She was only 17 when she began trading at the Cuddalore fishing harbour. All that she had going for her was Rs. 1,800; capital her mother gave her to set up her business. Today, Veni, 62, is a successful auctioneer and vendor at the harbour. Like the house she’s proud of having constructed with great difficulty, she has also built her business “step by step”.

Veni raised four children single-handed, after her husband, who was an alcohol addict, left her. Her daily earnings were low, and barely enough to survive. With the emergence of ring seine fishing, she invested in boats, borrowing money in lakhs. The returns on her investment enabled her to educate her children, and build a house.

Ring seine fishing gained popularity on the Cuddalore coast from the late 1990s, but its use increased rapidly after the 2004 tsunami. The ring seine gear uses encircling techniques to catch passing schools of marine pelagic fish such as sardine, mackerel and anchovies.

Watch video: 'I am where I am because of my hard work'

The need for large capital investments and demand for labour made small-scale fishers form groups of shareholders, sharing both costs and returns. This was how Veni became an investor and grew her business. Ring seine boats opened up opportunities for women, as auctioneers, vendors and driers of fish. “Thanks to the ring seine, my status grew in the society,” says Veni. “I became a bold lady, and so I came up.”

While the boats are exclusive male spaces, as soon as they land at the harbour, women take over – from auctioning the catch to vending fish, from cutting and drying the fish to disposing of the waste, from selling ice, to tea and cooked food. Though fisher women are usually characterised as fish vendors, there are an equal number of women who take on the tasks of fish handling, often working in partnership with the vendors. But little recognition is given to both the value and diversity of women’s contributions to the fisheries sector.

Watch video: Fish handling in Cuddalore

For women like Veni, and even the younger Bhanu, their incomes form the financial backbone for their families. But they see their work as lacking respect and social value. Their contributions, both direct and indirect, are invisibilised.

In 2018, the government of Tamil Nadu banned the ring seine gear for its role in contributing to over-fishing, including of juvenile fish, and destroying the marine environment. The ban has destroyed Veni’s livelihood, and of many other women like her. From 1 lakh rupees in a day, her earnings have fallen to 800-1,200 rupees per day. “I have lost nearly 1 crore rupees because of the ban on ring seine,” says Veni. “Lakhs of people have been affected, not just me.”

Yet the women continue working, supporting each other through hard times, taking time off to build solidarity, not giving up.

The film featuring Veni is written in collaboration with Tara Lawrence and Nicolas Bautes.

Read also: Puli gets by on shells, scales, heads and tails

Nitya Rao

Nitya Rao is Professor, Gender and Development, University of East Anglia, Norwich, UK. She has worked extensively as a researcher, teacher and advocate in the field of women’s rights, employment and education for over three decades.

Other stories by Nitya Rao
Alessandra Silver

Alessandra Silver is an Italian-born filmmaker based in Auroville, Puducherry, who has received several awards for her film production and photo reportage in Africa.

Other stories by Alessandra Silver