Women sort fish at a dock at the mouth of the Hooghly and Rasulpur rivers on the West Bengal coast. Photo: Sourav Kundu and Ryan Rozario
- The effects of climate change are so unsparing of smaller details that two places not far from each other on the Bengal coast have been confronted with separate challenges.
- In Jharkhali of the Sundarban, the increasing salinity of tide-fed rivers has exposed women fishers to various diseases in an area that has little healthcare infrastructure.
- Fewer than 90 km away, at the mouth of the Hooghly, salinity isn’t the main problem – homes being inundated by repeated storms are.
Jharkhali/Nijkasba, West Bengal: It is easy to consider the south of West Bengal to be an unwieldy side of the world stricken acutely by the climate crisis.
Buzzwords like ‘salinity’, ‘storm surge’, ‘water-level rise’ and ‘ocean warming’ define the place – as does ‘poverty’. They give the impression of uniform and pervasive suffering in the region, and conjure visions of floods and shelters. One might conclude that its residents don’t have an easy job getting by. News reports draw attention to their plight only when a cyclone barrels into the coastal areas they inhabit – although the cyclones have been becoming more common.
But as it happens, climate change is unsparing of the smallest details, and two places not too far from each other on the Bengal coast have been confronted with two different crises.
A 2013 study by Central University of Odisha’s Kakoli Banerjee measured salinity in the Sundarban from 1990 to 2012. She reported that the waters of the eastern part of the Indian Sundarban are more saline than those in the west.
The waters of tide-fed rivers in the eastern sector of the Indian Sundarban are becoming more saline. Over the years, they have been almost entirely cut off from their freshwater sources. And water that comes in during the high tide takes time to recede, a phenomenon called tidal stagnancy. This ensures saline water remains in the tidal rivers for longer, Tuhin Ghosh, director of the School of Oceanographic Sciences at Jadavpur University, said.
The storms have also been becoming stronger, more intense, and evaporation has been increasing.
As a result, the land and water along eastern Bengal are hypersaline.
But less than 90 km to the west, within the same state of Bengal, and where the Hooghly meets the bay, salinity is no longer the biggest climate-related problem.
“The melting of ice has increased in the Himalayan range which has added freshwater and decreased the salinity of the western Sundarban by almost 2.65 psu1 over 23 years,” Banerjee wrote in her paper.
Ghosh, however, has an alternative: “Nearly 500 human interventions on the Ganga impede the Hooghly’s ability to carry sediment to the sea. As a result, massive siltation happens on the river bed, causing it to rise.” So during the monsoons or during a storm, when the river is already swelling, it floods.
Two villages in which women are integral parts of the local water ecosystem – one ensconced in the dense tidal river web of the Sundarban of South 24 Parganas district, the other near the mouth of the Hooghly in East Medinipur – together present a tale of innocuous disparities that climate change is magnifying into disparate crises.
Jharkhali, South 24 Parganas
At the COP26 climate talks in Glasgow, a panel of global experts discussed the implications of losing mangroves for an hour. While that was happening, in a village 13,000 km away, and in an eponymous land of mangroves, the people of some 600 households were worried largely about crocodiles.
“In early November, a couple went to fish in the waters of the tidal Bidyadhari river. Slinking around in the thin mangroves was a crocodile. It carried the man off and injured the woman, who is still weeping, two days later.”
This is Susheela Mondal’s account. Mondal is around 45 and lives in the small Tridib Nagar village in Jharkhali. She has an ‘allergy’ that she firmly believes came about because she spends many hours trawling nets through brackish waters. But the biggest problem, according to her, with saline-water fishing is crocodiles.
Mondal is aware that the most immediate threat is not the most worrying – but crocodiles are why she keeps her away from the waters, where she fishes for shrimp (locally called meen), like all the women in her village.
In summer, Mondal wades into the water at midnight, remains submerged up to her shoulders and trawls a net many times her size until dawn. She repeats this once again later in the day.
Once she’s out of the water, she sorts the shrimp fry on the river’s muddy banks, arranges to sell them at the local Balikhal Bazar and dries off only once she’s back home.
