Climate Migrants

From Bay of Bengal to Arabian Sea

Sukanta Sarkar

Bhagyadul Para. Age 42. Residence: Poila Gheri, Mousuni Island. Son of a fisherman family. From his childhood, he started fishing with his father sometimes in the sea or in the creeks of the Sundarbans. He could not sit for the school leaving Madhyamik examination. At first their house was on the bank of Muriganga. The sea has been rising for a long time. Muriganga entered Bhagyadul's house overnight. Books, dishes, bed sheets all went under the water. Mud house of his grandfather’s time was washed clean. Then? Then what else! They moved back further into the island and somehow bought a small parcel of land and built a mud house again. Bhagyadul was 15-16 at that time. He used to go to fishing with his father every day. However, managing the family became difficult. Earlier, there were not only houses on the bank of Muriganga, but also several bighas of land nearby. Cultivation was not bad there. Bhaghyadul's parents and uncles brought home even some money by selling vegetables. All that land went to Muriganga's stomach long before they left the house. As his father grew older, Bhagyadul used to go to fishing with his uncles. But, running the family started getting difficult with every passing day. About twelve or thirteen years ago. Some of the islanders went to Kerala for fishing job as contract workers. They returned to the island on vacation. After hearing from them about fishing in the Arabian Sea in a big trawler in Kerala and knowing the amount of remuneration, Bhagyadul decided that he would also go to Kerala. Then he went to Kerala for fishing job.

 Once a year he returns home for fifteen days. Send money home every month. Now through online. Things were not bad. Already many others from this island have gone to Kerala or Tamil Nadu for fishing or other work like Bhagyadul. Two years ago, when Corona surged, Bhagyadul returned home along with more than 200 migrant fishermen of Mousuni Island after burning a lot of firewood from Kerala. On his way back, he decided to build a boat with what little savings he had and spend the rest of his life on this island, fishing not in the Arabian Sea but in the Bay of Bengal. After spending a few days back on the island, just when Bhagyadul began to work on building the boat, news came that a storm was coming. And they were forced to take shelter in the old school building in the village; they were left alone after the houses were destroyed. The whereabouts of the tin of the roof in the house was not found. Along with the force of the storm and heavy rain salt water of the sea entered the island and destroyed everything. After the storm subsided, Bhagyadul's family found themselves in the same situation as thousands of other unfortunate residents of the island. After a few days, Bhagyadul started building a boat and a house with the money he saved. After three months, Bhagyadul contacted the owner of a trawler in Kerala over phone and arranged to go to Kerala again.

Bhagyadul is not alone; thousands of migrant fishermen or migrant workers like him have been forced to leave Mousuni Island. They are the children of this Mousuni island in the lap of the Bay of Bengal. It is as if the fortune-tellers do not believe that the unknown and familiar sea is coming to swallow them today. The land is gone. The house is broken,rather vanished. However, when talking about home while working on a fishing trawler in the Arabian Sea, this island haunts Bhagyadul in down memory lane.

Today Mousuni is sinking. Many people know it. Although less before, lately, frequent reports about drowning monsoons are also noticed in newspapers or on TV screens. The residents of Mousuni also know that the island is sinking. Mousuni is quite a big island. People on the seaward side of the island are more affected. Unfortunately, they are leaving the island. The sons of their family are migrating to other states in search of work. Being forced to leave the traditional occupation they are choosing new occupation. However, their own permanent address is still this sinking island. They think that even if a small part of such a large island is submerged, the rest of the island will be covered with a small piece of land. So, wherever they go to work, Bhagyaduls want to come back to their island.

In order to understand why the people of this island are becoming migrant workers, one can look at the overall situation of the island. The island is rapidly sinking due to rising sea levels. Due to storms and rains, saline water of the sea enters the island and destroys the cultivable land. It is destroying fresh water fish in the pond. Thousands of people have lost their land and homes near the sea and become refugees—they are climate refugees. Many of these internally displaced persons somehow find little land to build mud houses with tile or tin roofs in seemingly safer places inside the island, but find no land to cultivate or any other new livelihoods on the island. So, they are forced to move elsewhere. Most of them prefer to go to South India especially Kerala, Tamil Nadu or Andhra Pradesh for work mainly because of higher wages. Migrant workers in various states of the Deccan, be it fishermen or construction workers or any other profession, no one cares about staying at their place of work. Almost everyone wants to save some money and come back home. The most amazing thing is that even knowing that the island is sinking, these migrant workers still want to save up and build a house on the island, planning or dreaming of starting a 'small' business here. But, Mousuni's reality says otherwise. Even today, the main form of transportation on the island is motorised boats or country boats. However, intra-island communication is now highly touted. Lately, around 70 Resorts have been built legally and illegally on the Sea beach which is in the Mauza Baliara of the island, which has opened a new way of income for several people in that area. However, most of the whales remain where they were. In the meantime, it cannot be denied that some people are getting a small business opportunity due to the increase in tourist traffic. However, tourism has yet to make a significant impact on the island's overall economy. Tourism is going on, tourists are going from Kolkata too, but needless to say, there is no future for the tourism industry in Mousuni Island. Because the Bay of Bengal is encroaching, Mousuni is sinking and Mousuni will continue to sink, oceanographers and environmentalists are making it clear.

`It will take at least 50-60 years or more for this island to sink' said Ramakrishna Mandal in his mid-fifties, a resident of Bagdanga near Chinar River and Deputy Head of Mousuni Gram Panchayat. Also, he acknowledged their limitations in developing the island. He said with some regret, 'Actually, everyone knows that this island will not exist one day, so no one, at any level, comes forward to make any long-term plans for us.'

Meanwhile, the population of Mousuni is also increasing. There is no income in the island. So, people are leaving the island every day. The island's fishermen are becoming migrant workers. The number is increasing. Recently, the former Sundarbans Development minister of the state, Kanti Gangyopadhyay, said in an interview, ‘There is no young boy in the Sundarbans anymore.’ Everyone is moving to another state as a migrant worker. The reason is simple: Mousuni no longer offers them job and hope.

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Vol 55, No. 46, May 14 - 20, 2023