SONAGOAN, India (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - In the last inhabited villages deep in the dense mangrove forests of India’s Sundarbans region, rice harvests have fallen by half in the last decade.
Rising seas and stronger storms, linked to climate change, are driving crop-killing seawater further inland - and driving farmers out.
But for Susama Das and her husband, migrating part of the year from their village to India’s Odisha state, for backbreaking labor planting rice and working at a shrimp farm, is paying off.
Together the husband-and-wife team earns 17,000 rupees ($230) each month that they spend in Odisha, double what they would have earned back home, Das said.
That has helped them rebuild their home to make it safer, save to send their daughter to school, and avoid falling into debt to moneylenders, as they once did.
“Though until now I hand over my entire earnings to my husband, one thing I insisted is that my daughter, 12, must have private tuition so she does well in studies,” Das said.
“I want her to be a police officer. She will stand head held high alongside big people,” the 31-year-old told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, on a holiday visit back to the Sundarbans.
Climate change is driving accelerating migration around the world, especially in places such as Bangladesh, where harsher weather and sea level rise are making it harder for families to remain in low-lying villages.
For some of those on the move, migration creates new problems. Homes and jobs can be hard to find in already packed cities such as Dhaka, and uncertainty and hunger can drive social ills, from child marriage to prostitution.
But some families find that migrating, at least part of the year, can also be a smart way to adapt to increasing climate pressure, providing new opportunities to make money, support family members back at home and try out new options.
While it is primarily men that migrate from the Sundarbans, more women are now joining them, looking for ways to make up for falling incomes at home.
In India’s Sundarbans region, one in five households now has at least one family member who has migrated, and in Gosaba sub-district, where Das lives, the percentage is higher, according to a 2018 study by the Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation (DECCMA) project, backed by the British and Canadian governments.
But unlike men, seven out of 10 migrating women stay within their home state of West Bengal, often working in or near Kolkata caring for children or the elderly, said Sumona Banerjee, the India coordinator for DECCMA.
“Gosaba stands just 4 meters above sea-level; half its agricultural land is flooded every year,” she said.
With 80 percent of residents dependent on farming, and many of them poor, the region amounts to one of the most climate-vulnerable areas in India’s delta region, she said.
ON THE MOVE
Das said she has been migrating for five years now with her husband to a farm cooperative in Badamaharana, a village in Odisha state.
The trip is timed to Odisha’s rice-growing season - now a month later than it used to be as a result of climate change, she said.
From dawn until early evening, for four months, they sow and transplant rice seedlings and later weed the paddies. In the evenings, both walk over half a kilometer to a private shrimp farm to feed hatchlings.
The income is a huge improvement over what they could earn at home, Das said.
“My husband barely got 15 days of work in a month. We were deep in the local money lender’s debt,” she said.
The problem is that as agriculture gets harder at home, it’s less and less profitable, said Tuhin Ghosh, a climate researcher at the School of Oceanographic Studies in Kolkata’s Jadavpur University.
Large-scale land owners in the area now cultivate just enough to eat themselves in many cases, “hiring fewer or no farm labor in order to cut costs,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
That means less work for local people, even as the region is hit by worsening cyclones and tidal surges that can breach protective earthen embankments, leading to flooding, erosion and ruined soil.
India’s Sundarbans has 3,500 kilometers (2,200 miles) of embankments, many of which are 150 years old, according to West Bengal’s Department of Sundarban Affairs.
In Gosaba, about 17 of the 372 kilometers of embankments are in disrepair, according a 2018 district disaster management plan.
‘DAUGHTERS MUST STUDY’
Only half of Gosaba’s women can read, according to the 2011 census, but many think the money they earn from migratory work will give their daughters more options.
“Today daughters must study and earn. And once she is eligible, suitors will automatically come. We do not have to worry,” said Das, who like many local women married when she was a teenager.
Money from migratory work is also making life at home safer, residents say.
Das and her husband’s earnings from their first two years working in Odisha went toward strengthening the house against flooding and cyclones, she said.
The once thatched roof now is covered in tin sheets securely fastened to wooden beams, and set on a pad of dense grey riverbed clay they constructed to raise the home three feet (about 1 meter) above ground level.
Now she is thinking about a new business in their home village, to broaden their income.
“I would see an ice cream vendor doing good business,” she said. “When I broached the idea, my husband agreed.”
Using 18,000 rupees ($240), they now have bought a pink-and-white rickshaw with a freezer unit.
“Now we need not depend on anyone here to give us daily wage work,” she said.
The extra income from their migratory work also has helped pay for the $13-a-month bill for medical treatment for their 8-year-old son, who has a blood disorder.
And they have their eyes on a third of an acre of land for sale in their village, which they hope to buy for about $3,400 “as soon as we save the money,” Das said.
RICHER LIFE AT HOME
In their village, cash from migratory work also has paid for everything from carpentry shops to better food.
One sure sign of a migrant family is a single solar panel on the home’s tin roof, alongside a satellite TV dish.
Pulli Sana, who takes care of her migrant sister-in-law’s two daughters, said that with the cash sent home they can afford to eat apples, biscuits and sometimes even the Coca Cola her children yearn for after seeing it advertised on television.
But the growing need to migrate for an income is not good news for all women, local officials say.
Some - especially teenage girls or widows - face violence or exploitation when they leave home, warned Balaram Maiti, a leader in Sonagoan who belongs to West Bengal’s ruling political party.
“They may bring in a lot of money but are exploited often. The true picture is not always revealed by them,” he said.
Ghosh said that women at home may also suffer in some cases when men migrate, particularly if they need to take on the farmwork even as “all decision-making power remains with the non-present husband or father-in-law”.
But some left-behind women are seizing more decision-making power with male family members away - including taking jobs they once might have been forbidden to hold.
“If women get to earn in the village, they need not disrupt family life to migrate,” said 62-year-old Pratima Mishra, secretary of Mahila Samiti, a women’s self-employment initiative in the village of Rangabelia.
“These women save intelligently, they are prepared for the aftermath of natural disasters,” she said. “They are the reason the (exploitative) money-lender culture is dying out here.”