- Over the years, the Mangalajodi wetland, an important bird area, has been exposed to changing environmental conditions, impacting the livelihood opportunities of the local people.
- The dearth of livelihood options has forced youth from the region to migrate to other cities for work, especially during the summer months when the tourist inflow is low.
- Strengthening the wetland ecosystem and providing income opportunities to the local communities are emerging avenues to address the challenges.
Srinivas Behera’s family in Mangalajodi village on the northern banks of the Chilika lake in Odisha along India’s east coast has been engaged in the fishing business for as long as he can remember. His father was a fisherman, and would also hunt a migratory bird or two during the peak winters when the flocks arrived, mostly for self-consumption and sometimes with an intention to sell. He later worked as a middleman, taking the catch from the fishermen and selling it to the traders.
The Mangalajodi wetland – restored in 1991 with the establishment of Chilika Development Authority (CDA) – offers a wide range of ecosystem services and rich biodiversity support multiple livelihood options for Mangalajodi’s residents such as fishing and tourism. The wetland, spread over 10 sq km, is part of the Chilika lagoon, one of the six Ramsar sites in Odisha and has been classified as an Important Bird Area (IBA). In 2000, the marine flow in the Chilika lake was restored by opening a new river mouth to the Bay of Bengal and, according to a report, this hydrological intervention led to recovery in fish landing and increase in numbers of Irrawaddy dolphins which in turn revived the tourism prospects in the area. As the local communities shifted from illegal hunting to tourism and related livelihood options, the annual income increased by 2.5 times between 1995 and 2014.
When Behera, now 30, was growing up, he also wanted to work in his village and took a professional course to become a tourist guide. In winters, when the area saw a tourist inflow of close to 5000 people, he would tag along with the tourists and researchers in a boat as they took a ride in the shallow canals of the Mangalajodi wetlands, enlightening them with his rich knowledge of the birds, their scientific names and characteristics. In summers, when the tourist inflow would be limited, he would work as a television mechanic.
But when the COVID-19 pandemic struck, the complete shutdown impacted the tourism industry and deprived Behera of income opportunities. He was forced to migrate to Chennai in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu to work as a daily wage labourer.
“I was reluctant to migrate to Chennai, but there were no options here. Through a contractor, a few village residents and I went there and we worked as house painters. But the payment and living conditions were so dreadful that I returned a couple of months later,” Behera says.
He returned to take over the shrimp business his father had started but that also was incurring losses due to poor marketing. Behera then got in touch with representatives of Youth4Water, a campaign supported by UNICEF, which engages with local youth to mobilise them for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene), climate action and also help with livelihood opportunities.
They aided Behera in marketing his product and the value addition helped him establish a ground for his product that he wishes to turn into a small rural enterprise.
Building resilient communities
In Mangalajodi and the periphery villages, which rely on the wetlands for their livelihood, several initiatives are coming up to build resilient communities as human-induced climate change and other anthropogenic activities impact the health of the wetlands and connected livelihoods of the people.
“The wetlands’ surface is warming up and the eco-system is in transition. The frequency of copious and extreme rainfall has also increased the periods of salinity. As the Mangalajodi ecosystem is being frequently exposed to changing climate, the livelihood of the people has become slightly unpredictable,” Ritesh Kumar, Director (South Asia), Wetlands International told Mongabay-India.
A local resident Vivekananda Das’ family, who stays in the neighbouring Bhusandpur village, had been involved in making bamboo crafts from the grass available aplenty in the lake. However, the higher salinity over the years is making it difficult for the family to procure the right raw material for the product. The family business is gradually declining.
“Most of the families in our village used to make bamboo items like mats and crafts from the grass procured from the wetlands. But over the years, the quality has degraded and one had to venture deeper into the lake to find the right quality. The production cost increased, prompting villagers to stop making these products. Even in my family, only my mother makes bamboo mats,” says Das, who intends to pick up work in a city soon.
Wetland-associated jobs to prevent migration
Though there is no official data available on the number of migrants from Mangalajodi to other states, the restoration efforts in the last two decades have benefitted the locals and are arresting migration. Several stakeholders have either joined hands with the CDA or are undertaking initiatives at an individual level to strengthen livelihood opportunities for the youth and prevent migration for work.
NGO Wild Orissa, which has been working with the residents in Mangalajodi since the late 1990s also has specific programmes for the youth. They are mostly involved in imparting training on identifying the birds, approaching the guests, and also promoting eco-tourism in the area to attract more visitors.
“It is easier to work with the youth as they are more active and efficient in learning quickly. We have around 30 to 40 members, mostly youth, who run eco-cottages in Mangalajodi. Now, we are planning to launch residential training for students and young researchers who would study conservation in Mangalajodi and suggest ways to improve the health of the wetland,” says Shivaji Nayak, Secretary, Wild Orissa.
UNICEF’s Youth4Water, mobilises local youth in Mangalajodi in activities that strengthen ecosystem resilience. The campaign initiates weekly cleanliness drives around the tourist spots in the wetlands area and also a training session where the youth are trained about the visual cues including certain bio-indicators to diagnose the water body problems.
Water level restoration and quality management are also included in the sessions. The campaign also provides entrepreneurial support to the youth by networking them with related markets and also helps in the value addition of their projects.
“Apart from this, we regularly engage with the youth who are involved in tourism and assist them in addressing the pollution concerns due to rising tourism activities,” says Shreyash Subudhi, COO, PANTISS, partner of Youth4Water.
The campaign has recently absorbed a 23-year old youth Babul Behera from Mangalajodi village, who had migrated to the south Indian cities of Chennai and Hyderabad for work along with Srinivas Behera. Babul’s family has been engaged in a long legal family dispute, for which his father, a fisherman, had exhausted all their savings, prompting Babul to shift to other cities in search of a job.
“I worked as a daily wage labourer in different cities to supplement my family’s income. But I returned as the money was barely enough to sustain my needs,” Babul says.
A recent report by the United Nations has flagged that nearly five million people were internally displaced due to climate change and related disasters last year. In coastal Odisha too, there have been several instances of climate-related migration in the past. The Satabhayas, a cluster of villages in Kendrapara district in the state were displaced and rehabilitated due to sea ingress.
However, there is no specific data at the local level which traces migration related to climate threats.
“The first step towards addressing the issue would be to create a database of the people migrating due to climate threats at the panchayat level. The focus should be to reduce cases of distress migration and have a specific displacement policy related to climate. Skilling the youth will also help address the issue,” Umi Daniel, Director, Migration and Education, Aide et Action International told Mongabay-India.
Alternately, some experts also feel that migration, when safe and dignified, can help reduce the stress on the ecosystem.
“A balanced view of the migration in the wetlands would be to look at the growing population scenario. As the population increases, the ecosystem will need to accommodate more activities. Safe migration can always help in taking away the stress from the system,” says Kumar of Wetlands International.
Read more: [Explainer] What are wetlands and why do we need to protect them?
Banner Image: Local youth helping in cleanliness drives around the Mangalajodi wetland. Photo by UNICEF.