Is rural economy thriving in post-Aila Sunderbans, India?

Dayabati Roy

January 20, 2019

This question began to haunt me since a doctoral student who himself is from the Sunderbans told me that the cyclone Aila (2009) had helped their economy to prosper. Hearing this I was stunned. I never imagined that the cyclone Aila, which had devastated the economy of Sunderbans and uprooted thousands of people from their homeland, could ever become a cause of profitability. The student tried to make me understand how the economy had changed due to the cyclone, but I couldn’t understand and thought that it was better to examine this question through my ethnographic fieldwork. Thus, I had carried this question with me during my fieldwork. As I am about to finish my fieldwork, I now realize that there is a sound basis to the student’s argument.

The village of Kultali block in the South 24 Parganas district where I have conducted fieldwork during the last couple of months could be a case in point. Undoubtedly, this village stands as one of the worst victims of cyclone Aila as it is situated just beside a river. Despite being almost dried up, this river turned into a violent flash flood due to cyclone Aila and flooded the entire village by uprooting everything like bandhs, kaccha roads, mud-houses, and trees. When the cyclone ceased roaring, the villagers saw themselves waterlogged in debris. Like thousands of villagers, they didn’t have any clue how to make a living in this dilapidated situation. For some time, they saw no future within the village. Out-migration to urban areas, Kolkata in particular, is nothing new and has been a part of the villagers’ life and livelihoods since long. It is difficult to find a household in the village from which no one didn’t/doesn’t migrate in search of livelihoods.

However, many of non-migrants who could depend earlier on agriculture and fisheries for livelihoods within the village began to migrate now to anywhere within the country and abroad. Moreover, this time,   entire families chose to migrate as they didn’t have any place to stay. But this is not the end of the story; rather, the story takes here a skewed turn towards prosperity. This region saw a new beginning with a thriving economy due to various reasons. First, it is not always true that agriculture gets spoiled due to the presence of saline water/ soil. Instead, agriculture can flourish in the soil with salinity. This time, the added factor was silt or sediment. After the first layer of salt on soil was removed with the flow of rains, the soil became more fertile simply because of the presence of silt and a small residue of salt. I presume that the soil also becomes more fertile since the chemical residue (chemical particles from chemical manure and pesticides) in it got washed out due to the Aila-induced flood. Thus, when the peasants began to cultivate the land with new vigour, the land compensated them with an enhanced rate of production. All with whom I spoke said that the agricultural production has increased in comparison with that of pre-Aila period. One farmer went afar and said that they have earned more thanks to Aila, as salinity brings prosperity (“nona aane sona”),

The same phenomenon repeats in the case of fisheries. The rate of production in fisheries increased manifold after Aila. The fishermen in this region usually grow  sea fishes or “nona”-fishes. These fishes grew rapidly due to the presence of silt and salt. Even the ponds, which had sweet non-saline water before Aila and absorbed saline water after Aila, became a good source of income. One of the fishermen who owned a pond which provided earlier fish only for family consumption did a business of around Rs. 50,000 in the aftermath of Aila. He earned this  money by selling the tiger prawn grown in the newfound saline water of the pond.

Second, cyclone Aila (2009) has been a much-talked environmental disaster in India, if not in the world. No government would be in a position to ignore the reconstruction work in the affected region after such a catastrophe. Notably, the year 2009, was a juncture when a new state government was in the making  in West Bengal through overthrowing a more than three-decade old communist government. No political party, the ruling and the opposition, the erstwhile and the emergent, would spare an effort to secure their mass-base. As a result, the Aila affected people experienced better developmental efforts on behalf of the government, both the state and central. Consequently, the post-Aila Sunderbans drew huge funds for reconstructing the roads, bridges, embankments, etc. All the promises or the plans have not been implemented, but what did get implemented matters. The Sunderbans have been turned into a well-connected region, thanks to the cyclone Aila, and the Aila related funds. People can now easily commute to Kolkata and within this region for work and business. New bridges and embankments appear as signs of monetary exchanges which can reduce environmental as well as economic vulnerabilities in many ways. These reconstruction works (roads, bridges, embankments) also generated many employment opportunities in the rural fringes. The villagers can find some work consistently within the Sunderbans region–the visitors like me can observe these ongoing works here and there.

Last but not least, most of the Aila affected villagers are now beneficiaries of various schemes. Under  both general and Aila related schemes, the villagers get benefits in terms of materials and direct cash transfers. Apart from the subsidised food grains given under the NFSA (the National Food Security Act 2013), many villagers are entitled to get additional food grains under a scheme meant for Aila affected villagers. Similarly, apart from IAY and PMAY (national housing schemes), the Aila affected villagers are entitled to get cash for building houses under a scheme meant for the partially and fully Aila affected villagers. Furthermore, several NGOs have begun to work in the Sunderbans to reconstruct the Aila affected region under the sponsorship of international NGOs and agencies. All these efforts have made the Sunderbans region a vibrant place at least in terms of its economy. It will be interesting to explore how Sunderbans will evolve in the near future. Clearly, the people of the Sunderbans are not living only with disasters, they are also living with hope.