In a village in Nagaon district, Assam, fisherwomen from the Kaibarta community—a Scheduled Caste—would gather every evening in groups, across different water bodies nearby, to catch fish for dinner. They would use this time to socialise, talk to each other about their problems, and gossip. This was the only time of the day that they had for themselves—it was their ‘leisure’ time. And at the end of it, they would return home with food for dinner.
Community fishing had been a part of their culture for long. Since childhood, these women had seen their mothers finish their household chores and go fishing with other women. For generations of fisherwomen, this activity was not only liberating, but also empowering. This is because unlike their upper-caste counterparts who were hardly allowed to step out of the house, women of the Kaibarta community could go out and contribute to the family income.
Deteriorating ecology in the area over time has led to many community waterbodies drying up or becoming polluted. Consequently, the social lives of these fisherwomen are slowly vanishing. They now have no place to practice community fishing and spend leisure time with other women. The only place they meet each other now is at self-help group (SHG) meetings. Changes to the local climate have fundamentally altered an important part of their life, and a long-standing tradition.
When I visited the community in 2015, I saw that a few SHGs had started rejuvenating some of these water bodies, determined to revive their tradition. They were collecting money and arranging cleanliness drives. But it is just a start, and they hope to secure state intervention soon.
Sarmistha Das has been teaching in the Department of Sociology, Tezpur University since 2010.
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