In Conversation: Nalini Nayak

In Conversation: Nalini Nayak

in Interview
Published on: 04 January 2017
The interview was conducted in Thiruvananthapuram in 2016.

Nalini Nayak: Coastal communities all over the world are rather similar. Culturally maybe they differ slightly, but regarding work and activity and things like that, they are very similar. What I must say is that what we have seen over these last, say, 30-35 years, is that what happened in the west is now happening to us in the south.


When I started work 35 years ago I saw that in western countries the small communities were already marginalised because fisheries had grown big and they were not able to secure their rights to access to the fishery. In the southern countries and particularly India, the small fishery industry has been extremely large. And people very involved. And over these years’ fish workers have begun to organize. And in that sense what the fish workers have managed to gain in terms of legislation in the south had finally a feedback to communities in the west. So, we can say that the mobilizing of fish workers in the southern countries has actually brought small-scale fisheries back centre stage, shall we say, in the global discourse.


So, this has been what has happened over the last 30 years and I think from that point of view it has been interesting. But I won’t say that it has been all positive, because unfortunately despite the fact that we had such a good movement in mobilizing in the southern world particularly in Asian countries, somehow the response regarding fisheries management did not develop simultaneously. So, in this way I think the fishing communities, small fishing communities, have not really been able to take advantage of the gains that were made through their struggles. So, this is a pity. There has been a mismatch between what they gained in terms of legislation for their fishery, compared to what they were able to actually achieve on the ground.



Johnson Jament: What happened to the women population?


N.N.: Of course this impacted on women, because the main idea in the small-scale fishery is it is the women who actually bring money back to the home. And over the years, over the development of the fishery, the first thing that happened was that the state began to intervene in providing loans to fishing, that was also as a demand of the movement, of course. But then the state began to acknowledge the man as the fisher. Fisheries is a combined work between men and women. Of course, the word ‘fisher-man’ was always used, but through the movement we began to speak of fish workers, to include women.


Women and fisheries all over the world are rather similar except that culturally they will be different but their work and their livelihood struggles are similar. But I must say that 20-25 years ago when I got to understand the western context, they were all completely marginalized because the larger fishery had marginalized them and they had no access and their communities had become tourist villages. While as I said, at that time in the southern world and particularly in Asia, there was a great dependence on the small-scale fishery and the fishers were very active, the movements were growing and they were able to struggle for their rights.


But over these years what has happened is that the fishers have managed to bring in so much positive legislation in their favour, but unfortunately have not been able to put it to impact on the communities themselves. That has to do with the mismatch between how they have been able to lobby and advocate and actual groundwork in organizing the community and beginning to deliver at the base. So, while that has been there, we can see that in the long run these small-scale communities in the south have also lost out largely.



J.J.: So what are the important changes happened to these coastal women in terms of their occupation?


N.N.: Yes, as far as women are concerned, say 45 years ago, there were a lot of matrilineal fishing communities and women had access to the cash because the gear was part of the ownership of their household. The man came to live in the woman’s family after marriage. Now what happened is that the state began to participate in fisheries’ development, loans for fishing were extended to men and the ‘fisher-man’ was the only concept that the government had. It is the movement that brought fish workers to the forefront and said women are equal participants in the fishery. But when loans were advanced to men, then the fishing gear became the man’s. And from that point women gradually began to be isolated from their right to the fish catches.


They of course took part in auctions and got their fish to the market. Over the years what happened was that although women gained in terms of making themselves visible as women who also participated in the fishery as fish vendors, and in our states and Maharashtra and other states also got access to transport, made issues of markets and the exploitation in markets, market taxes, they were able to bring those down and say that those were exploitative means, their access to fish has diminished over the years. Their direct access, because as fishing craft got more and more harbour based, the landings on shores decreased and women then had to go to distant harbours to get fish. So, their life situation became far more difficult because they had to go and come on a daily basis and the state has not provided a lot of infrastructure for women in this livelihood. So, while the state has given a lot to men, it has forgotten women completely. For instance, of course they may distribute some small thermocol boxes. Now no women fish vendor can manage with one small thermocol box. They have large quantities of fish, they need better transport facilities, they need better storage facilities. They need night shelters at harbours. Now none of these things has the state been able to provide.


Whereas areas where the women participated on a large scale in fish drying because of the kind of landings that existed, all these have almost dried up completely. The landings, such large landings have now turned to fish plants and fishmeal, so there is no access for women to dry fish. The straws on which they dry this fish have also diminished because their landing spaces, their beaches, have been destroyed. So, several things have impacted women in this process.


