Nov 22, 2014

Oxfam India ‘Conquering’ the Coast of Odisha


“When my daughter had passed the matriculation with a first class, her father tore off the mark-sheet saying that there is no need for her further study”, said Jyoti Malick of Oshongo village of Balasore district, “and I could not agree more that at that time,  Samudram (a federation of Women Fish workers) helped me with an enhanced income against my fish catch and I could not only admit my daughter for the 12th standard but also got her a bicycle for commuting, without her father any longer intervening”. Such stories are in bounty when one interacts with the women members of the Samudram in the coastal districts of Ganjam, Puri, Balasore and Jagatsinghpur, where fishing is the mainstay of the coastal economy. 

In early days fisher folk communities living in the coastal areas of Odisha have been purely dependent on marine fishing. In more recent years, changes in climatic conditions, rise in sea temperature, sea water pollution from an ever increasing number of industries, and fast vanishing mangroves from the coast, have resulted in a drastic fall in the local fish catch. This has had a negative impact on the lives of fishing families across the eastern coast of India. Data available from the Department of Fisheries, for the years 2007-08 and 2008-09 shows a significant decline in fish catch by 15% and 27.8% respectively which has resulted in unstable household income and increased the risk of the communities falling in trap of indebtedness to unscrupulous local money lenders. The debt trap, combined with the strong presence of outside traders at fish landing points and lack of information regarding external market have further hindered fisher folk communities to get a fair price for their catch. 

In order to address the situation, Oxfam India partner United Artists Association (UAA) has been instrumental in fostering a collective of fisher folk women in four districts of coastal Odisha namely Ganjam, Balasore, Jagatsinghpur and Puri covering 9 blocks and 46 villages. Over the past four years the project has organised women from fishing communities and currently the collective has strength of 3889 women organised around 237 Self Help Groups (SHG) groups. Apart from the usual savings credit the collective has evolved as a Federated Cooperative of fishing women with 10-15 SHG groups federated as Nari Shakti Sangathans (NSS) and NSSs federated as District Level Forums (DLFs) at each district levels. Each node of the cooperative structure is being lead by emerging women leaders from the distant villages. 

Along with strengthening Samudram as a federation, partner UAA in order to support the fish trading have also set up Procurement Centres in and around fish landing centres. The 10 procurement centres located in various strategic locations are solely managed by the DLF leaders who can keep records of trade volumes, income and expenditure and profit and loss of the centres with minimum support from the partner. Two of the procurement centres (Astaran and Nuagaon in Puri district) also produce dry fish products by the members of Samudram. Samudram members are immensely benefited from these centres in terms of regular trading of their fish catch on a high season, getting a fair price and timely payment. So much so, that on occasions of some substantial catch seasons the household level income has been doubled for considerable number of member families.  

Samudram is evolving as strong women fish workers’ collective and while income enhancement is the primary objective, but the members have also exhibited leadership abilities and have attempted to challenge within and outside the household spheres. For some members it has been challenging their families mostly around children’s education and for others contributing significantly to the family income. A few members have also been elected in the local governance system. The collective also has raised voices against corruption on mid day meal schemes and illegal land grabbing in Balasore. Today Jyoti, Savitri Tulasi, Pratima, Minapani are all member leaders of Samudram who are not only striving towards a sustainable income to support their families out of fishing but are also emerging as social transformers. “Samudram Maadi”, “Samudram is ours” is the slogan that they have adopted to drive the cooperative ahead. 

Story Credit : Ranjana Das and Akshaya Biswal 

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