At driving distance from Chennai, near Madurantakam on National Highway 45 to Tiruchi, amidst Kumbakonam degree coffee outlets, sits a brightly-lit fish stall.
Women from three self-help groups (SHGs) sell fried fish there. “We also make cutlets from fish varieties like kaanan kelthi and vanjiram and bajjis with nethili and yera,” says A. Alamelu, one of the members taking care of the stall.
From the outside, the stall (open on all days from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.), set up by the fisheries department with funding from World Bank, may look like any other fried fish shop, but for the women behind it — Shakthi, C. Gangaiamman and C. Anjuramman — it is the result of seven years of hard work.
They have argued with men for fishing rights in Pakkam lake, carried gunny sacks of fish and kept watch under the stars to catch thieves who tried to make away with their catch. The SHGs have 57 women members and three men who serve as watchmen. They started off some 12 years ago as ordinary SHGs that provided small personal loans and saved money.
“One day, fisheries inspector Chandran, assistant director Reena Selvi and other officials suggested we take fishing rights of the lake on lease. Our spouses said it was not our job. However, with the intervention of the then district collector Venkatesan, we were able to get the rights,” says N. Nalini, another member.
Despite training in fish rearing, in the first year, the women were completely lost. But since, they have been successful enough to be invited to college cultural shows to put up fried fish stalls. Running the stall, however, hasn’t been an easy task.
“Six months ago, a motor, weighing scales and a small net were stolen. We are yet to learn the nuances of the trade, but will soon catch up,” says Ms. Alamelu.
The women employ the men only to carry heavy things or go to faraway places to buy materials.
“Usually, we prefer to do all the work by ourselves. We don’t trust the men as they could get drunk and end up helping the thieves,” says N. Pankajam, another member.
The women now wish to expand their venture to a restaurant.
“Fisheries inspector Thirunagendran who helped set up the stall is also helping us prepare the project report for submission to the bank,” says D. Tamilchelvi, another member.