Between the devil and the deep blue sea: Life on sinking islands of the Sundarbans

People are losing their lives and meagre livelihoods to the sea, living in destitution between cyclones.

WrittenBy:Joydip Mitra
Mamta Bibi, who lost her home during Yaas.

At Gobindapur Abad, a village in Sundarbans’s Brajaballavpur island at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, an old woman walked towards me. Her pace was slow and cautious as she negotiated through the knee-deep, slippery, sodden mud remains of an embankment. Despite the rain-soaked land, her old sari was spotlessly clean. She carried a quiet dignity with her spectacles and the nylon bag tucked under her left arm, and headed towards our boat, where we were distributing food rations.

As she passed me, she instinctively covered her face with the loose end of her sari. This image – of an old woman trying to hide herself while collecting donated food from outsiders – stayed with me as a symbol of the sinking islands of the Sundarbans.

A life dictated by kotal and jhar

In the Sundarbans, the terms “kotal” (tides) and “jhar” (storms) define the history of human settlement. Till the early 16th century, this estuarine landmass – created by 11 major rivers, including the Ganges and Brahmaputra – was a lively business hub. As painted by Amitav Ghosh in The Gun Island, people in the Sundarbans used to trade with Europe, particularly with Venice. But trade died down as Arakanese and Portuguese pirates blocked all channels leading to the open sea and, in a few years, the Sundarbans was evacuated.

Centuries later in 1771, Claud Russell, a British collector, thought of the Sundarbans as a revenue-generating landmass. In 1781, the then magistrate of Jessore, Tillman Henkel, leased plots in the Sundarbans to prospective landlords for collecting timber. In no time, thousands of families were brought into these vacant islands from what is now East Midnapore district in West Bengal. Plans were made to save fast-growing farmlands from the intrusion of saline water by enclosing the islands with embankments. To do this, Santhals were also brought in from tribal districts of Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh. These two communities still make up the major part of the Sundarbans’ population and, as was then, they still remain in the margins.

In 1853, when the British planned to build a very big port on the Matla river in the Sundarbans, an Englishman named Henry Piddington was posted as shipping inspector in Kolkata. An avid researcher on tropical storms who would later coin the word “cyclone”, meaning “coiled snake”, Piddington immediately raised the alarm and organised a sort of movement to stop governor general Lord Dalhousie from going on a building spree in the Sundarbans.

Piddington failed. Port Canning was subsequently built on a mammoth scale and opened in 1864. Three years later, a cyclone hit the Sundarbans and a modest tidal surge of only six feet wiped out Port Canning. Any further attempt towards the urbanisation of the “lowland” was never made, certainly not in post-colonial years.

Thus “kotal” and “jhar” always stood in the way of the Sundarbans coming out of its base economy centred on farming and fishing. In truth, these two factors, over time, would make the basic economic model utterly inadequate to feed 4.5 million people in the Sundarbans, causing at least one member of 75 percent of its households to migrate to other states in search of livelihoods.

After Cyclone Aila struck the Sundarbans in 2009, it became clear that frequent cyclones and the rise in sea level – both consequences of global warming – will turn the residents of the Sundarbans into climate refugees. Between May 5, 2019 and May 25, 2021, the Sundarbans was struck by cyclones Fani, Bulbul, Amphan and Yaas – each devastating enough to justify the fear of mass displacement.

It’s ironic that the last beneficiaries of the carbon economy are facing the fiercest wrath of global warming. Apart from a few brick kilns, there are no carbon-emitting industries in any of the 54 inhabited islands in the Indian part of the Sundarbans. Most islands do not have cars running on fossil fuel. It is simply through their proverbial resilience that people continue to live in the Sundarbans, and they are required to have a tiger’s strength and skill to continue living here.

Yet in the last 12 years, this confidence has cracked.

Following Cyclone Yaas, I made several trips to remote islands across the Sundarbans in the space of a month, usually as a part of aid efforts. Every time I approached an island, I saw long queues of villagers waiting on broken embankments for aid to arrive. Doctors and aid workers told me they’ve never seen such an overwhelming number of people so dependent on food distributed by civil societies.

This speaks of a rare scarcity which usually leads to a defunct social order. In a few years the Sundarbans may turn into the biggest humanitarian crisis, after Partition. Partition saw India parting ways with 60 percent of the undivided delta, retaining only 4,262 square km of the Sundarbans: 102 islands in a cobweb of creeks, canals and rivers. At the time, 1.1 million people lived in the Indian part of the Sundarbans, as per the 1951 census.

In 1984, 1,330 square km of the Indian part of the Sundarbans was declared a tiger reserve. The people residing in this area were squeezed into the remaining islands – a total area of less than 3,000 sq km – which steady in-migration had already made too dense with people. By 2011, according to census data, 4.4 million people were living in a little over 2,000 square km of livable tracts of lands in the Sundarbans.