In the last two years, Mondal has been suffering from an ‘allergy’ – she says that’s what her doctor called it. In its throes, her body breaks out in rashes and she runs a fever.
There are no doctors or a clinic nearby. Mondal’s daughter in Bardhaman city, some 200 km away, arranged for her to travel there to consult with a doctor she knew. Mondal was first asked to get allergy tests done in Kolkata.
“Those were worth Rs 1,000. Then, blood tests were done and they admitted me to a private hospital in Bardhaman for a month. During this time, they were trying out medicines. After that, the doctor said I have allergies and banned me from handling cold water,” Mondal recalled.
But finds this advice bizarre. She lives a kilometre from the Bidyadhari, which meets the Matla close to her house, and the river is where she fishes for shrimp fry.
Reduced to a tidal river with no fresh water source, when the saline Bidyadhari floods farmland, it leaves crops unfit to reap. (These crops are grown for consumption by the same households that grow them.)
Mondal uses the word ‘burnt’, and that the crops ‘turn red’ under saline influence.
The houses neighbouring hers are all led by women. Most of them fish for shrimp fry to cover everyday expenses. The men of these households have migrate out of the state in search of work.
The women are the lowest rung of the aquaculture ladder in the region. With nothing but a large aluminium container and their net, they sell shrimp fry to pond owners, who then rear and sell them.
According to Banerjee, the water’s increasing salinity has rendered it unfit for most aquatic life, except shrimp.
Susheela Mondal says she has seen this change. When she arrived at Tridib Nagar 30 years ago, she says she was spoilt for choice. “We saw plenty of crabs, various kinds of prawn and shrimp, but they are gone now.”
Basanti Gayen, Kusum Mondal, Bharati Sarkar, Arati Mondal, Mita Mridha and Saraswati Mondal are all residents of Tridib Nagar who also depend on the shrimp. Their six-hour expeditions fetch them a hundred rupees a day – on a good day.
All of them also said they have observed the effects of heightened salinity on their bodies.
Gayen has scabs from itching that lasts for 4-5 days. Arati Mondal shows white patches on her hands.
The women are all mothers or grandmothers, and don’t like to speak of their personal troubles. Gayen even says they don’t have “big illnesses” in their village. All of them also said their doctors are far away.
The fisherwomen are also unsure of their own age (“we’ll need to see our Aadhaar cards”) – but know how to read the water’s currents and why they can find shrimp fry only in warmer weather. This is also when the water is the most saline.
In the late afternoon, Mondal sits outside her house while her two grandchildren flit around, sharing an apple. Their parents are out fishing, Mondal says.
Her husband, younger son, younger daughter-in-law, and their son all work “outside”, as she gestures at the lone road leading away from Tridib Nagar. The government made this road permanent only in October 2021, allowing electric rickshaws to reach her house for the first time. You can’t find it on Google Maps, but it allows an essential thing to reach Mondal: an ambulance.
It’s an enormous benefit, but it’s also bittersweet.
“My elder son’s first son died shortly after being born,” she says. “The four of us pressed on her belly to allow for the birth, she was in a lot of pain. The doctor arrived and asked, ‘What do I do?’ We thought the baby was dead at birth, but I heard a sob and thought maybe he was alive. We took him to a hospital, but by the time we reached, they said he was dead.”
This ‘doctor’ was not a doctor at all but a rural medical practitioner (RMP). The villagers call them ‘doctors’ anyway.
“We try to scientifically solve the immediate health problems of the people here, but we are not the real thing,” RMP Gouranga Sarkar admits. He set up his ‘clinic’ – a table and two benches in a room that opens out to the street – in Balikhal Bazaar of Tridib Nagar after losing a social worker’s job in Kolkata after the pandemic hit. Sarkar wasn’t the doctor who treated Mondal’s daughter-in-law but he about these situations.
Trained at the Dr Norman Bethune Choloman Medical School for three years, Sarkar has observed effects of prolonged exposure to saline water on his patients.
“They get vaginal itching first, in some cases we see that they have polycystic ovarian disease, or leukorrhea, or problems in their uterus, including cysts,” he elaborates.
