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Impact Story

Achieving climate justice in India’s Sundarbans

Published on 4 December 2020

Women on the frontline of climate change in India have been making their voices heard and demanding climate justice, with help from a research partnership including the Institute of Development Studies (IDS) and led by Noragric, NMBU and funded by the Research Council of Norway.

Communities in India’s Sundarbans have experienced devastating impacts of cyclones and flooding and are at risk of rising sea levels. They have to contend with these multiple challenges, as well as poverty and marginalisation (both socially, economically and politically) which are all underlying contributors to their vulnerabilities to climate and environmental change. But with the support of researchers, 80 women from the region recently led grass-roots transformations by articulating their struggles through photo stories and sharing them with local leaders. They achieved improvements in local infrastructure, safe drinking water provision and nutrition supplements for their children.

Flooded home in a village in the Sundarbarns region of India

Living with multiple challenges in the Sundarbans

The Indian Sundarbans is an archipelago of 103 islands, of which 54 are inhabited by islander communities. It’s a complex ecosystem that crosses the India and Bangladesh border with a complex network of tidal waterways and is rich in biodiversity, including the world’s largest continuous mangrove forest, and the protected Bengal tiger.

Severe cyclones, such as Cyclone Amphan, flood land, homes and fresh water supplies in the Sundarbans with salty sea water. The result of saltwater flooding is having a devastating impact on the lives of women in the Sundarbans and adding to the multiple challenges and uncertainties they face. The saltwater is causing harm to their health, loss of livelihoods, husbands moving away to find work, children who are undernourished and flooded roads physically cutting them off from access to health centres and preventing their children from getting to school.

A mother wading through flood water taking her child and belongings to higher ground

Women’s empowerment in action

As part of the research project Climate change, Uncertainty and Transformation, 80 women across three areas in the Sundarbans came together to document the challenges they face and advocate for change. The women all had young children and made their living primarily from fishing and crab collecting on the water’s edge. As Muslims, they are also a religious minority and live in highly precarious areas regularly flooded and buffeted by cyclones.

After being trained on the use of the camera equipment they created their own photo stories. They selected group leaders and held fortnightly group meetings to discuss the story they wanted to tell, the issues they most wanted to highlight and the photos to take to best illustrate those.

The project facilitated meetings between the women and local panchayat (village council), civil society representatives and grass-root health workers. They shared with them the problems that the photos exposed – the polluted water they fished that was harming their health, contaminated drinking water, malnourishment caused by crops failing because of saltwater flooded land, and main access roads cut off by floods. And the solutions that they needed.

Outcomes from the meetings have included:

  • An all-weather concrete road was constructed in place of the mud road. This has provided a quicker evacuation route for pregnant women needing emergency treatment at the nearest health centre.
  • The panchayat has started providing midday meals and nutritional supplements to the undernourished children of impoverished families living by the side of the earthen embankments.
  • The issues raised by the women such as the need for a flood shelter were put into the panchayat’s annual plan with budgetary allocation.
  • Emergency funds were released for embankment repairs.
  • Tube wells were built on elevated structures to ensure that the drinking water is available when the areas get flooded.

Through the project, the attitudes of male elders towards the ongoing participation of the women in community decision making also began to change.

Shibaji Bose, researcher for the project, said: “I felt that the important aspect of the PhotoVoice process was how the community elders’ (male) perception of the photovoice women group members changed. They started getting invited to the community meetings on health, education, sanitation. Two of the group members were elected to the panchayat in the next elections.”

Tigers and environmental tensions

One issue not resolved during the project was the tension between protection of the environment and the protection for the women and their livelihoods. The women and their ancestors have depended on the forests and creeks for honey collection, crabs and fishing, but they take pride in only taking what they need. They believe the forest and its animals are a core part of their history, culture and existence but tensions have grown between them and the Forest Department as new environmental protection measures have been introduced which prevent the women from accessing areas of the Sundarbans. It is a common thought among the women that the Government spends more money on protecting the tigers than they do on protecting their children, from harm and undernourishment. The women’s livelihoods are suffering and, with many of the local men having migrated for work, the women alone must tackle these challenges.

Providing vital perspectives for social and environmental justice

IDS continues to undertake research with communities vulnerable to damaging impacts of climate change and navigating environmental justice, including further work with communities living in the Sundarbans through the TAPESTRY project. TAPESTRY focuses on three vulnerable coastal areas of Mumbai, the Sundarbans and Kutch and explores how transformation may arise ‘from below’ in marginal environments with high levels of uncertainty. It’s seeking to build transformative alliances between local communities, NGOs, scientists and state agencies, seeking socially just and ecologically sound alternatives based on local people’s understandings of what positive transformation entails.

More research is needed to understand the realities of the most marginalised communities living on the edge of climate change and environmental conservation, who need responses that are respectful of livelihoods and socially just.

The Climate change, Uncertainty and Transformation was funded by the Research Council of Norway. The project ran from 2015 to 2018 and was delivered in partnership with the Department of International Environment and Development Studies (Noragric), Norwegian Institute for Water Research, Institute of Health Management Research, Jaipur Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, Indian Institute of Technology Bombay, All India Disaster Mitigation Institute, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, University of Sussex and Gujarat Institute of Desert Ecology.

The project explored climate change, uncertainty and transformation from ‘below’ (i.e. the experiences of people and communities on the frontline of climate change) and from ‘above’ (i.e. the experiences and understandings of those in positions of power, such as national or local government) – and how they interact in diverse settings in India. It developed approaches to bridge the different perspectives from ‘above’ and ‘below’, in order to foster more productive and socially just ways of dealing with climate change impacts and social transformation.

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