P03 – Anindita Shome

Anindita Shome is a Ph.D. Research Scholar at the Centre for the Study of Indian Diaspora, University of Hyderabad. She has worked on the non-fictional works of Amitav Ghosh and Scott C. Levi that deal with the pre-modern transnational trade routes between India and other nations. Her research interests lie in the literary and socio-cultural aspects of the Indian migration and diaspora, be it pre-modern times or the contemporary era. She has a keen interest in the youth and technological diasporas across the world.

Climate Change and the Precariousness of Lives and Livelihoods in the Sundarbans: A Reading of Amitav Ghosh’s “The Hungry Tide”

The UNHCR (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees) Data reports that there are 79.5 million and more individuals who have been uprooted from their homeland and forced to take refuge in other places by the year 2019. Out of the 79.5 million displaced individuals, the report informs, there are almost 26 million refugees (2020).[1] The precariousness of children, youth, and women refugees cannot be exaggerated in the entire narrative of the refugee crisis.

Terms, such as, Environmental Migration and Climate Migration, are working terms and the definitions are still evolving. While these terms are being developed, it is critical to consider the migratory patterns that have been arising out of environmental and climatic disruptions and changes. Chris Perry asserts that people are forced to move due to environmental changes, as these changes have detrimental effects on the cultural, political, economic, and social factors that create conditions under which people migrate or are compelled to do so (2011: 1).

International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports (2008: 9) that:

“The meteorological impact of climate change can be divided into two distinct drivers of migration; climate processes such as sea-level rise, salinization of agricultural land, desertification and growing water scarcity, and climate events such as flooding, storms and glacial lake outburst floods. But non-climate drivers, such as government policy, population growth and community-level resilience to natural disaster, are also important. All contribute to the degree of vulnerability people experience.”

The Sundarbans are a unique ecological area of mangrove forests shared by the nation-states: India and Bangladesh. There is an intertwining of rivers, mangrove trees, and human lives and other species in this delta. UNESCO describes the Sundarbans as:

“…one of the largest such forests in the world (140,000 ha), lies on the delta of the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers on the Bay of Bengal…The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. The area is known for its wide range of fauna, including 260 bird species, the Bengal tiger and other threatened species such as the estuarine crocodile and the Indian python.”[2]

The Sundarbans, or the Tide Country, witnesses gradual as well as drastic climate changes and destruction that are changing the course of rivers, destroying large areas of the mangrove forests, and, leaving a trail of immense environmental and human loss, devastation, and destitution. The surging rivers and tidal waves are devouring houses, lives of humans and other species, and destroying livelihoods. People are being left homeless and without stable means of livelihoods. Deadly cyclonic storms in the recent past have torn apart the region and caused havoc. The already impoverished and deprived communities of people, living in the Sundarbans, have been turning into climate refugees with each passing natural or human-induced disaster. The incessant cutting down of the trees for decades, the rising level of the sea, the dying of native trees due to the infiltration of saline water into the rivers, have left the Sundarbans under immense pressure, which is leading to the decline of the mangrove forests, leaving the surrounding areas of India and Bangladesh at higher risks of bearing the brunt of future floods, cyclones, other kinds of storms, etc. The Sundarbans acted as a buffer against storms and floods in the past, but it is itself facing a crisis now.

Climate change is a reality that manifests itself through catastrophic, natural disasters sparing no corner of the world. A phenomenon which has shown the world how inter-connected the Earth remains, and how, if we have to tackle and reverse the adverse effects of climate change, we have to act as a unit. With the climate changes affecting populations and communities, who have the minimum contribution to push the Earth to such a dire state, it has become critical to understand the effects of climate change and formulate policies accordingly, because the poor and the underprivileged are, undeservingly, suffering the most.

Climate disasters affect one and all, yet the repercussions and resultant hardships due to the disasters are largely felt and endured by the marginalised communities, the ones that have been living at the margins of our societies, and pushed further to the fringes. It has been observed that, the power structures existent in our societies push the oppressed communities towards further subjugation and oppression. Shweta Jayawardhan writes:

“Environmental displacement is not solely an ecological problem. It is a multicausal problem where ecological and socioeconomic vulnerability act together to displace marginalized people (2017: 104).”

