Climate Change

Two cyclones and a gas leak: Journey of migrants between urban precariousness and ravaged villages

A report narrates the story of three migrants from Assam and West Bengal who have been uprooted from their hometowns by extreme climate events or industrial accidents

By Shreya Ghosh
Published: Monday 04 January 2021
Photo: Jayanta Basu

Rise in sea level, erosion of river banks, and extreme weather events like droughts, heatwaves, floods, cyclones, soil degradation, and erratic monsoons have induced seasonal and various other kinds of migration. But since climate-related migration continues to be categorised as ‘economic migration’, it lacks the desired focus in academic and public discourse.

These migrants join the precarious urban poor and continue to live with resource constraints and hazardous livelihoods. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic has exposed some aspects of this displacement, though climate change and other environmental factors that contribute to it are absent from how we understand the lives of migrants who return to their hometowns and their insecure lives ahead.

A recent report by Migrant Workers Solidarity Network, a network of trade unionists, students, academicians and grassroots organisers, highlight some aspects of this displacement. The following is an excerpt from a report titled Citizens and the Sovereign: Stories from the Largest Human Exodus in Contemporary Indian history.

From Kancheepuram to Baghjan 

Dhunu Gogoi, 17, and nine other girls from Assam worked in a garment factory in Kancheepuram, Tamil Nadu. The group of young girls had joined work in January 2020, after receiving basic skilling in Guwahati from the Assam government for two months.

When they returned during lockdown to their homes near Baghjan, they found their region burning in a ‘gas blast-affected region’. Oil India Limited’s rig in the Dibru-Saikhowa bioreserve had begun leaking on May 27 and exploded into a massive fire on June 9. Several villages around the area had to be vacated.

Just a week earlier, in a special video conference, the union Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change had okayed further drilling in Baghjan’s pristine forests which house several extinct species. After several contested dilutions in environmental protection laws were rushed through during the lockdown — in fact, on the very day of its announcement — once again, the familiar promise of ‘generating local employment’ had been trotted out to justify this devastation of natural habitat.

In reality, while much of Baghjan’s flora and fauna may have gone extinct, the people have been forced to migrate. Perhaps, just like Dhunu and her co-workers, they are also forced to work in far-off regions for twelve hours a day, six days a week and a measly Rs 7,000 a month — the girls say that they had to work night shifts however sick or unwilling.

Dhunu’s work stopped when the lockdown was announced but resumed two months later, despite the pandemic worsening in Tamil Nadu. She wanted to leave but her employer threatened her with dire consequences. An internal production stoppage at the factory in June allowed Dhunu and twenty other girls who wanted to leave to contact a local NGO. The company administration objected when the plan was caught. Eventually, ten managed to leave with Dhunu among them.

A constant din from the ongoing gas leak and periodic trembles in the ground was experienced by Dhunu even after reaching Baghjan. From the clutches of pandemic, insecurity and her employer’s coercion in Kancheepuram, she and her friends had returned to a flood-ravaged Assam and an oil blast-affected village. In October, it has been four months since their return but they have not been able to find any work. No support from the government has been forthcoming, says Dhunu.

Having passed only high school, not many opportunities are coming their way and they cannot afford further education. Some of the girls in her group who returned have gotten married because they did not want to go back to Tamil Nadu and no work is available in Assam. The rest are looking for a job or even an unpaid internship in whichever sector will take them.

On June 21, a massive nationwide uproar forced Assam's State Pollution Control Board to issue a closure notice to all of Oil India Limited’s operations in Baghjan. Investigations revealed that the company had been operating in several blocks without valid environmental clearances. The closure notice was withdrawn three days after it was issued. It is said that this is the only path available for the north eastern state to catch up with the rest of the country. In fact, this is what rulers have said ever since British colonisers took over the state’s resources and livelihoods.

From Bangalore to Amphan

Sk Milon, from West Medinipur district in West Bengal, had been working away from his village since when he was very young. First he worked in Metiabruz, Howrah, then he shifted to Mumbai in 2008 and, finally, reached Bangalore in 2011.

