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the views or policies of the Asian Development Bank (ADB), or its Board of Directors, or the governments they represent. ADB does not guarantee the source, originality, accuracy, completeness or reliability of any statement, information, data, finding, interpretation, advice, opinion, or view presented, nor does it make any representation concerning the same.

Draft: 06.11.2010



Santadas Ghosh 1 Visva-Bharati, Santiniketan West Bengal (India)

Background Paper for Conference on the " The Environments of the Poor”, 24-26 Nov 2010, New Delhi


Associate Professor in Economics; e-mail <>. This paper is partial outcome of a research project with financial support from the South Asian Network for Development and Environmental Economics (SANDEE)


SUMMARY Sundarban Biosphere Reserve is part of the largest mangrove delta in the world spread across India and Bangladesh, opening into the Bay of Bengal in its south. Besides the mangrove dominated Reserve Forest, the Indian side also includes 54 inhabited islands which are densely populated. Settlements had come up on these nascent islands in more recent times, within last century. The estimated population on such islands is around 1.5 million. These remote islanders are predominantly agricultural, encircled by river embankments that protect their cultivable land from the saline water in the delta. Due to their remoteness and lack of infrastructural development, the livelihood choices are limited and are not similar to other people who are generally categorized as ‘coastal’. Due to historical reasons, the land distribution pattern on these islands are more equitable than most of rural India. The region is characterized by rain fed agricultural with a single crop, done mostly for self-consumption. Households augment their earning by engaging in a multiple earning activities such as fishing, forest collections, and in more recent times working as migrant labourer. The poverty scenario in the region is not acute. Going by the monthly percapita expenditure pattern, Sundarban households in general are better off compared to their rural counterparts in mainland India. In terms of the threat from sea level rise due to global climate change, it is recognized as one of the most vulnerable parts in the world. But the immediate threat specifically comes from a predicted increase in the frequency of cyclone formations in the Bay of Bengal. The effect of a natural disaster has recently been demonstrated by cyclone Aila in 2009, which rendered agriculture impossible over vast stretches of land for at least a full year due to salt deposits on agricultural fields. As a spontaneous coping strategy, a majority of the agricultural households has resorted to earn as migrant labourer and non-farm daily labourer. Contrary to conventional wisdom, the study finds that forest and river dependence of the households has actually decreased after the event.


1. SUNDARBAN IN INDIA 1.1 Location and geography In India, the Sundarban is located at the southern corner of the eastern state of West Bengal and on the Gangetic delta. Spread over India and Bangladesh, it is the largest single mangrove forest tract in the world and a declared World Heritage Site for its biodiversity significance. The physiography is dominated by deltaic formations that include innumerable drainage lines. The deltaic islands rise marginally above the sea level with average elevation between 4 to 7.5 meters across them. Tidal saline water, pushed into from the Bay of Bengal, alternately drowns the exposes large parts of the islets twice a day throughout the year. In the Indian side, out of a total 102 islands, 48 constitute the Reserve Forest that is home to the famous Royal Bengal Tiger. The remaining 54 islands are inhabited and contain a large population on them. The Reserve forest and the settlements are on two different sets of islands which are mutually exclusive. There is no human habitation inside the Reserve Forest. In the Indian part, the reserve forest lies in the eastern corner while the populated islands are located along its western boundary and further towards the mainland. Officially, Sundarban Biosphere Reserve refers to a region that extends beyond these islands and covers some of the area that is part of the mainland now. It is spread over two southern districts of West Bengal. The region is densely populated. As per 2001 Census, the total population of Sundarban region was about 3.7.million. The decennial growth rate during 19912001 was 17.4% against the state average of 17.77%. The population density as per 2001 census was 845 per sq. km which is more than the average for rural West Bengal, reported as 676 per sq. km.2 This paper is aimed to investigate on the socio-economic conditions of the Sundarban population which is located on the islands. In absence of any clear estimate from secondary sources, the study estimated the population on such islands at around 1.5 million. Due to their remoteness and lack of infrastructural development, their livelihood choices and economic conditions are not similar to other people who are generally categorized as ‘coastal’. The people on these low lying islands are located within an important and delicate ecological site and biodiversity hotspot. Their livelihood practices and nature of exploitation of natural resources have important implication for the sustainability and management of this important ecological region. Also, these islands are most vulnerable in the face of predicted Sea Level Rise (SLR) due to Climate Change (CC).


