Coal versus Fish

For Indira it is not a choice. Like many of her friends and neighbours she depends on fish for a living. At 47 years old and with an alcoholic husband, two daughters and a son, fishing is now how she makes her living. It is more profitable than knitting, a skill she also has. She buys fish from the fisherfolk on the coast, dries it and takes it further inland, selling it for a profit that is enough to keep her family. Dependent on the local fishing industry she knows what will happen if Patel Power Plant Limited is allowed to set up a coal fired thermal plant in the region. More of the fish will go and increased pollution is likely.

Indira is determined to stand up for her community. She is the president of the sangam or association in Vanagiri and is not content to let the village land be sold from under their feet. Already Patel Power Plant Limited has purchased land but the sangam’s efforts have yet to be successful. They met with the traditional panchayat (council) who agreed that the power plant was not in the community’s best interest. They have now filed petitions with the District Administration and appropriate government departments in an effort to stop the new construction. The coalition has organised public protests, hunger strikes and rallies. They have mounted challenges before and won some of the time. But the threat to their traditional livelihoods is continual and it comes at a cost.

Indira tells the story of one protest when she and her colleagues gathered near the bus stop:
“One of the youngsters from the opponent group made derogatory remarks against me and used filthy language in public. I got provoked and slapped him with my slippers. In the evening, we were asked to report to the police station at the instruction of Superintendent of police. After much deliberation with the village leaders, we went to police station. There, they told us that a criminal case has been registered against 22 persons that they indulged in violence with lethal weapons and caused damage to public property. I was also included in this list and kept under judicial custody for 28 days in prison at Trichy.
My husband after hearing the news did not bother to visit me. He did not provide support to my children. The sangam women provided food for some days. My children had to eat rice porridge twice a day and had no access to good food. They were anxious and insecure. A woman being arrested for a public cause was not recognized by the family and community. My father died and I was not allowed to attend his funeral. After much fright I got permission to pay my condolences which was not accepted by my brother who performed the last rituals.

I was released on conditional bail. The harmony and peace enjoyed by me for all these years has been disrupted. I got public comments from neighbors and relatives that “it is unexpected of women to involve in political activities; the sin and karma of my past life has brought these hardships. I made arrangements to commit suicide along with my children. My son disapproved of the idea and encouraged me to give up the thoughts. He challenged me to live and lead my life for the ‘cause’ for which I faced hardships during my judicial custody; I was asked to remove my earrings and lost the same. I was emotionally upset when they asked me to remove the mangalasutra (the necklace symbolizing marriage) as it was made of gold. I was the only women from my village. I was put up to stay with the convicted women prisoners. I had a good exposure to the lives of women.”

“My ambition is to involve more women in political struggles and decision making processes. We will continue to fight to protect my homeland, the precious habitats and resources of my community. [Neythal has] strengthened my understanding. This experience has enriched my outlook. I feel courageous and not to get disheartened by anything in future.”

NEYTHAL is part of a network that works to protect the rights and livelihoods of fisherfolk living on Tamil Nadu’s coast. They train and encourage women to participate in local political life. After the South Asia tsunami they played a major role in making sure some of the most marginal fisherfolk had access to the support they needed.