Watch video:  This is the only work we have till we die

I first noticed her while travelling in the Buckingham Canal area in 2019. Like a grebe bird, her dexterity to dive and swim underwater in the canal caught my attention. She swiftly ran her hands through the coarse sand of the riverbed and picked prawns faster than anyone else there.

Govindamma Velu is a member of the Irular community, listed as a Scheduled Tribe in Tamil Nadu. She has been wading through the Kosasthalaiyar river near Chennai ever since she was a little girl to catch prawns. Now in her late 70s, her family’s dire financial circumstances force her to continue doing this work, even as she struggles with poor vision and bruises.

I shot this video of her at work in the Buckingham Canal, next to the Kosasthalaiyar river in the northern part of Chennai. In between diving to catch prawns, she talks about her life, and how this is the only job she knows.

You can read more about Govindamma’s life here .

M. Palani Kumar

M. Palani Kumar is PARI's Staff Photographer and documents the lives of the marginalised. He was earlier a 2019 PARI Fellow. Palani was the cinematographer for ‘Kakoos’, a documentary on manual scavengers in Tamil Nadu, by filmmaker Divya Bharathi.

Other stories by M. Palani Kumar
Text Editor : Vishaka George

Vishaka George is a Bengaluru-based Senior Reporter at the People’s Archive of Rural India and PARI’s Social Media Editor. She is also a member of the PARI Education team which works with schools and colleges to bring rural issues into the classroom and curriculum.

Other stories by Vishaka George