The story of the Africa-descended forest-dwelling Sidi tribe in Saurashtra has moved beyond the woods and into the sea,with a small cooperative getting their first bumper harvest of lobsters this year,thanks to a collaboration with fisheries scientists who contacted the tribe through two boys they employed as scuba divers.
What began as an experiment by the Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute in Veraval,which used two circular cages to rear lobsters out in the sea off Somnath,has led to a first successful season that has earned the Sidis an audience with Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar and a visit by Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) director general Dr S Ayyappan.
We were conducting experiments with lobster farming in these cages,and at the time also received money through ICAR as part of the tribal sub-plan of the Planning Commission. Two Sidi boys were working with us as scuba divers then,and we got in touch with their tribes cooperative society, said Mohammed Koya,scientist-in-charge of the CFMRIs centre at Veraval.
The Sidis migrated to India from Africa centuries ago and settled in the coastal states of Gujarat,Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
In Gujarat,they live in Bharuch and Junagadh,where they are concentrated in Talala taluka. They live inside the forests of Gir where,by and large,they depend on forest produce to survive. They have of late also become mascots for the burgeoning tourism industry in Gir,home to the worlds last wild population of Asiatic Lions.
According to Hasan Musangra,chairman of Bharat Adim Juth Matsya Udyog Sahakari Mandali,a Veraval-based cooperative society of Sidis,a fish trader brought a few families from Jambur village in Talala to Veraval to work on fish drying yards about 40 years ago. This group gradually became fisher folks and formed the cooperative in 1997.
The group continued to work as allied fishermen apart from working in agricultural fields and taking up other odd jobs such as driving chhakdas (motorcycle carts run by water pumps modified as engines) until 2010-11,when CMFRI engaged some of them in a pilot lobster farming project through open-sea cages.
Following the success of the pilot project,the 120-member cooperative was given 20 more cages last year.
Our first harvesting season has just got over and we have reaped a bumper crop. From these 20 cages,we have harvested around 2.5 tonnes of lobsters generating around Rs 26 lakh for our cooperative, Musangra says.
The season began in September when they put 1,000 small lobsters,each weighing around 100 grams,into the cages. By the time they harvested them in April and May,each cage yielded about 500 fully grown lobsters that weighed 250 grams on average.
We have sold our produce locally this year for Rs 1,100 per kg. However,we shall seek an export licence to get higher returns in near future, adds Musangra,who heads the 120-member cooperative.
Meanwhile,six young Sidi men have also become expert scuba divers,surveying the seabed for ship wrecks or other objects that may damage the cages when they are moored.
Two men had received training three years ago in Mumbai to become divers. Now,four other youths have become expert divers and they are also working for private firms,charging Rs 20,000 per hour, he said.