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India: Healers of the coast

Feb 26, 2010

Local women engaged with self help groups are bringing sustainable changes in the Gulf of Mannar, a narrow strip of land on the southern coast of India. Non-fishing activities are enhancing incomes and local resources are being used in ecologically sensitive ways.

Gulf of Mannar: The Pamban bridge connects mainland India to the Gulf of Mannar. Crossing it is an incredible experience. As the train slowly makes its way across the bridge, the women in the ‘ladies only’ compartment pronounce the same words almost in unison, “Samundar aayee gayo” (the sea has come).


Passengers rush for a window view, prayers are chanted, and coins are thrown into the blue expanse below. The crossover takes on an almost spiritual dimension. The Gulf of Mannar (GoM) is a world of magical beauty, mysticism and biodiversity.

A narrow strip of land on the Tamil Nadu coast separates the waters of the Gulf from the Bay of Bengal to the east. Devout Hindus believe that this strip was built by their sacred deity, Lord Rama and his ‘Vanar Sena’ (army of monkeys) as they crossed into what is present Sri Lanka to rescue Sita, Rama's wife, after she was abducted by Ravana, the demon king.

Today, there is another rescue that is being attempted here: Local communities, well represented by women, are engaged in evolving a roadmap to conserve this rare ecosystem that has become an ecological hotspot. At places its waters have become so turbid, thanks to oil from vessels and effluents from nearby industries, that the exotic marine life of the region is endangered. Over-fishing, illegal coral mining, and the over-harvesting of sea grass are among the major threats.

The 252 villages in the immediate rim of the GoM are home to 225,000 people. Says Nazeem Banu, a sociologist attached to the Gulf of Mannar Bioreserve Trust (GoMBRT), “About 90% of the people here directly depend on marine resources from the Gulf for their livelihood.” Experts point out that a large percentage of these people are engaged in some form of illegal exploitation and harvesting of the Gulf's resources.

It was in the 1970s that environmentalists began to discern the signals of degradation emanating from the GoM, with its 3,600 species of flora and fauna, including 117 kinds of corals, ornamental fishes, rare molluscs, dugongs and dolphins. In 2000, a Trust was formed to oversee a conservation plan, with the participation of the government, academics and social activists. However, it was only in 2002 that the final decision was taken to establish a core marine park of 560 square kilometres in the GoM area and India and the UN signed an agreement on its conservation.

A corpus for managing the Gulf was then set up with the Global Environment Fund providing $7,650,000, UNDP India adding another $1,000,000, banks and other financial institutions providing $1,120,000 and the Tamil Nadu government allocating $16,965,000. The objective was to manage the GoM reserve in such a way as to allow sustainable livelihood without the overexploitation of its resources.

An UNDP mid-term review of the project in April 2008 by experts Peter Hunnam and Ravi Shankaran, observed that gender equity was vital for the success of the project. They put it this way: “The project management is concerned about gender inequity, but the tendency has been perpetuation of unequal participation of men and women in decision making and activity at different levels. It is clear that men dominate in all of the governing committees...”

Explains Nazeem, “From the very beginning, it was obvious that large numbers of women were needed to be involved in the decision-making processes.” She adds, “It was a very long and hard journey for us, it took us more than three years and constant consultations and efforts at joint participation to create awareness among the local people that the bio-reserve is a community heritage that needs their protection.”

In 2009, the trust got a woman chairperson - Indian Forest Service officer and plant expert, Dr Aruna Basu Sarcar. She focused all her attention on the project. The local people say that she can be frequently spotted at fish landing sites, inspecting the catch, talking to school kids, or visiting computer training programmes. Under her stewardship, as many as 2,150 Self-Help Groups (SHGs) have been set up with alternative employment generation capacities.

In every village, a conservation and development committee (CDC) or eco-development committee (CEDC) has been set up. This has the representation of the village chief, or an elected official, and six other members - including the staff of the local police, navy, coastguard and other law-enforcing agencies, representatives from the forest, fisheries and wildlife departments, as well as community members.

One field project worker of the Trust, chosen by the community, oversees three to four villages. Of the 66 field project workers, 54 are women. Observes Manjula, a field project worker, “It is important work to see that everyone knows what not to do and how to help in preserving the natural resources of the Gulf. After all, it is ours.”

The UNDP mid-term appraisal pointed to the subtle change of mindset that the Trust facilitated by bringing women in large numbers into the CEDCs. It said, “Women form the majority of SHG members and micro-credit recipients, have clearly participated more enthusiastically and, consequently, have been the main beneficiaries of the project to date.” The Trust's activities now involve 140,000 people.

By enhancing family incomes through non-fishing activities, women have contributed greatly in reducing the exploitation of the bio-reserve. They now engage in dry-fish making and marketing, mat- and basket-making, jaggery-making and tailoring. They generate additional income by making bricks and charcoal. In one case, a group of women in a village who knew how to make a special kind of ‘halwa’ (sweetmeat) but had no resources was given Rs 60,000 (US$1=Rs 46.1) from the trust fund to start a ‘halwa’-making business.

At the same time, even activities involving the use of local resources are now being done in a sustainable, ecologically sensitive way. For instance, women who used to harvest naturally growing sea grass and seaweed, popular as additive in the food industry now farm seaweed. In this process, instead of destroying the naturally growing sea grass and seaweed which provides feeding and breeding ground for many small marine creatures, bamboo frames with seed-plants are placed into the sea. After a few weeks, these frames are lifted, and these now have a new crop of sea grass and seaweed, which is harvested. The process is sustainable and saves the natural underwater meadows. Environmental filmmaker Himanshu Malhotra has captured all this in a new film, ‘Healing the Troubled Waters’.

For Sarcar, the experience of seeing change has been very satisfying. As she puts it, “Our awareness campaigns are a great success in schools and colleges. The trust has reached out to nearly 300 schools and we now employ meritorious young people as the trust’s staff, training them fully for alternative employment. We also support the complete education of the children of the fishing community here, should they want to move away from fishing.”

Some village women even pursue completely different trades like dealing in textiles. Young Shanti is one of them. Financially assisted to become a nurse, she says, “I am a fisherman's daughter but now I am something more. I help heal people.”

By being the change, Shanti and many other women here are now providing a healing touch to the Gulf of Mannar.

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