‘God played a cruel joke’: Cyclones have taken a toll on women in the Sundarbans

From losing family members to tiger attacks following cyclones to gradually losing their pisciculture business, they have suffered in almost every way possible.

ByShaunak Ghosh
‘God played a cruel joke’: Cyclones have taken a toll on women in the Sundarbans
Kousalya Mondal lost her husband and father-in-law to a tiger attack shortly after Cyclone Fani.
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Sagarika Majhi’s life is punctuated by cyclones. It’s how she divides her story into different chapters.

In 2010, Cyclone Aila devastated her village of Satjelia, lying in the centre of a ring of islands in West Bengal’s Sundarbans. Sagarika, 43, lost her farmland and ponds to the cyclone’s wrath and, as a result, her income from breeding catfish, parshe and tilapia.

Sagarika and her husband, Kartick Kr Majhi, left the Sundarbans for Bengaluru, hoping to find work as construction workers. Kartick’s parents were put in charge of the pisciculture business, while their son Sushanta stayed to continue his schooling.

In 2019, Cyclones Fani and Bulbul swept through the Sundarbans. Sagarika and Kartick were still in Bengaluru, earning around Rs 15,000 a month between them.

“The cyclones caused huge losses to our ponds, a lot of our fish died, totally damaging our business,” Sagarika said. “These jobs in Bengaluru were the only source of income at that time.”

Then, early this year, the Covid pandemic hit India. The couple’s construction site in Bengaluru closed down, leaving them without any income. No longer able to afford food or rent of Rs 3,000, Sagarika and Kartick, like lakhs of migrant workers across the country, left for home.

It was a journey of 1,976 km, from Bengaluru to Visakhapatnam on foot, then a van to Kolkata, which cost Rs 10,000, and from Kolkata to Satjelia again on foot. It took them 10 days.

Sagarika hoped to return to fish farming and scrape together a living. “I had somehow managed to bring the pond back to life after last year’s devastation from Bulbul,” she said. “It was my only hope of earning something.”

On May 21, Cyclone Amphan struck the Sundarbans. Sagarika had already shifted to a storm shelter set up in the village’s solitary school the day before, along with almost everyone else in the village who lived in mud houses, like her.

“I saw the devastation with my own eyes,” she said, describing how the Bidyadhari river, which flows from Nadia district to join the Raimangal river in the Sundarbans, moved with a force that she had never seen before. “Winds were gushing in. Even sitting inside the school building, I felt like it would collapse.”

Even living through Cyclone Aila hadn’t prepared her for anything like this. Cyclone Amphan struck the shores of West Bengal with wind speeds of 150-155 kmph. In Satjelia, Sagarika’s pond was ruined, covered with branches and leaves. The fish she had so carefully reared, hoping to sell them for Rs 20,000, were dead.

Amphan’s fury left thousands of women like Sagarika stranded, forced to rebuild their lives. In 2018, Kolkata’s Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute reported that 37 percent of the women in the Sundarbans depend on pisciculture — the controlled breeding and rearing of fish — to earn a living. They earn around Rs 7,400 a month.

“The basic socioeconomic structure of the Sundarbans is that while men are mostly involved in agriculture and odd jobs in the forest — like cutting wood and gathering honey — the women do jobs back in the village, of which pisciculture is an important part,” said Arun Sarkar, a lifelong resident of Satjelia who works for the state tourism department as a guide, among other things.

The frequent cyclones in the Sundarbans, therefore, put these livelihoods at risk.

Sagarika Majhi, whose livelihood of breeding fish was destroyed after Amphan.

Sagarika Majhi, whose livelihood of breeding fish was destroyed after Amphan.

“After a cyclone, saline water enters the ponds where the fish breed, given the area’s proximity to the sea,” said Ujjal Bhowmick, a professor at the Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute in Kolkata’s Barrackpore. “This increases the pH level of the water, which reduces the oxygen content of the water. Due to this lack of oxygen, the fish die.”

Another issue is the debris left behind by cyclones on the surface of these water bodies. “The dead branches and leaves release chemicals containing carbon into the water, which again reduces the oxygen content, thus killing the fish,” Bhowmick said.

