Living Dangerously

The Sundarbans and Its People

Sukanta Sarkar

The Sunderbans, a cluster of low-lying islands in the Bay of Bengal, spreading across India and Bangladesh, is an active delta measuring about 10,000 sq km of which about 4000 belongs to India. There are 102 islands in the Indian part of Sundarbans. But human settlements are only in 54 islands.

Area is covered with wide swathes of rare mangrove vegetation. This is also an ecologically fragile and climatically vulnerable region that is home to over 9.5 million people, including about 4 million women.

The Sundarbans is an UNESCO World Heritage site, known for its wide range of flora and fauna, including the Royal Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile, the Indian python and about 260 bird species. Struggle for survival of the people of this region is very tough and hazardous. Main livelihood of the people of the Sundarbans is agriculture and fishing. Also, honey collection from the forest is another means of livelihood for the local people, which is a very risky job for the inhabitants of the Sundarbans because of the man-eater Royal Bengal tiger. Natural resource-based livelihoods such as agriculture and fishing predominate in the Sundarbans. Due to paucity of fresh groundwater, mono-cropping is common, which exposes them more to climate hazards such as floods and cyclones. Because of this for many, migration is a way out. Researchers on the Sundarbans also claim, ‘one in every five households now has at least one family member who has migrated.’

Successive studies in the past two decades have shown the precarious rise of sea level in the region that has forced the coast to retreat at a fast pace. In a study conducted in 2012, the Zoological Society of London observed that the Sundarbans coast has been retreating up to 200 metres (660 ft) in a year. This has led to destruction of 17,179 hectares (42,450 acres) of mangroves within three decades (1975–2010) to accommodate agricultural activities; shrimp cultivation has destroyed another 7,554 hectares (18,670 acres).

Researchers from the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, estimated in the Indian part of the Sundarbans the annual rise in sea level to be 8 millimetres (0.31 in) in 2010. It had doubled from 3.14 millimetres (0.124 in) recorded in 2000. The rising sea levels had also submerged around 7,500 hectares (19,000 acres) of forest cover. This coupled with an around 1.5 °C (2.7 °F) rise in surface water temperatures and increased levels of salinity, have posed a problem for the survival of the indigenous flora and fauna. The native Sundari trees are exceptionally sensitive to salinity and are being threatened with extinction. In truth Sundaris are rarely found. Trees are mostly Garan variety.

The Sundarbans has been hit by four major cyclones in the last three years—Fani (2019), Bulbul (2019), Amphan (2020) and Yaas (2021). These cyclones killed nearly 250 people and caused a loss of nearly USD 20 billion, a PTI report claimed. Because of cyclones and high tide saline water comes in rivers while submerging some islands. With frequent storms over the years, the salinity of water of most of the rivers and ponds has increased in almost all areas of the Sundarbans.

Climate change has turned the water of rivers in the Sundarbans saline, making agriculture unviable and forcing inhabitants to turn to fishing. Especially for women in most of the islands of Sundarbans, this switch is not just about livelihoods but also coping with the debilitating health impact on their lives. To collect the prawn women standing in waist-deep water every day for about four to six hours. Caught in a vicious trap that means spending hours waist-deep in the very waters that no longer nurture their fields, the women face a battery of menstrual, urinary tract and other infections. With agriculture becoming unviable due to the increase in salinity of the water, more and more women are becoming dependent on fishing. This means their exposure to saline water is also increasing.

 A local resident told this correspondent that ‘the husbands of most of these women are migrant workers and based somewhere else. The women meet their day-to-day expenses by selling prawns and fish they catch in the river for which they have to remain in waist-deep water for four-six hours per day which is the main cause of the health hazards they are facing.

Unfortunately, in so many cases, these women shy away from telling their problems to doctors. They come to even ASHA workers only when it turns severe and require much more intensive treatment. Some women have also reported miscarriages due to repeated infections. Most of the affected women don’t go to doctors or consult the ASHA workers. One of such women told, ‘I am separated from my husband and have to fend for myself and my two children. Earlier I was ashamed to discuss my menstrual problems with ASHA workers or doctors but after the situation became intolerable I had no option left.’

Thousands of women in the Sundarbans have no alternative; they are compelled to work in the saline water every day to run their family because either their husbands migrated to other state for livelihood or lost to the tiger while collecting honey in the deep forest. The widows of the tiger victims and spouses of migrant labourers have to feed their children; so they have to do hard and hazardous work. Lakshmi Naiya’s husband has gone to Rajasthan as a daily-wage labourer. He comes twice in a year. When comes he gives some money to Lakshmi but that amount is meagre. So, Lakshmi has to go to river and stand in waist-deep water which is highly saline to collect prawn for more than 4-5 hours a day throughout the year. Lakshmi told, ‘there is no way to earn money in this area. Panchayet doesn’t provide any work throughout the year. Sometimes in the rainy season when river embankment is broken only then people get some work from Panchayet to rebuild the embankment. But that is for a few days only.’

Lakshmi and other women who collect prawn in the salt water, more or less everyone suffers from skin diseases. ‘Skin diseases are very common to most of the women, who collect fish in the salty water’, said Arun Sen who has been running Sundarban Shramajeebee Hospital at Sarberiya for the last 22 years. Most of the affected women don’t want to come to hospital or Health Centre. When the disease becomes intolerable then they go to rural quacks or use local herbs usually. Lack of doctors, Health Centres and ignorance of local government which means Panchayet, are the main problems in this region to combat this situation. There is no alternative path of income for these women.

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Vol 55, No. 47, May 21 - 27, 2023