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The eastern coastal state of Odisha, with a 480-kilometre long coastline, has been imposing two fishing bans annually for over two decades in order to conserve the fish population and protect the vulnerable olive ridley sea turtles (Lepidochelys olivacea).

A one-time compensation is provided to the affected families for the loss of livelihood caused to the fishermen at sea, during the second ban. However, the women who are involved in allied jobs and also play a vital role in the supply chain, mostly as retail traders at their local markets, are left to fend for themselves.

Dual ban

Annually, two different types of fishing bans are imposed along the coast of Odisha, in accordance with Sections 2, 7 and 4 of Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act, 1982, and provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972. The ban applies to all kinds of trawlers and mechanised motor boats longer than 8.5 metres.

The first ban is a seasonal nationwide fishing ban that runs from April 15 to June 14, to help with breeding of fish. The second one is a seven-month long turtle conservation ban from November 1 to May 31, in specific areas. Odisha is home to three turtle nesting sites, the Gahirmatha beach and the mouths of rivers Rushikulya and Devi, that altogether cover a coastline of 170 kilometres.

In 2010, the state introduced a seasonal ban on fishing within 20 kilometres from the seashore at these sites. While Gahirmatha has been declared as a marine sanctuary, at the other two sites, only artisanal fishing with sails and oars is permitted in limited numbers. Small mechanised and non-motorised fishing boats less than 8.5 metres long are also allowed.

A view of the Rishikulya river from the Ganjam fort. Odisha is home to three turtle nesting sites, the Gahirmatha beach and the mouths of rivers Rushikulya and Devi, that altogether cover a coastline of 170 kilometres.Credit: Sidsahu, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

For the seven-month ban, the state government extends a one-time livelihood assistance of Rs 7,500 to the affected fisher families. During the two-month nationwide ban, a compensation of Rs 4,500 is provided.

However, this compensation can only be availed by the families of fishers after they deposit Rs 1,500 each. The remaining amount of Rs 3,000 is divided amongst the Centre and the state. Additionally, the compensation is only provided to a single member of the family.

Reduced fishing days

According to the Marine Fisheries Census 2016, Odisha has 739 marine fishing villages with a population of 5.18 lakh fishers. An annual report by the Odisha Fisheries and Animal Resources Development Department states that 10,228 fishers were compensated for the two-month ban in 2021-’22, and 14,178 fishers were compensated for the seven-month ban in the same period.

“The prohibitions imposed under the ban particularly affects the traditional and small-scale fishing operations as the area available for fishing reduces. The number of fishing days are also curtailed, impacting the overall well-being of the fishermen families,” the State President of Odisha Traditional Fish Workers’ Union, Prasanna Behera said.

Prior to the ban, fish catch varied from 200-1,000 kilograms/day with an income ranging from Rs 5,000 to Rs 10,000, according to a 2014 study conducted by researchers at the Central Institute Of Freshwater Aquaculture, Odisha. The catch reduced to 25-100 kg within 10 years of the ban, with incomes varying from Rs 500 to Rs 1,000 per day, the study stated.

The reduction in fish catch and the accompanying loss of income has amounted to declining socio-economic conditions of the fishing communities, in the absence of any other livelihood alternatives, according to Behera. Within the communities, the most vulnerable have been women.

Women take up allied work

The women of the Gokharakuda village in Ganjam district leave home at six in the morning to be at the landing site, where fishermen arrive with their daily catch. The women wait for hours, at times till noon.

The fish is auctioned at these sites but the daily rates vary depending on the quantity of fish caught and the number of buyers at the site. The best quality fishes are mostly bought by traders, leaving the rest for the women buyers.

After buying fish from the landing site, the women segregate them. The good quality fish are sold in the market while the next grade of fish are washed in salt and dried to be sold as sukhua, or dry fish, or used to make pickles.

To sell the daily catch, they cover an area in the radius of 15 kilometres, either on foot or in shared autos. The women return home in the evening with an earning of Rs 250-Rs 350 a day. On a good sale day, a minimum income of Rs 250 is ensured. On lean days, they are forced to sell the fish at low prices, in the absence of cold storage, earning a meagre Rs 50-100 a day.

