Lives with her husband and two adult sons
Pazhaiyar, Nagapattinam, Tamil Nadu
Economic, Ecosystem Stressors, Friends and Family
Gandhimathi hails from Pazhaiyar, Nagapattinam, on the east coast of Tamil Nadu and her family owns a trawler boat. While the popular notion is that large boat owners’ families lead an easy life, her story helps one see the quick turn in fortunes for trawler owners.
My husband and his family have been in the fishing business for a long time. Soon after our marriage in the year 1995, his brothers decided to quit this occupation altogether because they weren’t making enough profits. There has been a slow decline in profits owing to rapidly decreasing fish populations which is caused by overfishing in this region. We also experience a general difficulty in carrying out fishing, given the numerous fishing regulations and rising input costs. However, we could never imagine giving up on our ancestral livelihood and hence decided to continue. Since it was just me and my husband, we no longer had sufficient finances to maintain our small mechanised boat (less than 240 hp and comparatively a small among trawling boats). Ultimately, we were left with no choice but to sell it off. After selling our boat there was no working option in Pazhaiyar. We suffered trying to just sustain our lives. So my husband moved out of Pazhaiyar and found a new job abroad. We spent 2 lakhs for that. Also I have two sons whose education needed to be paid for. So I took up a job and used my income to educate our two sons and pay the borrowed sum of 2 lakh rupees.
Photo by Pradeep Elangovan
It is no longer the question of skills at sea, it has all come down to how much money you own and whether you can afford to override regulations.
In 2015, my elder son went to Singapore , they eventually found work in Singapore’s ship-building yards. My younger son then followed and went to Singapore in 2019. My husband and I continued the fishing operations here.We owned no boat from 1995 up until 2020 when we decided on buying a new trawing boat given that my family had a good number of male members to run the business. But the declining fish populations and lower engine capacity drove up our cost of operations. In order to keep up with the running cost of the boat my sons have decided to head back to Singapore.
Although there wasn’t much income from fishing, we had enough to sustain ourselves and led a peaceful life. It wasn’t easy however for my sons back in Singapore. Living there was relatively more difficult given the shared housing and managing all their chores on their own. Hence, they wanted to come back and join us here in Pazhaiyar. In early 2019 my sons came up with a plan to invest in another large boat so that they could come back here and carry out the business jointly. We did not have sufficient funds, so we borrowed from around and all together invested 55 lakhs into a trawler boat. But maybe our timing wasn’t just right. With corona hitting us, the endless lockdowns made fishing out at sea impossible.This completely shut down our earnings and we started spending out of what little savings we had. In between, when we could go out into the sea it was an issue given the rising diesel prices at this time. Large engines require Rs.50,000 worth diesel for one journey. With declining savings we even started borrowing from relatives, to pay up for our diesel.
The earnings at sea were not great either. The government has certain fishing regulations in this area, like the prohibition of the use of an engine higher than 240 horsepower. We follow that, but there are others in the community who have more powerful engines that aid them to move faster than the fish and thereby increase their catch. It is no longer the question of skills at sea, it has all come down to how much money you own and whether you can afford to override regulations. Our daily catch nowadays is worth around Rs.20,000 or 30,000 after an input investment of around Rs.50,000 for diesel that lasts one trip. The cost of operation for us has increased drastically over the years and made it impossible to make any profit at all. With this issue at hand we are unable to pay back our accumulating debts and have lost all savings at hand. Our situation has reduced to one where we are unable to meet even basic ends. When situations got very bad in terms of finance I sold some of the utensils back home just so that I could feed my family. This is a very difficult time for us. My sons are unable to witness and keep up with the struggle. The situation makes us question our decision of investing in a trawler and sometimes our lives. Thoughts of our difficulties and whether it is worth living, haunt us everyday. I have lost respect within the community and have had to bear several insults given our inability to repay loans. This shatters me but no matter how difficult the situation, I need to stay strong to support and advise my family. If I break down, my family will too. I just can’t let that happen. I am determined to make it to the other side, no matter what.
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