According to him, 90-95% of the hundreds of his patients have one of these problems, and around 12-14% have uterine cancer and are undergoing chemotherapy at Kolkata hospitals.
In Tridib Nagar, if Sarkar is absent, there is only one other person villagers can go to – a school master, Pabitra Sarkar.
Both the Sarkars (who aren’t related to each other) maintain a stash of emergency medicines to give villagers who knock on their doors. Pabitra Sarkar receives it through an NGO; Gouranga Sarkar is more circumspect.
When these medicines don’t work, the RMP refers patients to consulting gynaecologists, or the marginally bigger Jharkhali Primary Health Centre, which is has a single technically qualified doctor.
If it is a serious disease, a patient has to go to the Basanti Rural Hospital. It is 21 km by road from Tridib Nagar and the only healthcare centre that provides essential healthcare to pregnant women and new mothers.
Dr Mintu Ranjan Pal, the general duty medical officer who has been at the hospital for some six years now, says at least 400 patients line up every day. With most men away from the villages for work, most people in the lines are women and their children.
Like RMP Sarkar, Pal offers a picture of diseases among shrimp fry fishers that’s grimmer than the one the women like to believe.
“If you see the line now, almost 10-20% of the people are standing with skin diseases,” Pal says. “With women, what we see happening when they fish for long hours in saline water is that water-related problems, like pelvic inflammatory diseases, white discharge, gynaecological problems come up.”
But the women are often reluctant to speak about their ailments, he adds. The room where Pal and his colleague see patients has large doors and windows on either side, and offers no privacy, even as an eager line of waiting patients peeks inside.
This hospital is small and sparse but remarkably clean. A spic and span ‘waiting room’ has been kept shut but is unlocked for the reporters.
The Tridib Nagar fisherwomen say unanimously that if there ever was a woman doctor in their vicinity, all their “life’s troubles would be solved”. Two ASHA workers come on occasion – but they’re limited by the lack of proper roads.
Pal agrees that a woman doctor could help patients open up. The hospital has a woman doctor, who they “thank often for working there,” because the Sundarban villages are “tough for a woman”.
The particular trials of being a woman in a land that is spectacularly harsh to its settlers keep the young in Tridib Nagar worried as well.
Siddhartha Mridha, a volunteer with an NGO, says he and his colleagues try to always remain on hand to transport pregnant women and young mothers to hospitals during emergencies. An additional role he has had to take on with this job is letting people know when and where to run during a storm.
Mridha couldn’t graduate school – mainly because it was 13 km away – but taught himself English and Hindi. The village healthcare and awareness system runs on young people like Mridha.
He and his NGO colleagues are the only ones in the region who they say are familiar with the idea that climate change is irreversibly changing the area where they live.
For the rest, the climate question and the possibility of moving again is tiring. “We came here in 1970. The party helped us set up. Now the party is trying to improve things. Where will we go? We have already been refugees once,” says Tapan Burman, a panchayat elder.
The ‘party’ in power in the 1970s was the Left and the ‘party’ in power now is the Trinamool Congress. But Burman speaks of all administration and authority using the same word.
With a daily life replete with floods and suffering, Burman hasn’t been inclined to acknowledge the change in government.
Nijkasba, East Medinipur
Party politics, however, permeates all aspects of life in East Medinipur’s Nijkasba. This is a fishing village situated at the point where the Rasulpur river meets the Hooghly near the latter’s mouth. Across the Hooghly from the disappearing island of Ghoramara and its big brother, Sagar Island, Nijkasba struggles to plot itself on a map. It is certainly not as big a presence as the Sundarban on the climate change radar.
But for its people, its claim to fame is that it belongs to the Khejuri II block. The region saw protracted violence over land acquisition before the change in state government in 2011. In successive elections, including the one to the West Bengal assembly earlier this year, the Khejuri-Nandigram region was on the receiving end of pitched media attention.
At Nijkasba, fish brought in by large boats is auctioned to traders and needs to be sorted immediately afterwards by species. This sorting is done by nearly 250 women who sit under open skies on a large cement platform by the river. This happens every day at 2 pm.
