Kultali, West Bengal: For the past 30 years, Atal Naskar has been making enough money from his three-acre fishing lake to feed a family of 10. But three months ago, this 50-year old fisherman fled his home in Kultali in West Bengal’s Sunderbans delta, hounded by moneylenders because he couldn’t repay a loan he had taken for fish farming.

Fishing lakes across the Sunderbans were destroyed by cyclone Aila, which hit West Bengal on 25 May. Embankments collapsed, allowing seawater to flood substantial parts of the delta.

Battling for survival: A fishing lake at Dakshin Goranghati in the Sunderbans which was destroyed by Aila. Indranil Bhoumik / Mint

Naskar now works as a daily labourer “hundreds of kilometres away", according to a member of his extended family, who wouldn’t disclose her name or Naskar’s whereabouts. “They (moneylenders) would kill him if they found him," she said. “He isn’t keeping well these days…We are very worried."

At least 60 families in Dakshin Goranghati area of Kultali have fled their homes, say locals. “At least half of the fishing lakes in this area have been abandoned and many have dried up," says Uttam Naskar, a fisherman struggling to repay from his savings a Rs50,000 loan. “In many villages, the entire male population has run away…Even weddings have been cancelled," he added.

Reviving the abandoned lakes is not going to be easy. “Fishing won’t be possible unless the pH value of the water is reduced to 8," says Siddhartha Datta, environmentalist and pro-vice-chancellor of Kolkata’s Jadavpur University. “For that, you have to drain the water from these lakes and also dredge out the top soil."

The alkaline or acid content of a solution is measured in pH.

Most fishermen cannot afford on their own to revive their fishing lakes, and moneylenders aren’t willing to lend. As most of these fishermen do not have clear ownership of the lakes or necessary clearances from authorities for fishing, they are unable to borrow from banks.

Fishermen typically borrowed Rs20,000-50,000 from local moneylenders to breed fish, and even after paying 7% of the catch as interest, they made Rs1-2 lakh a year depending on the size of the lake.

“The economy of this area has collapsed," says local legislator Joy Krishna Haldar, who belongs to the Socialist Unity Centre of India party. “Fishing in at least 100 gram panchayats has been affected by the cyclone."

At least 60,000 of Kultali’s 160,000 lakh people were dependent on fishing. Of them, around 50,000 are unemployed, says Haldar. In Sunderbans, almost 100,000 people have lost their livelihood because the cyclone destroyed fishing lakes, says Haldar.

The state’s irrigation department, which is responsible for the upkeep of the embankments, says it has so far spent Rs115 crore to repair the damaged embankments, and will not spend more.

“We had made it clear to the people that they would have to strengthen the embankments around their fishing lakes on their own," says Subhas Naskar, the state’s irrigation minister. “Fishermen would have to recoup their losses on their own."

Dispute over ownership and control of lakes is the key problem facing most fishermen in this area, according to the minister. So they are averse to spending heavily on building embankments around their lakes. But locals say it is impossible to protect the fishing lakes in Kultali unless the state government repairs the embankments to tame the nearby Matla river.

As indebted fishermen flee their homes, businessmen from Kolkata are trying to snap up abandoned fishing lakes in the South 24 Parganas district with the support of local political leaders.

“You need political clout to control fishing lakes. If you could get local political leaders to back you, you could make a killing," said a businessman in Kolkata, who did not want to be identified because he is closing in on at least two large fishing lakes.