Why do these women in Jharkhand put their lives at stake?

Hundreds of women living in a nondescript village in Jharkhand leave their homes at 3 in the morning in their rickety fishing boats to catch fish. This is their only way to support men in their homes who do odd jobs to make a living

Neetu Singh

Neetu Singh   2 Aug 2019 6:46 AM GMT

Edited by: Swati Subhedar

At around 6 am we reached halfway through Getalsud dam. Suddenly strong wind started blowing. The rickety fishing boat, which Sheela, 33, was rowing, couldn't withstand the pressure and started rocking. She panicked a bit, and then quickly started rowing the boat in the direction of the current.

I wanted to help her, but I nearly froze for those two-three minutes. It was for the first time in my journey as a reporter that I feared for my life.

When things settled, I looked at Sheela. She was calm.

There are hundreds of women in Jharkhand like Sheela Nayak who have no choice but to step out every morning at 3 or 4 to catch fish, so that they could earn some money for their bread and butter.

For the past 4-5 years, these women living in Maheshpur Bagaan toli in Angadha block, 35 kms from district headquarter Ranchi, have been putting their lives at stake.

There are 45 houses in this basti and most of the people living here are dependent on fishing for survival. Earlier, it used to be the duty of men of the house, but now women have taken over since past 5-6 years. These women are associated with Sakhi Mandal, a self-help group, that falls under National Rural Livelihood Mission.

In 2018, the Jharkhand government, under its Johar Project, formed a production unit so that these women could sell their catch. Around 63 women are a part of it and around 40 women trained themselves and now handle everything -- from fishing to selling their catch -- very efficiently. The fishing department itself has put fish in Getulsud dam so that these villagers can survive. They don't have to pay anything for this, but the bitter truth is that no one is bothered about their safety.

"Don't you fear for your life?" I asked Sheela. "I am used to it now. I panicked today, because you were with me," she said.

While we were walking back, I spotted another boat. The woman rowing it was struggling to navigate. I got a bit worried because there were dark clouds in the sky.

"She is my sister Seeta. She goes everyday with her son, 15. She has to take him along because it's not possible for one person to handle everything, from rowing the boat to catching fish," Sheela said.

While I was still wondering why would a woman put her son's life at stake, Sheela said, "Let me get back home. I have to send my kids to school. I hope they have had their breakfast." She zoomed past me on her husband's motor cycle.

She didn't even get time to get over the fact that she could have drowned few minutes back, while I was still shaking with fear.

I stayed back and offered to help Seeta, 30. I asked a boy loitering around if he knew how to row a boat. "All villagers here have mastered this," he said and we hopped on to a boat.

When we reached closer to Seeta, she laughed and said, "It's like a picnic for you, but this is what I have been doing for the past 5-6 years."

I couldn't stop myself from asking her about her son's safety. "I have two sons. One goes with me, the other one goes with his father. All four of us have to go through this drill every day. It's only after putting in a lot of effort for the past 5-6 years that I was able to build a concrete house for myself."

Seeta got married when she was very young. She always wanted to live in a concrete, tiled house, "a house that is different from all other houses in the village."

Her house truly stands out. Now that she has a house, she now wants to send her children to good schools. For this she would have to step out of her house at 3 in the morning, every single day. It's a vicious cycle for them.

Their stories are truly inspiring.

Sunila Devi, 25, head of the production unit, says: "My mother used to sell fish and as a kid I would drop her. We were very poor; hence I was married off at 16. After two years, I started taking my six-month old daughter along with me to sell fish. Earlier, I would take an auto, but now I have a scooty. It feels good that I don't have to ask for money from my husband."

She handles everything from catching fish and selling them with élan. She has to slog every single day and risk her life, so that the best quality fish reaches your plate.

There are many women like Sheela and Seeta who have incredible stories to tell.

We spent 24 hours with them. They wake up at 3-4 in the morning and go to the dam and spread their net. Then they go to the dam again at 3-4 in the afternoon to collect fish. By 6 they reach Lalpur market in Ranchi, 30 kms from their village, to sell fish. They reach home by midnight and again step out after 2-3 hours. Each woman manages to earn between Rs 500 and Rs 2,000 per day. They get a weekly off only when the wind conditions are not favourable. But otherwise, their lives are mostly all over the place.

"We spend 5-6 hours in catching fish and another 5-6 hours in selling them. This is our life," said Hemanti Devi, 29.

Also Read : Bamboo Brooms are helping these women make money

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