“Indha meen vaangittu poma (buy this fish), Oru kooru ambadhu roova dhaan (a handful of fish is just Rs 50), era vaangama poriyea (are you leaving without buying prawns). There is a sense of desperation as fisherwomen in Ennore fish market make these trade calls. There was no haggling over price or out-screaming others for hard sell. When a customer from Ernavur sought fish worth Rs 200 for Rs 50, one fourth the quoted price Selvi, a fisherwoman from Sivanpadai Veedhi, sold it without hesitation.
Fisherwomen like Selvi, from the eight fishing hamlets located on the banks of Buckingham Canal and Kosasthalaiyar find it hard to keep their income steady and are selling fish for a meagre price. The plight of fishermen is related to two man-made disasters in the Ennore locality in December 2023. The eight fishing hamlets in the Ennore locality were severely impacted by the oil spill from the Chennai Petroleum Corporation Limited (CPCL) on December 4. Within three weeks, on December 26, the Ammonia gas leakage occurred from Coromandel International Limited (CIL), a fertiliser company owned by Murugappa group.
Oil leakage from the CPCL Manali facility has destroyed the livelihoods of fishers in Ennore. Ever since the oil spill, inland fishers of Kaattukuppam, Mugadhwarakuppam, Sivanpadai Veedhi, Chinnakuppam and marine fishers from the Ennore Kuppam, Periyakuppam Thazhanguppam, Nettukuppam stopped fishing. The oil spill killed aquatic beings and heavily damaged the microhabitats of fish and other edible cetaceans like crabs, prawns, and mussels in Ennore creek.
While a section of residents in the Ennore locality continued with the protest to shut down the CIL, women from several fishing hamlets returned to work. Women’s central role in the fishery economy and assigned gender roles in the households pushed them back to work but they found selling fish is now a struggle.
On January 7, the fisherwomen from Nettukuppam, Thazhanguppam, and Periyakuppam had set out at 4 am in the morning to Kasimedu and Chintadripet in North Chennai known for bustling fresh fish sales every Sunday. Kasimedu, a hub of fishing hamlets, is located 11 km away from Ennore while Chintadripet is 19 km away. It was the fourth day since they started doing this - buying fish locales like Kasimedu and selling them at Ennore to ensure their income levels do not get hit.
They would purchase the fresh fish and transport them in auto rickshaws to Ennore. The Ennore fish market which normally has more than 60 vendors had only 20 vendors on January 7. On any Sunday morning the market would be crowded with people but on that day there were hardly 30 customers.
Whenever a fisherwoman called the customers to have a look at the fish they sold, she would add, “Do not worry. This is fresh fish from Kasimedu not from the oil-dumped river.”
Lokanayaki, a fisherwoman in her late 60s, told TNM that she could not travel to Kasimedu or Chintadripet due to her age and health condition. “I’ll give money to other fisherwomen who travel to Kasimedu so they will get me prawns. If the sale does not happen, I will bring the prawns home to cook. As of now, I cannot buy any fish. Because some fish cannot be preserved and I cannot afford to lose my money just like that,” she said.
In the market, Mathi, another fisherwoman from Thazhanguppam, said she bought a basket of oil sardines for Rs 2000, pomfret at Rs 150 per kg, and shark at Rs 200 per kg. “We may put Rs 50 as a margin. But considering the transportation cost - auto rickshaws charge Rs 250 for a way trip between Kasimedu and Ennore - salary to women who cut and clean the fishes, and few customers there would be hardly any profit,” she said. If there are only a few customers we need to cut down the price or put the fish into the garbage at the end of the day, she said.
The customers who turned up to the Ennore market, after a month, showed reluctance for the obvious reason of the massive oil spill and tried to bargain a lower price for fish. Some of them left the market without buying anything. “I do not think these fish are affected by the oil spill. I made curry using the fish I bought two days ago. It was as usual,” a customer told TNM.
In Kasimedu, fisherwomen said that there was no impact of the oil spill in North Chennai. Aadhilakshmi, a fisherwoman from Kasimedu, said that there was an impact during the oil spill in 2017. “The fish were dead and washed ashore. People stopped buying fish. But the recent oil spill was specific to Ennore and impacted inland fishers more than marine fishers,” she said.
On January 28, 2017, LPG tanker BW Maple rammed into a petroleum tanker MT Dawn Kacheepuram loaded with Petroleum Oil Lubricant (POL) two nautical miles off the Kamarajar Port at Ennore. The massive oil spill spread close to 35 km of coastline and polluted the marine ecosystem. The oil spill impacted the small-scale fishers and they struggled to make ends meet affecting fish sales.
According to the fisherwomen in Kasimedu, fishers from Periyakuppam, Nettukuppam, and Thazhanguppam go for marine fishing and bring the fish to Kasimedu to sell often. “Last month, they stopped going fishing. Nearly 50 vendor spaces allocated for the Ennore fishers in the Kasimedu market are empty these days,” said Aachi, a fisherwoman from Kasi Vishalatchi Kuppam. Customers from Royapuram and Kasimedu locality did not hesitate to buy fish from Kasimedu fish market.
Like agriculture, women equally participate in aquaculture, artisanal seafood processing, trade, and retail of fresh fish. The men's contribution to the economy stops right after their fishing. The rest of the workforce in the fishery economy depends on the contribution of fisherwomen. For instance, the fresh catch from the sea is sold by an impromptu bidding process on the shores which is always headed by a fisherwoman in Tamil Nadu. The highest bidder will take away the fish. The sellers in the markets are also the fisherwomen. They are involved in fish gutting, artisanal food processing, investing in the boats, and looking after the loans that are borrowed for fishing.
Srinivasan of Kaattukuppam Meenava Podhunala Sevai Sangam, a fisher union from Kattukuppam, estimates that 1500 to 1800 women are directly involved in fishery in Ennore locality. "Ninety percent of the market-related work is being carried out by women only. Even if Ennore fishers start to go fishing, there is no assurance of getting a good catch and making money out of it. But, the family and business-related finances are managed by the women of the households. They are answerable to the financiers. Without many choices left, they are now trying to make money to run the family, and to feed the family members, and to not have the financiers in front of the door who charge exorbitant interest for loans" Srinivasan noted further.
K Bharathi, president of the South Indian Fishermen's Welfare Association, told TNM that the government has failed to recognise the contribution of fisherwomen in many ways. "The fishery department added women as members. However, during the relief/compensation process after the oil spill, they were considered a part of the fisherman's family, not an individual who earns and is part of the active workforce. The government provided money to each household rather than addressing the plights of the fisherwomen during such crises and supporting them,” he said.
Most people think fishermen are the ones who get affected badly during such disasters and they alone are the providers to their families. "No, it's women who bear the burden of running families, whether they have a good catch or not. The family situation, the assigned gender roles, and their involvement in getting loans, and boat maintenance, pushed them to return to the workforce," he said.
Fishermen who own boats get loans from financiers before going into the sea, for fuel and for paying salaries to the group of men they hired for fishing. It's women as fish sellers who bear the burden of making money by selling the catch at the end of the day, he said. “It is a distress fisherwomen of Ennore are going through right now but unrecognised,” he said.