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Updated: August 13, 2013 10:38 IST

Adrift in a sea of poverty

Pamela Philipose
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Trudging for the trade: Fisherwomen on their way to the market. Photo: Pamela Philipose/WFS
Trudging for the trade: Fisherwomen on their way to the market. Photo: Pamela Philipose/WFS

Women fish vendors in coastal Andhra Pradesh struggle to make ends meet

Fish vendors Olisetty Poleramma and Pilla Muthyamma, live in Peda Jalaripetta, a large fishing settlement that lies on one flank of Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh’s second largest city.

Although only in their fifties, their weather-beaten faces make them look at least 10 years older. For much of their life, their days have followed a fixed pattern: waking up early, trudging to the local fish market – located about six kilometers from their homes – and then vending about 15 kilos of fish, which they carry on their heads in plastic containers fashioned out of the bottoms of old water tanks. By the time they sell their stocks, the sun is already veering to the west. Only after they get back home in the evening do they bathe and have their first full meal of the day.

The fish is sold in lots in a kind of auction. These transactions are always a gamble. When the catch is thin, prices tend to be high and the women are often not able to recover the money they put into buying the fish. “Some days are good, others, bad. Yesterday, for instance, I incurred a loss of Rs 20. Today, I have made Rs 100. One has to take these uncertainties in one’s stride,” Pilla says. Usually, if they invest a thousand rupees or so in their daily stock, they stand to make a profit of Rs 100-200 a day – roughly the minimum wage.

Although their village is on the coast and active fishing goes on very close to where they live, the women never buy their fish from the catch that the fishermen bring in. Reasons being, for one, the fresh catch usually arrives only by the evening, by which time these vendors are usually done with their selling and there is no way they can store large amounts of fish to sell for the next day. Second, the fishermen are already part of large trade cartels, which is why small players like Olisetty and Pilla are forced to get their produce from early morning auctions conducted in the local fish market. Thus both the fishermen and the women fish vendors are dependent on the middlemen, who, in turn, are powerful lobbies.

Once they procure the fish, the long process of selling begins. Both Olisetty and Pilla mentally set a 3 pm deadline for themselves by which time they hope to have sold their fish. But this, of course, is not always possible. “We continue until everything is gone, and that could be 4 o’clock, or even later,” elaborates Pilla.

Their interaction with customers is like an elaborate shadow play marked by teasing and banter on both sides. Olisetty provides a graphic account, “Some of my customers start by denigrating the quality of the fish. They say things like, ‘What rotten fish you have brought today, you should sell it cheap.’ We reply in kind. Or we will pretend to be insulted, put back the fish load on our heads and turn our backs to them. Then they will mutter appeasing words and offer us a little more.” In this way, a mutually agreed price is arrived at and both parties part assessing their gains and losses!

Pilla and Olisetty drink a glass of tea in the morning, and that sustains them through all those arduous hours. “Most of us don’t feel like eating anything in-between because our hands and clothes smell of fish,” says Olisetty.

Fighting for better work conditions is another ordeal. Both Olisetty and Pilla are part of the Peda Jalaripetta Women’s Cooperative Society, which comes under the North Coastal Andhra Fisher Folk Network (NCAFN), initiated in Visakhapatnam district by ActionAid, an anti-poverty agency. “Our sangha (group) has about 24 members and we meet occasionally and share our sorrows and difficulties. One of our demands is for toilets in the markets. We would also like a cold storage for our unsold fish, but so far the authorities haven’t bothered to give us our demands,” states Olisetty.

Even as they fight to be heard both women can feel the ground slipping away from under them. Fishing and fish vending hardly provide enough income anymore. Most of their children have opted for other sources of livelihood. For instance, Olisetty’s son is an autorickshaw driver, and only one of Pilla’s two able-bodied sons has become a fisherman – the other is a carpenter.

Olisetty recalls how when she was growing up, their lives revolved around fishing and the catch was so much better. “Today, everybody wants a piece of our shore. Big folk are making away with the fish, using large boats and sophisticated gear. Traders are getting wealthy, while we struggle to eat two good meals. I don’t think my granddaughters will want to do what I am doing. Fish vending in our family is sure to die with me.”

(Women's Feature Service)

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