Who moved my village?

The story of how women are facing the impact of climate change in the Sundarbans. Alone.

Nidhi Jamwal
Deputy Managing Editor| Updated: December 28th, 2019

Sagar Island, Sundarbans

Parvati Das has spent sixty summers in Sumati Nagar, her native village in Sagar Island of the Indian Sundarbans Delta. Three years ago, the embankment meant to protect her village and its residents from the rising sea level breached.

“Since then, the government has tried fixing the embankment. But, the sea keeps breaking the embankment again and again. Since my childhood, the sea has come right at our doorstep,” said Parvati, a widow and mother of three sons.

Two of her sons, both fishers, used to sell dry fish. The third son, 30-year-old Shakti Das, both physically and mentally challenged, is completely dependent on her for all his daily activities.

“After the embankment breached, my fisher sons lost the land meant to dry the fish, which went into the sea. They both migrated out of the island in search of livelihood,” she narrated. One of her sons now works 2,000 kilometres (kms) away as a construction labourer in Tamil Nadu, whereas the other has migrated further to Kerala. But, Parvati has nowhere to go.

“Soon the sea will engulf my hut, too. But, where can I go with my bed-ridden son, Shakti?” she worriedly asked wiping saliva off Shakti’s face who excitedly laughed watching his old mother speak.

Parvati Das and her son Shakti Das of Sumati Nagar have no where to go. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

The coastline of Sagar Island, the largest island in the Indian Sundarbans Delta, is thickly populated with villages whose menfolk have migrated out of the island in search of work leaving behind women to look after the old and sick, and raise the children. These women bear a witness to the impacts of a changing climate on their fast-eroding lands and livelihoods.

“Agriculture, mainly paddy, and fishing-related activities are the main source of livelihood of people in the Sundarbans. Some people are also involved in the honey collection,” Tuhin Ghosh, a professor with School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, Kolkata told Gaon Connection.

“Research studies conducted by us show that due to various reasons, including climate change, agriculture productivity is on a decline in the islands, forcing people to look for other sources of livelihood and migrate. The number of cultivators in the islands has dropped, too,” he added.

As agricultural productivity declines in the Sundarbans, people are forced to migrate in search of livelihood. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

The Sundarbans

The Sundarbans is a tide-dominated region of the enormous Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta, spread over about 40,000 square kilometre (sq km) in India and Bangladesh. It is formed from sediments delivered to the Bengal Basin by three rivers — the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna.

The Sundarbans hosts the world’s largest contiguous mangrove forest (about 10,000 sq km, of which 40 per cent lies in India and the rest in Bangladesh).

The Indian part of Sundarbans delta has a total of 102 islands, of which only 54 are inhabited and the rest are forested. These inhabited islands accommodate human population of 4.6 million. And, these are some of the poorest of the poor people in the country.

“Around 34% of the 4.6 million people residing on different islands … are under extreme poverty and 75% of families there has at least one member working in other states of India,” reads a 2018 research paper, ‘Agricultural productivity, household poverty and migration in the Indian Sundarban Delta’.

Around 34% of the 4.6 million people residing in the Indian Sundarbans live in extreme poverty. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

Land erosion and agriculture decline

Of the 54 inhabited islands in the Indian Sundarbans Delta, Sagar Island is one. It accommodates 42 villages or mouzas. Ghoramara Island, located to the north of Sagar Island, covers an area of 4.8 sq km, whereas Mousani Island covers 24 sq km area.

Just like any other delta region, formed by the deposition of sediment where a river meets the sea, the islands of Sundarbans are continuously undergoing changes due to land erosion and accretion. They are also highly vulnerable to frequent embankment breaches, submergence and flooding, beach erosion, cyclone and storm surges.

A chapter on the Sundarbans in May 2014 book, Landscapes and Landforms in India notes: “… the Sundarbans continues to aggrade each year from the deposition of river-sourced sediment. From May to September, when river discharge is highest, sediment is transported along the coast westward from the river mouth and into tidal channels by twice-daily tidal flooding … The nexus of river discharge and strong tidal currents along the Bengal coast allows river-borne sediment to reach the remote interior areas of tidal islands.”

Apart from aggradation, islands of the Sundarbans also face erosion, which, claim experts, is both a natural process and also impacted by climate change and sea-level rise.

For instance, a study has recorded that between 1969 and 2009, the Indian Sundarbans Delta has lost 210.247 sq km land (see map: Zones of erosion and accretion in the Indian Sundarbans, 1969-2009).