Sources: Department of Sundarban Affairs: Directorate of census operation, West Bengal:


Figure -1: Location of the Study Area [The yellow region shows the inhabited parts while the green area represents the reserve forest. The region marked by blue borders represents the two administrative blocks from which households were selected for primary survey]

1.2 Brief history of Settlements Though historical evidences suggest some population presence in the region, Sundarban was depopulated for all practical purposes by 17th century, probably owing to a series of natural calamities. The present population in Indian Sundarban islands has a fairly recent history which spans over a little more than hundred years. Introducing human settlement in the area was done in a planned way under the British rule where the motivation solely was to increase the revenue collection. The forest land (islands) had been cleared and divided into plots to be leased out to prospective landlords. The property rights regime had always been a complex one in these islands. While the land had always been privately owned, the embankments were common property to the villagers and the adjacent rivers had traditionally been open access resources (Hunter 1876; Pargiter 1934). Agriculture was made possible on such islands by erecting earthen embankments all around them. In Indian side, such embankments run up to 3,500 km in length. They had been the lifelines of human existence on these islands. Such embankments stand guard against salt water which is detrimental for fresh water agriculture (mostly paddy). The islands are dotted with tanks of all sizes, which stores rainwater for the villagers’ year long use. Groundwater is also saline for the upper layers of the water table and lifting groundwater for irrigation purposes is not economically viable. Agriculture on these islands depends on monsoon rains. A single crop of paddy is generally raised on these islands. 4

2. DATA AND SAMPLING A substantial part of this island population lives in conditions which are different from their mainland counterparts. Since they are not exclusively demarcated by an administrative unit, information in the form of secondary data on the island inhabitants is not exclusively available. One of the objectives of this study was to arrive at empirical estimates of basic socio-economic indicators for these island people. The study estimates in this paper are based on a detailed survey of 618 households, spread over 31 villages scattered over 21 islands in Indian Sundarban. The 31 villages were selected ensuring sufficient variation in their remoteness and natural resource proximity. They are spread over two administrative blocks in Sundarban – Gosaba and Patharpratima - which are located along its northern and southern boundary (Figure-1). For each of the selected villages, a first-hand list of all households has been prepared with their current landholding status. Then 20 households from each of these villages have been selected as random samples maintaining a fixed proportion from each landholding strata3. The actual field survey has been carried out between March to June, 2010. 3. STUDY FINDINGS 3.1. Infrastructure and livelihood The populated islands in Sundarban are poor in infrastructural provisions, much of which can be attributed to their inaccessibility in the deltaic waters. Among the 31 villages covered under this study, only two, which are close to the mainland, have conventional electricity which came up within last five years. Though 90% of the survey villages have a primary school, only one of them has a secondary school and four of them have a primary health centre. The only source of drinking water on these islands is deep tube well. The average number of such tube wells is 7 per village which serves on an average 348 households containing 1564 people. Further information regarding the remoteness and infrastructural provisions of these islands may be obtained from some other indicators listed in Table-1, which are based on the responses of the survey households.
Table-1: Indicators for remoteness Description Average time taken by a student to reach the nearest secondary school (minute) Average time taken by a student to reach the nearest college (minute) Average time taken by a patient to reach the nearest Primary Health Centre (minute) Average time taken by a commuter to reach the nearest mainland bus stop (minute) Average 33 130 47 110 Min 10 20 15 30 Max 90 270 150 270

Due to lack of connectivity and electricity, there is no power-driven industry or even small scale manufacturing units on these islands. The list of major livelihood is very limited and there is no industrial worker. Cultivators and agricultural labourers constitute the main workforce. A small proportion of households has reported salaried employment (Government and N.G.O) as a source of earning. Daily labour, petty trade and artisanship constitute the other major livelihood options.

Subsequently, information on two of the 620 households has been dropped in the study for incompleteness.


70 60
% of Households

50 40 30 20 10
Other daily labourer Own cultivation Agricultural labourer Prawn-fry collection Forest / river dependence Migrant Labourer (> 1 Yr.) Salaried employment Migrant Labourer (< 1 Yr.) Commercial fishery Small business Big business / trade Other


