As dawn broke late last year, Onimal Raptan spread his net as far as it could stretch in the sparkling blue-grey waters of the Sundarbans, an expansive mangrove forest in the Indian Bengal delta.
The 26-year-old fisherman was hauling prawns, but he’ll do so only for the upcoming winter months. When the rains begin he’ll move south to Andhra Pradesh to work as an agricultural laborer.
Each summer for the past four years Raptan has left his home in Annepur village in the Gosaba block of the Sundarbans in search of an income.
He’s among scores of residents who have ventured out in search of jobs after Cyclone Aila devastated communities across the region in 2009.
“Aila washed our fields with salt water that stagnated for months. It became too salty to grow anything for the next five years,” Raptan said, precariously perched at the edge of his wooden boat as he hauled up his empty net. “We only grow paddy and potatoes, which is just enough for consumption for our family of four,” he added.
Gathered at the confluence of the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers, the Sundarbans is home to one of the world’s largest mangrove forests.
Natural resource-based livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing, predominate among the region's 4.5 million residents. But due to a paucity of fresh ground water, mono-cropping is common, which increases vulnerability to climate hazards, such as floods and cyclones.
For many communities across the Bay of Bengal region, migration – both seasonal and long-term – has become a way out.
Men like Raptan, between the ages of 21 and 30, make up the largest proportion of migrants, according to a 2018 study by researchers associated with DECCMA, a project that assesses migration as a form of adaptation in deltas impacted by climate change.
“As an agricultural laborer in Andhra, I make 40,000 to 50,000 rupees in two months, more than three times what I would have earned had I stayed back and worked as a daily laborer,” Raptan said.
In India's Sundarbans region, where 54 of the 104 islands support human settlements, one in five households now has at least one family member who has migrated, said Tuhin Ghosh, DECCMA India principal investigator and a climate scientist at Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies.
“Almost two thirds of migrants state that they are moving to seek better employment opportunities, followed by family obligations, while 10 percent of respondents mentioned that the migrant left to pursue a degree or obtain training in a new skill,” said Ghosh, relaying the results of a four-year study DECCMA conducted in the Bengal delta.
Only three percent of the respondents in the Indian Bengal delta singled out environmental stresses as the direct cause of migration, he said. But unseen environmental stresses indirectly disrupt livelihood security and can contribute to economic circumstances that necessitate migration. People are shifting from traditional farm-based economies to labor-based ones, Ghosh added.
A map of the study area in the Indian Bengal Delta, which includes the Indian Sundarbans and parts of North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas districts. Map by DECCMA.
Sea level rise in Sundarbans higher than global average
A 2018 report by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN notes that under slow-onset environmental stressors, rural out-migration can be a risk-management or adaptation strategy, albeit one that is not generally available to the poorest.
Sugata Hazra, DECCMA country lead and director of Jadavpur University's School of Oceanographic Sciences, had earlier shown that the sea level rise in Sundarbans at 3.14 milimeters per year is higher than the global average. Sea level rise also has a significant impact on the erosion-deposition process that shapes the islands and subsequent land use changes.
At least three Sundarbans islands have gone to watery graves and villages in neighbouring islands are being claimed by rising sea levels and creeping tides that routinely engulf the remote mangrove ecosystem.
“Water regulates everything here in the Sundarbans. Water from upland and water from the delta is creating problems and benefiting people at the same time. And climate change is stressing people because agriculture is no longer profitable," said Ghosh, referring to temperature and rainfall pattern changes over the last century. "Honey and crab collection and fishing have been affected."
There are other stressors too. The population of the Indian Sundarbans has risen 200 percent since the first settlements were developed in the 1770s. A growing population and limited job opportunities increases competition, and for those who are pushed out of their traditional farming practices there is little choice but to seek work elsewhere.
For returnee Pradip Mandal, who lives in Gosaba block’s Bali island, migration has become a way to cope with the effects of river-bank erosion.
The basin-like islands here have been protected by earthen embankments about 3,500 km long for nearly 150 years. Now they’re being weakened by swirling currents that scour at their bases and by tidal surges coupled with strong winds, Mandal pointed out.
“Our homestead at present is at the edge of the river on the island and is being constantly eroded. During Aila, everything was destroyed. Paddy rotted in the fields.”
Around 3,500 km of earthen embankments protect the islands against saltwater inundation. Sea level rise and cyclones have eroded islands and damaged fertile lands / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
Five years ago Mandal moved to Kerala in southwest India to take up work at a factory that manufactures hosiery. The only member in his family of three earning an income, he returns home to the Sundarbans during the winter tourist season to assist tour operators and tend to domestic issues.
“But there are limited options for work here and agriculture is no longer feasible with the available facilities,” said Mandal, whose woes are compounded by the fact that local administration has asked his family to evacuate their present property to make way for a road construction project. Remittance has saved them for the time being.
“If I don't work [outside] then my family will not get food,” he said.
Remittance money sent by her mother-in-law working in the western state of Maharashtra staved off poverty for 30-year-old Mamata Mandal, a resident of Dulki in Gosaba who was widowed eight years ago when her husband was dragged away by a tiger on a fishing trip.
A decline in fish stocks has pushed fishers and farmers further into tiger reserve territory, increasing the number of human-animal conflicts. These conflicts are also contributing to out migration.
Sushama Das migrates to Odisha to work in agriculture and fisheries. According to a study, there is an increasing trend of women seasonally migrating from the Sundarbans / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
Sushama Das, 30, doubles up as an agricultural labourer in paddy fields and in the fisheries sector in Odisha twice a year. She switched gears from prawn collection to migrant labor following crocodile attacks.
