In Two Corners of Bengal’s Coast, ‘Fire’ and Water Hold Women Hostage

aerial shot of women at a fishing dock
The Wire
West Bengal, India
In Two Corners of Bengal’s Coast, ‘Fire’ and Water Hold Women Hostage

It is easy to consider the south of West Bengal as an unwieldy side of the world that is acutely stricken by the climate crisis.

Buzzwords like ‘salinity’, ‘storm surge’, ‘water-level rise’ and ‘ocean warming’ define the place, as does ‘poverty’. These words give an impression of uniform and pervasive suffering in the region. They conjure visions of floods and shelters – you gauge that residents don’t have an easy job surviving. News reports draw attention to numerous cyclones which appear to brutally affect the whole coastline. 

But in fact, the effects of climate change are so unsparing of smaller details that two places not far from each other on the Bengal coast are confronted with two different aspects of it.

A 2013 study by Central University of Odisha’s Dr Kakoli Banerjee measuring salinity in the Sundarban from 1990 to 2012 found that the waters of the eastern part of the Indian Sundarban are more saline than in the west.

Adding to these chronic issues now are stronger storms and also, more evaporation. Thus, the water and the land along the eastern Bengal coast are hypersaline. 

But fewer than 90km to the west, within the same state of Bengal, where the Hooghly meets the bay, salinity stops being the biggest climate-related problem. 

Banerjee’s study notes, “The melting of ice has increased in the Himalayan range which has added freshwater and decreased the salinity of the western Sundarban by almost 2.65 psu over 23 years.”

JU’s Ghosh presents an alternative thought. “Nearly 500 human interventions on the Ganga impedes the Hooghly’s ability to carry sediment to the sea. As a result massive siltation happens on the river bed, causing it to rise,” he says. Thus during monsoon or during storms, when the river gets sufficient water, it floods.

Two villages where women are integral parts of the local water ecosystem – one ensconced in the dense tidal river web of the Sundarban of South 24 Parganas district and the other near the mouth of the Hooghly in East Medinipur district – offer a picture of the disparate realities of an area as minuscule as the Bengal coast.

Jharkhali, South 24 Parganas

At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, a panel of global experts discussed for an hour the enormity of the effects of a loss of mangroves. While that was happening, in a village 13,000 km away, and in what is eponymously the land of mangroves, the chief concern for some 600 households was crocodiles. 

“In early November, a couple went to fish in the waters of the tidal Bidyadhari river. Slinking around in the thin mangroves was a crocodile. It carried the man off and injured the woman, who is still weeping, two days later.”

This is Susheela Mondal’s account. Mondal is around 45 and resides in the small Tridib Nagar village in Jharkhali. She has an ‘allergy’ that she firmly believes came about because she spends many hours trawling nets through brackish waters. But the biggest problem, according to her, with saline water fishing, is crocodiles. 

That the most immediate threat is not the most worrying is something Mondal knows. But it is what keeps her away from the waters where she fishes for shrimp fry (locally called meen), like all the women in her village.

lady seated near a mud hut
Susheela Mondal, a resident of Jharkhali in the Bengal Sundarban / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.

In summer, Mondal goes into the water at midnight, remains submerged up to her shoulders, and trawling a net many times her size until dawn. She repeats this later in the day.

Once she’s out of the water, she sorts the shrimp fry on the river’s muddy banks, arranges to sell them at the local Balikhal Bazar and dries off only after she’s back home.

In the last two years, Mondal has been suffering from an “allergy” – which is the name Mondal’s doctor has used for the disease. Often, her body breaks out in rashes and she runs a fever. 

hut in a field
Susheela Mondal, a resident of Jharkhali in the Bengal Sundarban / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.

There are no doctors or a clinic nearby. So Mondal’s daughter in Bardhaman city, some 200 km away, arranged for her to travel there to consult with a doctor she knew. Mondal was first asked to get allergy tests done in Kolkata. “Those were worth Rs 1,000. Then, blood tests were done and they admitted me to a private hospital in Bardhaman for a month. During this month, they were trying out medicines. After that, the doctor said I have allergies and banned me from handling cold water,” said Mondal.

But this advice is bizarre to Mondal. She lives a kilometer from the Bidyadhari, which meets the Matla quite close to her house. The river is where she fishes for shrimp fry.

Reduced to a tidal river with no fresh water source, when the saline Bidyadhari floods farmland, it leaves crops unfit for reaping.

aerial photo of confluence of rivers
The Bidyadhari and Matla rivers meet / Credit: MD San and Ryan Rozario.

