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Challenge file Dossier : Human Rights in India

Inde, December 2006

Fish Markets Recaptured by Fisher Women

The file contains the details of a historical struggle. The fisher women of Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, under the banner of Theeradesa Mahila Vedi to recapture the fish markets, earlier controlled and managed by them but of late seized by rich contractors and middlemen.

Keywords: India

Fish markets recaptured by fisher women

The fisher women of Thiruvananthapuram district of Kerala, under the banner of Theeradesa Mahila Vedi, the women’s wing of Kerala Swathanthra Matsyathozhilali Federation (KSMTF), spearheaded a historical struggle to recapture the fish markets, earlier controlled and managed by them but of late seized by rich contractors and middlemen.

The major issues related to market and fish vending can be summarised as follows:

  • Harassment from male fish vendors, contractors and tax collectors.

  • Selling fish in very unhygienic places.

  • Lack of basic infrastructures like sheds and other facilities like table, chairs, toilets, and room to change dress, iceboxes and drinking water.

  • Brutal exploitation by middlemen, moneylenders etc.

  • Physical attacks by goondas of the market contractor.

  • Rape and other forms of Sexual violence

Women in fishing communities in central and south Kerala participate substantially in most of the basically household managed fishery and fishery related enterprises. They are particularly involved in fish processing and marketing. However, their social role and participation in decision making at the village and local administration level is rather limited. Besides their domestic chores, they perform the difficult function of selling a highly perishable commodity like fish in most of the coastal villages where chilling and freezing facilities are least available. Their business is a story of fluctuating fortunes.

Big contractors and merchants who enjoy unholy political connections or even play proxy to political leaders mostly run fish markets. The coastal as well as inland fisherwomen depend on these markets to sell the fish, which they buy from other contractors. Traditionally women used to get their fish for sale from the catch brought in by their husbands or relatives. But today the picture is different; they have to travel miles and miles for gathering fish; get up very early in the morning; rushing through one catch centre to another and disgracefully depending on the contractor to get their due.

The physical conditions and infrastructural facilities in the fish markets are pathetic everywhere in Kerala. It is a general viewpoint that fish markets are unhygienic places. Although women comprise the major part of fish sellers in the markets, they are unjustly denied whatever little amenities provided in the market. The blatant gender discrimination is a common factor; women are allocated the dirtiest and unnoticed corners of the markets; they are denied basic infrastructural facilities such as toilets, room for changing the dress, water pipes, pure drinking water, ice boxes or freezers and a table to keep the fish for sale. Often they are being harassed and even physically tortured by the goondas appointed by the contractors to collect the rent from the sellers.

The problem was blatant in terms of gender discrimination and hence demanded a different political strategy for agitation. Based on the findings of a survey conducted by Theeradesa Mahila Vedi, organised several consultations and meetings with the government officials which did not make any positive results. In this context the organization decided to take up the issue one by one and started with Sreekaryam panchayat market. The objective was to convert the market as a model market. The organization sought the collaboration of the Panchayat members and officials of fisheries department and Matsyafed to make it realized. This consistent effort did bear fruit that they were able to provide the basic facilities in the market, which eventually became a model for other markets.

Construction of the market was the primary objective. Following the example of Sreekaryam the organization then took up the issue of construction of other markets in the Corporation area, namely, Chala, Peroorkada, Palayam, Petta, Kazhakkoottam and Poonthura with the concerned authorities. Consultations and agitations went on simultaneously that forced the authorities finally to come in terms with the demands of fisherwomen. Under people’s planning project the Corporation decided to construct sheds in the markets where women could sell their fish. The average cost of construction of each market came around Rs.25 to 27 lakhs. Although sheds were built and other facilities provided, lack of proper maintenance and follow up created the situation even worse. Once again the fisherwomen were thrown in to agitation demanding proper maintenance of the market that includes shed, water pipes and toilets.

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