Occupation types

Gosaba Block

Patharpratima Block

Figure-2: Livelihood practices in Sundarban and households’ participation

The above mentioned livelihood practices do not directly put anthropogenic pressure on the surrounding ecosystem and the World Heritage Site. However, close to a fifth of the households also exploit the open access natural resource – that is the river waters - for fishing. While most of them exploit the rivers waters without interfering with the reserve forest area, a part of them sneak into the forest creeks for a larger catch – either legally or illegally. Such forest intrusions are mainly undertaken for fishing. But sometimes they also fetch firewood (illegal) and during a certain time of the year collect honey. On the village side, apart from fishing, the river waters are also invaded by womenfolk and children for collection of prawn-seedlings. Sundarban waters are nutrient-rich natural hatcheries for prawn seedlings. Collecting these seedlings by filtering the waters with a fine net is a widespread practice even beyond Sundarban. These prawn-seedlings are in turn bought by the agents of the large inland fishery-owners. The process yields hard cash for the villagers and this practice of prawn-fry collection is a highly visible phenomenon along the villages’ riverbanks. But, this practice puts huge pressure on the Sundarban ecosystem as well as to the health of the river embankments. Firstly, in the process of collecting a few prawn-seedlings, a large number of seedlings of other species are wasted. It puts a spanner in the natural regeneration of fish stock in Sundarban waters. Secondly, in this process, villagers walk along the river embankments in knee-deep water which exert destabilizing pressure on embankments’ bases and destroy the naturally generated mangrove saplings. The ill effects of this practice have been recognized for many years and supplementary employment generation/conservation schemes have been floated by the government as well as many NGOs. Such efforts have met with varying degrees of success across villages. Walking in river waters and going into the forest are highly dangerous practices in Sundarban. The rivers are stocked with crocodiles and the forest hosts the Royal Bengal tigers – infamous for their man-eating habits. Every year, there are dozens of human casualties in these two practices, which is 6

so inevitable and regular that it lost its news value. Yet, the local poor falls back on rivers and forest, understandably due to a lack of alternative livelihood options. An alternative livelihood practice, however, had started taking root from a decade and half back. Sundarban’s youth had started to work outside as migrant labourer. It had a demonstration effect and the number of migrant labourers from these islands has been increasing at an exponential rate in recent years. Such migration could be of varied duration. As the region raises a single crop, agricultural labourers find work in neighbouring districts where two or three crops are raised. Besides, people from Sundarban regularly go out to work as artisans, masons and as labourers in construction projects in many parts of the country. Duration of such migration ranges from a couple of weeks to several years. At distant places, the migrant workers from Sundarban generally move in groups headed by a leader or an agent and do not return to their home within a year. The major concentration of such workers can be found in the stone quarries in south India (around Bangalore), in the Andamans (as masons and construction workers) and in Delhi (mostly women as domestic help). This study found that a fifth of the survey households have sent at least one of their working adults outside, either for short or for long duration (Table-4). Even this is an underestimation as this estimate failed to account for those who undertook such errand for a very short duration (less than one month). 3.2 Poverty scenario In spite of the hardships and limited livelihood opportunities, the islanders of Sundarban do not compare badly with their rural counterparts in mainland in terms of the traditional poverty indicators. In the absence of secondary sources, this study estimated the incidence of poverty on these islands based on a well-dispersed representative sample of households. The estimates are obtained in terms of the national as well international ($ 1.25 and $ 2 PPP) poverty lines and are summarized in Table-2. A direct comparison may tell that the incidence of poverty in Sundarban islands is less than rest of rural India. However, it can be misleading. Since the latest estimates for rural India is half a decade old, the figures for rural India in 2010 stands to be lesser. The magnitude of reduction in poverty over these years is difficult to estimate in absence of sufficient secondary data. However, it might be said that in light of the estimates described in Table-2, poverty in Sundarban is not very acute when compared to the rest of rural India or rural West Bengal.


Table-2: Incidence of poverty in Sundarban $ 1.25 Criteria National (PPP adjusted) Year: 2004-2005 Poverty Line: Expenditure per person 356.3 585 per month (Rs.) Source: Secondary data Rural India: population below poverty line Poverty Line: Expenditure per person per month (Rs.) Rural West Bengal: population below poverty line 28.3 % 41.6 %

$2 (PPP adjusted)


75.6 %

Year: 2004-2005 382.2 NA NA

28.6 %



Year 2010 (Adjusting for price index for agricultural labourers) (estimated)Poverty Line: Expenditure per person 576.7 882.7 per month (Rs.) Source: Primary survey Sundarban islands: population below poverty line


21.4 %

40.3 %

66 %

Sources: 1. Poverty Data, A supplement to World Development Indicators, World Bank (2008) 2. Handbook of Statistics on Indian Economy, Reserve Bank of India (2008)

An indirect comparison might be more conclusive in analyzing the poverty scenario in Sundarban islands vis-à-vis rural West Bengal and rural India. This can be carried out with the help of more recent available estimates on the pattern of household consumption expenditure (NSS 64th Round, 2007-2008)4 in India. In these estimates the rural households are distributed according to the size class of landholdings and the average Monthly Per-Capita Expenditures (MPCE) are reported against each landholding class. The estimates are available for both rural India and rural West Bengal. From the primary survey undertaken in this study, Sundarban households could be distributed in similar landholding classes and their average MPCE could be calculated. Table-3 describes it and contrasts with the rest of rural India and West Bengal. The MPCE values are adjusted for 2010 using price indices for agricultural labourers.