Mondal uses the word ‘burnt’, and says crops ‘turn red’ under saline influence. These crops are grown for consumption by the same households that grow them.

Mondal’s neighbouring households are all led by women. Most are left to fish for shrimp fry to cover everyday household expenses. Poverty and a lack of opportunities ensures that the men in the house migrate outside Bengal for work. 

The women are the lowest rung of the aquaculture ladder in the region. With nothing but a large aluminum container and their net, the women sell shrimp fry to pond owners, who then rear them to full size before selling them.

women walking with nets
Women in Jharkhali carry aluminum containers and nets down the bank of the Bidyadhari. Later, they will trawl these nets through the river for shrimp fry / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.

Banerjee says that the increase of salinity in water makes it impossible for other varieties of fish to flourish in these river bank areas.

Susheela Mondal has seen this change. She says that when she arrived at Tridib Nagar 30 years ago, she was spoilt for choice. “We saw plenty of crabs, various kinds of prawn and shrimp, but they are gone now,” she says.

women fishing
Women trawl nets through the Bidyadhari river for shrimp fry / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur,

Basanti Gayen, Kusum Mondal, Bharati Sarkar, Arati Mondal, Mita Mridha and Saraswati Mondal (pictured above) are Tridib Nagar residents engaged in the same profession. The six-hour-long, multiple round fishing expeditions bring them Rs 100 a day, on a good day. All of them note that they have observed effects of heightened salinity on their bodies. Gayen speaks of scabs that form after initial itching, which last for 4-5 days. Arati Mondal shows white patches on her hands.

The women are all mothers or grandmothers and loathe to speak of personal health troubles. Gayen even says they do not have ‘big illnesses’ at all in their village. But all of them note that the doctors are very far away.

The fisherwomen are unsure of their own age (“we’ll need to see our Aadhaar cards”) but speak of the deep science of ocean currents, how they affect fauna and why shrimp fry are seen only during warmer seasons. That is also when, they explain, the water is the most saline. 

woman with net
Mita Mridha trawls a net through the Bidyadhari river for shrimp fry / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.
women looking at their catch
Arati Mondal, Basanti Gayen, Saraswati Mondal and Mita Mridha sort fish after trawling nets through the Bidyadhari river for shrimp fry / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.

In the late afternoon, while Mondal sits outside her house, her two grandchildren flit around, sharing an apple. Their parents are out fishing, Mondal says. Her husband, younger son, younger daughter-in-law, and their son all work ‘outside’, she says, gesturing at the single road leading away from Tridib Nagar, which was made permanent only in October 2021, thus allowing electric rickshaws to reach her house for the first time. The road is so new that it doesn’t yet feature on Google Maps. But it does allow an essential thing to reach Mondal – an ambulance. This benefit is enormous but for Mondal, a few years too late.

“My elder son’s first son died shortly after being born…the four of us pressed on her belly to allow for the birth, she was in a lot of pain. The doctor arrived and asked, “What do I do?” We thought the baby was dead at birth, but I heard a sob and thought maybe he was alive. We took him to a hospital, but by the time we reached, they said he was dead,” Mondal says. 

man in medical clinic
Rural medical practitioner Gouranga Sarkar at his chamber in Balikhal Bazaar, in Jharkhali / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

This ‘doctor’ was not a doctor at all, but a rural medical practitioner or RMP, who villagers refer to as ‘doctors’. 

“We try to scientifically solve the immediate health problems of the people here, but we are not the real thing,” admits RMP Gouranga Sarkar.

Sarkar set up his ‘clinic’ – a table and two benches in a room that opens out to the street – in Balikhal Bazaar of Tridib Nagar after losing a social worker’s job in Kolkata after the pandemic hit. Sarkar was not the doctor who treated Mondal’s daughter-in-law, but he knows such situations can arise.

Trained at Dr Norman Bethune Choloman Medical School for three years, Sarkar has observed effects of prolonged exposure to saline water on his patients. 

“They get vaginal itching first, in some cases we see that they have polycystic ovarian disease, or leukorrhea, or problems in their uterus, including cysts.” he says. Sarkar feels that 90-95% of the hundreds of his women patients have one of these problems, and around 12-14% have uterine cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy at Kolkata hospitals. 

In Tridib Nagar, if Sarkar is absent, there is only one other person villagers can go to – a school master, Pabitra Sarkar.

