09 / 2001
Walking through the slushy fields bordering the various landing points in Kakdwip, West Bengal (India), one is likely to come across several groups of women mending, joining, stretching and weaving large gillnets. This is quite unusual since in other parts of India it is normally the men who do these tasks. These gillnets are made of nylon yarn and can weigh between 50 to 100 kg.
How is it that women are engaged in these activities? These are not women who have been weaving nets traditionally-it is a skill they have learned to survive. Most of these women are refugees who fled East Pakistan (now Bangladesh) at the time of Independence. They crossed over into India fearing domination by the Muslim majority. Many of them left behind their property and material assets. Even today they tend not to be recognized as citizens by the Indian State.
Many of them come from fishing backgrounds, having lived in the delta areas of Bangladesh. Their men started to fish in West Bengal. While a few of them have succeeded in putting together some assets, a majority remain landless, homeless and jobless. The women took to net-weaving for survival, working either individually or in groups.
Refugee inflow from Bangladesh has continued even in recent years. Says Rani Das, a 32-year old woman: ’In 1981-82 many Muslims in Bangladesh took to fishing all of a sudden, which was a new trend. Many boats and nets of the traditional fisherfolk of the Hindu community were looted and the owners beaten. My husband and his elder brother fell victim to this vandalism in 1982 and lost both their boats and their gear. They were also severely beaten. We had a little more than half a hectare of cultivable land that we then sold to buy a new boat and net. Again, in 1984, at the Dhalchar fishing grounds they were robbed and beaten by Muslim ’goondas’. They again lost their boats and nets. We were often also threatened with dire consequences if we did not quit Bangladesh. Police often declined to register complaints of such atrocities.’
’In 1985, we left Bangladesh and came to Kakdwip in West Bengal. My husband found a job in a fishing boat at Kakdwip and I took up net making. I have 4 children. My husband bought a piece of land at Maity Chawk, where we are living now in a thatched hut. This is a new habitat established by 500 refugee families on purchased lands. After prolonged suffering my husband died, probably from cancer, in 1992. The children are still too young to earn. I am the only one support to them. But what do I earn from making nets? Hardly Rs 5 a day and that too for 4 to 5 months a year. Net making alone does not sustain us. Hence, very often, I go out to different villages for work. We do not get help from any government sources, as our names are not included in the voters list and we have no ration card.’
Fishermen in West Bengal are using the hand-woven gillnets made by these women, at a time when fishermen in the rest of the country have shifted to machine-made nets. Hand-made nets are cheaper, also because they are made from cheaper yarn.
The West Bengal Fishermen’s Union has been trying to help these women and to address the numerous problems faced by them, such as: lack of citizenship status in India and, as a consequence, no access to ration cards or to the public distribution system and other facilities. The women are unionized under the banner of Paschim ’Bengal Matsyajibi’ Forum (West Bengal Fishworkers’ Forum) and are demanding electricity, water and ration cards.
The union started literacy classes for these women. It also undertook a detailed survey. The survey revealed that there were 4071 net weavers in the Kakdwip area with an average daily income of Rs2.56 per head. Of the women, 89 per cent were refugees, 70 per cent were land less, and 75 per cent were illiterate. 18 per cent were below 15 years of age.
Struck by these finding, the union decided to help the women be independent from the merchants. With an investment from the union, about 30 women got together to buy twine to weave nets. This enabled them increase their daily earnings. However, circumstances beyond their control have diminished the success of these efforts. With changes in the fishery, fishermen have shifted to other types of nets or have widened their gillnets and attached heavy sinkers to them. Despite this women have maintained their union membership.
Victims of communal tensions have to cope with great hardship. Forced to migrate from their own countries, they often face as many problems in the countries they escape to. This situation is exemplified by the case of women net weavers in Kakdwip, India, who have been forced to migrate from their home country, Bangladesh. Support from the local fishworker union is helping these women in their struggle for survival and recognition.
Articles and files ; Book
NAYAK, Nalini, ICSF=International Collective in Support of Fishworkers, Women in Fisheries Series : Women First, Report of the Women in Fisheries Programme of ICSF in India, ICSF in. Samudra Dossier series, 1996 (India), 2, 62-66