Climate changes and the drastic and devastating effects of these changes on the communities living at the margins need to be studied through a multi-disciplinary approach. Conversations and discussions need to amplify not just in the western contexts, but within the global contexts, with uniform focus on the refugee crisis in the nation-states, which are already struggling with less/limited resources. When communities are affected through disastrous natural events or daily hardships of finding food and sustenance, the women of those communities tend to be subjugated in severe ways. Jayawardhan further observes that it is not only the climate changes that make people lose their homes, but the amplification of the existing: “…social vulnerability which contributes to displacement… (Ibid, 105)”. She asserts that the climate change “…is not a source of persecution at all because it does not discriminate…The problem results from the complex relationship between climate change, lack of agency, and governance (Ibid 105).”

Fiction plays an essential role in making readers more climate/environment conscious and encourage the issue of climate change to be a part of larger cultural narratives. Popular cultures and literary fiction have to encourage discussions and deliberations on the present and future effects of climate change, as these changes are affecting and will affect the individuals and communities living at the peripheries. It is a responsibility of the arts, the social sciences and the sciences to bring the debates on climate change and global warning to the mainstream narratives. One factor that has led to the neglect or disbelief of the disturbing effects of climate change has been the power structures that help the privileged groups to not be drastically affected by the phenomenon. With the brunt being borne by the underprivileged communities and classes, the mainstream narratives tend to ignore the issue or not give it enough importance. This paper attempts to understand the plight of the marginalised communities of the Sundarbans through the fictional narrative, “The Hungry Tide” (2004), by Amitav Ghosh, an Indian writer of fiction and non-fiction.

“The Hungry Tide” traces the events of the central characters of the story- an Indian-American  cetologist, Piyali Roy, who visits the Sundarbans to study the Irrawaddy Dolphins; Fokir, one of those many fishermen of the region living in near-poverty; Kanai Dutt, a translator and interpreter who is visiting a relative in the Sundarbans, and who helps Piyali Roy to understand the local language for her work to be done; and Kanai Dutt’s aunt, Nilima Bose, who lives in Lusibari, an island in the Sundarbans. The plot revolves around Piyali’s search after the endangered dolphins; the deep friendship between Piyali and Fokir, who is an illiterate fisherman, yet understands the river ways as well as Piyali; the changing landscape of the Sundarbans; and the struggles of the inhabitants of the islands, the Morichjhanpi Incident- an incident of police brutalities and killings of illegal migrants/refugees on the island by the name of Morichjhanpi in the Sundarbans. A large number of lower caste refugees who had taken sanctuary in the reserved area of the island, was evicted in the most unhumanitarian manner, as can be frequently witnessed being done to the refugees and to the communities and classes who survive on the peripheries of our societies and nation-states. As is narrated in the novel:

“Some refugees had occupied one of the islands in the forest,” Nilima said. “There was a confrontation with the authorities that resulted in a lot of violence. The government wanted to force the refugees to return to their resettlement camp in central India. They were being put into trucks and buses and taken away (Ibid 32).”

The novel is an insight into the lived experiences of the people of the Sundarbans and their inter-connected and inter-dependent lives with the other species of nature, the rivers, and the mangrove forests. The fictional narrative brings alive, through the events in the story, the extremely difficult lives of the neglected communities of the region. The novel describes the changing routes of the rivers that criss-cross the Sundarbans:

“The bazaars ended in a causeway that led away from the town toward the Matla River…Kanai saw what Nilima had meant when she said the river had changed. He remembered the Matla as a vast waterway, one of the most formidable rivers he had ever seen. But it was low tide now and the river in the distance was no wider than a narrow ditch, flowing along the center of a halfmile-wide bed… (Ibid 30).”

The changing composition and course of the rivers of the Sundarbans are leading to the erasure of the native “sundari” trees, the vanishing of the native species of the region, and making the delta more dangerous for the human lives, flora and fauna each day. The inhabitants of the Sundarbans had found their homes in the islands a long time ago, and now with the living conditions turning hostile, where will these displaced people go?

It must be remembered that the communities that settle and continue to live in perilous areas, mostly, choose to do so, as the mainstream and developed spaces exclude them through economic, social, and political structures of inequalities. As Nilima explains to Kanai in the novel, as to why people came and settled in these islands, which were once dominated by tigers, forests, and mud:

“For the land, Kanai. What else? This was at a time when people were so desperate for land that they were willing to sell themselves in exchange for a bigha or two. And this land here was in their own country, not far from Calcutta: they didn’t need to take a boat to Burma or Malaya or Fiji or Trinidad. And what was more, it was free (Ibid 55).”