Table-3: Distribution of rural households by size class of landholding Size class of landholding (Hectare)

Household Consumer Expenditure in India, 2007-08 by National Sample Survey Organization (March, 2010)


0.0 -0.01 % of HH (Rural India) % of HH (Rural west Bengal) % of hh (Sundarban islands) Average MPCE (Rural India, inflation adjusted for 2009-10) Average MPCE (Sundarban islands, 2009-2010) 35 49 22 923

0.020.20 17 26 36 924

0.210.40 12 11 22 926

0.411.00 18 11 17 941

1.012.00 11 3 4 1016

2.013.00 4 1 0 1197

3.014.00 1 0 0 1190

4.016.00 1 0 0 1287

above 6 1 0 0 1468

TOTAL 100 100 100










Now, it seems to be clearer that, except for the lowest class (practically landless), Sundarban households are better off in comparison to their rural counterparts in West Bengal as well as in India in terms of their MPCE. It should be mentioned here that the MPCE calculated in this study has taken into account the imputed value of self-produced consumption items, mainly rice. Much of this ‘less incidence of poverty’ in Sundarban can be explained by the landholding pattern on the islands. The proportion of landless households is less in this region compared to rural India and West Bengal. It has historical reasons. The initial inhabitants, who came on these islands around 100 years back, were all having some amount of land for their own cultivation, as part of their invitation package offered by the lease-holders. In fact, that was the incentive for them to settle in this hostile environment. So, the process of being landless - by subdivision and fragmentation of landholding through generations - has been operative for a much less period of time compared to the mainland. Also, since almost all the initial settlers came under similar packages, there was not much dispersion in their initial endowment. With passage of time, households’ landholding became fragmented and some were forced to sell off their land giving rise to the landless class. However, in absence of varied alternative earning opportunities, many of these small holders did continue with their small holdings. This gave rise to a large proportion of marginal farmers in Sundarban – much larger than the proportion seen in rest of rural India. Before concluding on Sundarban’s livelihood practices, it is important to note that most of the households have a multiple source of earning. Since agriculture is not usually a year-long activity and the average landholding is small, most of the working population engages in different activities during the year. It is estimated that on an average a working adult undertakes 1.5 types of earning activities during a year, under normal circumstances. Such small-holders in Sundarban could augment their earnings through the surrounding natural resources like river and forest – which is not usually available in other parts of rural India. Also, many of them recently resorted to earning as migrant labourers, which is not so pronounced in other parts of rural India. With a small family size, Sundarban households could tap a multiplicity of earning opportunities. All these can be put forward to explain a higher MPCE for Sundarban compared to similar landholding size classes in rural India. 9

