RAMANATHAPURAM: The difference between treason and patriotism is only a matter of dates.
Little would have Alexander Dumas imagined that his words would ring true, in a slightly lesser degree, for a motley group of women aboard a ramshackle boat, generations and oceans apart.
Even as the splashing waves rock the boat, a 40-odd-year-old woman keeps a stoic lookout on the horizon for any approaching vessels, for what the group is up to in the Gulf of Mannar is not strictly legal. While the coxswain manoeuvres the craft, other women scan the bed for seaweed, a group of algae that grow on dead corals and are reportedly much in demand in the confectionery, cosmetic and pharmaceutical sectors.
Our journey starts from the house of Lakshmi, our guide, at Bharathi Nagar near Kilakarai in Rameswaram before the break of dawn. Even before the sun is up, we are tightly packed in the boat, along with five other women and the coxswain. As the boat wades its way to the open sea, we near a group of 21 islands surrounded by the emerald green waters of Gulf of Mannar National Park — home to an estimated 3,600 species of flora and fauna, including 147 types of marine algae.
Of a sudden, Lakshmi assumes control and guides the coxswain to an area, promising rich yield. Soon, the women gear up. The ritual involves pulling the lower end of their sarees through their legs to resemble a crude dhoti, wearing cloth gloves, an old jersey, slipping socks and metal flippers on feet. Goggles too are fished out of the rucksack to protect their eyes from the abrasive waters of the Bay. And without much ado, the women are ready to dive. The women go to the bed and pluck seaweeds to fill a net bag tied around their waists. Once the net starts bursting at seams, the women resurface to pool their exploits into the boat.
For all the efforts the women put in, the pay seldom is commensurate with the risks they take. If we go by the statements of some, for every four kilogram of seaweeds plucked from the bosom of the sea, the yield contracts to one kg after drying. The rate per kg used to hover around Rs 18-20 but after GST kicked in, the pay too contracted to range between Rs12-15. This paltry pay, however, is the difference between having two square meals a day and going to the bed half starving for over 2,000 women from 25 coastal villages in the district.
However, the seemingly innocuous activity is at loggerheads with the official take on the issue. In 1986, the Central government declared around 560 sq kms under Gulf of Mannar as Marine Sanctuary, turning overnight a seemingly harmless profession into an illegal activity. Later, in 1989, a wider 10,500 sq km area was declared as Bio-reserve under the UNESCO’s Man and Biosphere Programme. The Marine Sanctuary was categorised under the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA) of 1972, to protect coral reefs and biodiversity. The decision was taken without keeping the various stakeholders in the loop.
Under this Act, resource extraction from the park was banned. This is where the women and the law saw matters differently. While law prohibits any activity near reefs, the women maintain that seaweeds thrive on dead corals. What is smuggling in the eyes of the law is only scavenging for the women whose hearth is kept lit by the additional income the collection generates. More trouble cropped up after 2000, when the State government gave more teeth to the stringent law, shrinking further the employment opportunities of the communities dependent on the resource. While the mandarins in power circles mulled on ways to maintain ecological balance, the poor women from the coastal villages started getting hounded by forest officials.
“I still remember the day when we came to know about the prohibition. We reached the shore only to see a hoarding proclaiming fishing and extraction of any resource from Gulf of Mannar was prohibited. Why should we adhere to the officials, who did not even bother to connect with the villagers before bringing in such a change?” asks Lakshmi.
“On spotting our boats, the forest officials seize and topple it to empty it of seaweeds. The women sometimes remove their sarees and wear a t-shirt and pant while entering the waters. The officials take away their sarees too, along with the boat. They then impose hefty fines on boat owners and the women are detained on an island where they wait till the boat owner returns with the fine,” says A Palsamy, a trade union president from Ramanathapuram district and secretary of National Fishworkers Forum.
“Last such incident took place in December. My wife, who is also in the business, was caught by one of the Thoothukudi rangers. She was made to wait in wet clothes till late in the evening before being released,” he recalls.
To facilitate interaction with the government, entrepreneurs and the local communities, Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve Trust was established in 2006. After a meeting between the Trust authorities and the locals, it was decided that use of metal scrappers while collecting seaweeds should be banned. To co-operate with the government, as well as to make their profession sustainable, the women restrict themselves to collecting seaweeds for just 12 days a month. Moreover, they do not go out for collection in April and May to avoid exploitation of resource. This, unlike the ban on metal scrappers, is a voluntary decision taken by the women.
“The sea is our treasure. We know how to take care of it. Earlier, fearing the injuries caused by live coral, we used metal wires and strings to fish out seaweeds. However, when we found out it was damaging aquatic plants, we stopped,” say the women. Traders, who act as agents bridging the gap between the women and multinational companies sourcing seaweeds, were asked to fix a reasonable price. There was a ban on all kinds of collection between March and May. The women agreed to scale down their collection to keep the forest officials at bay.
While forest department maintains that the women collect seaweeds from the national park, in reality the boundaries of the national park were never demarcated. Recent unilateral attempts by the government to demarcate the core area with buoys were strongly opposed by the local communities. This is another bone of contention.
“If demarcated, most of the seaweed collection spots would fall under core area,” says Palsamy. Seaweed trade union members say that ground realities and adverse impacts on the communities were not kept in mind while framing the law.Venugopal, a researcher from International Collective in Support of Fish Workers (ICSF), says, “Fishing communities are often not aware of the designation of an area that is protected. The same thing happened in the case of Gulf of Mannar Marine National Park, where communities realised the ‘protected status’ only when they were restricted from accessing their fishing grounds and resources.”
However, the forest department takes a rather serious view of the issue. Shekhar Kumar Niraj, former director of Gulf of Mannar Biosphere Reserve, says, “ It is mandatory under the Wildlife Protection Act not to damage the corals and habitats of the species thriving around the corals. Such businesses (seaweed collection) can destroy the coral reefs.”
While small fries often bear the brunt of enforcement agencies, big players thrive, manipulating the system to suit their end, say some experts. V Vivekanandan, adviser to the South Indian Federation of Fishermen Societies, says, “Over-fishing by large mechanised boats, trawlers finding their way around the bio-reserve, illegal coral mining and the many coastal projects are among a host of issues destroying the environment through pollution and silting.” By and large, seaweed collection is only an act of scavenging, says a cross-section of activists.
While man-made reasons abound, natural factors like the 1998 El Nino effect too had a cascading effect on the marine life. The sudden rise in sea temperature bleached many corals in the Gulf of Mannar, eventually killing them. The fishes dependent on the corals too began dying, having a telling effect on the fishing industry and indirectly affecting the tourism sector.
However, as the women retreat to the shores after a hard day’s work, with no untoward intrusion by the officials, the question that gnawed at us was: is there not a way out to help the poor while maintaining the ecology? Should sustainability come at the expense of the livelihood of the living?
$6 bn: The size of the seaweed industry as of 2014. Officials see seaweed collection as one of the major threats to reef areas. Already, Gulf of Mannar has witnessed severe depletion of resources