marine subsidies in Karnataka 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 footprints grew over 12 coastal villages of 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. Samudram is now federated at the state level and comprises 4000 members of 250 SHGs. A venture that started with an investment of few thousands of rupees reached its peak by 2016 with an annual transaction of Rs. 60 lakh (Rs. 6 million). It did business with a profit margin of around 3%, which was shared among all affiliated SHGs. Samudram hit a hurdle in 2017 after the implementation of the Goods and Services Tax (GST). The group has stopped fish supply outside Odisha momentarily as the women claim that they have not enough revolving capital to function under GST. Chitamma said they would resume operation under GST regime after generating required capital. However, the SHGs continue to run their business independently using the infrastructure of Samudram. Their collective annual fish transaction has stabilised at around Rs. 30 lakh (Rs. 3 million). According to the septuagenarian, profit and loss or business growth is 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.