These women have shown how mussel, a variety of bivalve shellfish naturally occurring in colonies in seawater, can be farmed inland. But the real mussel-man, if you like, is Gul Mohammed, a Gulf returnee, who experimented with growing spat (the larval form of the marine mussel) in cloth pouches dipped in shallow brackish water. In 1996 his demonstrative first harvest yielded 160 kgs, priced Rs 8 per kg. Strangely enough, Gul is not a marine biologist. After working as a manager in a company in Dubai, he came home and decided to do something that would help others.
Initially, no one was convinced that his method would be commercially viable. The village women also had a mental block about stepping into the backwaters with bamboos and ropes to lay the larval bed. It is from the larva that the shell grows, inside which the mussel develops. But Gul was able to convince them and promised them Indian Rural Development Programme subsidies and gramin bank loans to start mussel farming societies. Among the first to set up a society in 1997 was Thamabayi, a casual labourer who was getting work for less than 10 days a month. She persuaded her neighbours, equally underemployed but vociferous supporters of the Marxist party, to join in.
Three years since Gul’s 1996 experiment, the mussel harvest was picked up by marine exporters in Kochi. But the first blow came in 1999, in the form of a European Union ban on shellfish imports from India. Exporters shied away. But a friendly exporter intervened—he bought the produce and saved the day for Gul and the societies. They now realised that the only way out was to turn to the local markets. The women chipped in. They began door-to-door selling. Recalls Thambayi: "We sort of introduced the item and created a local market in a fortnight. We haven’t looked back since." Till then, people had not tried farmed mussels, but they easily took to it.
Adds Gul: "Soon news spread about our venture and buyers started coming in from districts as far as Ernakulam where mussel is an all-time favourite. Restaurants and bars placed orders. The demand was so high that last year, the women cooperatives and several individual farmers who have entered the fray in the Kasargode belt made a huge killing on their 1,500-tonne harvest. The cooperatives distributed the profits among its members. Mussel farming is a summer vocation and cannot provide income right through the year. But the women say it’s not too labour-intensive.
Gul, who got the national Karshaka Siromani award for technology innovation in 2002, has now joined hands with the Technology Information, Forecasting and Assessment Council (TIFAC) to shift the farming operations to the sea. Once that happens, mussel farming could be an all-year occupation. "We have sown seeds 300 meters from the shoreline, where they cling to ropes held aloft by buoys, out of the reach of waves and other turbulence. The spats have grown well in two months as compared to three months in brackish water," says Gul.
Gul’s efforts have given hope to many women in Kasargode. Once mussel farming becomes a round-the-year activity, it can go beyond being an alternative source of income.
Contact Gul at: Gulisthan, Padanna PO. Kasargode, Kerala 671312. Tel: 0467 2276465/2277097.