Climate change is triggering a silent yet drastic livelihood change in the agricultural fields and water bodies of Sundarbans, the world heritage mangrove tiger-land that spans 10,000 square kilometres across the Indo-Bangladesh border. As agriculture and fishing become increasingly unviable in the island conglomerate battered by extreme weather events and salt water ingression, a sizeable number of farmers are turning into migrant labours or are forced to work in the hundreds of brick kilns that have mushroomed on both sides of the border.
These farmers, earlier tending to crops and fishes, are now finding refuge in construction and mining jobs in faraway Mauritius or in the Indian states of Kerala, Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra. Many others, unable to make ends meet, are opting to work in the polluting brick kilns, which have replaced water bodies that earlier dotted the estuarine topography.
A World Bank supported household survey conducted in 2011 in the Indian Sundarbans, one of the most underdeveloped areas of the country housing more than 4.4 million people, found that at least 30% of households had one member migrating in search of work. It also reported that 93% of the 2188 households surveyed did not want to remain dependent on forest resources if other livelihood opportunities were available.
Many women, not employed as domestic workers, end up in sex trade. According to a study by Kolkata-based NGO Jayaprakash Institute of Social change, 20% of households reported child migrant labourers.
“Though no formal studies have been conducted lately, roughly 60% of the male workforce in the Indian Sundarbans is estimated to be migrating out. They are forced to take up awkward jobs unheard of in the delta earlier,” says Subhas Acharya, a former administrator of the Sundarban affairs department of West Bengal state in India. The working population in the region, according to the 2011 government census, was 1.2 million men and 0.3 million women.
“Now, we can neither be sure of our crop yields nor fish yields. What else can we do but get jobs elsewhere to make ends meet?” asks Nitai Mondol of Gosaba island, who works at a nearby brick kiln and earns just about enough to support his family of four. His younger brother and cousins, who earlier looked after a couple of small family owned water bodies, have all taken up jobs as masons and construction workers in Bengaluru, Karnataka.
As the men folk get driven out of their homes, climate change is slowly carving another major social change – the socio-economics of the region is largely being handled by women, Acharya, who hails from one of the Sundarban island of Patharpratima and has family living there, says.
Across South Asia, close to 50 million people are estimated to have been displaced due to climate related disasters such as floods, windstorms, earthquakes or droughts since 2008. These people who are compelled to leave their homes are particularly vulnerable and need effective rehabilitation, says Walter Kaelin of the Swiss-Norwegian Nansen Initiative which protects people displaced across borders due to disasters and the effects of climate change.
Agriculture, fisheries make for uncertain livelihoods
Traditionally, the Sundarbans region is characterised by small-scale farmers and paddy and prawn cultivators. The region has been one of the largest paddy and fish yielding zones of the country. According to the World Bank report, almost 80% of households in Sundarbans pursue livelihood options that involve inefficient production methods in agriculture, fishing and aquaculture.
Between 2001 and 2008, the area under agriculture in the Indian Sundarbans had gone down from 2149 sq km to 1691 sq km. Also, as a result of overexploitation of aquatic species in the last 15 years, coastal fishing has seen a decline in catch-per-unit effort – from 150-200 kg per haul to 58-65 kg per haul. The loss in terms of juvenile species is substantial, and the catch and earnings of fisheries have declined over time.
Adding to the woes is the conversion of many inland water bodies into brick fields in the last few years. According to estimates, out of the 70,000-odd hectares under fish cultivation, over 2,000 hectare have been converted into brick fields, mostly in Minakha, Haroa, Sandeshkhali and Hingalganj areas on the Indian side.
“During extreme events, the centuries-old river embankments give way. Tidal fluctuations are increasing day by. Villages in Sagar, Namkhana and Patharpratima islands are in serious trouble from saline ingression that poses a big question on the livelihoods of people living in the fringes,” Acharya notes.