Slim pickings for shell pickers

Battling the pandemic waves, the fishing community’s reliance on shell-picking did little to save their crippling finances; heaps of shells remained unaddressed as demand takes a hit

Published: 30th December 2020 06:30 AM  |   Last Updated: 30th December 2020 06:30 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

CHENNAI: In the villages of Karungali, Kalanji and Kattupalli, nestled between the Kosasthalaiyar river and the Bay of Bengal, heaps and heaps of shells on the shores and river banks are as much a part of the local landscape as boats and the fish put out to dry. The piles come and go as the women in the area turn to selling shells to tide through tough times. Only, for the past several months, the heaps of shells have not gotten any smaller. Even as the world is still coming to terms with the largescale and visible impact of the pandemic, in this corner of north Chennai, the fisherfolk stand testimony to the hundreds of stories of loss that go unheard.

And this one is about the shell pickers. Vagaries of work have never been a surprise for the people who make a living out of the sea. With the 60-day fishing ban in place from mid-April to mid-June, such caprice is an annual ritual. But, for these times of need, while the men fall back on odd jobs to tide through the season, the women look to shell-picking to hold up their end of the bargain. This year, such measures were all the more vital given that the pandemic-induced lockdown that coincided with the annual ban had kept them from pursuing any work in the absence of their fishing ventures.

Despite the premature end to the ban, some villages faced prolonged suffering because of the uncertainty of the pandemic. “We don’t own boats. Most of us in the village work for people who own small boats in Pulicat. Because of the economic uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, people are saving their money and not hiring us,” says D Nagaraj, a fisherman from Kalanji in Ponneri, Thiruvallur district. Hence, these villagers’ dependence on shell-picking has only increased.

This often turns out to be a group activity. The women take to the beach around 8 am in search of shells that have been washed ashore. The task is simply to collect as much as they can. “We collect in turns, when it is not too sunny. A few of us go in the morning and return by noon. Others go in around 3 pm and stay out till 9 pm,” says D Amutha, Nagaraj’s wife. These shells would go on to be crushed to make limestone, a key ingredient in paint manufacture.

So, shells of any shape or size would do. While the activity happens all year round, the pickers make the most of their time during specific periods — towards the end of the Southwest monsoon and during the Northeast monsoon. Deepak Vijay Kumar, marine conservation scientist explains why that tends to happen. “Seashells are hard, protective layers formed on molluscs (snails, oysters, etc.). Although molluscs are known to breed throughout the year, their shells get deposited on the sea bed once they die. “Often, because of the sea currents and tide, these deposited shells cross the natural embankments around 200 m from the shoreline.

It is possible that towards the end of the Southwest monsoon and during the Northeast monsoon, large deposits of these shells manage to cross the natural embankments a little off the coastline; hence, increasing their deposits along the coastal line during these periods, ” he elaborates. Nagaraj says that the beaches in Ponneri are filled with massive deposits of shells in the months between July and October. “The seabed keeps changing during different weathers. Around this time, the sand on the sea bed is tossing due to the shift in sea currents, thereby unearthing many of these shells.

The monsoon winds influence the sea currents to carry these shells closer to the coastline, where they eventually get deposited,” he says. And there’s plenty of work to be done but for a good price. “Around 100 kilograms of shells would, usually, fetch us `4,000 on an average. People in the village collect around 1,200 kg of shells every week,” says Amutha. A contractor or middleman is assigned to organise for a vehicle (often a bullock cart) to pick up the shells and take them to the paint manufacturers. This year, however, heaps of shells remain unaddressed as the manufacturing industry has also taken a hit because of COVID- 19. “The pandemic has affected this source of income as well.

As so many industries manufacturing paint, fertilisers and chemicals that use lime were shut down, we haven’t been able to sell as many shells as we normally would. I used to earn around Rs 4,000 every month, which when combined with the income my husband made doing odd jobs amounted to Rs 12,000 to Rs 15,000 a month. It was more than enough to run our house and pay our children’s school fee,” she narrates. This year, without any of this work, they had to resort to other means to make ends meet. “We survived the first three months of the pandemic by selling Amutha’s wedding jewellery.

In June and July, we were dependent on the rations donated to us by the students of Loyola College. They gave each family five kilograms of rice and toor dal, along with oil, spices and vegetables. They gave us rations twice in two months. The months after that have been very stressful for us because we don’t have anything else to sell, and fishing has also become difficult,” he says. Money being scarce has affected every part of life, including the children’s education that has now become dependent on a smartphone. Conditions are pretty much the same in the neighbouring village of Karungali, just four kilometres away. “All the men in our village work at the L&T factory nearby.

Although we didn’t lose our jobs during the lockdown, many of our salaries have been reduced. To compensate, we have been selling seashells for a lump sum. Unfortunately, our contractor hasn’t sent a vehicle to pick up the shells for the past five months. Since there has been no demand for them during the lockdown, our pile of shells only keeps growing as we continue to collect them with the hope that when the demand rises once again, we can immediately sell everything,” says K Se lvan, a res ident of Karungali. As the seashell pickers await relief, the transporters have it bleak too.

These contractors who act as the go-between have suffered too. Murugan V, a middleman in-charge of locating manufacturing units that require lime and having the shells transported to them, shares, “I have been a contractor for the past ten years. Ever since I began my career, I have been doing business with the residents of Kalanji village. The manufacturing units of paint companies like Asian Paints and Nerolac, in Tamil Nadu, reach out to me and I then source the raw materials (seashells) from the fishing folk at Kalanji and other neighbouring areas,” he details.

In a pre-pandemic world, Murugan used to receive orders for larger quantities of seashells and used to earn Rs 9,000 for every 100 kilograms of shells he transports to the buyers. “During the fishing ban, I can source upto 15,000 kilograms of shells from the fishing villages in Tamil Nadu; around 6,000 kilograms of this comes from the villages in Ponneri. With the market rate set at Rs 4,000 for 100 kilograms and the transport cost, I end up taking home only around Rs 3,000 from the Rs 9,000 I’m paid. My monthly earnings would probably come up to around Rs 45,000.

This year, I have only been able to earn a total of Rs 23,000 in four months,” he rues. Although most of the restrictions have been lifted and things are seemingly going back to normal, the fishing community in north Chennai is still under tremendous stress for income. “We can only pray, hope and wait for better times to come our way. Till then, we can only sustain ourselves by selling whatever else we can,” says Amutha.


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