Tale of Buguru Chitamma: How a cooperative transformed fisher women into leaders

Ranjana Das Gender, Her Series, Women's Economic Empowerment

How can cooperatives help women to lead and take control of their livelihoods? In the first of our new ‘Her Series’ pieces, Savvy Soumya & Ranjana Das from Oxfam India takes us through an initiative in Odisha where women are working together in fishing communities. 

With a striking red bindi, about the size of a coin, and a radiant smile on her face, Buguru Chitamma doesn’t look like someone who could get aggressive. But a few moments into a conversation with her and one realises the firebrand that she is. Chitamma belongs to the Telugu speaking ‘Nolia’ fisherfolk community.

Originally from Indian southern state of Andhra Pradesh, the fisherfolks’ migrated to Odisha’s Ganjam district and settled in what is now the Sana Nolia Nuagaon village. The state of Odisha, like Andhra Pradesh, has a long coastline. The community suffered due to lack of basic amenities, and health and education facilities due to the remoteness of the villages. The community also suffered from serious social evils like child marriage and poverty exacerbated by gambling and alcoholism.
To add to it, the fisherfolk were, and continue to be, at a constant risk of impending natural disasters and a reduction in the catch due to global warming. This has affected the fishing families, especially the ones operating on a small scale with shared boats and nets. They were hit by unstable income and fell into the debt trap of the local moneylenders. Women were the worst affected as they were confined to the low paying backend activities like cleaning the fish and had to run households with reduced incomes owing to a diminished catch.
The main source of income of the coastal community is fishing. In the off-season, they depend on migration or farming small plots of land. Money, traditionally (and in most cases even now), was in the hands of the men who used it mostly for gambling or buying alcohol. The assets of fisherfolk i.e. nets and boats were purchased by availing loans from traders or moneylenders. This led to chronic indebtedness and the fishermen, with absolutely no bargaining powers, were compelled to sell their catch to traders (who incidentally are moneylenders too) at throwaway prices. The absence of storage and processing infrastructure left them with no option but to sell off their catch at whatever price was offered. In the end, the women were left with pittance leaving hardly any scope to use it for education or health.
This was aggravated by fluctuating fresh fish catch owing to changes in climatic conditions and sea-level temperature, pollution, construction on the beach, increased bottom trawling by big trawlers and fast vanishing mangroves. The State Directorate of Fisheries data shows a drastic fall (14.4 %) in marine fishing, hitting a low in 2011-12, with mild recovery in the following years.

Self Help Groups

It was almost 20 years ago when Chitamma decided to take matters in her hand. She mobilised fisherwomen, in and around her fishing village. Oxfam India joined hands with Puri based NGO United Artists’ Association (UAA) in 2009 to organise the fisherwomen SHGs into the Samudram Federation. The Samudram Federation at present is across four districts in Odisha- Balasore, Puri, Ganjam and Jagatsinghpur. For Oxfam India, this work has been a critical part of its community-led approach to address poverty and vulnerable livelihoods in its focus states like Odisha.

With the support of United Artists Association (a Puri based organisation), she worked extensively to create awareness regarding education and economic empowerment of women, and the need to end child marriage. These awareness drives led to the formation of Self Help Groups (SHGs), which paved the way for the Samudram Federation of Fisherwomen. The Federation, which now covers 46 villages, had humble beginnings. It organised nearly 4000 women from small-scale fishing communities in 237 SHGs. About 10-15 SHGs in a village were clubbed together to form women’s groups at the district level. A president and members of the Forum constitute the apex body of the cooperative structure. Chitamma is the president of the Federation.

Empowering Fisherwomen

The Federation started as a cooperative, which apart from organising the usual savings-credit activity, aimed at training women in fish trade. Though the women have been involved in the back end job of the fish trade, they were never treated as equals. The local traders and middlemen were notorious for exploiting fisherwomen; they were underpaid and their payments often delayed. The cooperative aimed to bring the men and women on an equal footing. Once trained, six procurement centres were set up that were managed by women members of the Forum.

The centres buy the catch from the members, pay them the market rate and take the catch to markets, both close by and sometimes even up to Kolkata. The procurement centres, complete with storage facilities, are located close to the fish landing centres so that members can deliver their catch without suffering losses. “The storage facilities have upped the negotiation powers of the women. They don’t have to sell their fish till they get a good price for the catch,” says Chitamma Decisions related to fish procurement, quality, market exploration, fixing a rate and profit sharing are taken at the level of the Forum. The members of the Forum are trained to maintain books of accounts and records of trade volume, income and expenditures.

Fish Pickles, Popadoms and more

In the last five years, the women have become business savvy – moving from fresh catch to dry fish and fish products. Members are trained to process dry fish in a clean hygienic way and  package them.The procurement centres now double up as dry fish production units. “The fresh marine catch was fluctuating and affecting our business. So we decided to start making pickles and papads of fish and prawns. With a little training in local recipes, the pickles and papads have now gained prominence in the local markets. This has given us another source of income. Though these products are being sold mostly in the local market, they have been able to get some big orders from Pune and Kolkata as well. “The challenge is to diversify the recipes so that we can cater to the needs of the market in different cities,” says Padma, district level forum leader, Ganjam. Though there have been fluctuations in business volumes with varying profit rates, there is a silver lining. The cooperative has had a positive effect on household incomes of the members; the income from fishing has increased and many have been able to come out of the debt trap.

The Samudram model has reduced the dependency of members on local traders by linking them directly to the local and outside markets making the women game-changers. This collective of women fish workers’ has empowered them to take control of their lives – from spending on children’s education and fighting domestic violence and alcohol abuse. Jyoti Malick of Oshonga village in coastal Balasore almost had to pull her daughter out of school for lack of money had it not been for Samudram.

Alcoholism, the root cause of domestic violence, was the first battle that Chitamma took up. She organised women to fight against alcoholism and ensure that all local liquor-brewing units were shut down. Now the federation members have resorted to penalties on alcohol. The federation has imposed a fine of Rs 500 (less than USD 8) on anyone caught drinking; the fine is divided between the informer (Rs 200/less than USD 3) and the SHG (Rs 300/less than USD 5).

Social Recognition

The fight against alcoholism is a long one though and so it continues. Earlier this year, the SHG members, along with other non-members, held vigil across villages. First, they went to the house where liquor was being brewed and then they got the producers arrested by the police. It started again after a few days. Relentless, the women went back again. “We told them that if they don’t listen to 10 of us we would get 1000 women. The threat worked and three shops were shut in Baladia,” says Chitamma.

The women at the Federation are being recognised both socially and globally. Few have been elected to local bodies and have been vocal on issues like constructing schools, illegal land grabbing and corruption in mid day meals. The model has made them resilient as was evident during Cyclone Phailin which affected Thailand, Myanmar and India in October 2013. The members, resilient due to the project, tided over the crisis without relying too much on the government. They even played a critical role in the rescue operations.

Apart from propagating social development, Chitamma worked tirelessly over the years for the conservation of the marine ecosystems, especially the Olive Ridley Turtles that faces extinction. In 2010, she was awarded the Equator Award for ‘Poverty Reduction by Conservation and Sustainable Use of Bio-Diversity’ and in 2011 the Godfrey Philips-Amodini Award for ‘Women Empowerment’. To drive the cooperative ahead, the fisherwomen have adopted the slogan Samudram Maadi. A cooperative led by women from a small-scale fishing community today is conquering the challenges along the coastline. The women have come a long way from being relegated to the margins. The women have taken on unscrupulous traders, frequent natural disasters and even their families’ head on. A little David and Goliath is playing along the Odisha coastline and how.


Larissa Pelham