On the afternoon of 26 May, 2021, when cyclone Yaas hit the eastern coast of India, the combined impact of the cyclone and a full moon tidal surge breached embankments built along the coast. As a result, the Sundarbans delta region of West Bengal faced massive flooding, ruining agriculture and property of the local residents.
“Coronavirus, cyclone, lockdowns and another cyclone - we have nothing left that could possibly be destroyed,” said Fatima, a resident of Petkulchand village in Kultali constituency of Sundarbans. “Where do we go? How do we survive? The fields where we worked are flooded. The lockdowns have made it impossible for us to go to the cities to look for jobs,” she added.
Similar conversations with locals from Sundarbans’ Kultali constituency illustrate their loss, suffering, and anxieties not only because of climatic disasters but also due to an increasing uncertainty around livelihoods following the pandemic and deep recession.
The government estimates damage of nearly 2.21 lakh hectares of crops and 71,560 hectares of horticulture in West Bengal alone. Salinity ingress — a process by which saline water enters areas with freshwater — caused insurmountable damage to the fields, rendering them uncultivable for the coming seasons.
Under normal circumstances, when income from farming shrinks, locals turn to aquaculture for sustenance. However, cyclone Yaas also created massive losses in the aquaculture industry by arriving during harvest season. Reportedly, 12,000 tonnes of shrimps were lost during the cyclone, leading to monetary losses of approximately Rs 1,000 crore. In addition, a West Bengal’s state fisheries department survey reported nearly 30 percent of all boats would not sail this year due to flooding and consequent destruction caused by Yaas.
In the aftermath of the cyclone, dead fish and saline ingress turned the water in the local ponds unsuitable for drinking and domestic use. The villagers lamented that the hand pumps have also been pumping out brackish water. Repeated seawater intrusion into the aquifers due to flooding as well as massive withdrawal of groundwater resources over time have resulted in salinisation of the region’s water table. The process of desalinating groundwater is long and expensive, leaving the locals with very few options at hand.
Since Yaas disrupted the lives of the locals, women walk kilometres to gather clean drinking water for their families. Not only has the cyclone intensified their work but also made them more vulnerable to instances of sexual violence and human trafficking activities that are highly prevalent in the region.
In an interview, Anurag Danda, a senior fellow at Observer’s Research Foundation, noted, “Economic hardships also have an ecological angle. As land turns saline or there are breaches of embankments, people lose land and economic hardships ensue. Also, with every generation, landholdings turn smaller as they get divided among scions. All this leads to a higher incidence of poverty and subsequently child marriages and trafficking.”
Having lost their primary sources of livelihood, locals have complained that the government’s relief measures have been inadequate, saying that they are now entirely dependent on aid provided by civil society organisations. They expressed frustrations with the inadequacy of the government's relief measures.
Their frustration draws attention towards the state’s repeated botched responses to climate calamities, the lack of proper policies, and inefficient legal and institutional frameworks, which have continually added to the misery of the locals. From the Bengal Embankment Act (1882), which was last amended in 1981, to the Forest Rights Act, 2006, which continues to remain unimplemented in the Sundarban region, the government’s limited interest in the region’s development presents a grim reality.
Soil and water salinisation, flooding, and a rise in sea level are likely to worsen due to climate change.
Such factors mandate the need for stronger embankment systems, installing appropriate methods to combat salinisation, and directing resources towards livelihood development. However, the state and central governments have consistently mismanaged planning for the coastline's present and fast-approaching future.
A recent investigation showing that the government rejected 90 percent of all public objections made against the Coastal Regulation Zone [CRZ] notification brought to light its disregard towards public concern.
Threats to livelihood and economy because of water, such as rising sea levels, salinisation, flooding and so forth, have made the Sundarbans uninhabitable. Paradoxically, the all-pervasive presence of water in the delta makes it impossible for the locals to disengage from the presence and play of water. Caught in the web of lack of development, natural calamities, and governmental apathy, it remains to be seen how the locals will bounce back.
To quote Amitav Ghosh from The Hungry Tide on the locals of Sunderbans, “In the tide country our fault, our crime, was that we were just human beings, trying to live as human beings always have, from the water and the soil. No human being could think this is a crime unless they have forgotten that this is how humans have always lived—by fishing, by clearing land and by planting the soil.”
Somiha Chatterjee is a research assistant at Social and Political Research Foundation. Taniya Sarkar is an independent photographer based in Kolkata, India. Headquartered in New Delhi, SPRF is a young policy think-tank seeking to make public policy research holistic and accessible.