Skip to main content

Notes from the field: Paromita Chowdhury meets women entrepreneurs in West Bengal

Partner story

Photo: © Paromita Chowdhury

Let me share a tale of grit and endurance – just one of many that make up Oak’s India Programme. Like many people, I admire individuals who stand tall against all odds and create paths toward their success.  For me, I don’t know who can be more inspiring than a group of 25 women fish farmers who I met, in November 2017, during a project visit in a district in West Bengal.

This group of semi-literate, landless women is called Loknath Dal. On digging a bit into their history, it surfaced that their forefathers migrated to a village called Nayagram and built homes after clearing forest patches many years ago. Since then, they continue to live without legal titles on their homestead lands, despite having applied repeatedly to the land department for their rights to be recognised.

This group of enterprising women are completely dependent on income from community resources. In 2015, they rented a government pond for one year in order to earn incomes through community fishing. However, eight months into the lease agreement, the elected head in the village ordered them to return the pond, citing political reasons. It seemed to the women that his wish was to quash the budding enterprise they had begun. As the group did not yet have access to facilities for cold storage, the abrupt termination of their contract forced them to sell the fish in haste and, consequently, lose much of the yield. This was devastating for them, financially and for their morale.

Nevertheless, hope was still alive and so was their determination! The women quickly reorganised their plans to continue fishing in another pond. Then, in 2016 they were able to buy two private ponds, which are still going strong. They organised a roster to rotate responsibilities to: dredge the ponds; put barriers to prevent others from putting nets; buy fishlings and fish feed; keep night vigil; and maintain accounts. So far, they have invested USD 600 in paying the rent, feed, night lamp, fishlings and other expenses – and they expect to see a substantial profit from their first catch soon. Aside from fishing, they work as farm labourers for approximately USD 4 a day. This helps them manage the expenses during leaner months.

For me, it was amazing to come across this group and to see first-hand their courage and resolution. Though financially fragile, they have stayed together through the difficulties. The women have now joined a group called the Block Committee, which includes fishing communities from other villages. They make collective claims for: fish workers’ identity cards; livelihood support during the lean season; credit; and compensation and special provisions for women fish farmers who are no longer able to work.

Naturally, Loknath Dal and its success story has attracted other women’s groups from neighbouring villages to get assistance in establishing similar fishing-based group enterprises. For Loknath Dal, this is an opportunity to extend solidarity and unite to overcome formidable challenges and be an example for others.

Their journey reminded me of the saying, “Successful women build a firm foundation with the bricks others have thrown at her.”  These women have certainly done that! I am so impressed with their achievements. Well done to all of them!

Written by Paromita Chowdhury, the programme officer for Oak’s India Programme.