Map: Zones of erosion and accretion in the Indian Sundarbans, 1969-2009

Researchers present different scenarios of sea-level rise in the Sundarbans. For instance, as per the tidal gauge data at the nearest Haldia and Diamond Harbour stations, as quoted in a 2016 research article, the annual mean sea level rise from 1950 to 2014 is 6.8 metre (m) to 7.23 m at Diamond Harbour, and about 6.92 m to 7.17 m from 1970 to 2014 at Haldia.

“There are a large number of sea-level rise studies in the Sundarbans varying from 2 mm per year to 14 mm per year rate of sea-level rise. A lot of land is submerging in the Sunderbans and at the same time new lands are emerging,” said Ghosh.

According to him, climate change is an important factor affecting the livelihoods of the local people. “Apart from the sea level rise, the pattern of rainfall in the region has changed. Although the total volume of rainfall has increased, the number of rainy days has decreased. So, in a shorter time period, the islands receive heavy rainfall, which impacts the agriculture practices,” he added.

Ghosh also blamed salinisation of soil for hampering agriculture. Salinisation of river is affecting availability of fish and crab, and also changing the mangrove species, he said.

The 2018 study, which focused on the western boundary of the Indian Sundarbans Delta, including Sagar Island, Ghormara Island and Mousani Island, has recorded a time series map of the islands showing a considerable change in shoreline due to erosion and accretion, which has affected agriculture activities.

Between 1990 and 2015, the rate of erosion in Sagar, Ghoramara and Mousani islands has been 0.2 sq km, 0.02 sq km, and 0.08 sq km, respectively.

As agriculture becomes unproductive and land continues to erode, poorest of the poor in the Indian Sundarbans migrate in order to stay afloat.

In Sagar block about 227 hectare agriculture land has been lost in 14 villages. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

‘Sab nadi te pore geche’

‘All my land fell into the river’

Till some 17-18 years back, Sunita Doloi and her family used to live in Ghoramara island where her husband’s family-owned 40-50 bigha (6.4-8 hectares) agricultural land. Farming was their main source of livelihood. “Slowly and slowly, the sea kept eating into our land. Finally, it reached a point where our entire land went underwater and we had to leave Ghoramara,” narrated Sunita.

She now lives in Kamlapur village of Sagar Island where the government has provided her family 1.5 bigha (0.24 hectare) land.

“What can one do on 1.5 bigha land? We have built our house on it and do little vegetable cultivation. My husband sells pukur [pond] fish and seasonally migrates in search of work. I look after my in-laws and children,” she told Gaon Connection.

Sixty-three-year-old Lal Mohan Das sensed ‘the hungry tide’ two decades back when his 12 bigha land in Ghoramara eroded into the sea. “About 23 years back, I bought three bigha land in Bankim Nagar village of Sagar Island and left Ghoramara. I now grow paddy here, while my son works as a mason in Kerala. His wife lives with us in the village,” said Lal Mohan.

Sixty-three-year-old Lal Mohan Das’ 12 bigha land in Ghoramara eroded into the sea over 20 years back. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

But, the land in Bankim Nagar village on eastern side of the Sagar Island is no safer. Original residents of this village have been losing their lands, too. They claimed the village had lost at least 100 bigha (16 hectare) in the last three decades. And, the embankment had breached thrice and still not repaired. Fifty-one-year-old Ashok Mandal of Bankim Nagar claimed to have lost seven bigha (1.1 hectare) land in 2014 when the sea engulfed a large chunk of the village land. “I am now left with 10 kattha [0.06 hectare] land on which I do beetle nut cultivation,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sandhya Mandal of Bankim Nagar lost 10 bigha (1.6 hectare) to the sea and has no agriculture land left. “My husband seasonally migrates out of the island, while I do daily wage works to make both the ends meet,” she said. “Men can migrate, but we women have to stay back to look after the house,” she added. Similar stories emerge 15 kms away from Beguakhalli village on the western side of the Sagar Island.

Thirty years ago, Parvati Das married Ashim Das and moved to Beguakhalli. Since then she has been noticing the sea come closer to her hut. In 2009, when Aila cyclone hit the eastern coast of India, Parvati and her husband lost everything.

“Our house and 15-16 bigha [2.4-2.5 hectare] land went into the sea. Now, we have only two bigha land left, which is shared between my husband and his four brothers. My husband migrates for work, while I look after the children here,” said Parvati. She has built a new house at a new location in the village, but the sea has already come very close. “During high tide, seawater enters my home and we take shelter on the embankment,” she added.

