Published on Let's Talk Development

The perils of prawn-catching for women in Sundarbans

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Box-net for catching prawn postlarvae Box-net for catching prawn postlarvae

Collection of wild Tiger prawn seedlings (or prawn postlarvae) from rivers and creeks is an important occupation for poor women in the Sundarbans.

Women wading waist deep in salty water for hours, dragging triangular nets, is a familiar scene in the rivers and creeks of the Indian Sundarbans.  These women are collecting prawn postlarvae (prawn PL) for aquaculture farms. The catch varies by season as well as the lunar cycle, and on a good day a woman may earn 300-500 Indian rupees (equivalent to US$ 4-7).  Demand and prices were higher in the 1990s, but the market has since shifted toward Venami, an imported species whose seedlings are supplied by hatcheries. At the same time, increased rural wages have diverted male workers to other occupations, leaving prawn PL collection to women whose job opportunities are more restricted. While fewer women catch prawn PL than their counterparts in the 1990s, this occupation still employs at least 100,000 women in the Sundarbans.  The seedling population peaks during April-May and August-September, but many local women work year-round despite constant immersion in salty water and the risk of crocodile attacks.

Who are these women?

Our research project has focused on understanding more about these women, their lives, and the risks they face when they collect prawn PL. A team of Indian researchers led by Santadas Ghosh started by conducting 15 focus group discussions with the leaders of Women’s Self-Help Groups.  Then they interviewed 4,000 individuals from 900 households in 50 locales spread across the Sundarbans from southwest to northeast.  This survey collected information on the lives, work and health of women who must spend long hours in saline water while they catch prawn PL, as well as crabs and fish.  Our analysis of the data revealed that two characteristics -- years of education and child-rearing obligations -- are sufficient to distinguish between women who have no engagement in prawn-fry catching and those with many years of engagement. Engagement is essentially zero for secondary-educated women with high child care demands and very heavy for women with no formal education and no child care demands.

Prawn postlarvae Catching prawn postlarvae

Prawn postlarvae

Photo: Paritosh Giri Photo: Paritosh Giri

Health damage

The health impact of prolonged immersion in saline water receives little attention in the research literature, perhaps because such exposure is rare in developed countries.  Until now, evidence for the Sundarbans region has been scattered and anecdotal.  But we found that the women in our focus group interviews were unanimous in associating health problems with long hours of exposure to saline water in the rivers.  We responded by asking detailed survey questions about women’s saline-immersive fishing activity and their health status.  Our analysis of the survey data found that women who engage in saline-immersive prawn PL collection fishing report significantly more health problems than their counterparts who engage in otherwise-comparable low-wage economic activities.  These health problems are clustered in a subset of the 67 ailments enumerated by the survey: irregular menstruation, problems with eyesight, gastric pain, pain in the hands, legs and knees, skin allergies and itching. Our findings align with previous field studies by B. Kanjilal (IIHMR Jaipur), which suggest that prolonged contact with salty water by poor women results in a higher incidence of skin diseases and reproductive tract infections. 

Education is a major factor in determining women’s occupational choices, and our findings suggest that educational progress will reduce the number of women who collect prawn PL in the coming years.  However, many thousands of older, less-educated women will remain engaged for a long time. Therefore, it is important to promote catching techniques that reduce saline immersion time.

What can be done?

The areas where collection of prawn PL is still prevalent are remote from market centers and offer few alternative occupations for less-educated women. In contrast, women elsewhere in the Sundarbans, with better transport facilities and access to markets, have discovered home-based work alternatives such as food processing, tailoring and embroidery. We believe that more isolated women will leave prawn PL collection for the new work alternatives if appropriate policies promote new business lines, facilitate skill training and provide subsidized credit.  Our results indicate that the benefits will be significantly improved health for these women, as well as better livelihoods.

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Funding for this research has been provided by the South Asia Water Initiative (SAWI) administered by the World Bank


Susmita Dasgupta

Lead Environmental Economist, Development Research Goup, World Bank

Santadas Ghosh

Associate Professor of Economics, Department of Economics and Politics, Visva-Bharati, India

David Wheeler

Senior Fellow Emeritus

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