Environment & energy, Food & water | South Asia

27 August 2020

Compounding the pain of the pandemic, one of India’s most vulnerable regions has been hit with a super-cyclone, and the government must step in to help, Abhiroop Chowdhury, Raghuveer Nath and Armin Rosencranz write.

The COVID-19 outbreak is a huge public health crisis. While imminent health concerns have naturally taken priority, some other consequences of the pandemic are yet to be fully appreciated. One of these impacts is the unplanned mass migration of a mostly unorganised workforce in the developing world, and the ecological impacts this has had. To understand the consequences of such a migration on the lives of labourers and wildlife, we can look to the Sundarbans in India.

The Sundarbans is a 9,630 square kilometre Biosphere Reserve in India, situated in the Bay of Bengal, the world’s largest river delta and the only natural habitat of mangrove tigers. About 4.6 million people live in the Sunderbans, and their lives are intricately intertwined with the forests around them. Accordingly, being the largest contiguous mangrove patch in the world, the area has been heavily regulated by the Indian government for conservation.

Traditionally, the livelihood of the residents of Sundarbans is dependent primarily on agriculture, fishing, tiger prawn production, seed collection, wood and honey collection, and ecotourism. Approximately 60 per cent of the total productive population of the area is dependent on agriculture and 88 per cent is dependent on fishing.

There was a consistent increase in total agricultural land in the area from 1990 to 2006, from 16.9 per cent to 20.93 per cent, and ecotourism grew at 101 per cent from 2003 to 2009. However, there was a sharp decline in these occupations after 2006 due to rising sea levels and climate change.

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Total agricultural land declined to 16.36 per cent in 2013 due to rising sea levels and the super-cyclone AILA-2009. Likewise, the residents who have been dependent on fishing for sustenance are finding it increasingly hard to catch fish due to excessive saltwater intrusion in the inner delta and overexploitation of common pool resources.

This has resulted in a situation where many people in the area live in life-threatening poverty.

All of this has resulted in the seasonal migration of male residents from the Sundarban area to other parts of India in search of better livelihood opportunities.

Earlier this year, in May, another super-cyclone, Cyclone Amphan, caused massive devastation throughout the Sundarbans amidst the COVID-19 lockdown. The forests were devastated. With seasonal labour migration halted due to the lockdown and dropping rates of ecotourism due to travel bans, the socio-economically marginalised population has once again resorted to agriculture as their only means of sustenance.

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However, given the high levels of saltwater intrusion caused by the rising sea levels and the flooding of the Sundarbans by the cyclone, agriculture is not a viable central economic pillar for the area in the long term.

Accordingly, reduced income opportunities due to COVID-19, destruction of property due to super-cyclone Amphan, and low productivity of agricultural land due to climate change has pushed the already struggling population of the Sundarbans to the brink of survival. The combined impact of these issues has forced the population to resort to illegal means to sustain a living.

Thus, there has been an increase in the illegal exploitation of mangrove resources and tiger poaching in the area, which are major threats to the environment that could be fixed with better economic outcomes for the region. While local relief efforts have temporarily managed the situation in the islands, it may take decades for the islands and islanders to heal, and the government must step in.

The economic austerity brought about by the pandemic will further delay this recovery. There is a serious need to introduce alternative green livelihood options to the vulnerable populations of the Indian Sundarbans, and the government must be part of this.

With reduction in income sources, vulnerability from natural disasters, and the dangers posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, island communities can currently rely only on sporadic and uncertain relief, and until they have that, they will be forced by survival to undermine efforts to conserve the Sundarbans’ crucial ecological environment. It is imperative that the concerned governments take heed of this issue, and work to provide alternative means of sustenance for the millions of people living in the Sundarbans.

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