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Seaweed harvesters

As in 2019

Balajee C R, These saree-clad women divers may be the last of their kind, March 26, 2019: The Times of India

D Rani, gears up to venture into the sea. Clad in saree and t-shirt, she also wears self-made footwear, worn out gloves and goggles
From: Balajee C R, These saree-clad women divers may be the last of their kind, March 26, 2019: The Times of India

RAMESHWARAM: The women of Bharathinagar, if they are asked, let people in on the secret to collecting seaweed from under the waves. For decades, these women from the little fishing hamlet near Kilakarai in Ramanathapuram district have been diving and harvesting seaweed from the Gulf of Mannar, and have been romanticised in local lore and by tourists.

“Men don’t have the patience it takes to be adept at diving for seaweed. That is why we are so good at it,” said R Rakkamma, 51, with a smile. Rakkamma is secretary of the Women Seaweed Harvesters’ Federation, which has more than 2,000 members from 21 villages in the region. The president, Meenakshi, was away on a three-day seaweed-harvesting expedition in the gulf when TOI visited the area. The target of the expedition was an island close to Tuticorin.

Women stay for as long as three hours inside water to collect enough seaweeds for the day

“It was only from photos and videos of tourists and others that we realised what we are doing is indeed risky. We go through a lot of hardship to earn an average of Rs 350 per day,” added Rakkamma.

At dawn every day, the women, including the middle-aged and old, accompany men on boats a few nautical miles offshore. The women then dive into the water, sometimes to depths of more than 25 to 30 feet, in their saris, and start collecting seaweed. They stay in the water for more than three hours on an average, and then return to the boat with their haul. Back on the shore, they separate "trade-able" seaweed from the rest, dry and sell the harvest.

“That is on a good day. When the weather is bad, we just walk a few metres into the sea and collect whatever is possible. We also go to nearby islands like Appatheevu, Mullitheevu and Vazhatheevu, and occasionally camp for a couple of days or so and pluck seaweeds off the seabed from there,” said Raniamma, 52, who has been diving since she was 10.

Though there is no concrete reason why this particular profession is dominated by women in this region, evidence suggests this practice started at least a generation ago when women used to accompany their husbands while the latter went fishing. The women then began exploring the possibility of harvesting seaweed, also known as "paasi", abundant in the gulf.

While the men were fishing, Kilakarai women started harvesting seaweed found in abundance in Gulf of Mannar

“It does not earn us much, but it is something. Holding our breath underwater for a long time is something we women are good at. We also don’t mind braving the chilly water during winter as we get more seaweed during this season, meaning greater income,” Rakkamma said.

The women harvest seaweed throughout the year (more than 10 days every month) and only for a period between a fortnight prior to the end of fishing season in April, till the beginning of the next season in June, do they stop the practice. The women dress in a combination of sari and t-shirt, wear rudimentary goggles, worn-out gloves, a bag tied to their waist to collect seaweed and self-made and sometimes unfinished footwear.

“It takes a toll on the body and is risky. We don’t want our daughters to live like this," says Muthuvelu, 57, who stopped diving after a surgery last year It’s not that men do not contribute anything – apart from a small number who dive and pluck seaweed, other men assist female members of their families “I help my mother dry the harvest and sell it,” said Selvakumar, a 38-year-old fisherman.

Seaweeds have both edible and non-edible varieties. Seaweed harvested around Rameswaram are mainly used in three industries: in the food industry as an essential ingredient in several dishes, as dye fixers in the textile industry and in fertilisers. They are also increasingly being used in pharmaceuticals.

The art might, however, be dying. Very few young women go diving for seaweed anymore. “It takes a toll on the body and is risky. We don’t want our daughters to live like this, so we haven’t encouraged them to follow us,” said Muthuvelu, 57, who stopped diving after a surgery last year. “Only education will help them live a better life than we have had. The forest department’s new rules also prevent us from going out into the sea as freely as earlier, which hampers our occupation,” Muthuvelu added.

The volume of harvest has also fallen, partly after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, according to the divers. But experts dispute this. “The focus in India has been on harvesting, not on cultivation, which has led to overexploitation. Look at the Philippines: they grow and harvest seaweed. We could cultivate indigenous seaweed through shallow water farming using techniques like floating bamboo method. For this, we need to be provided with the latest technologies,” said M Rajendra Kumar, who runs R K Algae Project Centre at Mandapam in Ramanathapuram district.

"Ours isn’t a tale of empowerment. We are just trying to make ends meet," says Rakkamma, one of the women divers

Meanwhile, S Sumayaa, principal of Thassim Beevi Abdul Kader College for Women at Kilakarai, who has done several researches on seaweed, said there was very poor awareness among the general public about marine algae, its health benefits and medicinal properties and hence people should be sensitised about it. “Edible seaweeds have many nutrients in them and if they are provided in the form of chocolates for children and other kinds of food products to people of all age groups, it could significantly aid in curbing nutritional deficiency. Gulf of Mannar is home to more than 240 seaweed varieties and there are at least 185 edible ones, but most people aren’t aware of this,” she added.'

Seaweed harvested around Rameswaram are used in food, textile and fertiliser industries

Asked how they felt on being arguably the last group of women to harvest seaweeds, the women said they were more concerned about livelihood.

“Ours isn’t a tale of empowerment. We are just trying to make ends meet,” said Rakkamma, as she awaited for the next batch of divers to return to the shore. Photo credit: K. Antony Xavier

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