4. CLIMATE CHANGE THREATS The Stern Review (2006), while finding overwhelming scientific evidence of global risk from Climate Change (CC), had pointed out the additional vulnerability from flooding for the coastal population in the Indian subcontinent, particularly Bangladesh, resulting from a predicted sea level rise (SLR). Indian Sundarban is very much part the same topographical landscape for which such warnings were issued. It is beyond doubt that Sundarban will be among the first set of casualties due to a SLR as it is a low lying delta region. Even the relative rise in sea level is not uniform across all regions as continental land subsidence is also a slow but sure phenomenon. Conducted over a 14-year period till 1998, one study estimated an average increase in sea level at the rate of 3.14 mm per year (Hazra et al 2002) for the region that includes Sundarban, which is larger than the average rate in other parts of India The SLR is, however, a slow process and its threat to coastal population can be reduced with ex-ante planning and adaptation programmes. But in the context of Sundarban inhabitants, the more immediate threat resulting from CC comes from forecasts of an increased frequency of cyclones and super cyclones in the Bay of Bengal. There is scientific literature predicting such increases. A simulation exercise predicted an increase in occurrence of cyclones in the Bay of Bengal in the increased GHG scenario (Ali, 1999; Unnikrishnan et al 2006). The effect of such an event is more sudden and disastrous for the island population. Such events can result in the destruction of their lifeline – the surrounding embankments. In the face of unstable riverbanks and the continuous onslaught of tidal water, such embankments are historically earthen and maintained by manual labour. Their height varies between 2 to 4 meters depending on the relative elevation of the site vis-à-vis sea level. Usually a cross section view of such an embankment is that of pyramid type with a flat top. The base of a well maintained embankment is generally 4 to 6 meters with the top being 1.5 to 2 meter wide. The embankments are often village roads as well, unless they are grossly eroded at top. The tidal amplitude in this delta region is considerably high which increases even more in fullmoon/no-moon days and in the monsoon season. On such special days, the river waters can surge nearly 4 meters from their mean level. Through local knowledge and experience, people maintain a height of the embankments that could withstand such surges under normal circumstances. Such mud structures face erosion due to daily tidal flows which is accentuated in the days of high wind and storm. In the monsoon season, when the average river water level becomes higher, a high wind coupled with high tide often eats up the top of the weak embankments and the saline water overflows to the nearby agricultural field. Such failures are frequent but usually affect a small part of the island. This is because of village roads which create barriers to the incoming water and confine it within smaller boundaries. The situation, however, can be disastrous if a cyclone occurs at a time when the rivers are also at their maximum height. In such a situation, even the healthy embankments cannot be a protection to the additional heights such waters can gain with wind. Incidentally, in the 100 years’ settlement history on Sundarban islands, never a cyclone’s landfall has coincided with the highest river water level, till cyclone Aila in 2009. 5. CYCLONE AILA AND DISASTER AFTERMATH On May 25th, 2009, a no-moon day with deltaic rivers reaching their extreme high-tide mark, cyclone Aila blew directly over Sundarban’s islands throughout the day. Though it was 10

forecasted, the people and the administration had no clue what a 100-120 kmph wind speed could mean for this inter-tidal zone when its landfall coincided with an extreme high tide. The result was unseen in the region’s settlement history. Going by the conventional statistics on damages after such a disaster, Aila might not be counted as an unprecedented calamity. The human death toll was around 100 people in Sundarban with 50,000 huts being partially or fully damaged. But the real blow lies in the unique context in which it occurred. Almost all the islands were submerged in salt water. Aila damaged an overwhelming 400 km of the embankments, of which 139 km have been reportedly washed away with their bases altogether! The damage was fairly uniformly distributed across all the islands. Only a few pockets in few islands could incidentally survive. It devastated the islands’ all important agriculture for at least one year. The major freshwater sources on these islands - the village tanks – were overrun by saline water. The immediate aftermath of Aila was a huge shortage of drinking water and food, trailed by a phase of widespread diarrhea. These consequences are common to such disasters and were addressed by reasonable provisions from various government departments and a large number of NGOs and civil society organizations. But the event had cast its shadow on the normal life of the local population. The dynamics of livelihood adjustment, after such a disaster, is still unfolding. In face of CC predictions, there is an increased probability of occurrence of such events in future. 5.1 Effects on livelihood Conventional wisdom tells us that disasters generally have a negative impact on the environment. In a direct way, it can physically damage the environment by its intensity. In an indirect way, it might put additional anthropogenic pressure on the natural resources caused by the loss of usual livelihood of the affected people. However in the case of Sundarban, the impact of the disaster was not so much on the environment but much more on the livelihood of the people, and especially the poor. It was seen that during the cyclone, mangrove forests could withstand such wind speed of 100-120 kmph. There was no sign of physical damage to the forest. No tiger was reported to have died. There was no perceivable damage to the biodiversity and ecosystem in this event. Secondly, turning to livelihoods, one might expect a greater pressure on river and forest exerted by the local people as their agriculture was lost. This is supported by empirical evidence from other parts of the world. There are a good number of insightful studies examining households’ coping strategies in response to natural disasters in a rural set up (Mcsweeney, 2005; Pattanayak & Sills, 2001; Takasaki et al, 2004). The studies suggest that agricultural households living in close proximity to forest resources can fall back to collection of non-timber forest products (NTFPs) or forest-clearing for new agricultural land and such resources could provide a ‘natural insurance’ against such livelihood shocks. Surprisingly, after Aila in Sundarban, the empirical findings tell a different story. It is found that the forest and river dependence has marginally gone down after the disaster. The post-disaster livelihood adjustments are better described when the surveyed villages are grouped across two administrative blocks. This is because the loss in agriculture – the indicator for livelihood disruption – has not been uniform across them. The southern block (Patharpratima) has suffered a comparatively lesser blow. The islands in this block are situated amidst wide rivers and had a more stable embankment network with more mangrove cover around them. They were submerged by the saline water overflow through the top of 11