Both the Sarkars (who aren’t related to each other) have a stash of emergency medicines that they give villagers who knock on their doors. The latter receives it through an NGO, but the former asks us not to mention this as only licensed doctors can access medicines. 

When these medicines do not work, the RMP refers patients to consulting gynaecologists, or the marginally bigger Jharkhali Primary Health Centre which is manned by a single qualified doctor. 

If it is a serious disease, a patient has to go to the Basanti Rural Hospital. It is 21 km by road from Tridib Nagar and the only healthcare center that provides essential healthcare to pregnant women and new mothers. 

Dr Mintu Ranjan Pal, the general duty medical officer who has been at the hospital for over six years now, says that at least 400 patients line up everyday. With most men away from the villages for work, these lines comprise mostly women and their children.

Like the RMP Sarkar, Pal offers a picture of diseases among shrimp fry fishers which is far grimmer than the one the women themselves gave.

women line up outside a hospital
Patients queue at the Basanti Rural Hospital, 21km from Jharkhali / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.

“If you see the line now, almost 10-20% of the people are standing with skin diseases. With women, what we see happening when they fish for long hours in saline water is that water-related problems, like pelvic inflammatory diseases, white discharge, gynaecological problems come up,” notes Pal.

He adds that women are often hesitant to speak about these. Indeed, the room where Pal and his colleague see patients has large doors and windows on either side, and offers no privacy, with an eager line of waiting patients peeking in.

This hospital is small and sparse but remarkably clean. A spic and span, state-of-the-art ‘waiting room’ is kept shut and is unlocked for the reporters.

The Tridib Nagar fisherwomen say unanimously that if there ever was a woman doctor in their vicinity, all their “life’s troubles would be solved”.

Two ASHA workers come on occasion – but they’re limited by the lack of proper roads. Pal agrees that a woman doctor could help patients open up. He says the hospital has a woman doctor, who they “thank often for working there,” because the Sundarban villages are “tough for a woman.”

The particular trials of being a woman in a land which is spectacularly harsh to its settlers keep the young in Tridib Nagar worried too. 

Siddhartha Mridha, a volunteer with an NGO, says he and his colleagues try to always remain on hand to transport pregnant women and young mothers to hospitals during emergencies. An additional role he has had to take on with this job is letting people know when and where to run during a storm.

woman at the clinic
A patient receives her diagnosis at the out-patient department of the Basanti Rural Hospital / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

Mridha couldn’t graduate school – mainly because it was 13km away – but taught himself English and Hindi. The village healthcare and awareness system runs on young men and women like Mridha.  

Mridha and his NGO colleagues are the only ones in the region who claim familiarity with the idea that climate change is irreversibly changing the area in which they live.

For the rest, the climate question and the possibility of moving again is tiring. “We came here in 1970. The party helped us set up. Now the party is trying to improve things. Where will we go? We have already been refugees once,” says Tapan Burman, a panchayat elder.

The ‘party’ in power in the 1970s was the Left and the ‘party’ in power now is Trinamool Congress. But Burman speaks of all administration and authority using the same word. With a daily life comprising floods (“this years’ had 4-5 times the strength than usual”) and suffering (“our mothers have no option but to choose river-based livelihoods”), Burman has had little time to register a change in rulers.

Nijkasba, East Medinipur

Party politics, however, permeates all aspects of life in East Medinipur’s Nijkasba. This is a fishing village situated at the point where the Rasulpur river meets the Hooghly near the latter’s mouth. Across the Hooghly from the disappearing island of Ghoramara and its big brother, Sagar Island, Nijkasba struggles to plot itself on a map. It is certainly not as big a presence as the Sundarban on the climate change radar. 

But for its people, its claim to fame is that it belongs to the Khejuri II block. The region saw protracted violence over land acquisition before the change in state government in 2011. In successive elections, including the one to the West Bengal assembly earlier this year, the Khejuri-Nandigram region was on the receiving end of pitched media attention.

At Nijkasba, fish brought in by large boats is auctioned to traders and needs to be sorted immediately afterwards by species. This sorting is done by nearly 250 women who sit under open skies on a large cement platform by the river. This happens every day at 2 pm.

The women all walk to the fishing station from the neighboring Dakshin Oli Chawk village and walk back after a couple of hours of work. Their daily income from this ranges between Rs 10 and Rs 50.

As in the Sundarban, women here too occupy the lowest rung of the fishing ladder. 

people at the dock
The fishing dock at the mouth of the Hooghly and Rasulpur rivers in Bengal’s Nijkasba village / Credit: Sourav Kundu and Ryan Rozario.

