He is a man in a woman's world. But Gul Mohammed, 59, would not have it any other way. The scores of women fishing for green mussels, oysters and clams in the Valiya Parambha backwaters of this district all watch out for him — the dhoti-clad 'mussel man' paddling alone in his canoe. When they spot him, they stop all their work to greet him — the man who gave them back their livelihoods.
When the thriving beedi industry collapsed and traditional farming nose-dived, these women and their families were left with no earnings, no hope. That's when Gul entered their lives and turned things around. His thriving mollusc farm now takes care of over 3,500 families.
When Gul returned from the Gulf, he organised 150 self-help groups for women under an apex body, 'Green Mussels Farmers Society'. Sceptics dismissed his initiative outright. Today, this society produces about 70 per cent of the backwater green mussel farming in the country — 7,000 tonnes last year.
"When I see their happy faces, I forget the hardships I underwent," the National Award-winning (he won the Agriculture Ministry's Karshaka Shiromani Samman) farmer says. The mussel farm has changed his life too for he admits that he would have remained an NRI businessman had he not turned to it.
"Usually mussels grow in seawater. I began experimenting in inland waters by growing the spat (larval form of marine mussel) in coir rags. It clicked instantly. Slowly, I prodded and guided the local community into this," he explains.
Today, a 30-kilometer stretch of the palm-fringed Padanna lake is dotted with mussel farms. And more news areas are joining the shell-fish hunt every day. "It is a delicacy, and so in demand that we are sometimes unable to cater to it. We also export a small chunk to the Gulf," he says.
Villages that were once on the verge of starvation now show signs of prosperity everywhere. "He empowered the village folk remarkably. People like him give us hope," says local MLA K Kunhiraman.
After striking gold in the backwaters, Gul has turned to another innovative idea - socially responsible tourism. He has floated a theme village, 'Oyster Opera', to exploit the rich tourism potential of the area. "I have started training locals. Once it clicks, they get regular income round the year," he says.