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Women in Transient Fishing Villages of West Bengal -2-

by Nalini NAYAK -

Transient villages are specific to West Bengal, India and crop up from November to March. This natural and sociological phenomenon is the result of water flowing down the Ganges submerging certain land areas in some seasons leaving it dry during other seasons. This also brings in a variety of fish that require large fixed bag nets for the catch and the gill nets are drawn in. A transient village is made up of several 'kunthis' or fishing units. The latter has an owner and may be made of 1-10 fishing boats, consisting of a temporary dormitory for the crew, a kitchen and a godown to store dry fish. Fishing crew are all male. The transient villages are made up of many families from the inland who move there with bag and baggage to dry the fish for wages or for payment in kind. The process has been on for a century and is very organized.
The Jaldha camp is one such village having a population of 10,00-12,000. It is located about 15km east of Contai with no direct access by road. One has to get off a bus, walk along a mud road and through the salt pans for about 2km, take a ferry across the canal and then enter the 'Kunthi', which spreads over an area of about 3sq km right upto the sea. The area has long rows of reed huts, like matchboxes, surrounded by bamboo stakes, which mark the boundary fo one homestead and delineate the area for drying fish. Each 'kunthi' varies in size and indicates the number of fishing crew each 'kunthi' owner is able to employ. Many women have been coming to Jaldha during this period to sort, clean, salt and dry fish for which they are paid in kind (2per cent of the total quantity dried). Women store or sell this fish as per their requirements.
Sita Rani and Mulika Patra come from a little potters' village about 15kms away. They have been coming for the past 15 years since life in the village became tough. Sita Rani has a 10per centplot of land on which she grows some vegetables. Over 100 families from her village come to Jaldha every year with bag and baggage to work for a fishing unit. Each family gets a quantity of fresh fish to sort, clean, salt and dry. They are paid in kind, generally 2per cent of the total quantity dried which they store and sell to meet their needs. The fishing season commences in November and the fisher folk prepare for their travel in late October. Once it starts there is no time to rest and as the fish quantities increase the surroundings get dirtier.
The 'kunthi' at Dadompathtrabai is more easily accessible but it is an open sea area. Lesser number of fishermen, around 5,000, migrate here. Since it is closer to the inland villages, women commute daily to dry fish. For Ashalata Rout, 37 years old, this is one of the daily wage jobs that she undertakes. It is apparently the most paying as well. In a good season she earns about Rs.30 per day. Her 15yr daughter and husband also commute with her daily.
The net used in this season is the fixed bag-net and each owner may fix from 4-20 nets. For every 4 nets, there is one boat and crew which stays permanently at sea, making 2 hauls a day. Then there are carrier boats that bring back the catch and take food to the crew. it is sorted and then dried. It is also interesting to know that large quantities of Bombay duck are caught by these marine fishermen between November to February every year. Around 100,000 fisher people make a living by catching and drying Bombay Duck, ribbon and cat fish.
Fisher women complain of poor sanitation and unhygienic surroundings, and the increasing daily workload. Most borrow money to meet their initial demands in Jaldha on which they continue to pay interest. Sometimes they manage to make profits after paying off debts. But basic necessities such as education for the children, health and hygiene take a backseat in the absence of other means of income generation. Moreover, with an increasing number of fish workers and decreasing catches, combined with government neglect of this sector, the transient fish workers have no alternative but to continue with the present status.

It is the task of the government to creatively integrate the various employment outlets in the artisanal sector into the mainstream economy. In the absence of alternative employment opportunities and a vast labor force, and a long coastline it becomes imperative to give cognizance to the fisheries sector and the problems confronting fishing community. This alone can ensure sustainable fishing practices.

URL : www.alliance21.org/2003/article2688.html
PUBLICATION DATE: 18 September 2002