embankments, but such waters went back to the rivers at subsequent low tides. The damage to the embankments was relatively less and it could contain fresh inflows during subsequent high tides. The average amount of salt deposits on agricultural lands was less and some cultivation was undertaken in this block in the ensuing monsoon months of 2009. The islands in the northern block (Gosaba), however, are located amidst narrow river channels through which tidal water passes more rapidly and the consequent erosion and damage to the embankments had been greater. In many parts, such embankments were washed out during the cyclone and the islands remained exposed to tidal water inflows for days and months. The loss in agriculture in Gosaba block had been much severe and this is evident by the intensity of livelihood changes across these two blocks. It is detailed in Table-4.
Table-4: Livelihood practices in the two survey blocks: before and after the cyclone Block= Gosaba Occupation % of HH preAila 63 12 53 8 4 12 10 18 9 14 1 13 % of HH postAila 16 8 57 8 1 10 8 22 7 13 1 12 Change in % of HH due to Aila -47 -4 4 0 -3 -2 -2 4 -2 -1 0 -1 Block=Patharpratima % of HH preAila 65 48 29 6 1 6 7 19 5 13 1 14 % of HH postAila 43 47 30 7 1 5 6 23 5 14 1 16 Change in % of HH due to Aila -22 -1 1 1 0 -1 -1 4 0 1 0 2

own cultivation Agricultural labourer Other daily labourer Salaried employment commercial fishery prawn-fry collection forest/river dependence short term migration long term migration small business big business/trade Other

A closer look at Table-4 tells that loss of agriculture naturally caused job losses for agricultural labourers as well. In turn, the most significant percentage increase can be observed in favour of short term migration (of less than one year) and other daily labouer. Even the estimates shown in Table-4 under short term migration can be underestimates. As those reporting as daily labourers also include workers who found jobs in nearby mainland for short periods. It is interesting to note that though the intensity of loss in agriculture had been different across the two blocks, the percentage of households resorting to prawn-fry collection and river / forest dependence has gone down by similar scale in both the blocks. This apparently paradoxical phenomenon might be explained, at least partly, by the prevailing management scenario of the reserve forest. Being a World Heritage Site, the reserve forest is managed by an exclusionist policy whereby forests are strictly guarded by the Forest Department. So, there was little scope for the villagers to fall back on the forest. Also, there has been a significant effort in recent years by government departments as well as NGOs to reduce the practice of prawn-fry collection and forest intrusion. The same agencies undertook large relief initiatives in the aftermath of Aila. They also tried to keep an eye on their beneficiaries so that they do not increase pressure on the ecosystem. The empirical estimates of a reduction in river/forest dependence after the cyclone might make sense in light of such dynamics at ground level. It might be concluded that the nature of the natural resource as well as the prevailing 12

institutional set up can be crucial in deciding whether anthropogenic pressure increases or not as a disaster aftermath. Turning to migration, in Sundarban context, it should be read as ‘migration of working adults’ and not that of the households as a whole. Barring few exceptions, the households remained planted on the islands after Aila, protecting whatever land and other assets they had. Perhaps they knew that from experience that such loss in agriculture is temporary and the land generally regains its productivity after one or two monsoons. Going by field observations, the most explicit post-disaster coping strategy in Sundarban islands has been going out as migrant labourer. Villages were found where more than three quarters of the households have sent their working adults - at least one in number - to the mainland in post-Aila period. It is yet to be ascertained whether such switching of livelihood is permanent or temporary. The importance of migration as a coping strategy can be even more evident if the survey villages are grouped according to the extent of agricultural loss caused by the disaster. As villages were selected from all over the region, there was enough variation in the number of days of their exposure to saline water and consequent agricultural loss. 13 out of 31 villages reported a total loss in agriculture. If they are grouped and contrasted with the other set whose loss was partial, the differential in livelihood changes can be more pronounced. Table-5 shows the result with a few key-indicators.
Table-5: Livelihood changes across two groups of villages Villages which Villages which reported total loss reported partial in agriculture loss in agriculture No. of villages Average number of days of saline water intrusion % of households reporting no agriculture after Aila % change in the number of households earning from agricultural labour % change in the number of households earning from daily labour % change in the number of households earning from migrant labour 13 24 100 -27 13 58 18 7 21 -3 2 13

