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Fisher girl to TV celebrity: Sharada Devi’s evolution

Oct 01, 2013

Working in the old colonial Dutch fishing village of Beemili, about 50 kilometres from Andhra Pradesh’s coastal city of Visakhapatnam, Sharada Devi has emerged as an able defender of the rights of her community, writes Pamela Philipose.

Visakhapatnam: Sharada Devi, 34, from the fishing community in the small village of Govupeta, educated herself by simply trying to understand the social processes going on around her. Her formal educational qualifications are basic; schooling ended far too quickly. As she explains simply, “I was married after I passed Class X, after that there was no question of going to school.”

Yet today, working in the old colonial Dutch fishing village of Beemili, about 50 kilometres from Andhra Pradesh’s coastal city of Visakhapatnam, Sharada Devi has emerged as an able defender of the rights of her community. She is vice president of the block level Samparadaya Matsyakarula Samakya (Traditional Fisherfolk Society) and co-covenor of the Samparadaya Matsyakarula Samakya at the district level, posts that had hitherto been held only by men. Besides this she is a ward member from the community and administers five women’s cooperatives. “My colleagues and I manage the collection of money and keep accounts without any outside help,” says this mother of two daughters, proudly.

It was her association with Vikasa that set Sharada Devi on this road of discovery. Vikasa, an organisation instituted by social activist P. Viswanadham, had entered into a partnership with ActionAid India over a decade ago to help the fishing community of the area develop their capacities and access their entitlements. Viswanadham remembers Sharada as a shy girl. “When I first met her, she was very reluctant to even come out of her home. Now she is an impressive public speaker and can travel anywhere without fear,” he says.

This transformation was the result of regular capacity building exercises conducted by Vikasa-ActionAid. Says Sharada Devi, “I began by attending the fortnightly meetings of a sangha (cooperative society) run by Vikasa regularly. The first issue we were exposed to was sand mining. The sand mafia was mixing sea and river sand in a place close to our village and this was disturbing the local ecology.”

Interestingly, while the men in the community were reluctant to take on the sand mafia, the women had no such qualms. Around 29 women of Sharada’s sangha stormed their way to the site. “We confronted the sand miners and told them that their activities were destroying the seashore and affecting the livelihood of our community,” she recalls. Whether their intervention had indeed made a difference may never be known, but the sand mining activity in that neighbourhood wound down shortly thereafter.

Slowly, Sharada got drawn into activities that went beyond her village. After the 2004 tsunami, she was put in charge of working with women in 10 other fishing villages in the area, for a stipend of Rs 1,000 to cover travel costs. Such interactions really opened her eyes and helped her understand the specific problems of women in the community.

Vikasa would also organise large gatherings of women activists from the block, district and state level. “It was part of alliance building and we termed the process ‘Spandana’. Such strategies helped women here to meet up with women from other parts of the state and share strategies. Although many of them had very little formal education, it was amazing how quickly they learnt. This is education not through schooling but through exposure to different social processes,” explains Viswanadham.

Sharada Devi agrees with the assessment, “Once we became aware of our rights as women and as members of the fishing community we gained the courage to speak. Then miracles started happening.” Gender sensitisation impacted different aspects of life, including sensitive family matters. When Sharada gave birth to her second daughter, her husband’s family was insistent that she go in for a third child in the hope that it would be a son. “I was happy with my girls and didn’t want more children, but I wasn’t allowed to undergo a sterilisation. Yet I stood firm, and could persuade my husband to opt for a vasectomy. Now he advises others to have smaller families irrespective of whether they have sons or daughters!” Meanwhile, the couple’s two daughters are doing extremely well in school, and their mother hopes they will become independent professional women some day.

Despite these waves of change, Sharada Devi would be the first to admit that the problems women from the fishing community face have not gone away but only taken on new forms. Says she, “Alcoholism continues to be a huge concern. There are shops known as ‘belt shops’, which are illegal branches of the main licence-holding liquor shop. We women tried to intervene in one instance and even succeeded in shutting down the belt shops in our village – but only briefly. They always spring up again and today they are there everywhere in spite of our protests.” Alcoholism, in turn, is linked very closely to domestic violence. Here too the women’s sanghas had tried to address it but now admit that it is extremely difficult to come up with a lasting solution precisely because the crime is considered so “normal” and part of “family life”.

Another intractable issue is the rapid commercialisation of the coastline in the name of development. That earlier encounter with the sand mining mafia had brought about an understanding of the ecological fragility of the Visakhapatnam-Bheemunipatnam coastal stretch and Sharada Devi fears for the future. “Our region is changing rapidly. I used to remember the sea about 500 m away. Now it is barely 200 m away and this is partly because the government is not concerned about protecting the coastline. They call it development. But is this development, and who is it benefitting? First we had to fight against the mechanized boats fishing illegally in our waters. Now we have to fight big projects that are violating coastal guidelines,” she says.

To do this, she had to learn how to use the Right to Information Act. “With more knowledge about the law, I now know how to get information from any government office. In this way, we get to know who is lobbying for what; which chemical unit is coming up where. All this is very crucial information for the fisher community in its battle for survival,” says the young leader.

Sharada Devi’s community work has not gone unnoticed. On International Women’s Day 2013, she was given a special award as a social activist by a local television channel, TV 9. When the cameras came to her small village to capture her life, it created quite a stir in the neighbourhood. It is not often that an anonymous woman from the fishing community gets the attention of mainstream media.

Reveals Sharada Devi, “My father then recalled that I had been born on Republic Day. He said this meant that I would either become inspired by great people and do great things, or go on the wrong track!” She adds with a smile, “Today, he says he is proud of me for being on the right track!”

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