The very mention of free diving paints a picture of an adventure sport that is meant to give people the adrenaline rush and memorable experiences.
But for around 300 women from Tamil Nadu’s Chinnapalam (or Little Bridge) village, free diving is no sport – it is a battle for survival.
Unlike the conventional divers, these women – aged between 20 and 60 – cannot afford a diving suit, a mask or an oxygen cylinder. So these sari-clad divers take a leap of faith every time they dive into the sea for a rather pressing concern: to earn a living.
“We ransom our lives”
Situated on the confluence of two seas – the Bay of Bengal and the Indian Ocean in the Gulf of Mannar, islands off Rameshwaram harbor that are a treasure trove of marine wealth.
Seaweed is the common name for countless species of marine plants and algae that grow in the ocean and are used in foods, cosmetics and medicines.
Pamban Bridge, India’s first and second-longest sea-bridge, connects the mainland with the Pamban islands. (This was also the location for the Bollywood film Chennai Express.)
Chinnapalam village is a hub of poverty and squalor. On the right is an army of haphazardly anchored boats and on the left is the village that has a cluster of thatched houses, punctuated by a few one-story pucca houses.
Laxmi Moorthy, a 48-year-old seaweed collector, lives in one of the few pucca houses in the village. She started seaweed collection as a child and had two near-death experiences in her four-decades-long career as a seaweed harvester.
“I have cheated death twice,” she says. “The first one was when I was around 10 to 12 years-old. The other incident happened during the tsunami of 2004. This took place near the Kurusadi Theevu. In this incident, I was the lone survivor of the 15 people who were onboard the ill-fated boat.”
“We ransom our lives to enter the sea so that we can earn something to eat,” says Laxmi as she wraps pieces of clothes around her fingers to protect them from thorns attached to seaweed.
Despite the risk, the number of women going to the sea has increased over the years. Earlier, there were only 50 to 60 seaweed collectors; now, the number has gone up to 300.
Bhagawathy S, 37, who is the head of the seaweed collectors’ group, says, “While income has reduced after the harvesting restrictions, the number of people in the trade has increased. Earlier, only a few women used to go the sea but now a lot of women have come in the business. We are facing problems because of reduced income.”
After all these hardships these women make around Rs 300-500 daily during the 12 working days every month. And they cannot miss these working days at any cost.
So what if they don’t have a proper mask? They make do with a borrowed snorkeling mask, pieces of cotton wrapped around their fingers serve as hand gloves and slippers make for flippers.
“You have seen that we enter the sea in whatever dress we are wearing and bruise our hands and feet while harvesting the seaweeds. To safeguard our life and limbs, we need protective suits, gloves and shoes,” insists Laxmi who has been bitten by electric eels several times.
The 2002 government declaration
Since childhood, Lakshmi has worked in the Gulf of Mannar as a seaweed harvester, a subsistence living for many women of her community.
In 2002, that livelihood came under threat as the government began enforcing a marine reserve in their traditional harvesting grounds.
“Sometimes, the forest department officials seize our fishing nets, food and other materials. When we request them to release the items, they ask for bribes,” says Bhagawathy, who is the sole breadwinner in her family (her husband is bedridden and therefore unfit to go the sea).
Seaweed harvesting near the islands was prohibited after the 2002 declaration. The administration is now planning to barricade the island and bar entry within a radius of 500 metres.
“The forest department doesn’t allow us go beyond 60km from the shores. That’s why we started protesting and demanding withdrawal of such restrictions. Most of the seaweed is found within half a kilometer of radius of the islands, if they block our access to the islands, how are we supposed to do seaweed harvesting. How will be put food for our families and tend our ailing loved ones?” Bhagawathy argues while getting ready to take a jump.
As the former head of seaweed collectors’ union, Laxmi helped organise the displaced workers into a federation that decided to protect both the environment and the women’s livelihood.
In 2014, the government agreed to recognise the Gulf of Mannar seaweed collectors as a unique group of fisherwomen and issued them biometric ID cards to protect them from harassment by officials. They are now free to safeguard their resources and to pursue their livelihoods.
“Following this, we curtailed harvesting to 12 days in a months ie six days from every Pournami (full moon day), then a break of nine days. And then again do harvesting from Amavasai (new moon day) followed by a break of nine days,” Laxmi says.
Through the self-regulation under which they work for 12 days and take a rest for 18 days, the seaweed collectors intend to give time for the seaweeds to regenerate.
Recognising Laxmi’s contribution in uniting the women and protecting the seaweeds, Laxmi was given the Seacology Award in California, US last year.
These women make around Rs 6,000 every month and use that money to run their families and put their children through school.
Bhagawathy has been in the business of seaweed harvesting for the past 18 years but she doesn’t want her children to take up this profession.
“There is a lot of hardship in this profession. That’s why I want my children to study well and take up a better job,” she argues.
Laxmi, who donated Rs 2 lakh of her reward money for construction of a school in Chinnapalam, echoes Bhagawathy’s sentiment.
“We have understood that illiteracy is the reason for our backwardness and only through education we can progress forward in life,” she says.