Nowhere To Go

Migrant Labourers of Sundarbans

Sukanta Sarkar

[The vast region of Sundarbans comprises a network of tidal channels, creeks, rivers and Islands. Some of these are mere swampy marshes, covered with low forest and scrub wood jungles and those to the north, which are embanked, as potential areas to grow paddy. The Indian part of Sundarbans consists of the following administrative blocks as follows: Pathar Pratima, Kultali, Sagar, Namkhana, Joynagar-1, Joynagar-2, Basanti, Gosaba, Canning-1, Canning-2, Mathurapur-1, Mathurapur-2, Kakdwip in South 24 Pargana district and Sandeshkhali-1, Sandeshkhali-2, Haroa, Minakhan, Hingalganj, Hasnabad in North 24 Pargana district]

The sundarbans, a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, spread across India and Bangladesh, is an active delta region measuring about 10,000 area covered with wide swathes of rare mangrove vegetation of which over 4,000 is in West Bengal, India. Out of the 102 islets in Sundarbans, 48 are reserved forest. The Sundarbans is also an ecologically fragile and climatically vulnerable region that is home to over 4.5 million people (Census 2011). Struggle for survival of the people of this region is very tough and hazardous. Main livelihoods of the people of the Sundarbans are agriculture and fishing. Apart from these, honey collection from the forest is another means of livelihood for the local people, which is a very risky business for the inhabitants because of man-eater Royal Bengal Tiger. Natural resource-based livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing predominate in the Sundarbans. Due to paucity of fresh ground water resources, mono-cropping is common, which exposes them more to climate hazards such as floods and cyclones. For many migration is a way out. Researchers on the Sundarbans also claim, ‘one in every five households now at least one family member who has migrated.’

Migration from Sundarbans is not a new phenomenon. There is no such record about starting of migration from the Sundarbans. But, some researchers have indicated that from the early sixties people started migration from the delta. Generally to fulfil the basic needs, migrants went to Kolkata, Midnapur, Odisha, Andhra Pradesh, Tamilnadu and Kerala. Those who wanted to build assets or earn extra income moved to Mumbai and the Gulf. The places like Gujarat, Mumbai and Dubai were chosen for different reasons of migration like family conflict, illness of family members and/or repayment of a large amount of debt or loan taken in a crisis period. It seemed that migrants travelled to Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and sometimes to Lakshadweep and Kolkata to earn a lump sum money and not for fulfilling any specific objective. For fulfilling the basic family needs of distressed migrants, the male members moved to regional and national destinations on an ad-hoc basis. On the other hand, families in need to create assets mostly went to international destinations, where high wages prevailed. Some other groups in need of money to handle emergencies moved to places with high wage rates and where the transition was relatively smoother. Another group needing a lump sum of money to finance specific family needs such as ceremonies like a wedding moved to national destinations. In summation, migration satisfied family needs that were presumably unattainable through conventional local occupations. In addition, climatological reasons have been playing a major role in migration from the Sundarbans for long.

Migrant labourers from the Sundarbans consist majorly of daily-wage labourers working in the manufacturing and construction industries in different parts of the country. They are often denied adequate healthcare, nutrition, housing and sanitation since many of them work in the informal sector. They are mostly from rural areas but are forced to live in cities for work for most of the year. Many have no savings and have to live in factory dormitories which got shut down due to the pandemic induced lockdown. Additionally, there was no central registry of migrant workers, despite the existence of the Inter-State Migrant Workmen Act, 1979.

After losing their land many inhabitants from the sinking islands of Mousuni, Ghoramara, Sagar and Kumirmari have migrated to other states for livelihood. They have been facing very hard challenges due to lockdown. Most of them returned from the other states, where they worked on their own island and made a mind to stay here. But, after spending a few days they realised that there was no scope for earning a livelihood in the islands. They visited the Gram Panchayat to the Block Development Offices, but, none could show any ray of hope regarding job. So, most of them are migrating again.

Indian migrant workers in general during the COVID-19 pandemic have faced multiple hardships. With factories and workplaces shut down due to country-wide lockdown, first imposed abruptly in March 2020 to November 2020 and, after a few months gap, from May 2021, millions of migrant workers had to deal with loss of income, food shortages and uncertainty about their future. Following this, many of them and their families starved. Thousands of them then began walking back home, with no means of transport due to the lockdown. In response, the Central and State Governments took various measures to help them and later arranged transport for them. According to media reports, more than 200 migrant labourers died in road accidents on the way back to their homes during the lockdown.