The women all walk to the fishing station from the neighbouring Dakshin Oli Chawk village and walk back after a couple of hours of work. Their daily income from this ranges between Rs 10 and Rs 50.
As in the Sundarban, women here too occupy the lowest rung of the fishing ladder.
But they are also acutely aware of local leaders, the health infrastructure hierarchy and the possible problems of speaking to city folk on administrative drawbacks.
However, a ready icebreaker that can override any amount of reticence over politics is floods.
“When there are floods, everything floats away, everything is destroyed…water stays for 2-4 days, 5 days, sometimes 10 days and sometimes longer,” says 60-year-old Jharna Rani Patra.
More importantly, when floods come, Patra notes that the fish sorting work stops because everything, including the sorting station, is submerged.
With the years, floods appear to have gotten fiercer. Patra and her colleagues say there is more water in the floods now than before. The Union government in 2019 said that of the major ports in India, Diamond Harbour in West Bengal – 54 km north of Nijkasba – and located at the mouth of the Hooghly, has recorded the maximum sea level rise.
“Water entered the house and broke the four walls down. Most houses here are mud houses, how can poor people build permanent houses?” asks Parul Das Maity. Maity and her family have been living in a tarpaulin tent just across from their mud house since it was destroyed in the May 2021 Yaas cyclone.
Even for a riverine people accustomed to floods, Yaas was a particular catastrophe.
Villagers refer to cyclones Aila, Amphan, Bulbul and Phani as “jhor,” the Bangla for “storm”. But cyclone Yaas, is colloquially not “Yaas jhor” but “Yaas bonna” – ‘Yaas flood’.
“Amphan destroyed 95% of the houses here, leaving only 1-2 pucca houses…and even those pucca houses which had tin or asbestos roofs, those too flew off. Then came the Yaas floods, in which most of the land and all of the houses of Dakshin Oli Chawk village were destroyed,” says Suryakanta Sahu, a lifelong Nijkasba resident.
“Drainage is good here and flood waters would go quickly. But the rain water, in some low lying areas, has been impossible to get rid of. This agricultural land could not produce any crops this year. Vegetables, which you could grow 12 months of the year, have all been destroyed,” Sahu says.
The villagers have subsisted on government rations. Women, in such situations, are hit the hardest when it comes to nutrition intake.
But that is a distant problem when compared to the spate fever, diarrhoea and dysentery that comes after any flood. In a year in which locals claim to have seen “four to five floods,” these diseases have been particularly challenging.
ASHA workers who bring healthcare to villagers’ doorsteps – and often have to wade through waist deep waters to do so – know this acutely.
“Whenever there is a flood, we give them metrogyl (to combat stomach diseases) or medicines to deal with fever…we always ask them to keep the bathrooms clean and keep containers of water on a raised platform,” says Shyamasri Bijali Das, an ASHA worker since 2009. Her monthly salary is around Rs 5,500.
Das has 909 people under her direct care and is responsible for everything from post-childbirth attention to records of COVID jabs.
When asked how increased storms, flooding and logged water are affecting health, Das points to dengue.
But she is not keen to stress on it and immediately after mentioning it, says that it has been brought under control now. In the course of the chat, her colleagues often interrupt her to stress that the overall health situation too is under control thanks to the infrastructure and their efforts.
Like their ASHA ‘didis’, the fish sorters of Nijkasba too know that speaking of their own health problems could reflect a failing on the part of the powers that be.
Each sentence is prefaced by the name of a local leader who has “done a lot;” each person working at the fishing station knows under which politician’s tutelage a particular pillar was built, and who repaired what after which flood.
Kakoli Patra, a mother of three, says that neither she nor her children suffer from any disease at all. “I have only been to the hospital thrice, when my children were born,” she says.
It takes the head of the fishing station, a wizened old man called Rabin Bor whose word is sacrosanct at the river bank, to say that women there suffer a lot because there is no separate toilet at the workplace. “The conditions here are not fit for them,” he says.
