Some weeks ago, I decided to take a boat from Mora Village to Mazgoan docks. This is the shortest route to come to South Mumbai, which would otherwise take more than two hours, While I waited for the boat to arrive, I was watching the fisher-women at the docks and was amazed with the hard work that they put in. Mumbai, being a coastal region, fishermen go to the seas for fishing (sometimes for days) while women help in selling the fish. The work is shared equally by them and they are quite cheerful and happy to help each other.
My friend, who was with me, was attracted by the freshness of the fish (some of fishes were still wriggling in her basket) and prawns. She wanted to buy the fresh prawns but the women quoted very high rates (Rs300 for half kg of king size prawns). She refused to bring down her prices claiming that if she went back the next day to south Mumbai, she would get good price. While she sorted her catch, her man went and brought large chunk of ice, broke it into smaller pieces and helped her pack the fish so that it would remain fresh the next day. She told us that she would wake up early morning at 5am and make her journey towards town to sell her fish.
Some of them go to the market to sell the fish while others go from door to door. Women who come from far off suburbs use local train (luggage compartment) for commuting. Some of them have formed their own society and rent a transport (a tempo or a truck) to reach their market.
It was evening time and the man looked quite tired but he continued to help her.
“Your man works quite hard, I must say” I said, impressed by the efficiency of his work.
“He is not my man” she said, “We work as a community, we normally live as mixed groups where there is team work involved. The work is divided equally but it is never reversed. We don’t go for fishing at the seas nor do the men look after the house and babies”.
Although fisherwomen traditionally do not go out to sea, ancillary activities as critical as fishing itself - fish processing, vending, marketing, net-making, and so on - are primarily in women's hands.
“Don’t you think that your prawns are overpriced? Why are you selling it so expensive?” I asked her
She was quite annoyed with my queries and complained that there were no more fishes in the sea.
I did not believe when she said that there were no more fishes in the sea. How could that be?
But on googling I understood what she meant.
The current market-friendly reforms aimed at opening up India's coasts to large-scale commercial exploitation have posed a grave danger to the survival of these communities.
The fall in fish stocks as a result of indiscriminate mechanized trawling is the single-most worrying factor for the fishing community, and its impact on women is direct and brutal. The government has opened the coast to foreign trawlers that harvest all the fish. Private companies have taken over their traditional occupations, like net-making and fish processing. As a result they are sometimes left without fish and without work. Fisherwomen - who earlier sold the catch that the community's men brought in from the sea - are now forced to buy fish from large contractors.
With fish disappearing from the seas, fishermen face a loss of productive activity. In frustration, they turn to alcoholism. They borrow money for gambling. Their bitterness is an additional burden for fisherwomen, who struggle to hold their families together and cope with increased wife-beating and desertion.
So, what does the woman do? She was here now, almost 7pm in the evening, packing her basket for the next day. She would go home, cook dinner for her family, clean her house, put her family to sleep and would wake up 4am in the morning to go to town to sell to fish and bring some cash.
And here I was cribbing about the price of prawns not understanding the problems of a common fisherwoman, who though not educated, knew how to survive, balancing the home life and her working hours and wanting to handle the likes of me with grace.
Here we were, my friend and I, haggling about the price when we would buy the same without any fuss at the market place.