Hundreds of women have lost their jobs in Kerala as traditional coir weaving succumbed to mechanisation and stiff competition from other states backed by better marketing. Despite the high quality of the coir produced in the Chirayinkeezhu and its adjoining vast areas, the sun has set on the industry.
Thrown off their livelihood, coir workers here, irrespective of age and gender, dive into the backwaters and scour the depths for edible clams. In places where the depth is as much 25 ft, the divers go down holding on to wooden poles driven into the riverbed.
The lure is the high prices one might get. Middlemen from Alappuzha offer handsome prices for the better quality of mollusks, which are shipped to destinations such as Goa.
‘’I started diving for clams two years ago. Now, around 250 men and women work in this sector,’’ says Syamala, 65.
The clam divers’ day begins at 6 am and ends by 1 pm. They get back to shore before the water gets warm. One basket of clams fetches `500. Women who dive in the shallower spots might cllect up to one and a half baskets. Men dive deeper, so they might come up with four or five baskets. This alternative livelihood comes at a cost. Skin and eye ailments and pulmonary diseases affect many of the men and women who scour these depths. The water is highly polluted.
The entire waste from Thiruvananthapuram, some 22 km to the south, flows into the Kadinamkulam lake via the man-made Parvathy-Puthanar canal. The clam fishing season lasts barely three months of the year, beginning in the summer and ending in the mid-monsoon months. Clams are an expensive delicacy in big cities; a single plate can cost upwards of `125 in my restaurants in Kerala. These fisherfolk are barely aware of the process by which this dirt-clogged, smelly catch turns to culinary gold.