Sunderbans inhabitants seek livelihood elsewhere

Cyclone Aila resulted in failed crops and dwindling fish catches; honey-collectors forced to enter deep forests

GOSABA (SUNDERBANS): In the year that has gone by since cyclone Aila devastated the Sunderbans, livelihood opportunities have dried up for the inhabitants of the region.

A better tomorrow?: Murari Mohan Mandal (below) and his family are struggling to meet the ends as they are yet to get any government support. — Photos: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The situation has arisen from a failed crops, dwindling fish catches and absence of enterprise and resulted in large scale emigration from the islands.

Daily-wagers, who depended on finding work as agricultural labour, are the worst hit. Vast stretches of croplands have been rendered infertile after they remained inundated in saline water for months. Optimistic tillers had planted a few rice saplings during the previous monsoon but were rewarded with nothing more than stunted plants that bore no yields.

Meagre earnings

Swapan Mondal could find work in intermittent periods totalling to only about two months in the entire year. His family of six has had to fend on the Rs.8,000 he could manage as other options of earning a living have depleted in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Under ordinary circumstances, Mondal would find work on other people’s lands during the sowing and harvest seasons, but this year the only work available for those like him is shovelling the earth for repairing breached embankments and digging irrigation canals.

On the other hand, fishermen and honey-collectors have been forced to enter the deeper recesses of the restricted forest areas, braving the threat from man-eaters. There were three instances of tiger attacks just last week, including one in which a honey-collector died. Despite braving the odds, their desserts have been measly.

“The honey-gatherers brought back only about 6,000 litres instead of the usual 10,000 litres in their first outing this season,” said a forest official. The fish catch and harvest of prawn larvae have similarly declined.

residents of Pakhirala struggle to re-construct the embankment that was washed away a year ago by the devastating Aila. The work on the embankment is the only opportunity for the islanders to earn some money. — Photos: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Money not coming

Raju Mondal had never left the Sunderbans to lease out his services as contract labour, but this year the family had no option. He has been gone for two months, but has not been able to send a money-order yet.

“While the locals desperately latch onto any assignments that come their way, there just isn’t enough work to go around. While seasonal migration to Kolkata and even far-flung destinations, including the Andamans, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is not unusual, the numbers leaving the villages have increased threefold after Aila,” said Nikhil Sardar, a contractor.

Health, economy hit

Nishikanta Paik had gone to Kerala for four months, but fell ill as a result of the gruelling schedule and ended up spending more on his treatment than what he earned.

The droves of men leaving as contract labour and women offering themselves as domestic helps in cities have had repercussions on the local economy.

While Tapan Mondal pedals harder to navigate his modified bicycle over the patchy embankment surface, the number of passengers who availed his services has dropped sharply. Boatmen also have fewer people who want to be ferried across the archipelago.

By Ananya Dutta – From THE HINDU

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