R Rakkamma was 10 years old when her family threw her into the sea off the coast of southern Tamil Nadu to collect seaweed for the first time. The sea was the only school she knew. In the past 40 years, her proficiency at collecting seaweed – a specific variety used in the food industry and as a nutritious liquid fertiliser – enabled her to educate her children after she lost her husband to cancer soon after her third child was born.

“We were never sent to school,” said Rakkamma, who lives in Bharathinagar fishing village in Ramanathapuram district. “All that we were taught since our childhood was to collect seaweed.”

Seaweed harvesting is a traditional occupation in this area, passed on from mother to daughter through the generations. Now aged 50, Rakkamma is a fourth generation practitioner. She is among 2,000 women in 21 fishing villages along the coast of southern Tamil Nadu – from Pamban to Thoothukudi – who are dependent on this work for their livelihood.

To pluck seaweed off the seabed, these women free dive to depths of as much as 30 feet, clad in a combination of saris and T-shirts, and only equipped with rudimentary protective gear.

Their work, however, is now giving them diminishing returns. For one, there has been a drastic fall in the growth of seaweed, which has been attributed to overexploitation, a rise in the surface temperature of the sea and increased trawler movement. Another concern is that the women are operating illegally. The 21-odd islands from where they harvest seaweed are protected under the Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, which comes under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department. Each harvesting trip carries with it the risk that the women will be spotted by officials of this department and fined Rs 10,000.

Seaweed and the food industry

The term “seaweed” refers to several species of marine plants and algae that grow on rocks or hard substrata below the high water mark. The global market for it was valued at $4 billion in 2017, according to reports. The seaweed industry in India, however, is quite small.

Tamil Nadu’s harvesters mainly look for two kinds of indigenous seaweed – Gelidium or Marikoluthu paasi and Gracilaria or Korai paasi. These are red seaweeds used in the manufacture of agar – a gelatinous substance which is used as a thickener in foods such as jellies and ice creams – as well as to make a liquid fertiliser.

Seaweed harvesting is the only source of livelihood for women living in the state’s remote fishing villages, which have little, if any, access to metalled roads and public transportation. This work has allowed many of them – especially single mothers like Rakkamma, those struggling with alcoholic husbands and those with no other source of income – to be financially independent.

The women venture into the sea at least 12 days a month except during the fish breeding season in April, May and June.

A typical work day for Rakkamma starts at 3 am, when she wakes up, sweeps her home, serves tea to her son and packs her food for the day. She leaves home at around 6 am, carrying her protective gear, clothes and a net bag, and joins a group of women – aged between 30 years and 60 years – headed towards the sea, where they catch boats to take them to the nearby islands.

In the winter, the women choose to work off the islands of Appatheevu, Paliyamani, Mullitheevu, Vazhatheevu and Yanaparavai that are just a few hours away. “The water is cold during winter and we prefer going to the islands that are close to our village,” said Rakkamma.

In the summer, they risk venturing farther away, to three islands called Nallatheevu, Challi, Upputhanni that are two days away by boat. “If we hear that seaweed is available in abundance in a particular island, we plan a trip there,” said Rakkamma. When going to more distant islands, sometimes they have to stop over at an island mid-way for the night.

Once at the islands, before starting work, they fasten their saris dhoti-style between their legs, wear a T-shirt, tie their net bags around their waists, and don basic protective gear. These are goggles for their eyes, strips of cloth wound around their fingers, and rubber slippers to prevent their feet from being cut on sharp rocks. Braving strong winds and powerful currents, they stay in the water for nearly six hours till they have filled their bags with seaweed.

Each harvester can collect at least 25 kg of wet seaweed in a day. They earn Rs 15 per kg for dry Korai paasi and Rs 80 per kg for dry Marikoluthu seaweed. On average, each woman earns Rs 3,000 a month.

Rakkamma recalled how she brought up her children with the help of her work after her husband died. “I was able to marry off my two daughters and support my son complete his graduation,” she said.

Right to access

Of all their fears while diving, one of the biggest is of getting caught by a Forest Department official. “When we see any Forest Department officials coming, we dive into the water and wait for them to leave before rushing back home,” said Mariamma, 55, a seaweed harvester from Rakkamma’s village. “We are scared of the forest officials but we still do this work because there is no other alternative.”

In 2014, tired of playing cat and mouse with government officials, the women formed a union called the Women Seaweed Harvesters’ Union. Rakkamma is its secretary. The union has since raised several matters with the state government, including their right to access the islands.

In 2016, the union submitted a memorandum to the Fisheries Department asking it to provide them with identity cards recognising them as people who had permission to harvest seaweed from the islands. Instead, the department distributed identity cards to all the women folk in the fishing community.

The women have continued to demand that their livelihood be recognised by the government.

Depleting stocks

As they fight the government on one side, they face a threat on the other side: there is less and less seaweed to collect, which may endanger their livelihoods.

Others in the industry vouch for this. “I used to collect at least five tonnes of dry seaweed in a month,” said P Mohanraj, who buys seaweed from at least 20 women and sells it to a company in Madurai that manufactures agar. “This year, I have received only one tonne in the last two months.”

There are at least 20 companies in Madurai and neighbouring districts including Rameshwaram that process the seaweed. Their annual requirement is at least 3,000 tonnes of Korai paasi and 500 tonnes of Marikoluthu paasi. These companies pay the middlemen approximately Rs 15,000 per tonne of dry Korai paasi and Rs 80,000 for a tonne of dry Marikoluthu paasi.

A Bose, who owns a seaweed processing company Srivas Chemicals in Madurai, has six suppliers including Mohanraj. “There is a drastic reduction in the supply of seaweed,” Bose said. “We have received only 25% of the supply we used to get in the last six months.” He is planning to write to the Fisheries Department asking it to find out the reasons for the depleting stocks of seaweed along the coast.

Women of Bharathinagar fishing village in Ramanathapuram district in Tamil Nadu walk back home after harvesting seaweed.

Climate change?

An increase in the surface temperature of the sea because of climate change and overexploitation of seaweed are the likely reasons for the diminishing harvest, said Ramya Rajagopalan, who has worked to empower women seaweed collectors for nearly a decade as part of the International Collective in Support of Fishworkers Documentation Centre in Chennai. “Once the women realised that overexploitation was affecting growth, they reduced the number of days of harvest to 12 days a month,” said Rajagopalan. “However, there is no study on how climatic change is affecting the formation of seaweed as well.”

K Eswaran, a senior principal scientist at the Central Salt and Marine Chemicals Research Institute, said the overexploitation of seaweed has been reported in the area since the 1970s. “Only two types of seaweed – Gelidium and Gracilaira – have been harvested continuously without any interval in this region,” he said. “This has led to a drastic fall in the availability of seaweed. There were 37 agar industries in Madurai and now there are only seven. They are not processing even 40% of their capacity.”

The institute Eswaran works with now plans to encourage the seaweed collectors to turn into cultivators instead. It is in talks with the National Fisheries Development Board in Hyderabad to promote the cultivation of native seaweed. “We will get 50% subsidy to set up the infrastructure to cultivate seaweed,” Eswaran said. “Within a month, we will start cultivation of indigenous species of seaweed in Ramanathapuram coast.”

All photographs by S Senthalir.

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