The silent migration from India’s cyclone capital

File photo of Ghoramara in the Sundarban delta of the Bay of Bengal. Ghoramara and the nearby islands have seen rapid riverbank erosion. Several people are migrating from these islands. Irregular monsoon, salinity intrusion and climatic disasters also result in migration.   (Mint)
File photo of Ghoramara in the Sundarban delta of the Bay of Bengal. Ghoramara and the nearby islands have seen rapid riverbank erosion. Several people are migrating from these islands. Irregular monsoon, salinity intrusion and climatic disasters also result in migration. (Mint)

Summary

  • With no livelihoods in place amid the climate crisis, women and men in the Sunderbans are forced to move out

Pakhiralay, Sunderbans: Kaushala Mondal and her husband once nursed a dream—that some day, they would build a pakka house in their village, Pakhiralay, in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangroves that span the twin districts of North and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal.

The couple just wanted a house with a patch of green that can survive the storms that periodically batter the region and would not collapse every time floodwaters invade it. That was in the first few years of their marriage and after the devastation left by super cyclone Aila in 2009.

Nine years ago, the dream ended when Kaushala’s husband, a fisherman, was killed in a tiger attack when he was in his boat.

“We had so many dreams. But my fate is such that I have lost everything. My son was four months old, and my daughter four years when he was killed," recalls Kaushala.

As cyclones Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021) raged through the Sundarbans, local livelihoods suffered more, Kaushala grew more fretful of her children’s future.

“For how long can one survive chewing on muri and gur (puffed rice and jaggery)?"

They were barely surviving on the meagre income of her father-in-law Naren Mondal. She knew there was only one alternative: she would have to leave her children behind and leave for Kolkata to find work.

When Kaushala would hear of a job in the city, and prepare to leave, her son would be inconsolable. In 2021, amid the second wave of the pandemic, Kaushala moved to Kolkata to work as a domestic worker for a salary of 10,000 a month. She cares for the three-year-old son and an 11-year-old daughter of a working couple. Occasionally, she goes back to the village.

“When I leave my children to return to work, they are in tears," says Kaushala.

Disaster displacements

A ferry used to reach Gosaba, one of the blocks in the Sundarbans.
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A ferry used to reach Gosaba, one of the blocks in the Sundarbans.

Interviews with families in Gosaba, one of the blocks in the Sundarbans most vulnerable to climate change because of high poverty and lack of livelihood options, showed how rife is the crisis caused by climate change-triggered migration.

Sundarbans has been called the cyclone capital of India because of the increasing frequency of cyclonic storms in a region where people survive on fishing and collecting honey. Forest-dependent people are often forced to venture into ‘core area’—where human activities are not allowed—to earn their livelihood.

As Europe’s climate monitor described 2023 as the hottest year on record on earth, India faced extreme weather events almost every day between January to September, according to a recent report by the Delhi-based think tank Centre for Science and Environment. With 86% extreme event days, at least 3,000 deaths were reported due to this. During the recently concluded COP-28 summit in Dubai, a United Nations official slammed climate inaction. While climate change remains one of the most difficult challenges of our times, India remains extremely vulnerable to the looming climate crisis, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) pointed out.

Recently, Chennai saw unprecedented levels of floods killing at least a dozen people as cyclone Michaung raged through the states of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. In the past 50 years, Chennai has witnessed floods every 10 years, the last severe one being in 2015. However, other densely populated cities like Mumbai and Kolkata also remain vulnerable to increased risks of flooding.

Kolkata—roughly 100km away from the Sundarbans—is home to around 4.5 million people. The city’s vulnerability to climate change was recently highlighted at an event at the COP-28, according to a Down To Earth report. Experts reiterate that Sundarbans is the lifeline for Kolkata. The mangrove vegetation acts as a buffer from climatic disasters; preserving the mangrove means mitigating the city’s vulnerability to weather events.

The migration crisis is deepening in the aftermath of the pandemic, says Sugata Hazra, former professor at the Kolkata-based Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies.

In a 2002 paper, Hazra had estimated that climate change could permanently displace 70,000 people from the Sundarbans by 2020. A later study observed that by 2018, more than 60,000 people had already moved out because of land loss, cyclones and inundation.

“Several people are migrating from the islands which are eroding fast in the Sundarbans. The other migration patterns are induced by the slow onset of events like an irregular monsoon, salinity intrusion and climatic disasters where livelihood options are becoming increasingly unsustainable," says Hazra.

Research on migration and its impact on the socio-economic and demographic structure of Sundarbans shows four types of migration in the region—full-family migration, one-member migration, temporary and seasonal migration.

The IPCC Sixth Assessment Report had pointed out that increased climate variability and extreme events were driving up migration. In 2019, India, Bangladesh, China and the Philippines each had recorded more than 4 million disaster displacements, it added.

“It is a difficult task to capture this data–some people are choosing to migrate and are not directly forced. But the circumstances under which they are compelled to take this decision to migrate, even if seasonally, need to be investigated. Migration is a direct consequence of the vulnerability induced by the climate crisis," Hazra adds.

‘How will we eat?’

Kaushala Mondal’s in-laws. In 2021, amid the second wave of the pandemic, Kaushala moved to Kolkata to work as a domestic worker.
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Kaushala Mondal’s in-laws. In 2021, amid the second wave of the pandemic, Kaushala moved to Kolkata to work as a domestic worker.