Milon and his co-workers live in a room in Bangalore which also doubles as a factory. Their salaries stopped from March 23. They were told to arrange money from home and get going.

Milon and 30 others, from various different districts of West Bengal, first filled a form for the Shramik Special trains. Getting no response, they tried booking a bus. Bus owners said it would cost Rs 7,000 per person, that is, over more than two lakh rupees for all of them. Their economic dilemma, however, ended when Cyclone Amphan hit parts of West Bengal and Odisha and the bus pass was withdrawn.

In a first, Milon and his co-workers tried booking a flight. All of them called home for the fare, which was amounting to roughly the same as the bus. A day before the flight, they were informed that the flight too had been cancelled. Meanwhile, a dalaal [tout] contacted them back, promising to arrange tickets for them on Shramik Specials. Milon had tried filling the form himself but had given up after multiple failures. They paid ₹600 per person to get on board the train. None of this would have been possible without the tout, Milon says.

But reaching home was only half the story. It had been blown away by Amphan. Back home, according to Milon, ‘I didn’t get any recovery money. But my distant cousin’s house did. Many people got it. Some got from Rs 5,000 to Rs 20,000. Whoever had made a setting with the BDO did. Those who didn’t, never saw the money.’

Investigative reports by Indian Express reveal massive misappropriation of funds by political bigwigs in the name of cyclone relief. Powerful members of gram panchayats, panchayat samitis and zilla parishads in cyclone-affected districts from across party lines had cashed in on the crisis. Several of them were expelled from both the ruling and opposition parties over the coming days. Despite a survey enquiry team going to his village, Milon feels that the money was not distributed according to the extent of actual destruction. Whoever could lobby better got the relief.

Meanwhile, Milon’s contractor in Bangalore who had sent everyone packing has begun selectively taking workers back now. After braving cancelled flights, inflated ticket prices and district administrations for basic relief, he is looking for another contractor now to go back to Bangalore and resume work as soon as possible. That is the only relief now available.

Between Aila and Amphan in Sunderbans

Kamal Gayen, from Bhimnagar, Sunderbans, first migrated out of his village when super cyclone Aila hit his village in May 2009. Gayen says that before Aila, not many youth used to migrate out of nearby villages. ‘We used to know the few who went out for work, they used to be very less in numbers. Aila changed it all.’ There was a mass exodus of youth migrating out of their villages after Aila. The land was no longer cultivable for three or four years after the cyclone, Gayen says. Even to repair the houses devastated and feed their families, young people had to migrate out.

Kamal, then 26 years old, moved out within a few months of Aila. Leaving his family behind, he moved to Bangalore in 2009 itself. He took up work in a plastic manufacturing workshop for a monthly wage of merely Rs 2,200.

It took a year and a half for Gayen to rebuild his home back in Bhimnagar with his savings. He is sure that, had he stayed back in Sunderbans after Aila, even that would not have been possible.

A decade later, Gayen was now earning around Rs 10,000 monthly, having moved into Bangalore’s burgeoning garment sector. But the cost of living was very high in the city — a third of his salary went on rent and another third to sustain himself. He would be able to send Rs 3,000 to Rs 4,000 home every month to his wife, parents and child. Over the years, he planted and grew a few fruit trees and got his house in order, though, for the most part, it still remained kachha.

From March, with lockdown enforced, Gayen got work only intermittently in Bangalore. Eventually, he lost his job. In May 2020, another super cyclone, Amphan hit Sunderbans. He returned to his Amphan-ravaged home just a few days after the cyclone. He has been unable to return to work till now. The job in Bangalore is no more — someone else has been taken in Gayen’s place.

Gayen says that most who had migrated from Sunderbans have not been able to return to work yet. Trains are running infrequently now and everyone has to choose between a bus or flight, both of which are very expensive. A train would have earlier taken around Rs 700 to Rs 800 but the same journey now costs close to Rs 6,000. ‘Everyone is calculating whether to spend that amount on travelling for work or on immediate reconstruction costs,’ Gayen says.

Gayen is now trying to fix his house. The crops are gone once again and the fruit trees have fallen. But he knows that he will have to move out eventually.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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