Women help bring positive outcomes in migration of small-scale fishers

Research explores how closely knit community, Vagaira, helps to develop bond, trust and encourage economic growth
Representative photo from iStock
Representative photo from iStock

Small-scale fishers in India are forced to migrate for livelihood, but the internal migration can have positive impacts by working in favour of marginalised groups. Women play a key role in creating the support system for such migrant fishers, a new research has highlighted.

The research, conducted by Nitya Rao, professor of Gender and Development at the University of East Anglia (UEA)’s School of Global Development, studied migration from coastal villages of northern Tamil Nadu’s Cuddalore district to harbours in and around Chennai.

Marine fishing in India is dominated by caste and has its own social and political hierarchy determining the governance and management of common resources, a press statement from Rao released by the UEA said.

The study found that fishers from lower fishing castes have no say in the decision-making process.

Factors such as coastal erosion, lack of infrastructure, frequent natural calamities and poor marketing platforms make small-scale fishing uncertain in coastal villages.

But despite the challenges, the study revealed that women play a crucial role in bringing positive changes in the community.

Rao said in her statement, “This case study provides us some lessons on how processes of internal migration can work more productively for marginalised groups, in this case, of fishers. Contrary to the stories of bare survival, or worse, exploitation, these findings demonstrate the possibilities for positive wellbeing outcomes.”

She added, “Women in boat-owning households have withdrawn from active participation in fisheries. Yet, without their meticulous attention to sociality and social organisation, the transformation in their lives over a generation would not have been possible.”

Women played a role in arranging marriages and encouraging cordial and supportive family relations to ensure success through migrant worker networks known as Vagaira.

The unique social organisation is formed on the basis of bonds among siblings and their respective marital families. The Vagaira system has played a crucial role in helping these families build substantial physical and social capital which includes assistance such as providing quality higher education to their children and constructing good houses. The system also helps by giving financial and moral support in times of crisis.

Rao added that family and social organisation, with aspects of marriage and kinship brokered by senior women, play crucial factors in facilitating migration.

She stated: “Recognising women’s contributions to the sector, both direct and through their social reproductive and networking activities, is crucial for achieving wellbeing and sustainability outcomes.”

The study also found that trust and rapport among community members of Vagaira is strong. The group members rely among themselves for emergency cash and capital, marketing support, conflict resolution, technical knowledge and even to start and expand their businesses.

Creating transparency by sharing information, fishing equipment such as gear, crafts and others creates team spirit.

For instance, a participant from the study explained: “If an engine or a gearbox on a boat is faulty, other members share their spare engine or gearbox to overcome this situation. Secondly, if a boat lands with less catch, four to five fishers from the Vagaira group come together to analyse its causes – is it due to the mistake of the driver, a damaged net or something else. They then suggest different ideas, but also provide support to fix the problem.” 

Rao said, “Establishing a family group that is both loyal and trustworthy, and willing to support each other in times of adversity, is a conscious mobility strategy.”

She further said that, “Rather than taking family solidarity for granted, building social capital has been an intentional process, requiring planning and risk-taking. Their steadfast commitment to both their fisher identity and sociality ultimately paid off, making for the aspirational transition from workers to boat-owners.” 

Identity, Sociality and Mobility: Understanding Internal Fisher Migration Along India’s East Coast was published in the journal Maritime Studies.

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