Next to Kaushala’s household, three children are growing up in the absence of their mother in abject poverty. Their mother, Panchami Mondal, works in Barasat—over 100 km from Pakhiralay. Working as a domestic worker in five households, she manages to earn 4,300 a month. After paying for rent and food, she sends back 1,500 back home for her children.

“Tell me, is there any work in the Sundarbans? How will we eat? We have to leave our kids behind, and go to the city for work," says Panchami.

Her husband died of cancer around five years back when she was pregnant with the youngest of her three children. She found work intermittently in the Sundarbans—working in other people’s agricultural lands. But the work was not steady, and the money paltry. Eventually, she was forced to migrate.

Upasona Ghosh, social anthropologist at the Bhubaneswar-based Indian Institute of Public Health, explains: “You are a child growing up in a situation where you parents have migrated to the city, and you are responsible for looking after your siblings. They have no idea about their future. What kind of lives will these children have?"

Unfit for agriculture

Chanakya Mondal realized early on in his life that he has to migrate out for a few months every year to eke out a living. Since the age of 16, he has travelled across Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Tamil Nadu for work. In the last decade, he has made frequent trips to Andhra Pradesh—for five months every year to work in paddy fields.

Now 44, Chanakya manages to earn 1,000 per day for about 26 days a month. Back in the village, he primarily relies on his savings to run his family. “We have land which is not very fertile since Aila," he says.

Repeated climatic disasters translates into increasing salinity levels in the region.

“Salinity intrusion makes the land unfit for agriculture and jeopardizes rural existence. With climate change, the cyclones are getting more frequent and intense. Recall the devastation caused by Amphan and Yaas," says Santanu Chacraverti, president of the Society for Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action (DISHA), a non-profit that works across several blocks in the state, including the Sundarbans. “The local people realize their increasing vulnerability and tend to migrate to other states to engage in low-paying manual jobs," he adds.

Chacraverti observes that historically, for human settlements, floods have not only been a curse but also a blessing—the silt brought in by flood waters makes the land more fertile. In the Sundarbans, the situation is the reverse—flooding by the brackish river water make the Sundarbans rivers infertile.

While the Sundarbans habitations have grown up behind embankments that keep the flood water away, the land remains deprived of silt and loses fertility. The silt in the rivers settles on the riverbeds which reduces the carrying capacity of the rivers and makes them more prone to flooding, explains Chacraverti.

“Any storm tends to breach and overflow embankments, causing devastation. This is the foundation of the poverty and vulnerability of the Sundarbans," he adds.

Snakebites and accidents

Anup Badhiya works in the paddy fields of Andhra Pradesh. He migrated after repeated cyclones hit his village.
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Anup Badhiya works in the paddy fields of Andhra Pradesh. He migrated after repeated cyclones hit his village.

Chanakya Mondal explains the perils of migrating and working in exploitative conditions.

“Despite snakebites, accidents at workplaces, and train accidents, we are still compelled to leave our villages and go to other states to work. We are scared seeing the loss of lives but we have no option," he says.

In June 2023, almost 300 people died when three trains collided in Balasore district in Odisha. The Coromandel Express entered the passing loop instead of the main line near Bahanaga Bazar railway station at full speed and collided with a goods train. Due to the high speed of the Coromandel Express, its 21 coaches derailed and three of those collided with the oncoming SMVT Bengaluru–Howrah Superfast Express on the adjacent track.

Anup Badhiya works in Andhra Pradesh—his day starting at 4am, and ending at 7 pm. He is entitled to a quick lunch break after standing for hours in knee-deep water in the paddy fields.

“Working in the paddy fields is extremely labour-intensive. But one has to go (out to work) with repeated cyclones hitting our village. My house has been damaged so many times that I have to invest money rebuilding it. After Aila, we were without a home for three months," says Badhiya.

When her house was flooded by Aila in 2009, and later by Yaas in 2021, and the roof of her house was blown away by Amphan in 2020, Shankari Halder held on. But she and her children would always miss her husband when he went to find work in the cities. “My children would tell me to ask their father to come back home. We can make do with eating only rice," says Halder.

Over seven years back, her husband suffered a deep cut on his foot as a stone sliced through it while he was working in Andhra Pradesh’s paddy fields. For over a month, he remained bed-ridden. Their neighbour in the Sundarbans who had also migrated for work, helped him to the loo when he returned from work, and fed him. When he was fit enough to travel, he returned home.

“We have not let him return since. What will we eat if, god forbid, something happens to him? There is no security when you go to places like this to work. Nobody is accountable for your safety," says Halder.

As the family struggled through the pandemic, Shankari completed work days under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, which guarantees 100 days of work during a financial year. She took a loan of 50,000 in phases to buy an engine van for her husband, and stationery they sold in stalls in country fairs.

“The interest for this comes at a high rate. But there is no other option, no work in villages," she says.

When male members leave villages, and remain stuck in transit or in cities, it falls on the womenfolk to bail out the family, says Sugata Hazra.

“Most of these women do not have any land rights. They sell off jewellery and other belongings. Then they migrate out to cities with their families," he says.

As for Kaushala and Panchami, the dream is to stay with their children while also managing to secure their future. But both agree it would be impossible if they return to their village.

“The first time I went to work, I was wailing through the night…I kept thinking is this what my fate is? Gradually, I consoled myself. I look at the two kids I am bringing up in the city and try to find solace…But where do I keep this grief?" asks Kashala rhetorically.

Ritwika Mitra is an independent journalist.

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