It clearly shows that where the disaster left agriculture impossible, there was large reduction in the number of agricultural labourers as well. There, people mostly turned to other daily labour and out-migration as a coping strategy. The reduction in forest and river dependence also does fit into this story well. Prawn-fry catching and fishing are mostly resorted to by people with marginal landholding. When their agriculture was possible, they stayed in their villages. With small landholding, there was a lot of surplus time for them to exploit the open access rivers and venture into the forests. But when there was no agriculture, working adults moved out in search of job – reducing the pressure on rivers and forest. 5.2 Who migrates? It might be interesting to explore the profile of the households which resorted to temporary migration. The possible link between migration and reduction of anthropogenic pressure on the forest and river might be validated if the landless and poorly endowed households are the dominant contributors to migrant labourers. Table-6 ascertains this.
Table-6: Migration across landholding class


Landholding classes (hectare) 0-0.01 Number of households in the study % of households contributing to migrant labourer (after Aila) Average household size Average MPCE (Rs.) 141 44 4.5 917 0.02-0.20 201 34 5.0 1210 0.210.40 114 35 5.3 1722 0.41-1.00 85 33 5.5 1647 More than 1 ha 25 36 6.4 1606

It is seen from Table-6 that the maximum proportion of households resorting to migration is reported from the lowest landholding class. This is in spite of their average household size being the lowest. The higher landholding classes have also reported a significant migration trend. The migrants remit or personally bring back their savings from outside. The estimates shown in Table- 6 are post-Aila estimates. The MPCE estimates, coupled with the observations in Table3 before, indicate that money earned from outside may have helped Sundarban villagers to maintain a respectable level of consumption standard. It appears that for a remote region which is grossly poor in terms of infrastructural provisions and land productivity (single crop), a disaster like Aila might have stirred up and induced greater mobility in a large labour force which was grossly underemployed. 6. GOVERNMENT INITIATIVE: THE LAND QUESTION The unprecedented disaster in Sundarban had shaken up the administration. In light of CC threats and an increasing probability of recurrence of such events in future, the state government had come up with long term adaptation measures to protect the island population. An obvious component of this measure is building of several cyclone relief centres across Sundarban. These are at the implementation level and some has already come up. However, such measures protect life but not the livelihood. The core of the long term livelihood protection measure, as planned by the government, consists of building much bigger and stronger embankments along the islands with a considerably wide mangrove cover surrounding it. The plan is to clear the land along the riverbanks, build embankments with bases much wider (greater than 30 meters) and with a reasonable margin of land kept on the riverside to grow mangroves. As already noted, Sundarban islands are densely populated and there is little public land available. So, a plan for building large embankments needed, at the first place, acquisition of land by the government. According to media reports, the state government has forwarded its plan to the central government and there has been allocation of money by the centre for this purpose. However, the amount of land acquired by the state administration for this purpose till date is nil. There is an understandable political angle in this stalemate. Land acquisition by the government, in recent times, had created major political antagonism throughout the country. And the state where this has created maximum political turmoil and unrest is West Bengal. After the government’s recent attempts to acquire land in the state elsewhere, for industrial development, the ruling political front had suffered major electoral defeat in parliamentary and 14

local level elections. So, with impending assembly elections, the inaction towards land acquisition can be reasoned as political compulsions. The survey findings can be illuminating in this backdrop. If a household among the survey sample possessed some land near the river – which can be a potential takeover piece – it was asked whether the household is willing to give up the land for a strong embankment project by the government. For the households which answered in negative, an additional question was asked as: what will you do if the government takes it away by force? The responses, as summarized in Table-7, are interesting and can be useful to the authority for informed decision making. It clearly points out the difference in land acquisition issue on Sundarban islands and elsewhere. The responses are even more significant in light of the fact that the main political opposition has acquired most of these in local bodies (Panchayet) in the last election in 2008. Even then, an overwhelming majority of the households has supported land acquisition by the government, if it is aimed at their own future protection. Only a very small percentage of households revealed their strong opposition to such an attempt.
Table-7: Responses to the land question Total no. of households surveyed: Percentage of households that have land adjacent or near embankment: Percentage of eligible households that are willing to give up land for embankment Percentage of eligible households that are NOT willing to give up land Percentage of eligible households that will strongly resist forceful land acquisition 618 60.7 % 75.7 % 22.9 % 5.3 %

This shows that the political consensus regarding land question depends much on the motivation behind it and the convergence/divergence of stakeholders’ interest. When land is acquired for future industrial development, it involves potential capital gain for the remaining landholders in the surrounding area. Then there is a divergence of interest which can create political problems. But in remote Sundarban islands, when land acquisition is aimed for a collective good, the responses can be qualitatively different.

