Human Interest
With increasing popularity of clam meat, units processing these molluscs enable women to make a sustainable living without leaving their village.
All images by Chithra Ajith

“This Korappuzha River will never let us starve,” said 67-year-old Sarasamma. As she boiled clams in big vessels, Sarasamma said that she had been working in the clam processing unit in West Velur, a riverside village in Atholi panchayat of coastal Kozhikode, for the past 12 years. 

There are many small units functioning in sheds along the riverbank in West Velur engaged in clam and squid processing. A majority of the workers are women from the locality, who work in these processing units to earn their livelihood.

‘We had a hard time this year because of the floods. The floods caused severe damage to the work sheds,” said Rajan, who owns a processing unit. “There was no one to fetch the clams, as the river was in spate. Otherwise, women have enough work and a steady income.”

Clam meat as a delicacy has become popular in the recent past, giving rise to processing units, as the river near West Velur has a rich stock. The units continue to provide a local livelihood opportunity to women of this small village.

Clam processing

“This river is rich with clams and fishermen here are experts in collecting them by diving deep. They sell the clams to us in baskets, priced per basket,” said Rajan. “After washing the clams in the riverbank itself, we transfer them to the processing sheds.”

“We boil the clam in big vessels for about 40 minutes, using coconut husk as fuel. Then we put them into a flat sieve fixed on a table. Using a thin, strong board we rub the hot clam,” Rohini told VillageSquare.in. “The meat falls on the table and shells remain in the sieve. It is easy to remove the shell while the clam is hot.” 

“The water here becomes slightly salty in summer, and hence the clams too. Consumers can sense the taste difference easily. So, during the other months, we add a little bit of salt while boiling, to balance the taste,” said Kunjiraman, who runs a quicklime unit as well.

In each shed, normally four or five women are involved in the processing. The women clean the clam meat thoroughly after processing. After washing, they pack the clam meat for dispatch.

Local employment

The women earn against the volume of work done, normally in basket measures. Convenient work hours, reasonable wages, pollution-free atmosphere and working within their village make the work attractive to the women.

“I started working here a few years ago. The work needs less effort,” Malathi told VillageSquare.in. “The clams are available almost through the year, except during heavy rains. Working at a leisurely pace and earning without stepping out of the neighbourhood is a boon.”

“The work atmosphere is also homelike. Those of us working here share a good rapport and so it’s nice to work here,” said Malathi. The owner of the processing unit provides lunch for the women. One of the women cooks lunch, while the others process the clams.

Livelihood for women

“Many of us lead a happy life only because of this work. I lost my husband 15 years ago. I brought up my three children and got my daughters married with the income I earned here,” Justina told VillageSquare.in. “The 100-odd workers here stand together in good and bad times. The work gives us confidence.”

Nisha, along with three of her friends started a fish stall in the village three months ago. They started it under the Theeramaithri project of Kerala State Cooperative Federation for Fisheries Development Ltd (Matsyafed). Theeramaithri, meaning coast-friendly, provides livelihood support to fisherfolk.

“Matsyafed sanctioned this stall with a subsidy. We sell fresh fish here, which are always in high demand,” Nisha told VillageSquare.in. “We also run a clams processing unit adjacent to our stall. Our work gives us immense self-esteem.”

Clam meat market

Hoteliers and marine businesses buy clam meat from the processing units regularly. Most of them are from Mangaluru and Goa. Some big marine businesses outsource the processing to these units. Clams are in demand not only for the taste but also for being rich in calcium, vitamins, proteins and minerals.

“These clam processing units started only about 15 years ago, providing jobs, especially for women,” said Rajan. According to him, the villagers used to pile up the clams along the riverbank and used the clam shells later, to produce quicklime. The villagers said that they were not aware that the meat could be cooked.

“When people from Mangaluru, Goa and Mahe came here for clam meat, we tasted it,” said Rajan. We slowly understood the commercial viability of clam business and started processing units here. Now restaurants and bars buy processed clams regularly.”

Colour of the shell also plays a part in the price. “Generally, we get black clams here. It costs Rs 120 to Rs150 per basket, whereas white and golden clams cost double and triple,” Kunjiraman told VillageSquare.in. “The meat of the golden clams are the tastiest.”

Sustainability and sustenance

Some villagers including Rajan run squid processing units also. Around 20 people work in each squid processing unit, and 90% of them are women. Companies outsource the processing to these units, supply squid and collect the processed loads every day.

The Arabian Sea has squid or calamari, especially the red ones, in abundance. Squids brought to West Velur for processing, come mainly from Cochin, Mangaluru and Goa. Squid processing needs a bit of skill. After cleaning, the tubular squids are cut into rings for fried dishes and square pieces for curry. Squid waste is used as manure.

“These units never cause any pollution as we use only natural resources. We need only water to clean and boil the clams. Leftover coconut husk is used as fuel and the leftover shells are used to make burnt lime. The cycle is eco-friendly. There are no health hazards. So we are happy,” said one of the women workers.

One of the workers, a kidney patient, finds working in the clam processing unit ideal. “I cannot do heavy work, but I can manage the shell removal and cooking easily. It earns me money and peace of mind,” she said.

A young mother with two small children said she cannot leave them and go for work elsewhere. “With this, I can manage work and home without much tension. When the kids play here, someone or the other keeps an eye on them,” she said.

“The clams grow annually so there is no need to worry about the stock for our processing units,” Rajan told VillageSquare.in. “We feed many with this coastal delicacy while we earn our livelihood.”

Chithra Ajith is a journalist based in Kozkikode, Kerala. Views are personal.

This article was originally published on VillageSquare.in and can be found here