In the first lockdown due to Covid-19 in 2020, almost all the migrant labourers came back to their home in the Sundarbans but MGNREGA (100 days job) failed to accommodate all of them. So, most of the migrant labourers had to go back again to their workplace in other states. But, they started to come back to the Sundarbans in April, 2021 after the second lockdown was imposed by the government as a second wave of Covid-19 was knocking at the door. People living in the islands, including a few lakh of migrants who returned home have been facing uncertainty over life and livelihoods, due to the double impact of lockdown and the devastating cyclone ‘Yaas’ that made landfall in adjoining Odisha during late May 2021.

Khokan Para, a 30-year old man set off for Kerala for livelihood when he was 21 or 22. He’s an inhabitant of Baliyara region of Mousuni Island—surrounded by The Ganges, river Chinai and the Bay of Bengal. Born in a family of independent fishermen he moved to distant Kerala to catch fish for his employers. For 8-9 years his life ran smoothly. He returned home once in a year to Mousuni to visit his family for a furlough of about 15 days.

Not just Khokan, Ramakanta Nayek’s life trajectory was similar. This 37-year-old resident of Kusumtala village of the island had left the island with some villagers for Bengaluru, 10 years ago. He says,” There was a time when we had our home and some land in Baliara beside the sea. About 7-8 years ago, the land got submerged in the sea; then the homestead. We had to shift inland, built a home near Kusumtala and somehow survived. But we couldn’t afford to buy land for agriculture. That’s when I did digging work to remove soil. About four years ago an acquaintance in our village took me to Bangalore. I learnt centering—creating frames of roof for cement casting in building construction. Payment was much better. On the other hand, we were not getting jobs in the village on a regular basis.” He took three other villagers to Bengaluru for a similar job.

Sheikh Ashgar Ali, 59, is also from Baliara. After Cyclone Aila in 2009 he went to work as a road construction worker and later as a mason. After the 2020 lockdown he came back to Baliara and now works as a porter in a ration shop. He doesn’t want to return to Kerala.

Bhagyadul Para, 42, is from Paila Gheri, Mousuni Islands. He belongs to a family of fishermen. He studied till Class X. He used to accompany his father when he went fishing, since he was 10. They didn’t have their own boat; they went to sea in others’ boats. Their house stood just beside the sea. Now it has disappeared in the sea. Also, they don’t get enough fish nowadays. Fisherfolks are leaving the island. Some of them have migrated to Kerala and Tamilnadu. What they earn working in big trawlers in Kerala is much more than they earn joining others’ boats for fishing here. Bhagyadul left Mousuni 12 years ago with other fishermen of his village.

Rashid Sheikh, 37, is from Bagdanga. His family has 7 members. They have a 10 cottah land. It’s too little for the family. Now a migrant labourer, he had been a tailor before. To earn more he went to Kerala to work as a mason. He used to send money to his home every month and came to Bagdanga once in a year for about a fortnight. But after lockdown due to Covid-19 he reached home after much difficulty. Neither can he return to Kerala, nor can find any job in the island or its neighbourhood. Why did you choose to be a mason forsaking a tailor’s job? “I could see that most people here are getting impoverished. Many lost their land to the sea. Several people left the village. Especially the young, with no jobs, went to Andhra, Delhi, Mumbai and so on. I was not getting enough.”

It’s not just Khokan, Ramakanta and Asgar Ali, there are a few thousands of men and boys in the islands who have migrated to other states of India and even abroad. The reason is simple: Mousuni Island is sinking. The sea level was rising slowly for long, but in the last 10 years it’s happening at a faster pace.

According to scientists, global warming is responsible for the rise of sea level. Apart from Mousuni, Ghoramara, Sagar, Kumiramari and several other islands of the Sunderbans (both in India and Bangladesh) will disappear into the sea. Islands like Lohachara, Bedford, Kabasgari and Suparibhanga have already gone under the sea.

