Sundarbans, India: Panchanan Dolui, who lives on Mousuni Island in the Indian Sundarbans, has shifted homes three times due to floods and river erosion.

Each time, he moves farther from the receding edge of the island to avoid displacement. He has watched the river eat away vast tracts of land. “Where do we go? There is nowhere to go,” he laments.

Located in West Bengal state in eastern India and neighbouring Bangladesh, the Sundarbans forest system is a cluster of low-lying islands and represents the largest mangrove ecosystem in the world. It is home to several endangered species and acts as a natural barrier against cyclones, storm surges and other environmental hazards. The forests are also natural agents of carbon capture and sequestration.

But things are changing fast. Four cyclones that hit the eastern coast of India from 2019 to 2021 – Fani, Amphan, Bulbul and Yaas – point to the increasingly unpredictable weather in the Sundarbans caused by climate change and rising sea levels.

Now, the Sundarbans are increasingly “not safe for human habitation”, says Kalyan Rudra, chairperson of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board.

The spate of recent cyclones has compounded climate-induced displacement that the people of the Sundarbans have confronted in previous decades. Lohachara was one of the first inhabited islands to disappear under the sea in 1996, forcing residents to relocate to neighbouring islands, often without documents or property deeds.

In the face of limited options for making a living and without sufficient development in the region, migration has become a coping strategy for many residents. There have been several waves of migration within the Sundarbans, often on the same island, to avoid flooding from embankment breaches, tidal bores and storm surges.

Since Cyclone Aila in 2009, distress migration driven by economic vulnerability has resulted in men taking up work as informal migrant workers across India.

Women-headed households in the Sundarbans are more common than in any other area of India because of distress migration. But these households are often marked by debt burdens, a high number of dependents and limited livelihood options.

Meanwhile, increasing land salinity due to severe cyclonic storms and tidal wave action, which carries seawater from the Bay of Bengal into the Sundarbans delta, impedes soil productivity.


Increased salinity forces farming changes
Salinity-resistant paddy farming is an important form of climate change adaptation in the area, and it has become increasingly popular over the past decade.

Increased salinity, however, has also led to brackish water shrimp farming on a commercial scale, causing land degradation. The health of women who perform the poorly paid labour of prawn seed collection, which involves standing up to six hours in saltwater, is adversely affected.

Increasing salinity is a leading cause of reproductive health problems among rural women in the Sundarbans, including pelvic inflammation and urinary tract infections. Increasing salinity has also led to a severely degraded mangrove ecosystem, affecting biodiversity and causing a loss of forest reserves that sustain local communities.


The ire of tigers
The pressure on forest resources also amplifies man-animal conflict in the area. The Sundarbans are home to tiger widows, women whose husbands went into the Sundarbans reserve for fishing or honey collection and were killed by tigers.

There is no official recognition of such deaths because entry into the forest became illegal for its dwellers once the area was declared a tiger reserve in 1973 and came under the Wildlife Protection Act of 1972.

Pradip Chatterjee, former president of the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum or the South Bengal Fishers’ Union, calls these tiger deaths “be-aini mrityu”, or illegal deaths, marked by the erasure of the person’s existence.

He notes that the local police station refuses to make entries of the tiger deaths because of their “illegal” nature, hampering the process of applying for compensation – a bureaucratic labyrinth that requires the deceased’s kin to produce a police report and death certificate. Recently, the Calcutta High Court acknowledged tiger deaths in a landmark decision, ordering the West Bengal Forest Department to pay full compensation to two tiger widows.

 

How the marginalised are sidelined
Continuing climate disasters not only slow down the recovery but also exacerbate pre-existing vulnerabilities of caste and gender. For example, government relief after disasters is often selective and contingent on existing land holdings, such as after Cyclone Amphan.

“Our two-room house collapsed and trees had fallen on them. We couldn’t enter our house any more,” former Sundarbans resident Neela Ghosh said. “But relief workers went to those houses that were unaffected and where the owners don’t live. We are sitting outside our broken home and receiving very meagre funds.”

As erosion across the Sundarbans continues, officials struggle to agree upon areas suitable for the relocation of the most vulnerable residents. West Bengal recorded the longest stretch of shoreline erosion in India at 63 percent with 99sq km (38sq miles) of land lost due to coastal erosion from 1990 to 2016. This has a direct effect on the landless, marginal residents of the Sundarbans, who reside closest to the riverbanks.

In a telephone interview, a Forest Department official says prime land was already occupied in the Sundarbans and people located on the edge – usually the most marginalised and vulnerable – would only be relocated to another edge. The remaining public land is not fit for habitation or agriculture, meaning the only area that could be converted into habitable or agricultural land was forest, the official added. So, in responding to people forced from their homes because of erosion, government policy will have to walk a fine line in not claiming more forest land for relocation.

Decisions around where to relocate residents are made more difficult by the fact that erosion has made some islands, including Sagar Island, to which planned relocation has been taking place, unsafe for human habitation, according to Rudra.

However, there are some areas of the Sundarbans where sediment build-up is taking place, which presents possibilities. “We can identify such areas which are less vulnerable and relocate some people there who are really vulnerable,” Rudra says.

But he emphasises the impossibility of rehabilitating the entire Sundarbans population of more than 4.5 million people and adds that since erosion will continue, relocation is not a sustainable solution. “We have to live with this kind of disaster,” he says.

 

Future hangs in the balance
In December, state capital Kolkata became one of the first claimants for climate change-induced loss and damage from the Loss and Damage Fund, which was agreed upon during the United Nations COP28 summit. The fund will include coverage for climate-displaced populations from the Sundarbans.

In response to increased threats due to climate change, the National Disaster Management Authority developed a draft policy in early 2023 that it refers to as the bedrock of India’s climate change adaptation. It includes coastal and river erosion. The policy covers mitigation and resettlement of those displaced by such forms of erosion with the intended outcome of reducing loss of land, enhancing economic resilience and minimising vulnerability.

However, uncertainty surrounds the future of climate resilience in this area because money allocation and disbursement are subject to the sway of politics. The central and the West Bengal governments have a contentious relationship, which escalated during the review of the damage caused by Cyclone Yaas in May 2021.

Piya Srinivasan is India commissioning editor at 360info, hosted by Manav Rachna International Institute of Research and Studies in Faridabad, India.