There lies, in the coastal town of Puri in Odisha, a small community of migrant fisherfolks. The community is a quiet one, with a population of roughly 3600. Most men fish, while women are informally employed in the hospitality sector or they end up drying and selling fish. Life in Pentakota apparently has the bucolic charm that is often romanticized, but there are deeper, more imminent issues that the community has had to face in the past two years. “Since fishing is the predominant occupation among the people of this community, their livelihoods were completely obliterated due to the pandemic”, says Kurupa, a community mobilizer from Gopabandhu Seva Parishad (GSP), a grassroot level organization that is a local partner of the #COVIDActionCollab and it has been working in Puri since the year 2000, after super cyclone ‘Paradip’ wreaked havoc in the region in 1999. The fisherfolk in Pentakota are an anomaly in Odisha, since they’re Telugu migrants from the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh. Bismay Mishra, a native of the community, and now a mobilizer with GSP, recalls that Pentakota began settling 60-70 years ago. “This used to be a vast sand dune earlier before people started settling in, who were fisherfolk. Some businessmen built fishing godowns here, and started keeping their women here. Those families grew and spread, and now form the Pentakota community”, he says. “Pento”, Bismay says, is a Telugu word for a junction where people meet, and “kota” is the word for settlements, hence, “Pentakota”.
The village is far removed from industrial or trade centres in Puri, hence the absence of a regulated fish market. As a result there are deep structural problems that the fisherfolk of Pentakota have had to endure “Firstly, the very nature of fishing as a livelihood is replete with volatility due to its seasonal nature. There are months when the catch is huge and money flows in the community. On those days, people have enough to eat and children can go to school. But issues crop up during the lean months, when the fish move away”, says Kurupa. The Pentakota fisherfolk are the ones who fish in marine and saltwater, while other Odia fisherfolk have customary rights over freshwater fish. The absence of a regulated fish market contributes to the vagaries of the occupation. “There’s no mechanism for fixing market prices, so buyers have the upper hand and set lower prices. Moreover, since there is no cold storage, sellers are desperate to move their product as quickly as possible, and agree to sell at lower rates”, says Kurupa. Bismay Mishra recalls the challenges that GSP workers had to encounter during the pandemic. The people here are hard-headed and set in their ways, he says, and are reluctant to believe at first what the government says. “During the pandemic, the people here dismissed the virus as just another ruse by the government to fleece their hard-earned money off of them. So, during the first wave, they did not pay any attention. Rather, they were hostile to us, as well as ASHA workers and ANMs too”, he says. Misconceptions in the community painted GSP workers in a bad light, as henchmen of the government out to extort money. “We faced physical violence as well. The trust built in over 20 years working with this community was forgotten in a mere 20 minutes, it seemed”, rues Bismay. But the second wave changed things. As the stronger virus strand started penetrating these remote areas, people started showing symptoms, and some lost their lives. “I, myself, was in the ICU for about a month or so. During that time, 3-5 people from the community lost their lives”, says Bismay. It took the death of community members for them to realise that the threat was indeed real and imminent. The community started taking health workers seriously after that. “Moreover, there were other incentives for members as well. For instance, some members travel to Andhra Pradesh regularly, usually on a fortnightly basis. They needed certificates and permission for mobility, so we asked them to get vaccinated, and they did”. Says Bismay. Convincing the whole community, though, took other concerted efforts. GSP joined the CAC alliance at that point. GSP liaised with the government for a vaccination drive. “There were people who did not own mobile phones, let alone smartphones. How would they register themselves? The government asked us to get 100 names for vaccination to begin the process. To do that we used a bluetooth speaker to run an announcement regarding free vaccination registration. We got 140-150 people”, recalls Bismay. After the first round, GSP mobilized ASHA workers and ANMs to spread awareness about the vaccine. GSP has been working closely with the community to understand the problems they face everyday and to find long-term and holistic solutions for them. Despite the positive achievements, a lot needs to be done. Kurupa says that vaccination of dropout children is a concern. Most children are getting vaccinated in their school premises. However, the dropout rate for the community is high, so there’s a demographic that is being left out of the vaccination ambit. Right from open drainages that are affecting the health of the children in the area to finding resilient livelihood options for the fishing community, there are a lot of problems GSP is trying to understand and solve. Building resilience within these communities is the need of the hour and the collaborative with GSP has started working on the same as #COVIDActionCollab turns a new leaf.