It’s not just about the rising level of sea, the Bay of Bengal has to face the ravages of cyclones—Aila, Bulbul, Yaas etc—more frequently. Low pressure belts in the bay also cause heavy rains and flooding, time and again. On the one hand, the sea is devouring the islands; on the other, tidal waves during repeated cyclones are pushing saline water from the sea in the arable land turning it barren for some years. It takes about 8-10 years to make the land fit for agriculture. As a result, farmers in the islands are forced to migrate elsewhere looking for livelihood. Most of them are moving to big metro cities of India. Not just farmers, a large number of these climate refugees are fisherfolk. Rising levels of the sea and tidal waves during cyclones flood the freshwater ponds and water reservoirs killing tons of fish in the inland aquatic systems. Besides, frequent cyclones and lack of modern fishing techniques have turned fishing into a less profitable enterprise in the islands. As a result, the fisher folk are also among the migrants here.

Inhabitants of Mousuni, Ghoramara, Sagar and Kumirmari islands usually move to Andhra Pradesh, Karanataka, Tamilnadu, Kerala, Maharashtra, Gujarat, Rajasthan, Delhi etc. as migrant labourers. But why do these people prefer cities in other states to cities in West Bengal—such as, Kolkata, Siliguri, Durgapur? First, job opportunities are aplenty outside Bengal. Then, wages are much higher there. For instance, Khokan earns Rs 500-700 in Kerala, but in Bengal the wages are not more than Rs 400-500. “Moreover, we don’t get jobs regularly in Bengal.” Those who get employed in “centering jobs” with masons in Bengaluru are paid more than twice compared to Bengal. Said Ramakanta, “You get Rs 420-450 per day for centering here, in Bengaluru they pay Rs 850-1000.”

Islands are sinking. There are no job there. About two decades ago the exodus from the islands began. These people don’t have land or jobs in the island, but their homesteads have somehow survived. So, these migrant labourers return home at least once in a year. They stay at home for a fortnight, or a month, and return to their jobs. They send money to their families every month from the distant posts.

The year 2020 brought about a drastic change in the lives of these migrant labourers from the islands. Lockdown restrictions due to Covid-19 turned the lives of lakhs of these islanders, including Khokan, Ramakanta, Asgar, Bhagyadul and their likes. In the first few weeks they got stranded at their work stations, as all transport to home were abruptly stopped by the sudden lockdown. Later, when they managed to return home facing a lot of trouble in transit—hundreds died on their way to home across India— they found it was quite difficult to survive at home. Some of them had dreamt of starting some small enterprise with the money they had saved. Some thought of taking up menial jobs to support the family, but there was hardly any work for them in the islands or the neighbourhood. Eventually, they had to spend that money to feed their families as the lockdown got extended. Says an exasperated Ramakanta, “I arrived here during lockdown last year (2020). So long we survived on saved money, but now everything is exhausted. I thought if I get any job here, I won’t return to Kerala. But, the situation here is worse. So, I called my employers in Kerala again.”

Bhagyadul has a similar experience. When the 2020 lockdown forced him to return to the village, he decided to build his own boat and start his own fishing business. But soon after he started working on building his boat, the Cyclone Yaas washed his dreams away. The cyclone devastated his house, livestock got killed and everything went topsy-turvy. Their family somehow survived. They had to stay in a government relief camp for several days. The money he had saved to build the boat, had to be spent on building a mud hut with a tin roof. Now he has the only option to migrate to Kerala once again.

Their fate seems inevitable. As the sea level rises, climate changes. Sinking islands have turned nearly 80,000 people climate refugees. Experts believe the number will increase exponentially in the next few years. Still, neither the government nor the political leaders are bothered about these people. Even though the issue needs a strong protest movement, the protesters are busy moving out from these disappearing islands.

How to save the Sundarbans from the sea due to climate change?

A Task Force needs to be created with Oceanographers, Meteorologists, Civil Engineers, Foresters, Environmentalists and Economists.

What is needed immediately is a Master Plan exclusively for the sinking islands before the sea levels rise further.

The villagers of endangered islands need to be provided with information on dams, erosion, mangrove conditions, socio-economic status, public health and education.

Vocational Training Centre, Skill Development Centre and Primary Language Learning Centre for working knowledge in English and some Regional Languages must be taught to the youth, who are compelled to migrate to other states in India or abroad. Since migration is inevitable they need this support.

(This article is based on Research Project Approved by the Mahanirban Calcutta Research Group, Supported by the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna)

[Author is a Kolkata based Journalist and Media Fellow of the CRG.]

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Vol 54, No. 29, Jan 16 - 22, 2022