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 .