Newslaundry met with some of these women, living on different islands in the Sundarbans, to understand what they went through.

‘We saw our roof being blown away’

Tanima Majhi, 40, has lived in Satjelia for 20 years. She shares a two-room mud hut in Satjelia with her husband, their two daughters, and her husband’s parents. Her husband works as a driver in Kolkata, earning Rs 10,000 a month. He sends Rs 3,000 home, the rest going towards making ends meet in Kolkata.

As a result, Tanima said, she has to handle the expenses of educating her daughters, Sonali, 14, and Sumana, 9.

Like many others, Tanima too depends on pisciculture. She owns two ponds where she breeds different kinds of fish, including catfish, rohu, parshe and prawns. For catfish and parshe, she goes to the river once a month to catch them and releases them into the pond. Baby rohu and prawn larvae are bought in bulk and released into the ponds too.

This, along with the cost of fishing equipment, fish bait, and so on, costs her between Rs 20,000 and Rs 25,000 per month. Tanima earns around Rs 30,000-35,000, giving her a profit of Rs 10,000, on average.

But the past year has been especially tough, she said.

“Last year, I didn’t earn a single rupee from my fish harvesting,” she said. “In the summer, Cyclone Phani destroyed the fish. I managed to pull through but then, Bulbul struck in November.”

Tanima hoped that 2020 would be kinder to her. She took a loan of Rs 35,000 from a local mahajan, or moneylender, and spent the money on equipment and prawn larvae, refilling the pond with fresh water so that more fish could breed.

But her optimism was short-lived: in May, Amphan destroyed her pond. All her fish were lost.

Like many others in the Sundarbans, the family had moved into a local school that served as a storm shelter as the cyclone made landfall. From the school, they watched the devastation unfold across their village.

“My house was visible from the classroom where we were stationed,” she said. “We saw our asbestos roof being blown away by the force of the winds.”

When they returned to the house, it was completely flooded by rainwater. All the food she had stored in the kitchen was ruined, and part of her house had completely collapsed.

According to Tanima, party workers were dispatched to her village by the state’s Trinamool Congress government to rebuild her home. However, she hasn’t received any monetary relief. “The government officials came and asked me an estimate of my damage and I informed them about everything but till now, I haven’t received a single penny,” she said.

“I don’t know how I will repay my loan,” she added, her eyes brimming with tears. “I am extremely worried about myself and my daughters’ futures.”

Tanima Majhi said she hasn't received 'a single penny' in government relief.

Tanima Majhi said she hasn't received 'a single penny' in government relief.

The tiger widows

Four years ago, Sandip Mondal left his house in Satjelia to collect crabs in one of the estuaries bordering the mangrove forests nearby. He had set up a trap the previous day, something he’d been doing his entire life.

But Sandip never came home. A few days later, his body, or what was left of it, was retrieved from the forest by forest officials. It was marked by teeth and claws, the result of a tiger attack.

“I was in my home, cooking his favourite fish, when he was out,” said his wife Neelima. “He seemed disturbed for the past few days as there were fewer crabs caught in his net. I wanted to lift his mood that day.”

Sandip’s favourite meal remained uneaten. Neelima told Newslaundry: “His body was absolutely tattered. They were only able to recover his torso. At first, I couldn’t believe it was him.”

Her voice filled with shock, she added, “Everyday when he went to the forest, I prayed that he would come home alive. But over time I became accustomed to the dangers of the forest. So, when the news came of his death, I was shocked.”

The Sundarbans is home to 96 Bengal tigers. As of 2018, nearly 3,000 women here have lost their husbands to tiger attacks, referred to as “tiger widows” in the media. According to estimates, nearly 100 people die every year in the Sundarbans in tiger attacks.

But what does this have to do with cyclones?

“Most of the Sundarbans forest area has protective fencing so tigers and humans do not come in close contact with each other,” said Arun Sarkar. But these fences are often uprooted during cyclones, he said. Tigers then approach the villages, looking for freshwater sources. “The fences are rebuilt,” he added, “but it’s not humanly possible to check whether 2,125 sq km of forest area across the Sundarbans is properly fenced.”

