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Chitamma: Nari shakti

By Aditya Malaviya

Chitamma is the driving force behind Samudram, a federation of fisherpeople in 21 coastal blocks of Orissa that trains women to be economically independent and demands entitlements to education, public health, PDS and water

The lush green fields of rice and sugarcane give way to the bustling port of Gopalpur-On-Sea as we make our way to the offices of Samudram in the small fishing village of Koturu in Chatrapur block, Ganjam district, Orissa.

Clad in a simple cream-coloured sari, blue blouse and matching blue bangles, 65-year-old B Chitamma greets us with a warm smile as we step into her spartan office.

There's a prosperous feel to the village -- a new high school building, the (gaudy pink) cyclone shelter, concrete bylanes, and the general hustle and bustle of a small, close-knit fishing community going about its business. "It was not like this 10 years ago... we have seen our livelihoods and food security disappear faster than the fish in Chilika," Chitamma quips. "There was a time when we told the government: either you kill us, or you give us our fishing grounds back (from the non-fishermen). But it didn't make a bit of a difference to the government!"

Born in Visakhapatnam, Post Gandhigram (in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh), Chitamma is fifth in a line of three brothers and three sisters. Her parents worked with the Scindia Shipping Company in Visakhapatnam city, her father a mason and her mother doing odd jobs with the company. With everyone away at work and her sisters married off, Chitamma had to drop out of school while still in Class 5 to take care of the home.

Marriage to P Potadu, a fisherman, at 20, meant relocating to her husband's village of Koturu, in Orissa, from her native village of Sanolianuagan in Andhra Pradesh.

Chitamma clearly remembers what her mother once said to her before she got married: "You are marrying into a poor(er) family. One day you will make a name for yourself because of the hard work you will have to do." The words proved prophetic...

Chitamma recalls that not only was Koturu a very small village, she was shocked by what she saw: an open well for drinking water, no school, and no hospital. "If there was anything aplenty here, it was the staggering number of alcoholics. Even women were drinking!" she says.

"People were constantly borrowing money from sahukars for medical expenses, marriages, festivals, even to buy food. Borrowing for food never struck them as unusual. Money borrowed to meet health or marriage expenses was, to them, real borrowing. It all added up in the end, but people never really saw the connection," she says.

Chitamma admits she wanted to do something, but had no clue where to begin. This was when she first hit upon the idea of saving money. She began meeting women house-to-house and, in time, managed to cobble together 15 groups comprising around 20 women each, in a two-year period. "Each group began saving Rs 30 every month," she says.

Thus was born the Kali Amma Nari Shakti Sangh.

The sangh was registered in 1991-92, and was very vocal in demanding public distribution system (PDS) shops and schools; schools because "sheer poverty drove many young children -- as young as 10-12 years of age -- to a life of hard labour. Many would begin working as agricultural labour on daily wages of Rs 2 a day, which would, in all probability, be snatched by their alcoholic fathers. They would just go to sleep hungry," says Chitamma.

As Chitamma began speaking her mind on issues, the fishermen began to identify with what she was saying. Soon, her voice was their voice.

Then came her first victory. "One day, a fight broke out between some families over a petty matter, and before we knew it things began to take an ugly turn. It was all because of liquor. I just called a few women together, marched to where they were brewing liquor and smashed everything. We did this three times -- every time they would start brewing we would be there with sticks!"

For good measure, the women also went to the collector and appealed to him to do something. He promised to visit the village to sort things out. When he did, he asked the villagers to sign a petition banning illicit hooch in the village. But no one stepped forward to do so! "Then I came forward and signed the petition; moments later others were following suit. The collector asked when we wanted him to take action -- today, tomorrow..." "'Today!' we all shouted in unison. That was a turning point in my fight to change Koturu," says Chitamma.

While each village has its own sangh (group), various sanghs come together to fight on common issues like water, PDS, healthcare, etc. "Because we were not getting loans from banks, we decided to make a 'mahasangh'," says Chitamma.

The sangh members held a series of meetings in every village, mobilising people around common concerns. This culminated in a large gathering of sangh members at Kendrapada, in Balisahi village, in 1995. Thus was born Samudram, a state-level federation of women fish worker organisations, tasked with the development of marine fisherwomen and their families along the coast of Orissa (Samudram was registered the same year under the Societies Registration Act, XXI, 1860, registration number 42871 [95-96]).