“This was more than five years ago. One person was killed by a crocodile. After that incident my husband never let me go to catch prawns," Das said.
She's part of a trend mapped by researchers of a growing numbers of female migrants.
Problems versus aspirations
But there are trade-offs to contend with for migrants.
Those like Bali Island's Abhijit Mali, who picks up work in Tamil Nadu’s manufacturing sector, say they are troubled by crowded living conditions, poor sanitation, problems stemming from a lack of fresh water and irregular food habits due to workloads.
“We do not like to depend on forests so my father and I have never been into fishery or honey collection. We do not own land so we do not have an inclination for agriculture. If youth like us get opportunities to work here in other sectors then I would prefer to have stayed back,” Mali said.
Kaushik Mandal in Satjelia Island says he wanted to purchase land and cultivate paddy but is wary of the climate hazards.
“After Aila, crop yields have declined. And there is not enough land available, so what can we do? I don’t see any future here," he said.
A second-generation migrant, Mandal returns once a year instead of his father’s seasonal approach.
“The company I work for in Karnataka employs 3,000 to 4,000 youth from the islands here,” he added. “Youth prefer to go out and some even have brought their families. This is the way things are now.”
Rather than try to prevent migration, some researchers argue that there should be investment put toward job training so migrant laborers bring skills that can enhance the economies of the places where they’re moving.
Policy focus needed on adaptation measures
Climate change and development researcher Anurag Danda, who has worked extensively in the Sundarbans, says displacement is inevitable even if high intensity weather events do not become more frequent or intense.
“Global warming will continue despite all the mitigation action, the delta will continue to sink and terrestrial space will [shrink],” Danda told Mongabay India. “Migration can be avoided only if people can manage to live and thrive on lesser amounts of land.
“This will need a very different kind of thinking on the part of the political and governmental leadership, as well as communities,” he added. “For example, if the people of the Sundarbans can shift to high-value crops on land and water, high-end tourism, and can live on raised land or on stilts.”
Ecotourism is starting to expand livelihood options in some parts of the Sundarbans. Boat rides that go through the rivers and channels to the uninhabited mangrove-draped islands are gaining momentum, and private luxury cottages have sprung up [on several islands]. As a result, people in the surrounding communities have picked up jobs as tour guides, boat cheuffurs and travel agents, helping tourists plan special tour packages to spot the Royal Bengal tiger.
The Sundarbans is home to 4.3 million people, the majority of whom depend on the natural mangrove ecosystems for their livelihoods / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.
According to Hazra, adaptation measures that remain top priorities for communities are trainings that help workers build new skills and rebuilding houses to make them flood tolerant. There are hurdles in practising these measures, however, without government investment.
“Practised adaptation options are the ones that are popularised by the government, but people want different kinds of options which are not often offered by the government,” Hazra said.
DECCMA outcomes stress that climate change impacts are reflected in a number of relevant policies and plans, for example the National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) and the West Bengal State Action Plan on Climate Change (WBSAPCC), which specially refers to the Sundarbans as extremely vulnerable and highlights the need for adaptation through livelihood improvements, construction of embankments and biodiversity conservation.
“However, various barriers exist to effective implementation of these policies," a DECCMA study said. "Despite a recommended budget allocation from 2012 to 2022, there is no information on the release of it, nor any progress report on the activities carried out under the WBSAPCC."
At present, 18 percent of the population are migrants but 23 percent of current non-migrant households have the intention to migrate in the future, which would lead to migration rates of 37 percent in the IBD, said DECCMA’s Sumana Banerjee.
Hazra said governments must act on the fact that migration is increasingly thought of a livelihood option and help make mass movements successful. “They can have records of migrants, their skill sets and ensure security in the receiving areas,” he said.
If human capital in the Sundarban region can be improved through concerted investment, trained manpower will move to distant places to take advantage of opportunities that can be made use of with their new skills, said the researcher Danda.
“As of now, it is the movement of human labour but not skills and therefore it does not cause the economy of the host location to expand the way it should,” he added.
Migration has been associated with failure at source locations and compounded problems at host locations. In this part of the world, migration brings back memories of famine and partition, Danda explained. This negative construct is due to the unplanned movement of people in large numbers.
“It’s the same narrative in many parts of the world,” he continued.
There are, however, a few positive examples of planned movement from places such as Australia, Alaska and even Odisha, and a school of thought that sees migration as adaptation.
The Odisha state government on the east coast of India, for example, has been working to relocate residents from erosion-hit Satabhaya village to a resettlement colony in Bagapati village eight kilometers away. As many as 400 families have moved so far.
When Sushama Das is back in her village in Dulki island, she adds on to her savings by operating an ice cream cart in the block’s market place. But it's migration that has really helped keep the family afloat.
“The work is good and people are good to us," Das said. "We are now saving money for our children’s future."
A version of this story appeared online at Mongabay India on Dec. 24, 2018. Sahana Ghosh received support for her reporting from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network's Bay of Bengal Story Grants. Sanjoy Mandal and his team at Sundarban Safari provided valuable assistance during groundwork and navigating across the difficult landscape.
Lead photo: Onimal Raptan returns to Sundarbans during the winter season and migrates to Andhra Pradesh for the rest of the year to work on farms. Males aged between 21-30 form the largest proportion of migrants in the Indian Bengal Delta according to the study / Credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay.