Migrant workers turn climate refugees twice over

By Jayanta Basu

It has been a double whammy for migrant workers fleeing the unprecedented Kerala floods back home to the Sundarbans in West Bengal, a region that is anyway facing the brunt of climate change.

Many migrant workers to Kerala from the Sundarbans in West Bengal have been forced to return home. Photo credit: Jayanta Basu.

Every year, Bidhan Mondal would return from Kerala to his home in Satjelia Island in the Indian Sundarbans during Durga Puja, the biggest festival in West Bengal, bearing gifts for his family. It was different this year for the migrant mason in his twenties, in a bad way.

Mondal has been migrating to Kerala for the past seven years to work as a mason in the southern state as livelihoods have shrunk in the Sundarbans in West Bengal due to various impacts of climate change such as rising seas eroding the estuarine islands, and increasingly saline land.

“I, along with many of my friends in the village, started going to Kerala after Cyclone Aila turned our land saline and unproductive,” Mondal told indiaclimatedialogue.net. “Many people from our area prefer to go to Kerala every year to work as construction labourers, as they pay good money compared to other places.”

Cyclone Aila was responsible for hundreds of deaths in the Sundarbans in Bangladesh and India in May 2009. Millions were rendered homeless and vast stretches of land turned saline due to an intrusion of seawater. As a result of Aila and subsequent storms, a large number of people from the Indian Sundarbans migrate to other parts of the country in search of work.

Migrating for work

In the Sundarbans, people usually go out for work around June-July, often come back briefly during Durga Puja, return to work after the festivities are over, and return around February. They are away from home for 7-8 months on average, mainly in the southern states.

“This year, I had to come back from Kozhikode in Kerala early, as the work has shrunk considerably after the disaster,” said Mondal, referring to the unseasonal downpour and floods. “I have been going to Kerala for so many years, but have never seen such incessant rain and flooding. Though the government has brought back normalcy, the opportunity of work has nosedived. Not only has the rate dwindled to INR 450 to INR 500 (USD 5.5-6.8) per day (from about INR 800), now there is hardly work for 2-3 days in a week compared with six days earlier.”

Mondal is not the only one from his village to return early from Kerala. The reverse migration to the Sundarbans due to the disaster in Kerala has been widespread across the Sundarbans.

Climate refugees twice over

The migration forced by climate change has turned a full circle. Close to a decade back, Aila triggered an out-migration from the Indian Sundarbans. From the million-odd households in the Sundarbans, an estimated half a million young men migrate out of the region for work every year. A sizeable number of them go to the southern states, particularly Kerala, in search of livelihoods.

The August spate of record rainfall accompanied by an unprecedented flood that completely put Kerala out of gear initiated a reverse migration as thousands started to come back to their native villages because the construction job market, where these people mainly work, has shrunk sharply.

“The temporary migrants, the likes of whom spend a sizeable amount of time outside the Sundarbans in places like Kerala for livelihoods but come back once or twice a year, have been significantly affected by the Kerala event,” Sugata Hazra, a professor in the Oceanographic Department in Kolkata-based Jadavpur University, told me.

Coastal erosion, high soil salinity and increasingly violent cyclones have forced the young out of their homes in the Sundarbans. Photo credit: Soumya Sarkar.

“The migrants from Sundarbans who moved to Kerala for work have now been battered by climate change twice over. Once again, they have been made vulnerable by devastating climate-related disasters that are on the rise due to irreversible global warming,” said Harjeet Singh, Global Lead on Climate Change in non-profit ActionAid International.

Compelled by climate change

Asimanta Mondal from Dayapur village in Gosaba, a village in the Indian Sundarbans, said that returning from Kerala is becoming the only option. “Even after the rain and flood, many stayed back in the hope that the work situation will return to normal,” said the villager, who is in his fifties. “But now they are also coming back.”

“A few of us were still there even after a month after the carnage, hoping that things would change, as there was word going around that reconstruction work would start soon,” said Dipu Baidya, another villager. “But that does not look like an immediate possibility, as both demand and supply have gone down, and I also had to come back.” Baidya said about 70% of the Kerala migrants may have returned.

Sheik Adalat, former village council chief in Mousuni Island, also said that many people are coming back from Kerala. Mousuni is one of the most highly climate-impacted islands in the Indian Sundarbans, where saline water from both the sea and adjoining river leach into the land.

“A major part of island has become saline, affecting both agriculture and sweet water fishery, and hence, male migration to Kerala has become second nature in this island,” Adalat told me. “Now after the disaster in Kerala, many of these people are coming back.”

The remittance from migrant labour plays a major role in the local economy. This is now disrupted.

Research vindicates trend

Climate change has ensured that people have little option but to migrate. “Our research on delta environment, and climate change migration and adaptation conducted by Jadavpur University along with Southampton University shows that 51% of the families have at least one case of out-migration,” said Tuhin Ghosh, a Professor in the Oceanographic Department in Jadavpur University who is associated with the project.

“Out-migration rate must be much higher in the islands of the Sundarbans being hit more severely by extreme weather phenomena and climate change,” argued Subhas Acharya, a member of Sundarban Development Board and a researcher associated with the project, who said that Kerala is one of the two top preferred destinations for migration for people in the Indian Sundarbans along with Tamil Nadu.

“This reverse migration is possible as people prefer to shift from areas where growth takes a beating as has happened in Kerala now,” said Nilanjan Ghosh, an ecological economist from Observer Research Foundation who has been working for long in the Sundarbans.

“I saw it happening after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami as many migrants came back to the Sundarbans from the Andaman Islands and other affected areas,” said Anurag Danda, a Sundarbans researcher and an advisor to non-profit WWF India.

Danda said many people would go back to Kerala again once things settle down and the market grows there. “Migration will continue as economic pressure magnified by climate change will loom larger. Normally, people tend to go back to the same place for livelihood if the situation improves,” he told me. “After the tsunami, people went back to Andaman when things had improved. The same thing can happen in the case of Kerala.”

First published in India Climate Dialogue.

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One response to “Migrant workers turn climate refugees twice over

  1. Pingback: Young climate activists seize the opportunity of Democratic House control | A greener life, a greener world·

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