Parvati Das of Beguakhalli village has lost both her home and 15-16 bigha land to the rising sea level. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

Environmental refugees

According to Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network in South Asia (CANSA), an international network of non-profit organisations working on climate change, climate change induced migration is a big concern in the Sundarbans. “As villages in the Sundarbans go underwater, people are moving out to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and other states. There is a lot of internal migration from one island to another, too,”

Vashist told Gaon Connection. “Right now there is no tension among people in the islands, but in future, as migration continues, some friction may arise as land is a scarce resource in the Sundarbans,” he added. Vashist isn’t wrong. “In Sagar block alone, which includes Sagar Island, Ghoramara and Lohachara islands, about 227 hectare agriculture land has been lost in 14 villages,” informed Bankim Chandra Hazra, the local MLA (a mber of the legislative assembly) from Sagar Island.

Since the 1960s, over 1,120 families from Sagar, Ghoramara and Lohachara islands have been resettled in various parts of the Sagar Island. “Initially refugee families were given 2.08 acre [0.8 hectares] land each for farming plus homestead. But, thereafter, we have been providing only an acre [0.4 hectares] each to a family,” he added.

Take the case of Jibantala village in Sagar Island, which has about 500 families. “Of these, about 150-200 families have come from Ghoramara island, parts of which have gone into the sea. The government has given these families 1.5 bigha char land each along the local river to build their houses,” informed 40-year-old Aasima Bibi, a resident of Jibantala.

She has three sons and all three work as construction labourers in Hyderabad, 1,500 kms away from their home and families. “I run a small tea shop in the village and look after my daughters-in-law and grandchildren,” she added.

On being asked about the possibility of tension between original settlers and refugee families, Aasima Bibi acknowledged migration had put an additional pressure on the existing resources. For instance, there are only four handpumps to meet water needs of all the families in Jibantala. In adjoining Kamlapur village, there is one hand pump for 80 families.

“But, people who have come from Ghoramara are also human beings and have children who need to be raised. They have lost their land to the sea, so we share resources with them,” said Aasima Bibi. But, without alternate agricultural land, the sustenance of environmental refugees in the Sundarbans remains a big question mark.

Eighty-five-year-old Kushal Das Doloi, a relatively new resident of Kamlapur village in Sagar Island, lost 125 bigha (20 hectares) land (common to him and his six brothers) in his native village in Ghoramara. In return, he got only 1.5 bigha land.

“We lost 15-16 bigha agriculture land, but have not received any alternate land for farming or monetary compensation for that land, though the government compensated us for the loss of house during Aila cyclone,” said Parvati Das of Beguakhalli village.

Ratikant Mallik of Dhabla Radhikapur village claimed he had lost about 1.6-hectare agriculture land to the rising sea level. “The government hasn’t compensated against the loss of agriculture land. Rather, post Aila cyclone, it acquired land to build embankment in our village. But, the same has also not been done,” he complained.

Ratikant Mallik complained the government has not rebuilt the broken embankment in his village. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

Banking on embankments

Whereas embankments provide a sense of security to the local people, they are also one of the possible reasons for the sinking of the islands as sediment cannot reach these patches of land masses in the delta.

“The entire Indian Sundarbans region has 3,500 kilometres long embankments. Of this, 176 kilometres was washed away during the Aila cyclone and 777 kilometres is partially damaged. Another 1,043 kilometres is lost due to various reasons,” informed Hazra.

Thus, more than half the embankments meant to ‘protect’ the Indian Sundarbans either does not exist or is partially damaged.

Both the state government and the Centre are working towards building and strengthening of the embankments.

More than half the embankments meant for protection either does not exist or is partially damaged. Pic: Nidhi Jamwal

“During Aila, 176 kilometres embankment was damaged. The Centre had to give Rs 1,339 crore to fix it, but so far it has provided Rs 673 crore only. Meanwhile, we [the state government] have already spent Rs 950 crore in constructing parts of the embankment,” said Hazra. According to him, 84 kilometres embankment in the Sagar Island had already been strengthened, whereas work was going on for 25 kilometres more.

The state government also has another Rs 77 crore project to use submerged geo-tube technology to arrest beach erosion in parts of the Sagar Island. But, questions are being raised over the viability of such projects to keep the sea at bay.

Deltas are live landforms that are continuously growing or receding. Climate change and sea-level rise are exacerbating changes in the Sundarbans delta. While the menfolk migrate out of the islands in search of livelihood and a less uncertain life, women are daily watching the hungry tide inch closer to their homes.