Women from the fishing community wash the fish in salt and then dry them under the sun. It is then sold as ‘sukhua’ or dried fish. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/Mongabay

This is what a routine day for them looks like. But during the ban period, they are confined to their homes without any source of income.

None of the 300 households in the village have any land holdings and depend entirely on fishing for income. However, the fishers and the village residents are banned from entering and fishing in the sea for seven months in a year since their village is situated on the mouth of the Rushikulya river.

Few economic opportunities

During the fishing ban, most men from the coastal villages migrate for work to other states like Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and Andhra Pradesh, while women, mostly elderly, stay back to look after school-going children.

“We are not aware of what the men earn. From the money that we earn, we are able to help our families financially. At times of medical emergencies, we are able to provide the money. But we cannot migrate to other places for work and there are no other livelihood opportunities at home,” said M Adima, 57, a resident of Ganjam district.

Women from the fishing community of Gokurkuda village at their fish drying and processing unit. Around 100 women residing in the village are dependent on selling dried fish as a source of income. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/Mongabay.

Good fishing days ensure a minimum income of Rs 2,500 a month, independently earned by her, which adds up to Rs 17,500 over seven months. Adima’s son and daughter-in-law too migrate to neighbouring Andhra Pradesh to look for contractual construction work, while she stays back to look after her three grandchildren.

The women also feel that a lack of income impacts their decision-making position within the family where their monthly monetary contributions are revered as important.

“Even if the compensation is given to families, it hardly makes up for the income generated through fishing, let alone our income. When we have the money, we can buy our food, arrange for our own medicines. When the income stops, our dependency increases on the sole earning member of the family. This at times also makes us feel helpless for being unable to support our families,” said a worried D Ilema, 63, also from Ganjam. As a part of the government widow pension scheme, she receives Rs 500 a month, her only income during the ban.

Around 190 kilometres from Ganjam, in the Puri district, an entire enterprise to sell dried fish was shut down after women failed to maintain consistency in their business. In the Jahania village of Astaranga block, an all-women cooperative was set up in early 2000s to dry and sell fish. The cooperative however, failed to sustain itself.

The residents of the village claim that repeated cyclones had already hampered the quantity and quality of fish, affecting their income. The seven-month ban further lessened it. “When the fishing season peaks during winters, the ban comes into effect. The quantity had gone down so much that the catch was only sold to traders. So, we had no other option but to dissolve the cooperative,” Kusum Behera, 38, who was part of the failed cooperative explained.

The women now resort to paddy and vegetable farming on small patches of land, producing enough to feed their families, while the men venture out to sea or migrate in order to find other work. They have also taken up voluntary work of conserving the mangroves close to their village.

Alternate employment

Closer to Jahania, in the Nagar village of Puri, women have started looking for alternate work opportunities. About 700 women in the village who depended on various allied works related to fishing have now started acquiring new skills to make ends meet.

Many women have bought sewing machines through Self Help Groups, learnt basic stitching and are now making petticoats and blouses. One of the Self Help Groups in the village bought a mixer grinder, which they now use to powder spices.

M Adima with her grandchildren. She looks after them when her son and daughter-in-law migrate for work during the ban period. Credit: Aishwarya Mohanty/Mongabay.

“Time and again we have demanded that our work be assessed and compensated for as well, but it was never taken into account. Women play a key role in bringing incomes to their families in the fishing communities but at times of compensation, our work is not considered as a component. But we have to sustain ourselves and also ensure our own financial independence,” Tulasi Behera, 54, a resident of Nagar remarked.

“We have been persistent in our demands to include women as beneficiaries, specifically those who are involved in the fishing business in some way or the other and are impacted by the ban,” said K Alleya, the Secretary of the Odisha Traditional Fish Worker’s Union.

The state fisheries department meanwhile is mulling over increasing the compensation amount to Rs 15,000. “A proposal has been tabled in this regard. We are looking into increasing the compensation amount,” Deputy Director of Directorate of Fisheries Basant Das said.

Regarding inclusion of women, Das added, “The compensation is given to a single member of the family but it includes auxiliary activities which are considered a separate component. There is no separate compensation apart from the total compensation provided.”

This article was first published on Mongabay.