But they are also acutely aware of local leaders, the health infrastructure hierarchy and the possible problems of speaking to city folk on administrative drawbacks. 

However, a ready icebreaker that can override any amount of reticence over politics is floods. 

“When there are floods, everything floats away, everything is destroyed…water stays for 2-4 days, 5 days, sometimes 10 days and sometimes longer,” says 60-year-old Jharna Rani Patra. 

More importantly, when floods come, Patra notes that the fish sorting work stops because everything, including the sorting station, is submerged.

With the years, floods appear to have gotten fiercer. Patra and her colleagues say there is more water in the floods now than before. The Union government in 2019 said that of the major ports in India, Diamond Harbour in West Bengal – 54 km north of Nijkasba – and located at the mouth of the Hooghly, has recorded the maximum sea level rise.

a house being repaired
A house at Nijkasba, being rebuilt after successive storms / Credit: Ryan Rozario and Pawanjot Kaur.

“Water entered the house and broke the four walls down. Most houses here are mud houses, how can poor people build permanent houses?” asks Parul Das Maity.

Maity and her family have been living in a tarpaulin tent just across from their mud house since it was destroyed in the May 2021 Yaas cyclone.

Even for a riverine people accustomed to floods, Yaas was a particular catastrophe.

Villagers refer to cyclones Aila, Amphan, Bulbul and Phani as “jhor,” the Bangla for “storm”. But cyclone Yaas, is colloquially not “Yaas jhor” but “Yaas bonna” – ‘Yaas flood’. 

cyclone shelter
The cyclone shelter at Sillyaberia / Credit: Sourav Kundu and Ryan Rozario.

“Amphan destroyed 95% of the houses here, leaving only 1-2 pucca houses…and even those pucca houses which had tin or asbestos roofs, those too flew off. Then came the Yaas floods, in which most of the land and all of the houses of Dakshin Oli Chawk village were destroyed,” says Suryakanta Sahu, a lifelong Nijkasba resident.

“Drainage is good here and flood waters would go quickly. But the rain water, in some low lying areas, has been impossible to get rid of. This agricultural land could not produce any crops this year. Vegetables, which you could grow 12 months of the year, have all been destroyed,” Sahu says.

The villagers have subsisted on government rations. Women, in such situations, are hit the hardest when it comes to nutrition intake.

But that is a distant problem when compared to the spate fever, diarrhea and dysentery that comes after any flood. In a year in which locals claim to have seen “four to five floods,” these diseases have been particularly challenging. 

ASHA workers who bring healthcare to villagers’ doorsteps – and often have to wade through waist deep waters to do so – know this acutely.

masked women in sarees
ASHA workers who service the Khejuri II block. In the front is Shyamasri Bijali Das / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

“Whenever there is a flood, we give them metrogyl (to combat stomach diseases) or medicines to deal with fever…we always ask them to keep the bathrooms clean and keep containers of water on a raised platform,” says Shyamasri Bijali Das, an ASHA worker since 2009. Her monthly salary is around Rs 5,500. 

Das has 909 people under her direct care and is responsible for everything from post-childbirth attention to records of COVID jabs.

When asked how increased storms, flooding and logged water are affecting health, Das points to dengue. 

But she is not keen to stress on it and immediately after mentioning it, says that it has been brought under control now. In the course of the chat, her colleagues often interrupt her to stress that the overall health situation too is under control thanks to the infrastructure and their efforts.

Like their ASHA ‘didis’, the fish sorters of Nijkasba too know that speaking of their own health problems could reflect a failing on the part of the powers that be.

Each sentence is prefaced by the name of a local leader who has “done a lot;” each person working at the fishing station knows under which politician’s tutelage a particular pillar was built, and who repaired what after which flood. 

Kakoli Patra, a mother of three, says that neither she nor her children suffer from any disease at all. “I have only been to the hospital thrice, when my children were born,” she says. 

It takes the head of the fishing station, a wizened old man called Rabin Bor whose word is sacrosanct at the river bank, to say that women there suffer a lot because there is no separate toilet at the workplace. “The conditions here are not fit for them,” he says.

toilet at the dock
The lone toilet for hundreds of men and women at the fishing dock in Nijkasba / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

But what Bor can get away with, Patra apparently cannot and she and the other women only smile and nod when asked about the lack of opportunities to safeguard feminine hygiene.

