India’s Climate Refugees: The story of the people of Sunderban islands

According to UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization), the Sunderbans are a world heritage site. It is celebrated for having the largest mangrove forest in the world, but the locals who have lived there for generations have a different story to tell.

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The Sunderban Delta is formed by the confluence of three rivers: Brahmaputra, Ganga and Meghna. As they flow into the Bay of Bengal, they create this unique ecological wonder. Sunderbans is spread over 40,000 hectares between India and Bangladesh and has approximately 200 islands. Of the 150 islands on the Indian side, 54 are home to almost 4.5 million people. Sunderbans boasts scores of exotic animal species, a bustling tourism industry, and the famous Gangasagar Mela, which is one of India’s largest pilgrimage festivals. Around 10,000 hectares is covered with mangrove forests; these forests provide a natural shield to the local inhabitants from high tides, storms and cyclones. Years of unplanned deforestation, indiscriminate agriculture and climate change are eating away at the islands of Sunderbans. The rising water levels are not just submerging the islands but also taking away the hopes, aspirations and livelihood of the people living here.

In 2007, a study by Jadavpur University said that over the last 30 years, 80 square kilometres of the islands of Sunderbans have gone underwater. According to the report, these changes will adversely affect the overall climate of the regions surrounding the Bay of Bengal. For the residents of islands Ghoramara and Mousini, the statistics mentioned in the reports are no more abstract projections; for them doomsday is real and it is already here. Ghoramara once had a population of 40,000 people, and now it has shrunk down to just 2,000. The rising water levels is encroaching the agriculture and residential land from all directions. The salty seawater has contaminated all drinking water sources and cultivable land. Prosanto Mondal, a resident of Ghormara island, had moved from Lohachara as it has submerged in water. Lohachura was the first human-inhabited island in the world to be completely submerged underwater. Prosanto had bought 30 acres of land in Ghoramara, but now the land has gone underwater, leaving him homeless again and in high debt. He currently lives in a makeshift tent made of blue tarpaulin, unsure of what the future holds for him and his family. 

Sunderbans have been hit by cyclone after cyclone since 2007. It started with Alia (2007),  Phailin (2013), Hudhud (2014), Bulbul (2019), Amphan(2020) and Yass(2021). The frequent storms and cyclones have broken the back of the ecosystem of Sunderbans. According to government estimates, 28% of the mangrove forests have been destroyed. Sunderbans Tiger Reserve house the Royal Bengal Tiger in its forests, but in recent times man tiger conflicts have increased. As people have many mouths to feed, the locals are venturing deep into the forest for firewood, fish, honey and crab. The locals are moving from one chaos to the other. As the cyclones kept increasing, a major policy question emerged; how to deal with the homeless of Sunderban. At present, there are no national legal provisions in place that can support or compensate for the migration from Sundarbans. Policies on risk management in India related to natural disasters focus only on emergency relief and do not focus on environmental migration separately.

Without any formal help from the government, the answer to submerging islands till this point was Sagar Island. Sagar is located at a higher sea level than the other islands of Sunderbans. It has more jobs, better roads, and a bustling economy due to the Gangasagar pilgrimage festival, which attracts lakhs of devotees every year. Many people used their last remaining wealth to move to Sagar. The population of Sagar has increased 20% from 2001. This is putting pressure on the island's resources, leading to high-cost housing and increased unemployment. A survey by World Bank revealed three broad patterns of migration from the region: long-term migration to distant big cities in search of work, seasonal migration during paddy-sowing and harvesting seasons to neighbouring districts as farm labour, and short-term migration to the nearest big city, Kolkata, for informal employment in masonry, sanitation services and public works. Activists and NGOs are combining their efforts and trying to bring in laws for environmental migrants by drawing the government's attention to the present situation. EU countries have passed laws for climate refugees, and it is high time for India to do the same to protect the interests of its citizens living in vulnerable areas.

Written By:

Jyotirmoy Gupta

Jyotirmoy Gupta is an engineer who later discovered his passion in photography and writing. His interests range from cinema and art history to sustainability and economics. He has worked with various newspapers as a photojournalist and video creator. He also loves writing short stories. He is an alumnus of IIT Kharagpur.

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