Sundarbans is home to 4.3 million people, majority of whom depend on the natural mangrove ecosystems for livelihood. It’s also the world’s largest mangrove system. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Sea level rise in Sundarbans higher than global average

The 2018 State of Food and Agriculture: Migration, Agriculture and Rural Development report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN notes that under slow-onset environmental stressors, rural out-migration can be a risk-management or adaptation strategy, albeit one that is not generally available to the poorest.

“Water regulates everything here in the Sundarbans. Water from upland and water from the delta is creating problems and benefiting people at the same time. And climate change (temperature changes in the last 100 years and rainfall patterns) is stressing people because agriculture is no longer profitable. Honey and crab collection, and fishing have been affected,” Ghosh explained.

At least three Sundarbans islands have gone to their watery grave and villages in neighbouring islands are being claimed by rising sea levels and creeping tides that routinely engulf the remote mangrove ecosystem.

Sugata Hazra, DECCMA Country Lead and Director, School of Oceanographic Sciences at Jadavpur University, had earlier shown that the sea level rise in Sundarbans (3.14 mm per year) is higher than the average global sea level rise. Sea level rise also has significant impact on erosion-deposition process that shape the islands and subsequent land use changes.

The researchers emphasised that people do not have any other option other than migrating, which can be one of these options – daily commute within the state or seasonal and opportunistic visits to other states and within Bengal itself.

3500 km of earthen embankments protect the islands against saltwater inundation. Sea level rise and cyclones have eroded islands and damaged fertile lands. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

For returnee Pradip Mandal of Bali island, picking up work in the southern state of Kerala has become a way to cope with the effects of river bank erosion linked to sea-level rise.

The basin like islands, till date are protected by about 3500 km long earthen embankments which are mostly 150 years old. They are being weakened everyday by the swirling currents that scour at their bases and by tidal surges coupled with strong winds, points out Pradip, the only earning member in his family. “Our homestead is at the edge of the river on the island and is being constantly eroded.”

His domestic woes are compounded by the fact that local administration has asked his family to evacuate their present property so as to make way for road construction. Remittance has saved them for the time being.

Pradip escaped the devastation of the Kerala floods this year as he was in the Sundarbans. “But there are limited options for work here and agriculture is no longer feasible with the available facilities. If I don’t work (outside) then my family will not get food,” Pradip asserts.

Female migrants are increasing

Remittance money sent by her mother-in-law working in the western state of Maharashtra staved off poverty for thirty-year old Mamata Mandal, a resident of Dulki in Gosaba, who was widowed eight years ago when her husband was dragged away by a tiger on a fishing trip.

With three school-going children to take care of, Mamata, who quit her education in primary school itself, solely depends on her mother-in-law who works as a house help in Pune city of Maharashtra and visits her village only twice a year.

For her future, Mamata plans to move to the nearest city, Kolkata, once her children finish school, to support her finances. “I will try to do some work. I will have to work as a domestic help since I do not have much of an education. No work is menial whether you are educated or not.”

When Mamata does take the leap of faith, she will contribute to growing numbers of female migrants, a trend mapped by researchers.

“Although both men and women tend to migrate seasonally, their patterns differ. Both men and women migrate to Kolkata, although men typically to the areas where they work in construction, with women mainly to the peri-urban areas for employment as domestic workers,” pointed out Sumana Banerjee, DECCMA co-ordinator.

But unlike men, seven out of 10 migrating women stay within their home state of West Bengal, often working in or near Kolkata, caring for children or the elderly, Banerjee observed.

Female migrants with higher levels of education mostly move with their family members. Male migrants also venture further afield, including to Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Gujarat, the study found.

Sushama Das, 30, works as an ice cream seller in Dulki island in Sundarbans and migrates to Odisha to work in agriculture and fisheries. According to the study, there is an increasing trend of women seasonally migrating from Sundarbans. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Human animal conflicts in the mangrove habitats are also driving migration.

Sushama Das, doubles up as an agricultural labourer in paddy fields and in the fisheries sector in Odisha, twice a year. When she is back in her village in Gosaba’s Dulki island, she supplements her savings by operating an ice cream cart in the block’s market place.

The 30-year-old switched gears from prawn collection to being a migrant worker following crocodile attacks.

“This was more than five years ago. One person was killed by a crocodile. After that incident my husband never let me go to catch prawns. He said that ‘you die on land but I will not let you go for fishing’,” Das said.

Researcher Hazra said working outside their village is the most practised adaptation option for women but is not accepted by the community as a successful adaptation due to inherent gender bias.

