African ethnic tribe in Gujarat moves beyond the woods, into sea

BSea-cage farming of lobsters by members of the Sidi cooperative off Somnath

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 tribe's cooperative society," said Mohammed Koya, scientist-in-charge of the CFMRI's 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 world's 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.

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