Chitamma was the natural choice for president. "Everyone unanimously nominated me, and I couldn't refuse, not after having come such a long way," she says, a little embarrassed.

"Samudram has 11 executive members, including the president and secretary, and a total membership of 3,080, all traditional fishermen. Members can join by paying a lifetime membership of Rs 150," she adds.

Samudram: Operational profile in Ganjam district

Sl

Head

Total

Area

% of total population

No

 

 

 

 

1

Number of districts

2

Ganjam

 

2

Number of blocks

5

4

 

3

Number of gram panchayats

12

8

 

4

Number of villages

31

25

 

5

Number of fishing families

9,531

8,190

 

6

Women-headed families

2,424

2,350

28.69

7

Number of fisher population

49,843

41,460

5.06

8

Number of self-help groups (SHGs)

147

119

 

9

Number of members in sangha

3,584

2,956

36.09

(Source: Samudram, 2007)

Chitamma explains that Samudram is now working in 21 coastal blocks in Ganjam, Puri, Jagatsinghpur, Kendrapada, Bhadrak and Balasore districts of Orissa, with its focus on training women to be economically independent.

A major thrust area has been tackling cheating in the fish and prawn trade, by middlemen who either offered very low prices for fish at landing centres or discouraged others from selling their catch to Samudram. "We encouraged our members to take up trading, establish linkages with wholesale traders and exporters for the Samudram brand of products. Along with capacity-building of women on production of value-added marine products, training by professionals, exhibition of products at various festivals, and district and national development exhibitions have helped us break free from the shackles of the middlemen," she says.

Fish and prawn transaction with beneficiaries: May 1, 2006, to April 30, 2007
Name of place

Quantity (in kg)

Sale amount (in INR)

Sale from Golabandha unit

3,460.900

398,129.50

Sale from Koturu unit

220.750

54,275.00

Total

3,681.65

452,404.5

 

Total fish transaction with traders from Howrah and Chennai

Trader's name

Quantity (in kg)

Sale amount (in INR)

DSF, Chennai

4,727.500

471,223.00

Starfish, Howrah

5,688.750

254,506.00

Orient Fish, Howrah

275.750

11,070.00

LF and Co, Howrah

179.000

7,960.00

Total

10,871.000

744,759.00

 

 

 

Total transaction of value-added products

Product

Quantity (in kg)

Sale amount (in INR)

Pickle

34.250

8,660.00

Jhuri bhaja

12.100

1,655.00

Papad

127 (packets)

700.00

Dry fish

99.600

3,107.00

Total

145.950+127 packets

14,122.00

(Source: Samudram, 2007)

Samudram now has five procurement centres for fresh and dry fish, one each at Godaband, Arjipalli, Sanolianuagan, Kokharkeda and Poddampeda, run by trained fisherwomen, churning out products like fish and prawn achar (pickle), fish papad, fish balls, fish pakoda, fish cutlets, fish cakes, and fish paneer.

"Since almost 70% of the total marine catch in the state consists of low-priced fish (like ribbonfish and pink perch), which fetch a low market price, it is either discarded or made into fish meal. But the meat of these fish is as nutritious as any other commercially important fish. So we decided to make value-added fish products from these (low-priced) fish, as well as prepare by-products from processing waste."

Armed with support from OXFAM, ActionAid, the Orissa Traditional Fisher Women's Union (OTFWU), and the College of Fisheries (a Government of Orissa undertaking), Samudram not only began intensive training programmes for its members but also embarked on a sustained marketing blitz. It participated in various national, state and district-level gatherings like the Gopalpur Beach Festival and Khallikote Mahautshav. With technical assistance from the Central Institute of Fisheries Education (CIFE), Mumbai, Samudram now even sells its packed products in food-grade packets. These are sold in markets as far away as Chennai (companies include DSF and RSK), Delhi (King Fisher) and Howrah (Star Fish).

Chitamma says in quiet earnestness: "My number one priority is education for all our children, then to set up a sound business, and last, good behaviour."

On a more philosophical note, she adds: "Earlier, there was a lot of fish in the lake, and people had less money but they ate well. Today, the lake has little fish, but people want more money so they sell whatever they catch. This is where we are going wrong."

(Aditya Malaviya is a Bhopal-based researcher and journalist. This article was written as part of 'Bursaries for Journalists, supported by CDL/GAA/EU')

InfoChange News & Features, December 2007