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 Staff Photographer at People's Archive of Rural India. He is interested in documenting the lives of working-class women and marginalised people. Palani has received the Amplify grant in 2021, and Samyak Drishti and Photo South Asia Grant in 2020. He received the first Dayanita Singh-PARI Documentary Photography Award in 2022. Palani was also the cinematographer of ‘Kakoos' (Toilet), a Tamil-language documentary exposing the practice of manual scavenging in Tamil Nadu.

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Text Editor : Vishaka George

Vishaka George is Senior Editor at PARI. She reports on livelihoods and environmental issues. Vishaka heads PARI's Social Media functions and works in the Education team to take PARI's stories into the classroom and get students to document issues around them.

Other stories by Vishaka George