India’s sari clad free divers risk life to fish out seaweed to earn a living

By Sanjay Pandey

The very mention of free diving paints a picture of an adventure sport that is meant to give people the adrenaline rush.

But for around 300 women from Rameshwaram’s Chinnapalam (or Little Bride) village free diving is no sports — it is a battle of survival.

Unlike the conventional divers, these women — aged between 20 and 60 — cannot afford a diving suit, a mask or an oxygen cylinder. So these sari-clad divers take a leap of faith every time they dive into the sea for a rather pressing concern: to earn a living.

Situated on the confluence of two seas — Bay of Bengal and Indian Ocean in the Gulf of Mannnar, islands off Rameshwaram harbor a treasure-trove of marine wealth.

Seaweed is the common name for countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean and are used in foods, cosmetics and medicines.

When I first learnt about the phrase the sari-clad free divers of Rameshwaram from a friend some four months ago, I was completely intrigued.

My quest to find these gritty women started on March 14. After the overnight journey when we were about to enter Rameshwaram, we crossed a long bridge. A fellow passenger told me that this was the Paban bridge, India’s first and second longest sea-bridge that connects the mainland with Pamban islands.

Though the place was new and I was visiting Rameshwaram for the first time, the name Pamban sounded familiar to me. After jogging my brains backwards, I recalled that I had seen this place in Shah Rukh Khan-starrer Chennai Express movie.

When our local guide told us that these women also live in Pamban. Yes the same place where Thangaballi lived in the movie, I got even more excited to see the place and its people.

On our way to the seaweed collectors’ village, I crained my neck from the three-wheeler, hoping to spot any of the big guys featured in the film. Tough luck, I could only see poverty, sqaulor as we passed through Pamban block to enter the dustbowl village of Chinnapalam.

 

On our right is an army of haphazardly anchored boats and on the left is the village that has a cluster of thatched houses, punctuated by a few one-story pucca houses. Laxmi Moorthy, the 48-year-old seaweedcollector also lives in one of the few pucca houses in the village.

But when we reached there, we were told Laxmi was not home. There was a wedding ceremony happening in the village temple. The entire village was busy with the wedding that which would get over in an hour.

As agreed earlier, the seaweed collectors went back home and reassembled near the coast in hour. It was around 9am in the morning, when we started for Kurusadi Theevu. We had wade through the shallow waters for around 500 meters to reach to the country boat that was waiting for us. Once on the boat, we were asked to change into lungs to avoid being detected by the coast guards.

Once everything settled down, Laxmi Moorthy starts narrating her story. “I started seaweed collectionas a child and had two near-death experience in her four decade long career as a seaweed harvestor, told me: “I have cheated death twice. The first one was when I was around 10 to 12 years old. The other incident happened during the Tsunami (of 2004). This took place near the Kurusadi Theevu. In this incident, I was the lone survivor of the 15 people who were onboard in the ill-fated boat.”

“We ransom our lives to enter the sea so that we can earn something to eat,” says Laxmi as she wraps pieces of clothes around her fingers to protect them from thorns attached to seaweed.

Despite the risk the number of women going to the sea has increased over the years. Earlier, there were only 50-60 seaweed collectors, now the number has gone up to 300.

Bhagawathy S, who is the head of the seaweed collectors’ group, says: “While income has reduced after the harvesting restrictions, the number of people in the trade has increased. Earlier, only a few women used to go the sea, but now a lot of women have come in the business. We are facing problem in running the family because of reduced income.”

After all this hardship these women make around Rs 300-500 daily during the 12 working days in a month. And they cannot let that go at any cost.

So what if they don’t have proper mask, they make do with a borrowed snorkeling mask, pieces of cotton wrapped around their fingers serve as hand gloves and slippers make for flippers.

“You have seen that we enter the sea in whatever dress we are wearing (read saris), and bruise our hands and feet while harvesting the seaweeds. To safeguard our life and limbs, we need protective suits, gloves and shoes,” insists Laxmi who has been bitten by electric eels several times.

Since childhood, Lakshmi has worked in the Gulf of Mannar as a seaweed harvester, a subsistence living for many women of her community.

In 2002, that livelihood came under threat as the government began enforcing a marine reserve in their traditional harvesting grounds.

“Sometimes the forest department officials seize our fishing nets, food and other materials. When we request them to release the items, they ask for bribe,” says Bhagawathy, 37, who is sole bread-winner of family after her husband became bed-ridden and unfit to go the sea.

Seaweed harvesting near the islands is prohibited after the 2002 declaration. The administration is now planning to barricade the island and bar entry within a radius of 500 metres.

“The forest department doesn’t allow us go beyond 60km from the shores. That’s why we started protesting and demanding withdrawal of such restrictions. Most of the seaweed is found within half a kilometer of radius of the islands, if they block our access to the islands, how are we supposed to do seaweed harvesting. How will be put food for our families and tend our ailing loved ones,” Bhagawathy argued while getting ready to take a jump.

As the former head of seaweed collectors’ union, Laxmi helped organize the displaced workers into a federation that decided to protect both the environment and women’s livelihood.In 2014, the government agreed to recognize the Gulf of Mannar seaweed collectors as a unique group of fisher women and issued them biometric ID cards to protect them from harassment by officials. They are now free to safeguard the resource and to pursue their livelihood.

“Following this, we curtailed harvesting to 12 days in a months i.e. six days from every Pournami (full moon day), then a break of nine days. And, then again do harvesting from Amavaasi (new moon day) followed by a break of nine days, “ Laxmi.

Through the self-regulation under which they work for 12 days and take a rest for 18 days, the seaweedcollectors intend to give time for the seaweeds to regenerate / regrowth.

Recognizing Laxmi’s contribution in uniting the women and protecting the seaweeds, Laxmi was given the Seacology Award in California, US, last year.

These women make around Rs 6000 every month and use that money to run their family and put their children through school.

Bhagawathy has been in the business of seaweed harvesting for the past 18 years, but she doesn’t want her children to take up this profession.

“There is a lot of hardship in this profession. That’s why I want my children to study well and take up a better job,” she argues.

Laxmi, who donated Rs 2 lakh of the reward money for construction of a school in Chinnapalam, echoes Bhagawathy’s sentiment. “We have understood that illiteracy is the reason for our backwardness, and only through education we can progress forward in life,” she sums up.