Liberation from slavery - the power of collective action

Producing video stories for IFAD, I have visited many projects in different countries and I have heard some astounding stories of how life has changed for people after project interventions. But in India, I heard one of the most powerful and moving stories that I have come across – a story about liberation from slavery.

There are twelve hundred fishermen who live in Aruacottuthurai village on the Tamil Nadu coast. They say that for most of their lives, they have lived as slaves. Every one of them was in debt to moneylenders – a debt most had inherited from their fathers. In an intricately corrupt system, the moneylenders, the local traders and village leaders were all in cahoots, ensuring that it was impossible for the fishermen to ever pay back what they owed. I spent my time with fisherman Bharathi Dasan. He inherited a debt of  50,000 rupees (about $800) from his father. Like all the fishermen here, each day he would spend a minimum of 12 hours at sea and, when he returned to shore, he had to hand over his entire catch to the moneylenders. The traders conspiring with them would set the price far below market value. Bharathi was not allowed to trade with anyone else or pay off the entire loan when he had a bumper catch.  “We shed tears,” he told me.  Even though I was going out to sea every day, I didn’t have a happy and peaceful life because on the shore I didn’t get a good price for my fish and I couldn’t feed my family. If it kept going like this what would happen to our village and our people? We were very sad to think of our future in this village.”

In 2004, this situation was compounded by the tsunami which destroyed the fishermen’s boats and nets and halved their catch. Bharathi’s wife Durga Lakshmi described their endless cycle of debt to me: “We didn’t have money for our expenses. So we borrowed more money with interest. Our child fell sick so we had to take her to the hospital. We didn’t have money so we had to borrow it. This is suffering.”

Meanwhile, after the tsunami, the IFAD-funded Post-Tsunami Sustainable Livelihoods Programme for the Coastal Communities of Tamil Nadu (PTSLP) was set up. As the Project Director, Vikram Kapur, explained: “We realised there are enough projects to look after the rehabilitation of the affected people but since the tsunami and other natural calamities are actually endemic to coastal communities it would be better if we could come out with a strategy that would give them sustainable livelihoods and ensure that they are able to withstand such kinds of shocks.” Therefore, ending this crippling cycle of debt became a priority for the project.

Working with the NGO South Indian Federation of Fishermen’s Societies, the project encourages fishermen to form Fish Marketing Societies (FMS) and it provides the FMS with the initial capital to pay off the entirety of their members’ debts to the moneylenders, which the fishermen then slowly pay back. Three years ago, Bharathi joined one of these Societies, which has now appointed its own auctioneers. Every day I saw at least fifty merchants bidding for the daily catch. When I was there, Bharathi had a bumper catch and was delighted with the price he received for it. He was also happy to pay over a certain percentage of this money to his FMS to pay off what he owed on his debt, to pay insurance and the Society management fees. Since selling his catch through the FMS, his income has gone up by 30 per cent. He has bought a second boat and now has four crewmen working for him. He’s been able to build an extension to his home and he sends his three children to private school. “I was liberated from the slavery life. I feel very happy. I now have peace of mind,” he told me.

I was really struck by the power of the group and how, by working collectively, they could resolve a situation that they could never have tackled as individuals. One of the project staff likened it to moving a big boulder. When you try to do it on your own, it doesn’t budge and you’re likely to hurt yourself. When you push it as a group, the boulder can be moved wherever you wish.  

“Previously we were like slaves,” the President of the FMS, Murugaiyan Manivannan told me. “Now we have freedom in selling and we are getting a good price for our hard work. It is only possible due to our unity.”

The fishermen in this village are now free, but hundreds more fishermen along this coast are still in the clutches of the money-lenders. The project has already helped set up 37 Societies so far and 13 more are planned over the next two years.