Then of course you have a lot of migration, both of men and women in fisheries. So, this has been also a big issue where women have been forced, like for instance if you go to Andhra where the landings have diminished, women are forced to migrate into other kinds of employment if they are not able to access fish from big landing centres. So, livelihood requirements have pushed people to move. Then you have all the living issues of women in coastal communities, not all states have bothered to develop infrastructure, habitation infrastructure for fishing communities. So, all this actually then backfires on women. There is no sanitation, proper sanitation. There is no proper health delivery. So, from that point of view the health in fishing communities—in the country I am saying—I am not only talking about Kerala is really marginal to other factors, say mainland communities. So, you can always see the difference between the fishing and the other communities in a particular state.



J.J.: Yes. As you described there are a lot of changes happening in women’s employment due to the fish finding etc. So how do these challenges actually impact upon their job security?


N.N.: When you speak of job security you must first of all understand that this whole sector is informal. There is anyway nothing you can call job security, so the only security for this sector is if they have access to fish. So, the fish have been declining. Also, the kind of catches have been declining in small-scale areas. They said they are all now harbour based. So, that is one aspect. The other aspect is because of large landings and the fact that women did not have the necessary supports to participate in this larger landing of fish, in the sense that their infrastructure to access large landings has never been supported by the state. So, you have big players coming in to access large landings. And therefore, these large landings would then go into either fishmeal plants, to processing plants or then to sub-contractors in a larger way.


So, the women then just have become players in this larger market where they are exploited, first of all, being women and second on another important aspect. For instance, all over the country, you have this fact that when the fish was iced and could be accessed through these big contractors who have a huge group of men coming into this sector and these are all migrant men, largely migrant men─entire Maharashtra is flooded with migrant Biharis who now sell fish─so, the entire group of women have been isolated and that is a big struggle for women in Maharashtra.


In Kerala, the motorbikes came, the men got access to bikes and they access the fish at the big landing centres and also at the wholesale markets. So, women are still struggling in trying to collectivize by using collective vehicles like autos. They have been advanced loans for these things by various departments, Matsyafed has given them loans, but managing this infrastructure is not the skill of women and therefore they have all landed into debt because of this.


But the state could have facilitated in different ways this kind of infrastructure to help women remain in this sector. Like for instance, if you go to Vishakhapatnam, there was a group of women, say 20 years ago, who bought good fish from this small sector and supplied fish to Bombay restaurants. They dealt in that trade. They bought and they managed to have a chain by which they delivered in restaurants. Now these kinds of things were never analyzed by the state. How could those women who bought this fresh fish and supplied directly to restaurants in the city of Mumbai from Vishakhapatnam, how could they have been supported? The state didn’t even want to open its eyes to see that a group of women of this kind existed.


There were larger fish merchants. There are small women merchants who sell on a daily basis and there are larger women fish merchants who sell good quality fish on a large scale and also dry fish on a large scale. Most of these women over these last 20 years have been completely ousted. So, from this point of view there are several aspects to see where the infrastructure of the state did not move to support women’s work and women’s presence in the fisheries.



J.J.: So that is the next question. Are there any policy or any provisions to address these challenges?


N.N.: Making policy is not the only way in which we can secure access to fish. If you look from several points of view, even the fish worker’s movement which was working for the survival of the small-scale fisheries and which was very vocal in the '90s, they did not demand, I mean, that was an issue that the women brought into the movement, saying, Don’t allow the food fish to be part of the export basket. This was a big demand from women in the NFF but they were ousted when they spoke about that. See, there were always varieties of fish like shrimp and squid that were part of the export market, but fishes like salmon, mackerel, sole, were all fish that were consumed locally. This was part of the food basket of the local consumers. Now when the women made this demand in the fish workers’ movement, it was completely sidelined.


What was the fish workers’ movement demanding all the time? Only subsidy for diesel. So, you see there itself comes a division that even the fish worker’s movement, the needs of the women in order to sustain the fishery were never considered in a logical manner. So the moment the fish, the local food fish, went into the so-called larger trade, all this fish went into fishmeal because it is not even coming for consumption any more. So, that is why the price of fish increased and the accessibility of fish even to the consumer has decreased. And the quality of fish for the consumer has largely declined because it is all frozen now. So, having chilled fish and frozen fish are two completely different things. The manner in which fish is frozen, the timespan for which it is frozen, all affects the quality of the fish. So, from this point of view both the consumer, local consumers who had access to cheaper fish, and the women who transported this fish to the market and made a livelihood out of it, both have suffered.



J.J.: As a woman, do you think there is a gender inequality within the coastal community?


N.N.: The fact that men and women participated equally in the fishery brought a certain, shall we say, confidence to women in the fishing community. They were part of the economy, they were the ones who brought money back to the family, so they had this status in the family but didn’t have status in the community. So, you see that is where the social factors and especially whether you are Christian, Muslim or Hindu, the social structures are then controlling gender roles in communities. So, the very fact that all these religious groups are so male-dominated─all institutions are male-dominated─women have never had space in social life, whereas in the family it is they who actually make decisions, they who take risks, they who keep the family going.