7. CONCLUSION The story that emerges from the survey estimates and descriptive data analysis can be summarized in the following few paragraphs. 15

The vast island population in Sundarban delta lives with poor infrastructural provisions caused mainly by their locational disadvantages. The households are mainly agricultural and the region is characterized by mono-crop rain-fed agricultural. The agricultural output is mostly selfconsumed. Households augment their earning by engaging in multiple earning activities. Such activities traditionally included fishing and forest collections, and in more recent times working as migrant labourer. The poverty scenario in the region is not acute. Going by the monthly percapita expenditure pattern, Sundarban islanders, in general, are better off compared to their rural counterparts in mainland India. There is potential threat posed to the delicate mangrove ecosystem and World Heritage Site by the presence of a large population in the fringe area. However, a strict and exclusionist protection policy pursued by the Department of forests as well as awareness building programmes undertaken by government agencies and non-governmental organizations, has been able to contain such anthropogenic pressure in recent times. The regions short term vulnerability from climate related events has been amply demonstrated by cyclone Aila, which rendered agriculture impossible over vast swaths of land for at least a full year. The spontaneous coping behaviour of the households has been identified as (i) temporary migration of their working men and women (ii) resorting to non-farm daily labour. It is notable that forest and river dependence has actually decreased after the event. The study also finds that a dominant majority of households having land on the riverside are willing to give up their land to the government for the purpose of building a strong embankment that will ensure future protection from such disasters. It highlights the distinction in stakeholders’ aspirations relating to land acquisition in the case of Sundarban. There is a convergence of interest among the community. In this regard, the authority can use the study findings to pursue its stated adaptation policy. Lastly, the experience of Aila can be telling for devising long term coping strategies for such regions. Beyond the sudden disasters like cyclones, SLR scenarios predict an impending doomsday for these islands between 50-100 years. Also there is a growing consensus for preserving and possibly increasing the area under mangroves and the tiger habitat. The ever increasing trend of out-migration might be indicative that the islands are no longer capable of sustaining the economic life of all their inhabitants. In-situ protection of the islanders against such natural disasters involves huge costs for building much bigger and stronger embankments all around them. In the contrary, many islanders are willing to move out to the mainland. It might be economically more rational to explore the possibility of relocating parts of the population - phase by phase - in the mainland. At least for the most remote and underdeveloped islands, field data is indicative that in-situ protection can be significantly more costly than a well-designed relocation scheme which foresee a complete relocation of the population from some islands in the long run.

LITERATURE 1. Ali, A. (1999): Climate change impacts and adaptation assessment in Bangladesh, Climate Research, Vol. 12, pp.109-116 16

2. Hazra S., T. Ghosh, R. DasGupta and G. Sen (2002), Sea Level and associated changes in the Sundarbans, Science and Culture, Vol 68, no 9-12, pp 309-321. 3. Hunter W.W. (1876) A Statistical Account of The Sundarbans; Reprint (1998) by West Bengal District Gazetteers, Govt. of West Bengal, Higher Education Department, Kolkata. 4. McSweeney K. (2005) Natural Insurance, Forest Access, and Compounded Misfortune: Forest Resources in Smallholder Coping Strategies Before and After Hurricane Mitch, Northeastern Honduras, World Development Vol. 33, No. 9, pp. 1453–1471, 5. Pargiter F.E. (1934) A Revenue History of The Sundarbans: Volume – I; Reprint (2002) by West Bengal District Gazetteers, Govt. of West Bengal, Higher Education Department, Kolkata 6. Pattanayak, S. K., & Sills, E. O. (2001) Do tropical forests provide natural insurance? The microeconomics of non-timber forest product collection in the Brazilian Amazon. Land Economics, 77(4), 595–612. 7. Stern Review (2006) The Economics of Climate Change [Executive Summary]] 8. Takasaki Y., B. L. Barham & O. I. Coomes (2004) Risk coping strategies in tropical forests: floods, illnesses, and resource extraction, Environment and Development Economics 9: pp 203–224 9. Unnikrishnan A.S., Rupa Kumar al (2006) Sea level changes along the Indian coast: observations and projections, Current Science, Vol. 90, No. 3, pp362 - 368.


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