A Life Full of Uncertainties

by Anand Rao, Biswa Swaroop and Madhuri Mondal

The well-being of the small-scale fishing communities across our coasts are increasingly threatened by dwindling livelihoods, decreasing access to coastal commons due to exclusionary developmental plans, lesser food security and nutrition, and poor access to healthcare. In 2019, Dakshin Foundation conducted a study across eight fishing villages in Ganjam, Odisha and two fishing villages in South Andaman to understand the needs of the fishing communities. In this article we discuss the health and safety issues raised by the fishing communities. We have grouped them into the following two categories:

  • Health issues faced by fishing communities
  • Health & safety issues faced at sea 

Health issues faced by fishing communities: 

The needs assessment study found that access to healthcare services is very poor in fishing communities of Ganjam where primary healthcare centres often lack doctors, medicines and testing facilities. They end up depending on private clinics and burning a hole in their pockets. In both Ganjam and South Andaman, hypertension and related issues like stroke and paralysis were common. Cases of diabetes and other non-communicable diseases are also on the rise. Access to information on sexual and reproductive health was low.

Poor sanitation and waste management issues either due to lack of infrastructure or lack of awareness of its impacts on health were common across most of the fishing villages of Ganjam and South Andaman, leading to waterborne and vector-borne diseases, and malnutrition in children. The community health workers such as the Anganwadi and ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) workers reported that during monsoons diarrhoea is a common problem in these communities, especially among children. In the Junglighat fishing colony in Andamans, many cases of tuberculosis have also been reported by the health workers. Some villagers in Odisha reported that groundwater in their villages is getting contaminated due to aquaculture and industrial effluents leading to waterborne gastrointestinal diseases and skin diseases.

In most of the fishing communities, women are an integral part of the supply chain, and often play a role as fish vendors, walking to sell their wares. They often carry head loads of up to 10 kgs of fish daily, and walk for several kilometres at a stretch, jeopardising their health to earn money. Consequently, they often suffer from joint and back pains. Women from these communities also face a lot of issues related to their sexual and reproductive health. 

Health & safety issues faced at sea: 

Fishing and allied activities often involve various occupational hazards which these communities face on a regular basis. Fishers have to battle issues such as exposure to rough weather and unpredictable seas, equipment failure and loss of life during fishing. Poor sanitation facilities on the boats during these fishing trips lead to many health issues. It is difficult for the fishers to take a bath or follow hygiene practices because of lack of space and fresh water on the boat. Even drinking water is scarce and they suffer from dehydration often. It is difficult to follow a good diet while on fishing trips and hence they have poor nutrition and gastrointestinal issues. Fishers also struggle with health issues such as fever, cold, headache, body pain, weakness, skin diseases because of harsh conditions, inadequate sleep, physical exhaustion and continuous exposure to saline water.

Coastal Odisha is often frequented by tropical cyclone storms. Fishers have complained of injuries while taking the boats out to the sea. Some fishers go missing and lose their lives every year as boats get toppled in the sea due to rough weather. Unfortunately, they cannot claim insurance if the body of the missing person is not found. In fishing hamlets of Ganjam, pulling boats on the beach requires a lot of effort during rough weather. Fishers risk injury, muscle strain and even dislocation of shoulders. They often get injuries or infections while handling catches or fishing gear. Injuries have also occurred as a result of activities such as the lifting of boats and iceboxes.

K. Raju, a member of the fishing community in Junglighat in South Andaman has expressed the hardships faced by fishers at sea through poetry and we would like to take this opportunity to share it with you.

The life of fishermen:

“When you’re asleep, we fight with the ocean.

When you’re asleep, we struggle for food.

When you’re in deep slumber, we are in the bosom of the ocean.

At night you’re wrapped in a blanket, we are wrapped in the night sky filled with deadly waves.

When you’re asleep, we struggle with death hoping against hope.

Nobody knows whether we’ll live to see tomorrow or not,

Nobody knows we’ll survive or not,

Maybe today is our last or it maybe tomorrow, but without fail we’re treading the dangerous path.

When you’re asleep, we’re fighting for our family against the odds.

When you’re asleep, we’re still fighting with the ocean to see tomorrow.” 

To sum up, the lives in fishing communities are filled with challenges on a day-to-day basis. The problems are numerous and interconnected. The study revealed some of these aspects and led to the development of the Community Wellbeing and Environment (CWE) programme at Dakshin. The Community Wellbeing and Environment programme aims to improve the overall wellbeing of coastal communities while empowering them to build resilient communities and ecosystems. It focuses on holistic approaches that improve community health, livelihoods, governance and environmental outcomes. The health sub-programme within the CWE programme specifically aims to improve health outcomes of the coastal and fishing communities.

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