What led to you become a seaweed collector?
I didn’t choose to become a seaweed collector; it chose me. I used to accompany my parents who were seaweed collectors to the sea when I was around seven. By the time I was 10, I was out on my own and a regular seaweed collector. Now, four decades later, it is part of my life. I do it because I like it. Also, I don’t think I would be able to do anything else with so much of love and passion.
Tell us, how do you harvest seaweed?
We never dive alone; it’s always in a group of around 10 women at a time. We set off in the morning in long wooden boats from Rameshwaram; the sea off this area is a treasure-trove of marine wealth. After rowing for about half an hour, we slip on our crude goggles, wrap out hands with cloth to act as gloves and dive sometimes to a depth of around 20 feet where seaweed can be found. We pluck it or scrape it off the rock and stuff it in a large bag that we carry along. Once it is full - or when I feel my lungs are about to burst - I come back to the boat, empty the bag and return to the water.
What happens to this seaweed?
Once we are done collecting - i collect about 30kg a day - we row back to the shore and hand over the seaweed to agents who weigh it and pay us by the kilo. The seaweed is dried and sent off to markets in bigger cities where it ends up in foods, cosmetics and even medicines.
How risky is your job?
Very. But this is all that I know and this is what brings food to the table.
Any near-death experiences?
Yes. During the 2004 tsunami, I and 14 others were in a boat collecting seaweed when a massive wave crashed into us. I was the only survivor.
There have also been times when I’ve received painful shocks from electric eels while I was harvesting seaweed, but luckily nothing serious.
What about your family?
My only daughter is married and lives in a neighbouring village. My husband too lives with them there doing odd jobs. She used to accopmpany me to collect seaweed earlier.
Is this a paying profession?
Despite the hardship, the number of women entering this profession has increased over the years. Earlier, there were only 50-60, now there are 300. The income has reduced after the harvesting restrictions - part of the area where we operate is declared a marine reserve - but I make around Rs500 a day during the 12 working days in a month.
Why only 12 days?
By working for 12 days and taking a rest for 18 days, we give time for the seaweeds to regenerate and regrow.
Why do you dive wearing saris and not proper gear?
We have been doing this for generations. We cannot afford to buy costly gear and make do with what we can. Not having gloves means sometimes our hands are bruised when harvesting seaweed.
You have won an international award for your work...
Yes, I won the prestigious Seacology Prize. The US-based Seacology, an environment non-profit organisation, chose me for my contribution in conserving the marine resources and cultural traditions of my village, Chinnapalam, in Rameshwaram, Tamil Nadu.
I’m the first Indian woman and community leader to win the award which carries a prize money of $10,000 (Dh36,700) and a trophy.
What did you do with the prize money?
I gave away Rs200,000 to buy a plot of land to build a school in our village. I believe the younger generation must get a chance at a better life. They must not meet the fate of our generation. We are still short of funds to build a school. My aim is to educate the poor children in my village, and turn the school into a higher secondary school.