Amphan aftermath: Crab trading hit, Sundarbans villagers left to fend for themselves

The cyclone along with COVID-19 lockdown has affected crab catching and trading — a major source of livelihood in Sundarabans 

By Gurvinder Singh
Published: Wednesday 27 May 2020
Agricultural fields submerged in the aftermath of cyclone Amphan, in Sundarbans. Photo: Gurvinder Singh

Days after Cyclone Amphan ripped through south West Bengal on May 20, 2020 — wreaking havoc across several parts, including in Sundarbans — revival has been slow. One of the most severely affected communities has been that of crab farmers and traders.

“We lost our livelihood to cyclone and the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) lockdown. How we will survive with collapsed houses and no income? Our children are sleeping hungry,” said Swapan Mondal (37), a crab catcher at Deulbari village in Sundarbans’ Kultali block.

He lives on the edge of river Makri, a tributary of river Matla. A portion of his house was washed down. “My crab collection records were washed away. It would be difficult to handle the business in the absence of records,” he said.

But Swapan is not alone. At least 90 per cent of the 8,000 villagers depend on crab catching and fishing for livelihood.

Shibash Mondal (50), who resides in the same village, said the cyclone exacerbated the troubles caused by COVID-19 lockdown: “We stopped fishing after we were barred by the administration. We took a loan from private money lenders to feed our families and were waiting for the easing of restrictions. But the cyclone destroyed everything.”

Another farmer said he invested Rs 35,000 in farming, “I was hoping for better returns, but saline water entered my agricultural land and damaged all standing crops. The vegetables are under water. The embankment that prevented the breach of saline water has to be repaired,” said Joydeb Chapadar (65).

Cyclone Aila and Cyclone Bulbul were less ferocious than Cyclone Amphan, according to villagers. “We have never witnessed anything like Amphan before,” said Haripada Chapadar (60), a crab catcher.

Shibhash Mondal with his fishing net. Photo: Gurvinder Singh 

While local non-profits have been distributing dry ration kits to villagers and offering livestock on loans, villagers are sceptical.  

 “A crab farmer can earn Rs 14,000-15,000 during a single trip of 10 days to the forest. Such income is not possible in livestock rearing. The local administration and non-profits have been visiting us with the proposal, but nothing can compensate our income from the forest,” said Shyampada Naskar (50). The non-profits working in the area said the problem started in December, 2019, soon after COVID-19 spread in China.

“The export market started suffering in China in December. It suffered a massive blow after the lockdown was announced. Crab catching is the source of livelihood for the people of Sundarbans,” said Amitava Roy, general secretary, non-profit Lokamata Rani Rashmoni Mission.

“Most of them took loans from private moneylenders at higher rates for survival. The cyclone came as a final nail in the coffin,” Roy added.

Locals repair their houses damaged in the cyclone. Photo: Gurvinder Singh 

The forest department issued licences to around 4,000 locals of Sundarbans for fishing inside the forest without the use of mechanised boats. The people catch crabs and poach wild animals, pointed out Santhosha GR, divisional forest officer, South 24 Parganas.

“The permission is not for commercial purposes. But it is violated often,” he said.

He added that forest department started safe honey initiative, wherein bee boxes were kept inside the forest camps. Around 70 farmers joined the initiative and 44 tonnes of honey produced in the last three months. Such initiatives have to be taken on a larger scale to thwart people from venturing into danger areas of the forest and create alternative livelihood, he said.

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