The power structures and systems of exclusion that exist in societies compel the deprived classes to live in dire situations. When the effects of the climate change make these situations dangerous to live in, these people turn into climate and environmental refugees. Yet, there is a lack of proper policies and a lack of initiatives for the climate refugees, as Cam Walker argues:

“A growing number of researchers are identifying that, without adequate action, there will almost certainly be massive displacement of people around the world due to global warming in coming decades (Walker 2009: 168).”

Walker further makes an observation that climate change has not been perceived much from the perspectives of the human rights, and more focus is given on the “…ecological, economic and political implications…”; and despite the debates and discussions around climate change in the media, the Governmental bodies and the NGOs do not seem to do much for the people affected by the climate changes (Ibid 170). In the novel, Ghosh narrates the inadequate or absence of support systems in place to help the humans and other species in the Sundarbans. The inhabitants of the Sundarbans, in the past and in the present, have been struggling against the forces of nature, against the attacks of tigers, snakes, crocodiles, and estuarine sharks, etc. Fishing, hunting, collecting honey, fruits, and so on, have been the means of livelihoods that lead to deaths from animal attacks or drowning many a times (Ibid 82). The encroachment of the land, that is meant for the other species, leads to a hostile environment that puts both the humans and the wildlife at risk. As one study remarks: “Livelihoods in these villages were already vulnerable, and Cyclone Aila compounded this, resulting in overall low resilience for many people, and more so for women (Martin and Taylor 2015: 6).”

To study and understand the patterns of climate change migrations and refugees, a multidisciplinary approach would prove efficient, as climate change devastations are as much about the degree of destruction as it is about the human stories attached to the destruction.  It is essential to understand how marginalised communities- that share a deep, inter-dependent relationship with nature- operate through interdisciplinary thinking and resilience studies (Hoque, Quinn, and Sallu 2017: 3).  In his non-fictional text, “The Great Derangement (2016)”, Amitav Ghosh urges that fiction and other cultural forms must make climate change a part of the regular narratives, and not look at natural catastrophes as supernatural phenomenon, as these catastrophes are part of our everyday lives now. The novel ends with a calamitous, cyclonic storm taking the life of one of the central characters, Fokir. This tragic event in the novel reflects the realities that strikes the tidal country every once in a while. As lives are lost, the family members of the deceased tend to fall into poverty and destitution. When houses and entire villages are consumed by the rising waters, the displaced people have to move to other places, with the trauma and disorientation of losing their homes and means of survival. It is time that we start the conversations around the climate change and climate refugees, and pressurise policy makers to form concrete strategies and support systems for these displaced individuals. It is essential to form and implement policies that might, to some extent, reduce the conditions that have been leading to precarious climate changes. The questions we need to ask are: when will we counter the power structures which impoverish the marginalised communities of socio-economic privileges and leave them in extremely vulnerable situations to face the burden of climate change alone? When will mainstream literatures and cultural forms talk of the climate change refugees and become a voice for the marginalised communities?

[1] https://www.unhcr.org/en-in/figures-at-a-glance.html

[2] https://whc.unesco.org/en/list/798/

Perry, Chris. Environmental Migration: Policy Gaps and Response Strategies. International Peace Institute, 2011, http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep09485. Accessed 13 Sept. 2020.
Matin, Nilufar and Richard Taylor. “Emergence of human resilience in coastal ecosystems under environmental change.” Ecology and Society, Jun 2015, Vol. 20, No. 2 (Jun 2015) Published by: Resilience Alliance Inc. http://www.jstor.com/stable/26270205
Walker, Cam. 2009. “Climate Refugees and New Understandings of Security.” Climate Change and Social Justice. Series Editor: Jeremy Moss. Melbourne University Press.
Ghosh, Amitav. 2016. “The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable.” Penguin Books.
Ghosh, Amitav. 2004. “The Hungry Tide”. Penguin Books.
Jayawardhan, Shweta. “Vulnerability and Climate Change Induced Human Displacement.” Consilience, 2017, No. 17 (2017), pp. 103-142 Published: Columbia University. http://www.jstor.com/stable/26188784
Hoque, Sonia, Claire H. Quinn and Susannah M. Sallu. “Resilience, political ecology, and well-being: an interdisciplinary approach to understanding social-ecological change in coastal Bangladesh.” Ecology and Society, Jun 2017, Vol. 22, No. 2 (Jun 2017) Published by: Resilience Alliance Inc. http://www.jstor.com/stable/26270129.

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