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In Photos: Fishermen In Sunderbans Face Multiple Threats To Their Livelihood

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The coastline of West Bengal is spread over two districts: South 24-Parganas and East Midnapore. Fishing in West Bengal is also mainly focused on these two districts. About 100 km south of Kolkata in the Kakdwip subdivision of South 24 Parganas lies Sagar island. The island is located within a tidal creek and has a very low elevation. The fisherfolk of the island depends on the waters of Ganga Sagar – where the river Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal – for their livelihood.

A fisherman sweeps dried fish on the sea beach of Sagar Island.

During the fishing season which lasts from October to February, they set out in mechanized boats every six hours during the high tide. During this time, they barely sleep. Once they return from the waters, their family helps them dry the fish and fish meal tied to wires and laid on nets in their front yards respectively. They live in huts called “khutis” made of hogla leaves during these four months.

Fishing boats in the background as fish dry on the beach.

The fisherfolk do not own the title to the land where they set up khutis. They live there with permission from the local panchayat. In 2014, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had said that the seafront would be developed for tourism. “The local fishermen under Sagar Sangam Matsojibi Khuti Samabyay Samiti led an agitation against the move and delivered a petition with a set of demands to the chief minister,” says Abdar Mallik, secretary of Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society. “The chief minister had assured them that they would not be evicted without being given an alternative piece of land,” he adds.

Ribbonfish tied to wires being dried.

Trawlers have wreaked havoc on the livelihoods of small fishermen in Sagar Island and the marine environment. The bottom trawlers destroy the plants on the seafloor. They chose certain species of fish from the catch and throw out the rest of the dead fishes polluting the sea. The trawler nets are such that even if the mesh size is big when they are pulled, the mesh closes completely, trapping even the smallest of fishes.

A fisherman mending his net.

Sea bottom trawling at the mouth of the sea is destroying marine ecology and eating into the catch of small fishermen. “Local small fishermen organizations have filed petitions to the state government to rein in the trawlers. But the trawlers always find a way around the laws,” says Mallik.

Nets laid out in the front yards of Khuttis.

Several state and district-level organizations have been constituted to protect the interests of small-scale fishermen. The Dakhinbongo Matsojibi Forum and Sagar Marine Matsya Khuti Cooperative Society are two of the more influential organizations advocating for the rights of fisherfolk in West Bengal and Sagar respectively.

There are different categories of small-scale fishermen. Some have motorized boats; others use the dinghy or a small boat. They fish in the shallow seas, in the inland waters, estuaries, lakes, and reservoirs. All these fishermen cater to the local market. These small-scale fishermen supply 80 percent of the fish that is available in markets across Bengal. Bengal’s small-scale fisheries have an estimated annual turnover of Rs 500 crore.

Portrait of a fisherman in his village during the off-season.

Due to a lack of micro-financing opportunities from the government, the fishermen often take loans from either money lenders or middlemen to repair boats, nets, etc. If they take loans from the moneylender, they can sell off their catch and pay off their debt. But there is always a risk that an insufficient catch or falling market prices might end up landing them in the debt trap. So, they prefer taking a lump sum loan from the middlemen. In return, these middlemen are entitled to all their catches.

A fisherwoman tending to villages in her hut during the fishing ban period.

The deep-sea fishing ban was introduced in 2015 by the department of fisheries, to allow uninterrupted breeding and growth of fish. Every year, fishing activity is banned between April 15 and June 14 on the east coast. A special ban is imposed from 15 September to 24 October to allow for the undisturbed breeding of Hilsa. Hilsa fishing is labor and fuel-intensive. It needs different nets, bigger boats. The expenses can go up to two lakhs. Only gill nets are used to catch Hilsa.

Fisherwoman packing her nets during the ban period in April

The Savings Cum Relief scheme was started by the Central government of India in the ’90s to compensate small fishermen for the losses incurred during the fishing ban period. According to the scheme, the central government, state government, and the beneficiary would contribute one-third of the total relief amount throughout the fishing period and get the returns during the non-fishing period,” says Pradip Chatterjee, president, Dakshinbanga Matsojibi Forum (DMF).

Gillnet used for Hilsa fishing.

At present, the total amount is Rs. 4,500. “It was an occupational entitlement and the central government later made the scheme available only for the below poverty line (BPL) category i.e., only BPL fishermen will be entitled to benefit from the scheme,” says Chatterjee.

During the fishing season, the whole family shifts to the Khutis on the beach. Children commute to school from their villages.

The Dakhinbongo Matsojibi Forum opposed it as most fishermen are far from being rich,” he adds.

A fisherman showing dried shrimp.

During the offseason, the fishermen do odd jobs, get employment in government schemes, work in construction or brick kilns. During the fishing season, one fisher folk can earn about Rs 10,000 a month. Off-season earnings vary between Rs 5,000 to 7,000.

Fisherman unfurling gill net used for Hilsa fishing.


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Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

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Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

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MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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