The fences Sarkar mentioned are put up by the state government, and the forest and wildlife department is responsible for their maintenance. A department official said, on the condition of anonymity: “Post Amphan, the fencing at three places – Kultali, Sajnekhali, and Bidya – was completely destroyed. Some were partly damaged in other islands bordering the forests.”

The official said the fences are made of nylon. “When a strong storm comes, they are easily broken,” he admitted, “and tigers stray into the villages bordering the forests. They also attack people who come into the forest for their livelihoods.”

On average, it takes the government two or three months to repair all the fences after the cyclones. “But the frequency of cyclones has increased so much that we have to use lower quality materials,” he said. “And hence, storms break them easily.”

In 2007, after Cyclone Sidr passed through the Sundarbans in November, there were as many as six tiger attacks.

Dr Arun Bhar, a zoologist and a member of the Bengal Wildlife Society, an NGO based in kolkata, said tigers also stray into villages in search of food and water. The mangrove forests aren’t easy hunting ground: tigers can injure themselves on the protruding roots of the trees. “Hence, they look for easy prey, and that’s why they prey on humans,” Bhar said.

Importantly, cyclones also destroy the tigers’ sources of freshwater as saline water floods the rivers, making them undrinkable. “The cyclones also kill deer and wild boar, the main prey of the tigers,” Bhar explained. “So, they stray to other areas in search of food and water, especially after a cyclone.”

As a result, the widows left behind now have to shoulder the responsibility of looking after their families. Neelima, for example, began working as a labourer in other people’s farms, earning around Rs 3,000 per month. When Amphan destroyed a majority of the farmland in the area, she had to find work as a construction labourer.

“I have to work to sustain my son’s education,” she said. “I want him to grow up and earn a living for himself and not struggle like me.”

An additional burden is that part of her mud house collapsed during Amphan, and she doesn’t have the money to repair it. “I somehow managed a quick fix with a tarpaulin cover,” she said. “Covering my child’s education is more important than rebuilding my house at the moment.”

Losses worth Rs 2 lakh

Last year, Koushalya Mondal, 39, lost her husband and father-in-law to a tiger attack in an estuary bordering the Sajnekhali forest. It was shortly after Cyclone Fani hit the Sundarbans in May 2019, and Koushalya, her husband Arup Kr Mondal, and her father-in-law Anup Kr Mondal went to collect crabs from a trap set up near the estuary.

“I saw with my own eyes as the tiger jumped from behind and dragged my husband and father-in-law,” she said, her voice filled with horror. “I somehow saved myself.”

Since then, Koushalya has carried on her husband’s work alone, laying traps in the estuaries and collecting crabs. After catching the crabs, she releases them in her ponds, and then sells them to fish dealers. She usually earns around Rs 1-1.5 lakh per year, depending on the number of crabs.

Her son, Amit, is a Class 12 student at Rahara Ramakrishna Mission School in Kolkata. When his school closed down due to the pandemic in March, Amit moved back home to stay with his mother.

Amphan tore down a part of Kaushalya’s house, completely destroying her kitchen. She spent Rs 25,000 on repairs, but the greater loss is that of her livelihood. A coconut tree had fallen across her pond; it took almost 10 days to move, she said. “By then, not a single crab was left available,” she said, visibly shaken.

Koushalya said she lost Rs 2 lakh worth of crabs.

“I thought God had finally smiled on me this year as I could have earned double the profit that I usually get,” she said. “But all God did was play a cruel joke.”

***

This is the fourth story in a five-part series on the disastrous consequences of the Assam floods and the Amphan cyclone in Bengal. Read the other parts.

This story is part of the NL Sena project which 43 of our readers contributed to. It was made possible thanks to Aditya Deuskar, Deshapriya Debesh, John Abraham, Aditi Prabha, Rohit Unnimadhavan, Abhishek Daevil, and other NL Sena members. Contribute to our next project, ‘Love Jihad’: Myth vs Reality, and help keep news free and independent.

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