Petty politics and inadequate aid

After a land reform programme was carried out in the 1980s, it was found that the most a family could hold onto was a noodle-strap of land, barely enough to meet the family’s demand for food. Excess production, if any, failed to bring in much-needed cash as Sundarbans still does not have a single operating mandi and it was never commercially viable to transport crops from a remote island to a market much too far away.

This soon turned into an existential threat as more and more families lost their land to erosion, to an advancing sea, to a need to sell it off because of medical emergencies. This caused out-migration on a massive scale from the Sundarbans in the last few years, dispersing cheap labour from there to other states, especially Kerala. The Sundarbans was adapting an economy based on increasing remittances from outside and decreasing income from farmlands.

That’s when the nationwide lockdown was announced in dramatic haste, drying up the remittances and returning nearly a million jobless men back to the mud. This was followed by Amphan and Yaas, rendering most of its farmlands barren, without even a straw to hold onto for its sinking islanders.

When nearly five million people face extinction, the government is expected to act. But these days, governance in West Bengal has been reduced to an hourly slanging match, efficiently presided over by the governor, between the governing Trinamool Congress and the opposing Bharatiya Janata Party.

After Yaas, prime minister Narendra Modi and chief minister Mamata Banerjee were to meet at Kalaikunda airbase, presumably to discuss the damage. But it turned into a comedy of politics and hit the headlines only because it led to the extension of service period, and eventually the retirement, of the state’s chief secretary. Modi reportedly threw in Rs 400 crore for relief work and departed for Delhi, and the people of the Sundarbans were left to fend for themselves.

Though much credited with stopping the BJP’s run in Bengal, the tragic truth is that Banerjee and her TMC are no saints either. Besides building a sort of cult around their chief, the TMC’s politics of populism works by pumping very small amounts from public funds into rural households; the state economy is so shattered that a Rs 500 allowance can easily win over a household of six. The party network is often used to select beneficiaries and disburse benefits that, by creating a space to extract a part of it as “cut money”, oils the party machinery.

A few days ago, the Centre for Monitoring Indian Economy measured the current rate of unemployment in West Bengal to be almost double that of the national average. In the absence of growth in the formal economic sectors, politics has thus generated an option to earn by getting attached to the governing force. That is why violence and mass defection before and after the last election has been so rampant in the state.

In May and June last year, while distributing aid to Amphan victims, corruption reached a new high. Such a large portion of the Rs 6,250 crore Amphan relief package was reportedly embezzled by TMC leaders that the government had to act; corrupt leaders were instructed to refund the undue benefits they had secured for themselves and their kin.

This year, the government wisely decided to pay directly to the victims through a scheme of “duare tran”, or aid at doorsteps, which bypassed local party networks. Under this scheme, the government received 3,81,774 applications for compensation, of which it rejected over two lakh as “bogus”. Until July 6, it had directly transferred compensation to 30,395 accounts, spending a little over 23 crore, according to local news reports.

When judged against the scale of damage inflicted by Cyclone Yaas, this process of disbursement is fair, slow, and utterly inadequate.

‘The sea has come’

For the past month, Mamta Bibi has used a plastic sheet and rags to enclose a space between three broken concrete pillars and called it home. She lives here now with her three children, in this triangle of space in Mousuni island’s Poilagheri. Her neighbour Saukat lives in an abandoned cowshed with his mother and ailing grandfather.

When Cyclone Yaas struck on May 25, their neighbourhood – the first line of habitation by the Muriganga river – was thoroughly ravaged by the tidal surge. Residents lost everything. An NGO called Sundarban Charcha paid each household Rs 1,000 and they got rations from civil societies, but nothing else. No immediate aid was distributed by the government.

While some village panchayats made attempts to organise relief camps, most of them did nothing. Some were a step worse and actively restricted the distribution of aid by NGOs, fearing that they would lose political ground. In Mousuni, for example, the panchayat put up a notice forbidding boatmen from rowing aid and aid workers to the island. Angry villagers later tore the notice down and threw it into the river.

On June 26, two days before another high tide was expected to cause an abnormal surge in the Bay of Bengal, I saw Gafur Ali standing right between the land and the sea at Baliara, trying to guess the direction of the wind. Eastern wind during high tide causes the maximum surge.

Sagar ese gecha, bacha muskil,” Gafur Ali announced. The sea has come, it is difficult to live on.

His prophecy, delivered from 70 years of experience, matches all recent findings of environmental researchers. A study by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the US, or PNAS, estimated that the sea level around the Gangetic Delta will rise by 1.3 metres by 2100. Another study said a one-metre rise in sea level will displace 50 million people along India’s coast.

Since the Sundarbans is more vulnerable to a rise in sea level than other coastal areas, it is bound to go to the sea much sooner. In the last 20 years, four of its islands went underwater, including Lohachara, the first inhabited island in the world to be permanently drowned.

This is the greatest fear in the Sundarbans today. Everyone is scared their homes will be the next Lohachara.