Patra and her colleagues speak at length on floods but are loath to narrate their singular experience as women in combating its aftereffects.

Kakoli Patra
Kakoli Patra / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

When a bystander asks Patra to speak of a woman who allegedly fell dead while sorting fish, she refuses to do so and clarifies to the reporters that she does not know why that woman died – it could be a “private” reason, says Patra, using the English word. 

Sahu’s estimate is that 95% of the village has been living in shelters and under tarpaulin covers offered by the government since Yaas. This means that like their workplaces, these women’s homes too have no separate toilet area. This poses hygiene challenges, something that the interviewed ASHA workers also acknowledge. 

Nijkasba is serviced by the Sillyaberia Rural Hospital – situated right beside a five-story cyclone shelter. This hospital is accessible by electric rickshaws. From the fishing station to the hospital is a ride that costs Rs 15. It is 5 kilometers away from the Dakshin Oli Chawk village where the fish sorter women live with their families.

After each flood, a crowd of diarrhea and dysentery patients arrive at this hospital, says staff nurse Moushumi Das. “Twenty to 25 people come for diarrhea medicine everyday, and 4-5 of them get admitted,” she says. Das also notes that when a person of one region is affected by any of the above issues, at least 30 people from the same immediate neighborhood are likely to be affected also.

“There is a problem with diet here too. Villagers are mostly malnourished. If you do a blood test you will see their hemoglobin is low,” she adds.

Sillyaberia shares the patient load with Janka, another rural hospital at a distance of around 3km. But Das says both hospitals are limited in scope. For treatment of more serious illnesses, villagers need to go to Contai (now called Kanthi) Sub-Divisional Hospital.  

Here the same river that periodically floods their land but is also an opportunity for livelihood poses a problem. Across Rasulpur from Nijkasba is Petuaghat, one of Bengal’s largest fishing ports. But the land does not lend itself to a bridge, making people dependent on ferries which come in 40-minute gaps and at night, not at all. “The car journey takes three hours, which is a problem if the patient is serious,” says Das.

Das is the only person in that region that the reporters spoke to who spoke of the direct connection between climate change, hygiene and health.

“Maximum houses here have bathrooms now, but during floods, even those get submerged. It is a problem to use them then. So women do suffer,” she says.

Barely an hour from Sillyaberia is the Nandigram Super-Specialty Hospital, the biggest healthcare centre in East Medinipur and one which had been in the limelight since inauguration. The hospital had been in the news recently after the Bengal CM, injured in Nandigram, gave it a miss and chose to admit herself at Kolkata’s SSKM Hospital

Sparsely furnished, the hospital, set up in 2017, still looks new. Its age is given away by a low hill of medical waste, with gloves and masks peeking out from color-segregated bags, in its backyard. 

hospital staff seated at a table
Sillyaberia hospital staff nurse Moushumi Das / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

The hospital superintendent Dr Adwaita Kumar Mudi notes at the outset, “First of all let me say, due to climate change we are seeing a lot of new diseases like respiratory distress and skin diseases. There are some waterborne diseases too.”

In Mudi’s experience, women mostly come with skin and nail diseases and leukorrhea, after floods. Mudi also claims that people have grown aware of climate change-driven diseases. 

While Mudi hasn’t received any directions from the health department, he believes plans must be in the offing to tackle specific climate change-inspired health challenges. “If the department asks for data, we will compile it and send,” he says. 

hospital interiors
The Nandigram Super-Specialty Hospital / Credit: Pawanjot Kaur.

Where Tridib Nagar functions as a virtual island disconnected from the advancements, financial complications and events of the urban world, Nijkasba lives in acute awareness of it. 

But while political considerations and the river Hooghly separate them, women of the two villages are united by poverty and an awareness that admissions of their own ill health will invite expenses they cannot afford. 

Both sets of women are essential to the fishing industry and both receive the least to compensate them for their roles. Both are cradled in the meeting points of two rivers – one set fiery with salt and the other with more water they can hold. Both live in quiet subservience to a process of change for which they can take no blame.

This story was produced with the support of Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was originally published by The Wire on 11 January 2022 and has been lightly edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: The fishing dock at the mouth of the Hooghly and Rasulpur rivers in Bengal's Nijkasba village / Credit: Sourav Kundu and Ryan Rozario.

By visiting EJN's site, you agree to the use of cookies, which are designed to improve your experience and are used for the purpose of analytics and personalization. To find out more, read our Privacy Policy

Related Stories