So, there is a big dichotomy between the status of women in a family and the status of the women in the community. And because there is no status in the community, the men in the family also exploit women. There is a lot of violence in fishing communities wherever you go. And over the years over these communities, as the capital needed for fishing increased with all the fishing craft, development of fishing craft and gear, then women’s place even in marriage also deteriorated. Right now, over the years, the coming in of dowry has been a reason for deterioration of the role of women and their dignity in the community because the more money that was required for fishing equipment, the more dowry the women had to pay. So, you can see this logically increasing in all societies with the coming of more capital-intensive fishing technology.  And I want to add to that that from a major study that we did on coastal population dynamics, we also noticed that with the increase in capital investment in fishing technology, the female-male ratio reduced in the fishing communities. So, something has happened vis-à-vis child sex-selection in fishing communities in these past 30 years. So, the fishing communities are not isolated in this whole phenomenon of sex-selection.



J.J.: The next question you have already answered, some part of it. So, the question is, so while they have a good status in the family, they have no good status in the community. So, what do you think, why this happened or why is it there?


N.N.: Well, I tried to say a bit of that earlier. All these communities whether you are Christian, Hindu or Muslim, they are very religion-bound. The traditions depend on the major religious factor in the area. All these religions are very patriarchal. There is no place for women in any of their institutions. So, they control them, the autonomy of women in these communities and the behaviour of women within these communities is dictated by these institutions. So how can women then have their freedom?



J.J.: The last question is about their education. So, can you comment on the coastal women’s education?

N.N.: Over the years one must say that there has been large change everywhere and in coastal communities for the education of children. So, there has been access to education all over the country and one can say that both young boys and girls have opportunities to go to school except of course, in really marginal areas. So, if you look at it firmly in the macro perspective, one can say that young people in fishing communities today don’t want to take up the livelihood of their parents because they have been first of all educated, they have been cut off from their livelihood which requires skill which they don’t develop in the kind of education that we have. So, without skill which is kind of built in from a younger generation, when you are young, you cannot remain in this field. So, if at all the women continue in fish vending after marriage, they will relearn and get into the fish vending after marriage. But most of them if they are educated would want to go in for other professions.


But I must also say working so long with women, I have also seen a lot of educated women who learned tailoring or other small trades going back to fish marketing because if they have access to fish, if they have access to the city, what you earn from fish vending is much higher than what you would earn as a daily wage worker in these kinds of subsidiary occupations.


So, I have also seen that women will go back (to fish vending). But it is risky and you can’t take it for granted that all over the year you will have this possibility. So, they take different kinds of risks. They also move from fish vending into some occupation, go back there. So, you see there is this great mobility of the kind of work that women will do. We have seen a lot of women come into domestic work because they have not been able to survive as fish vendors. And they would go back to fish vending in the good season. So there is all this flexibility. So the informal sector is highly flexible and highly mobile. When we speak in terms of job security, there is no security. Women try to find livelihood wherever they can and it is not that fishing alone can help them survive.


J.J.: And also is there any reason why women change their fish vending to other professions? Is it because they don’t have a good status─the dignity of labour is not there─for example, when they do fish vending, they are not respected in the community—that they move from fish vending to other professions. Is there any connection?


N.N.: Earlier, say in the '70s, '80s, the job of a fish vendor was considered very low, and there were pejorative ways of relating to women fish vendors. They were not allowed into buses. They were not allowed into schools. People said their children were smelling of fish. That is long gone, I think. I think maybe because of the movements everywhere the women fish vendors are very proud to do their job. They earn a livelihood and they do it with great pride. And I have also seen over the years that children who are educated respect their mothers who have done this work. They may not have done that in the 1970s but today people are very proud to say that yes, my mother was a fish vendor. I think this is a great success for the mobilizing in the community, the visibility of the community, the visibility of the work and this struggle to say I earn my livelihood in an honest, meaningful way. I think that has come to stay. So, this question of being lowly, I don’t think is such a major issue today as I see it among the women and communities that I move through.



J.J.: Coming back to the education in the coastal community, you earlier mentioned that the present generation are not interested in taking up their forefathers’ job, fishing or fish vending. So how did education play a role to change that trend?


N.N.: You and I know that our education is not related to a lot of things in life. You also know that the fishers themselves have so much knowledge, valuable knowledge. So, our mainstream educational system has never acknowledged that knowledge. They may use it. All scientists use traditional knowledge but they never acknowledge that people who have those skills and knowledge. So how then would the educational system respect that knowledge? So, we don’t have schools or we don’t have any, even fishery schools for that matter, who speak of the dignity and the richness of the knowledge of the fishers. It is only in these last, say, couple of decades with young people like all of you and Robert that this is coming to the forefront, that traditional knowledge has its space, these communities and their science should find its space in the textbooks of children. So, unless that happens, we will not be able to say that our education actually supports livelihoods and supports young people to appreciate livelihoods which are productive in this way.



J.J.: Thank you very much.