sunderbans

Most parts of the Indian sub-continent are so highly populated and poor that the negative impact of even one large natural disaster could linger on for generations.

Sundarbans, tucked between the Bay of Bengal coast of the Indian State of West Bengal and neighboring Bangladesh, has had three disasters in quick succession over the last one year. Apart from the Covid-19 pandemic, this 1050 square miles region, has been hit by two big cyclones, Amphan in May 2020 and Yaas in May 2021.

Not surprisingly, the results are catastrophic for the people living here, who were barely on the edge of survival even earlier. While the cyclones have caused widespread destruction of infrastructure and damaged agriculture the pandemic, with its reverse migrations and lockdowns, has hit their incomes hard.

” The situation is grim. The people have little access to basic amenities in the aftermath of the cyclone and the Covid lockdown is forcing them to stay put in their villages without any livelihood” says Jhelum Roy, a research scholar in Jadavpur University, doing relief work in the Patharpratima block of Kakdwip subdivision of South 24 Parganas district.

COVID Response Watch LogoThe vast majority of the people of the Sundarbans have always depended on the abundant natural resources of the region, known for its vast mangrove forests, great biodiversity and as the home of the Royal Bengal tigers.  They collected various products like honey and resins from the forests or caught fish, all of which sell at a good price in the urban markets.

Another section of the population of the Sundarbans has been dependent on agriculture, which has been badly affected as the cyclones brought salt water from the sea and made the lands unproductive.

A very large number of people are also migrant workers in Kolkata, which is not too far and well connected by local trains. Every day, from the morning to night, these trains ferry a few hundred thousand people to city, where they often get employed as construction workers, fetching them around Rs 300 for a day’s work. Additionally, a large number of women from Sundarbans come to the city to work as house-helps, which can fetch anywhere between 1000 to 4000 rupees for a month. Many also work in garment and bag factories or as rickshaw pullers and vegetable sellers.

“The income generated as migrant workers did not provide a comfortable lifestyle, but at least it enabled them to put some food on the plates of their children” says Bishwarup, a resident of Raidighi, a small town on the fringes of the Sunderbans.

So far, the COVID pandemic has not been a major cause of concern in this region with relatively few cases of infection or deaths recorded, though this situation could change anytime. The economic toll of the pandemic has however been devastating ever since the hasty declaration of a nation-wide lockdown in April last year.

As part of the restriction on all public transport all local trains to Kolkata were suspended, leaving a huge number of people unemployed, as the trains were the only cheap and speedy form of transport. Many migrants were also forced to come back to their villages as job opportunities in the cities dwindled.

The local production of various goods in the region also went down due to fall in demand from the urban population. The small rural economy was unable to accommodate everyone who came back, which was already a rickety one.

Amidst all this, on 20th May 2020, the people who were already in despair were struck by Amphan, the strongest cyclone to hit the Bengal coast in recent memory. According to the testimonials of the groups who visited the affected areas after the cyclone the situation was awful. Thousands of people living in thatched houses were rendered homeless, and even basic amenities like clean drinking water were not available.

The state government provided the population with some relief material but the distribution was marred by allegations of corruption, which the ruling Trinamul Congress has repeatedly refuted. The region saw a number of protests against the irregularities in the disbursement of the relief material. The government claimed these were instigated by the supporters of the opposition Bhartiya Janata Party and Left Front.

However, according to activists, who were involved in the anti-corruption movement, many of these charges were true and there was a lot of anger among the people.

“We organized the movement on a three-point demand. A transparent procedure of distribution of relief materials, ensuring NREGA work to provide livelihood to the people during the lockdown and issuing ration cards to all those who lacked them” remembers Jubi Saha, a leader of an organization named ‘Adhikar’, that mobilized villagers at Deganga block of 24 Parganas district.

After a long wait, finally as the first wave of Covid ebbed in November last year, the lockdowns were eased and local trains to Kolkata began operations. But even this period of partial relief soon faded away, when the lockdown was reinstated in May 2021 in view of the second wave of the pandemic.

Public transport was again suspended again cutting off the people of Sundarbans from Kolkata, causing another wave of unemployment. And to increase their troubles another cyclone – called Yaas- reached the coastal area.

This time the cyclone was not as strong as Amphan, and the point of landfall was in the border of West Bengal and Odisha. Nevertheless, the area of Sundarban was devastated once more, deepening the ongoing crisis of the population.

According to Shankar Nath Das of Patibunia village in the Namkhana block, his village was submerged under the water, after an 8 to 9-kilometer-long embankment around the River Chenai fell apart during the cyclone. Not only houses but a vast area of agricultural plots and fisheries were destroyed in the area, leaving the people helpless.

“We are living at the mercy of the relief material provided by some civil society organizations as government efforts to rebuild the area are not up-to-the-mark” says Shankar Nath.  According to him and other local folk, without any help from the government, it will be very difficult for them to carry on.

In recent weeks, the demand for compensation for those who have lost their livelihood is gaining ground in the Sundarbans. On 18 June, hundreds of villagers from the Namkhana block, also in Kakdwip subdivision of South 24 Parganas district, gathered outside the Block Development Officer’s office asking for a minimum income of Rs. 213 per day during the lockdown.

“The demand for compensation is just, and the people are ready to fight for their rights” says Sanchita Ali, a young activist working among the villagers.

Activists like her also suggest increasing the intensity of NREGA works to employ people in projects like restoring embankments, desalinating fields and rebuilding village infrastructure. The absence of a positive response from the state government, they believe, will only lead to more unrest in the region in the days ahead.

Arka Deep is a researcher based in Bolpur, West Bengal


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