Tiger prawns collected by women of the Sundarbans are a global delicacy, but collectors remain a neglected lot

Editor's Note: The latest National Crime Records Bureau statistics show an 83% increase in crimes against women, with as many as 39 cases reported every hour across the country. There are several thousand more instances that go unreported. And yet, such felonious acts represent only a limited view of the manner in which women in this country must face brutality. In this series of reported pieces, Firstpost examines those societal forces that, while beyond the ambit of law, have the same deleterious effect on women as criminal acts.

Read the series here.

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Sundarbans: The next time you order tiger prawns at a fancy restaurant, spare a thought for Asharani Mondal and her 12-year-old daughter. They are two among the nearly two lakh faceless women who collect prawns in the Sundarbans, enabling diners the world over enjoy this high-priced delicacy.

Wading out at the crack of dawn in waist-deep saline water, a fishing net slung over her shoulder and her daughter swimming behind her, dragging the net to catch tiger prawn seedlings they call "meen", the 30-year-old is the sole breadwinner of her family, comprising an ailing husband and two children. Asharani has been a prawn collector for five years now.

Ashrani, 30, spends nearly six hours in the saline waters of the Sundarbans to collect prawn seedlings. Image Courtesy: 101Reporters/Atonu Choudhurri

Asharani, 30, spends nearly six hours in the saline waters of the Sundarbans to collect prawn seedlings. Image Courtesy: 101Reporters/Atonu Choudhurri

Every time they head out for their work, Asharani and her daughter risk encounters with crocodiles and tigers lurking on the waters' edge in the swamps of the Sundarbans — a cluster of tiny islands in the southern fringes of West Bengal's 24 Parganas district with a population of 45 lakh. They also risk illnesses such as skin cancer, vaginal infections and bone- and knee-related health issues from wading in highly saline water for around six hours every day.

Asharani's neighbours Pratibha Das, 23, Bhadrosree Mondal, 60, and Champa Mondal, 17 — to name a few others — are all in the business of collecting prawn seedlings. Some of them have been in this line of work for 40 years now, earning Rs 300 to 400 a day. They use age-old knowledge of climatic conditions, the nature of the tide and the swirling water flow, which indicates which parts of the river would provide a decent catch.

"We just pray for low tide as during this time, we get more prawn seedlings," Asharani said. "We eagerly wait for purnima (full moon) and amavas (new moon) days that mark the waxing and waning cycle of the moon. Collecting seedlings during these times brings us maximum catch."

These women also make their own lightweight nets, or jaals. "It costs us around Rs 1,500 to Rs 2,000," said Pratibha. "We use lightweight jaal as collecting meen is a laborious and painstaking exercise. We even go out after dinner at times."

Plethora of health issues, no hospital nearby

Sitting on the dinghy or canoe, Asharani talks about the health problems caused by spending long hours in saline waters and mud. "I feel a constant burning sensation in my body," she said. "I also face certain gynaecological problems."

Nearly all women in every household of the 45 blocks in the remote Sundarbans is involved in collecting tiger prawn seedlings. There is only one sub-divisional hospital 25 kilometers away from Basanti village, where Asharani and the others live, that they can visit for treatment.

"I get sea fatigue and nausea, my limbs become motionless and numb at times. I also have to do the cooking, take care of my ailing husband and send two children to primary school. All of it takes a toll on my health," Asharani lamented. "Hundreds of people queue up for treatment at a small hospital that does not have proper equipment for checkups. The medical staff usually gives me painkillers. There is no permanent relief as healthcare officials are not experienced enough to treat our diseases. Women and children are always at the receiving end."

Sharp drop in seedling prices

"Meen dhora", as they call the practice, was once profitable. The price of a thousand seedlings, which was Rs 600 till two years ago, has dropped to Rs 200. But due to the lack of alternative means of earning and in the absence of an effective government programme to support them, these women are left with no choice.

"In my more than 40 years of association with this work, I have seen the plight of family members of women who were killed by crocodiles while netting fish," said Bhadrosee Mondal. "Neither the government nor anyone else thinks of us. People only express pity."

Bikarna Naskar, who runs NGO Surojyoti Sangha — the only NGO in the area that work on the education of the fisherfolk's children — explained that landless communities that had "struggled to eke out livings elsewhere" had made the Sundarbans their home.

"Fishing became the only choice for them, but fishing in the creeks running through the mangroves exposes their lives to risks, with the female fishing community the most vulnerable," he said. "(West Bengal Chief Minister) Mamata Banerjee speaks of Kanyasree and Rupasree for the uplift of girls, but these are all a bluff. My NGO took up women's issues with the government but to no avail. The primary health centres at the village are run by quacks who have little knowledge about treating their diseases. The state government's efforts are limited to only announcing grand schemes."

The Assessment of Ergonomic and Occupational Health-related Problems was a study carried out among the female prawn seed collectors of the Sundarbans on 60 randomly selected women in the profession and 60 female control subjects from the Sajenakhali and Sandeshkhali blocks. The study was carried out to evaluate and compare musculoskeletal disorders and physiological stress. It was found that most participants suffered from discomfort in the lower back (98 percent), knees (88 percent), shoulders (75 percent), ankles (70 percent) and feet (67 percent).

Also, a 2013 study conducted in the Patharpratima block by the National Institute of Cholera and Enteric Diseases and international NGO Save the Children found that as much as 64 percent of the women in the Sundarbans were anaemic.

Middlemen make a killing

The biggest irony here is that bagda, or tiger prawns, are a big-ticket export item, earning West Bengal Rs 1,500 crore in foreign exchange. Sundarbans has the highest concentration of prawn hatcheries, and the middlemen who buy seedlings from these women make a killing.

The seedlings these women collect are cultivated for four months, during which they grow before being sold in the wholesale markets of Canning, Barasat and Dhamakhali. The prawn collectors separate the tiger prawn seedlings from other tiny fish and collect them in small vessels. The remaining seedlings are dumped. Tiger prawns from the sea lay their eggs at embankments and at the roots of mangrove trees. When the eggs hatch, the tiny micro-seedlings are caught in fine nets and taken to hatcheries, and these tiger prawns fetch up to Rs 1,000 per kilogram in the market.

Debabrata Mondal, a social worker and associate of Naskar, said the government has not carried out any in-depth investigation into the health hazards these women face. Environmentalists, too, have been raising this concern. "Nowhere in the world will you find such a community of the poor and suffering female fishing folk," said Santanu Chakravarty, an environmentalist and an expert on the ecology of the Sundarbans.

The organisation head of local fishermen, Malay Das, said his association has raised the issue with the government in vain. Even though the government created a department to deal with the affairs of the Sundarbans, with a minister in charge of taking care of the developmental needs of the delta, little has changed for these fisherwomen. The tigers of the Sundarbans get more attention lavished on them.

The author is a Kolkata-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com


Updated Date: Aug 10, 2018 11:02 AM

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