All photographs by Joydip Mitra

Members of MAA, a civil society, sail through a maze of rivers and creeks to distribute food ration among villagers of Brajaballavpur island. To reach nearly any island in the Sundarbans, one needs to make a long journey by boat.
For an old islander, it still hurts to accept food packs donated by unknown persons from outside. Once thoroughly self-reliant as far as the production of rice and fish was concerned, the people in the Sundarbans find it hard to accept that they are now all but destitute due to frequent cyclones, the rising sea level, and increasing salinisation of soil.
An unprecedented rise in sea level threatens to drown the Sundarbans within a few decades. The Bay of Bengal is advancing fast. It is feared that almost five million people in the Sundarbans will become climate refugees in a matter of years.
Long queues of villagers form beside a jetty as word spreads that aid may arrive. After Yaas, most people in the Sundarbans became dependent on food distributed by civil societies.
At Gazipur, near Maipith Coastal, an organisation feeds villagers on an open road. Though the Sundarbans was never an affluent economy, it has not seen scenes like this before 2020.
At a village near Jamtala in Kultali Block, a boy uses the empty shell of a discarded amplifier to announce that food will be served in a community kitchen.
A woman rushes past a motorcycle decorated with political stickers to collect aid at Gobindapur Abad. The assembly election over, there is little compulsion for major political parties to stretch themselves towards relief efforts. Even the government has stayed away from distributing immediate relief material.
Residents of Baghdanga rush between distribution centres to collect aid, despite the heavy monsoon rain. The Sundarbans used to depend on remittances sent by migrants working in other states. But the lockdown sent all these migrants back home.
Pradip Barrai and his friends distribute food packs to villagers in Gobindapur Abad. Their pack contains enough rice, dal, potatoes, soybeans, sugar, and puffed rice to feed a family of four for three days. They also distribute saris and sanitary napkins. Experienced in aid work in the Sundarbans since 2009, Pradip confesses that he has never seen people in the Sundarbans in such a wretched state.
Beside a village road near Maipith Coastal, Putul Mudi sits with her daughter’s Aadhaar card, begging passersby to help her fill an application form for compensation.
Chandan Maity and Bablu Mondal of Mousuni Island worked in a construction site in Kerala when the lockdown was declared last April. Though they were well taken care of by the Kerala government, they could not send their usual monthly Rs 8,000 back home. They returned home for a quick visit but then the second wave of Covid and the lockdown began, trapping them here. They lost their wages to the lockdown and their few assets to Yaas.
A family waits for food on an embankment in Rakaskhali island.
A child and her father gaze at a landscape of wreckage and mud in Brajaballavpur island.
Between May 5, 2019 and May 25, 2021, the Sundarbans was hit by cyclones Fani, Bulbul, Amphan and Yaas – each devastating enough to justify a fear of mass displacement within decades. People who have their roots in these islands will find it hard to settle somewhere else.
Losing everything to the tidal surge on May 25, these women have taken shelter in a primary school in Baghdanga. They are eligible to receive Rs 25,000 under the state government’s ‘duare tran’ scheme since they lost their houses, but they say this is nowhere close to what they need to replace their homes.
In the last few years, several homestays sprang up on this patch of white sand, where Baliara opens into the Bay of Bengal. All of them were destroyed by Cyclone Yaas. The fierce waves brought in huge quantities of silt, turning the white beach into a patch of slippery mud. There’s little chance of restarting business, which means that 200 local workers will lose their jobs.
To distribute relief materials, organisations usually take the help of a local teacher or panchayat member to identify families that have lost the most. Through this local contact, families are given coupons and told to reach certain distribution points on certain dates to collect relief. Organisations can usually help only 300 families at a time, but the needs of the people are much greater.
The sea has literally broken through the strong barrier of a concrete embankment and drawn level with the land, as seen here in Baliara. The rise in sea level threatens to drown the entire Gangetic delta in a few decades. In the last 20 years, four islands in the Sundarbans have permanently gone underwater.
After Yaas, Covid became a real threat to Sundarbans’ islanders as they were exposed to aid workers coming from outside. Vaccination programmes are on now; as of June 23, 3,438 of about 22,000 inhabitants of Mousuni island were vaccinated at Baghdanda primary health centre. 661 of them have already received their second dose.
Yaas hit the fishing community in the Sundarbans hard. Most of their boats were damaged. The daily wagers who worked on these boats now try to fish with small nets all day long. They are also forced to sell their catch locally as they cannot afford to take such a small quantity to a market.
Saukat, with his mother and ailing grandfather, shifted into an abandoned cowshed after their house collapsed under fierce tidal pressure.
The collective length of embankments in the Sundarbans is around 3,500 km. Mud embankments need the support of mangroves, and the loss of the latter has increased the pressure on the embankments. After Yaas, geo-jute was used to stop saline water from leaking into the land.
In the Sundarbans, the battle between the land and the sea is no longer a battle between equals.
Also see
article imageHow Cyclone Yaas melted down an entire island
article imageCracks in the shield: How the Sundarbans is dying and making Bengal prone to cyclones


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