A woman drying her fish to make sukhua (dry fish) at a fish-drying facility of Samudram at Sana Nolia Nuagaon village in Ganjam district. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra.

New challenges

However, the community keeps facing new challenges.

“This is what we got today,” A. Areya said after returning from the sea, pointing towards a single medium sized fish on his palm, and then added: “The catch is declining by the day.”

Read more: Declining fish catch on the west coast

Data from the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute (CMFRI) corroborate Areya’s observation. According to CMFRI, India registered a 9% decline in marine fish catch between 2017 and 2018.

Areya and four other crew members go to the sea for 10 days in a month. On an average, they get Rs. 500 worth of fish per head on a day. According to him, varieties abundantly available 10 years back are nowhere to be seen these days. He attributed the fall in catch to climate-induced disasters in the Bay of Bengal. The coast of Ganjam, highly vulnerable to cyclones and turbulent wind, faced two successive disasters like Cyclone Phailin in 2013 and Cyclone Hudhud in 2014.

In addition, the infrastructural development along the coast like Gopalpur Port near the villages has shrunk the fishing area of traditional boats that may not go far into the sea for fishing. Fishermen say that dredging along the coast for ship movement has damaged the habitat of the fish within 10 nautical mile area from the coast.

The women SHGs of Samudram are exploring alternatives to meet the challenges. It has been easier in Puri and Jagatsinghpur districts where fishermen also own some land. “Around 50 SHGs in our district have been doing inland fishery, goat rearing and dairying by linking up with the state government’s Mission Shakti scheme,” said Jharana Behera of Dakshinapantala village in Puri.

In Ganjam, which does not have trawlers, the women take the lead in driving away outside trawlers from Andhra Pradesh by repeated protests in front of authorities. Fisheries officials say that the coast here is not suitable for trawling as there is no fisheries harbour yet – though there is a proposal to build one near the Gopalpur port. The traditional fishermen allege that the trawlers are their biggest enemies as they sweep away all kinds of big and small fish, and even eggs, from the bottom of the sea.

A traditional fisherman, after returning from the sea, shows the only fish the group could get as their day's catch. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra.
A traditional fisherman, after returning from the sea, shows the only fish the group could get as their day’s catch. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra.

Odisha has over 1,500 trawlers, almost a half of them at the fishing harbour in Paradip Port in Jagatsinghpur district. The remainders are in Balasore and Bhadrak. Fisheries department officials said that the state government does not provide any kind of subsidy to the trawlers. Trawler operators say the lack of subsidies makes it far more difficult for them to work.

In neighbouring Andhra Pradesh, the trawler owners get relaxation on diesel in the form of Rs. 9 per litre. Mostly, the trawlers from Andhra Pradesh invade the Ganjam coast for fishing.

Though Samudram has been a change-maker where it operates, it has mostly got support from non-governmental organisations. Though it works perfectly as a cooperative society, it has not been registered as one and is deprived of many government facilities including relaxations under GST.

The women said that the state fisheries department officials often showcased Samudram’s exemplary work as a model to outside visitors but never seriously helped them. On the other side, the registered cooperative societies that get government assistance are remote-controlled by politicians and officials and mostly defunct.

“We have been reviewing the activities of the societies and taking appropriate action,” said the deputy director of fisheries Siba Prasad Bhoi.

Government officials also admitted that there was too much officials’ interference in cooperative societies and Samudram would have failed to achieve what it did had it registered itself as one. They said that though women are almost 50% of the workforce in marine sector, there is no subsidy designed specifically for them.

Apart from the national fishing ban period from April 15 to June 14, there is a seven-month ban from November 1 to May 31 for Olive Ridley turtle conservation in Rushikulya river mouth at Ganjam coast, Astaranga beach in Puri and Gahirmatha in Kendrapara coast. The state government started giving a yearly livelihood support of Rs. 7,500 to 1,500 fishermen living in the area.

Samudram SHG members have been voluntarily protecting the turtle habitats in these areas for a long time. However, there are no incentives for such efforts. “If the government sincerely wants to bring about a drastic change in the lives of poor people, it has to spot the potential in groups like Samudram and support them proactively with judicious use and planning of subsidies,” said Kanda Alaya, secretary of Odisha Traditional Fishermen Union.

This story has been produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.

Banner image: Chitamma, the woman behind the idea of Samudram, at her residence in Sana Aryjapalli village in Ganjam. Photo by Arabinda Mahapatra.

Article published by Aditi Tandon
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