But what Bor can get away with, Patra apparently cannot and she and the other women only smile and nod when asked about the lack of opportunities to safeguard feminine hygiene. Patra and her colleagues speak at length on floods but are loath to narrate their singular experience as women in combating its aftereffects.
When a bystander asks Patra to speak of a woman who allegedly fell dead while sorting fish, she refuses to do so and clarifies to the reporters that she does not know why that woman died – it could be a “private” reason, says Patra, using the English word.
Sahu’s estimate is that 95% of the village has been living in shelters and under tarpaulin covers offered by the government since Yaas. This means that like their workplaces, these women’s homes too have no separate toilet area. This poses hygiene challenges, something that the interviewed ASHA workers also acknowledge.
Nijkasba is serviced by the Sillyaberia Rural Hospital – situated right beside a five-storey cyclone shelter. This hospital is accessible by electric rickshaws. From the fishing station to the hospital is a ride that costs Rs 15. It is 5 kilometres away from the Dakshin Oli Chawk village where the fish sorter women live with their families.
After each flood, a crowd of diarrhoea and dysentery patients arrive at this hospital, says staff nurse Moushumi Das.
“Twenty to 25 people come for diarrhoea medicine everyday, and 4-5 of them get admitted,” she says. Das also notes that when a person of one region is affected by any of the above issues, at least 30 people from the same immediate neighbourhood are likely to be affected also.
“There is a problem with diet here too. Villagers are mostly malnourished. If you do a blood test you will see their haemoglobin is low,” she adds.
Sillyaberia shares the patient load with Janka, another rural hospital at a distance of around 3 kms. But Das says both hospitals are limited in scope. For treatment of more serious illnesses, villagers need to go to Contai (now called Kanthi) Sub-Divisional Hospital.
Here the same river that periodically floods their land but is also an opportunity for livelihood poses a problem. Across Rasulpur from Nijkasba is Petuaghat, one of Bengal’s largest fishing ports. But the land does not lend itself to a bridge, making people dependent on ferries which come in 40-minute gaps and at night, not at all. “The car journey takes three hours, which is a problem if the patient is serious,” says Das.
Das is the only person in that region that the reporters spoke to who spoke of the direct connection between climate change, hygiene and health.
“Maximum houses here have bathrooms now, but during floods, even those get submerged. It is a problem to use them then. So women do suffer,” she says.
Barely an hour from Sillyaberia is the Nandigram Super-Specialty Hospital, the biggest healthcare centre in East Medinipur and one which had been in the limelight since inauguration. The hospital had been in the news recently after the Bengal CM, injured in Nandigram, gave it a miss and chose to admit herself at Kolkata’s SSKM Hospital.
Sparsely furnished, the hospital, set up in 2017, still looks new. Its age is given away by a low hill of medical waste, with gloves and masks peeking out from colour-segregated bags, in its backyard.
The hospital superintendent Dr Adwaita Kumar Mudi notes at the outset, “First of all let me say, due to climate change we are seeing a lot of new diseases like respiratory distress and skin diseases. There are some waterborne diseases too.”
In Mudi’s experience, women mostly come with skin and nail diseases and leukorrhea, after floods. Mudi also claims that people have grown aware of climate change-driven diseases.
While Mudi hasn’t received any directions from the health department, he believes plans must be in the offing to tackle specific climate change-inspired health challenges. “If the department asks for data, we will compile it and send,” he says.
Where Tridib Nagar functions as a virtual island disconnected from the advancements, financial complications and events of the urban world, Nijkasba lives in acute awareness of it.
But while political considerations and the river Hooghly separate them, women of the two villages are united by poverty and an awareness that admissions of their own ill health will invite expenses they cannot afford.
Both sets of women are essential to the fishing industry and both receive the least to compensate them for their roles. Both are cradled in the meeting points of two rivers – one set fiery with salt and the other with more water they can hold. Both live in quiet subservience to a process of change for which they can take no blame.
This story was produced with the support of Internews’s Earth Journalism Network.
Practical salinity unit, equivalent to grams of salt per kilogram of material↩