Problems versus aspirations

But there are trade-offs to contend with for migrants.

For Sushama Das it is the toilets. “In Odisha work is good but the toilets and bathrooms are in an extremely bad shape. Plus the region is very salty, there is no sweet water and so I don’t like it much,” she said.

Water-associated problems and irregular food habits due to workload plague Bali island’s Abhijit Mali and friends who are dependant on Tamil Nadu which accommodates 10.67 lakh migrant workers, largely in the manufacturing sector.

“We do not like to depend on forests so my father and I have never been into fishery or honey collection. We do not own land so we do not have inclination for agriculture. If youth like us get opportunities to work here in other sectors then I would prefer to have stayed back,” Mali said.

But Kaushik Mandal in Satjelia island staunchly differs. He would have wanted to purchase land and cultivate paddy but is wary of the climatic hazards. “After Aila, crop yields have declined. And there is not enough of land available, so what can we do. I don’t see any future here. I don’t foresee anything good, only the bad. Even if you are educated then also jobs are far and few,” Kaushik said.

Kaushik is a second generation migrant but he returns once a year instead of his father’s seasonal approach.

“The company I work in Karnataka employs 3000 to 4000 youth from the islands here. Youth prefer to go out and some even have taken their families. This is the way things are now,” Kaushik says with indifference.

Policy focus needed on adaptation measures

Climate change and development researcher Anurag Danda who has worked extensively in the archipelago says displacement from the Sundarbans is inevitable in our lifetime even if high intensity weather events do not become more frequent or intense.

“However, it may not be en mass and dramatic. Global warming will continue despite all the mitigation action, the delta will continue to sink and terrestrial space will become less. Migration can be avoided only if people can manage to live and thrive on lesser amount of land,” Danda told Mongabay-India.

But this will need a very different kind of thinking on the part of the political and governmental leadership as well as communities. “For example, if the people of the Sundarban can shift to high value crops on land and water, high-end tourism and can live on raised land or on stilts,” he said.

According to Hazra adaptation measures that remain top priority for the community include picking up skills and rebuilding houses to make them flood tolerant. However, there are hurdles in practising them because the government does not invest in the options that communities demand.“Practised adaptation options are the ones that are popularised by the government but people want different kinds of options which are not often offered by the government,” Hazra elaborated.

DECCMA outcomes stress that climate change impacts are reflected in a number of relevant policies and plans, for example the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and the West Bengal State Action Plan on Climate Change (WBSAPCC), which specially refers to the Sundarbans as extremely vulnerable.

“However, various barriers exist to effective implementation of these policies. Despite a recommended budget allocation from 2012 to 2022, there is no information on release of it, nor any progress report on the activities carried out under the WBSAPCC,” the study said.

At present migration is 18 percent but 23 percent of the current non-migrant households have the intention to migrate in the future, which would lead to migration rates of 37 percent in the IBD, said DECCMA’s Sumana Banerjee.

Hazra underscored the need to include gender in policy-making. “There is no gender perspective in databases, in policy formulation or in implementation of disaster management plans and policies (the state) so that must be incorporated,” he said.

Governments must act on the fact that migration is increasingly thought of a livelihood option and help make mass movements successful. “They can have records of migrants, their skill sets and ensuring security in the receiving areas,” he said.

For example, if the human capital in the Sundarban region can be improved through concerted investment, the trained manpower will move to distant places to take advantage of opportunities that can be made use of with their new skills, said Danda.

“As of now, it is the movement of human labour but not skills and therefore it does not cause the economy of the host location to expand the way it should,” Danda added.

Migration has had a negative connotation for long.

It has been associated with failure at source locations and compounded problems at host locations. In this part of the world, migration brings back memories of famine and partition. This negative construct is due to unplanned movement of people in large numbers.

“It’s the same narrative in many parts of the world,” he said, adding there are a few positive examples from across the world of planned movement, and a school of thought that sees migration as adaptation. The examples are from Australia, Alaska, and even Odisha.

Continue reading:

Part One: Sundarbans women lead the way in making dairy farms organic

Part Three: Tiger widows of Sundarbans: Navigating ecology, beliefs and mental health

Banner image: Sun rays make way through dense clouds above Godkhali jetty, one of the entry and exit points for Sundarbans. Photo by Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.

Sahana Ghosh was in the Indian Sundarbans to do a series of stories as part of the Internews’ Earth Journalism Network Bay of Bengal Story Grants. Sanjoy Mandal and his team at Sundarban Safari provided valuable assistance during groundwork and navigating across the difficult landscape.

Article published by Sahana
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