I met the Sundarbans as an angsty teenager, loyal to the possibilities of sweeping transformations. I first made acquaintance with her through Amitav Ghosh, as his Hungry Tide traversed across lives and memories of the island country, poetic in its chaos and terrifying in its beauty.
I learnt stories of her through women in shelter homes, who were once betrayed by lovers and deserted in the back lanes of Sonagachi, a red-light area in Kolkata, West Bengal. I read of boys pushed into adulthood, as their lands choke with too much salt. I remember her from Baba’s overexposed photos, taken on relief missions after Cyclone Aila devoured homes and lives. Her islands unmade in moments, as storm after storm ravaged through the veins of the world’s largest contiguous mangrove ecosystem.
And though I had filled cloud storages with reports, figures, and tables predicting the inevitability of her fall, nothing prepared me for the devastation that lay before me in the wake of Cyclone Amphan at Kumirmari, one of the remotest islands of Sundarbans in the Gosaba block of South 24 Parganas district.
Roughly three weeks earlier, on 20 May 2020, Cyclone Amphan had made landfall and flooded coastal communities, pushing water up to 15 kms inland. The IMD recorded winds of 150-160 km/hr, and 1,200 of the 4,263 sq. kms of the mangrove forests had been destroyed by the Category 5 super cyclone. 86 people died and around 10 million people became homeless in the fiercest cyclone the region had witnessed in a century. The state estimated losses of Rs. 1 lakh crore. No accounting was done, however, for the losses borne outside the spectrum of numbers.
I accompanied a team of NGOs based out of Kolkata and Hooghly to Kumirmari for relief work. The motorized boat left a busy Godkhali ferry ghat and veered its way into the vastness of the river dotted with islands battered by the storm. The beating of the rain against the river muffled the voices calling out to relief boats in hopes of aid, which for many, had still not arrived from the government or civil society networks.
For as far as we could see, broken embankments, fallen trees and demolished homes continuously appeared over the three-hour ride. As our boat reached the island of Kumirmari (deriving its name from Kumir, Bengali for crocodiles), hundreds of women, who had been left behind as adult male members migrated in search of livelihoods, stood ankle-deep in mud, with utensils that had survived the storm and makeshift cloth bags salvaged from the remains of sarees. The lives they had strenuously rebuilt after Cyclone Aila of 2009 had been dismantled in hours as their houses broke down, savings were lost and fields submerged under saline water.
The headmaster of the local school organized the distribution in the next couple of hours as volunteers filled bags with grains, pulses, oils, menstrual care products, and other such essentials. At sunset, as we wrapped up for the day, an aged woman, looking blankly at the sea that eats away at her island, asked, “Amra kobe jabo, ma?” (When do we leave, mother?)
As cyclones and storms increase in frequency, exacerbated by anthropogenic climate change, more adult men and teenage boys migrate from the tidal country* in search of livelihood; leaving behind women and girls as first responders to disasters. Yet, international climate negotiations until very recently eluded even the cursory lip service to gender-related conversations.
A growing body of scholarship and top-level diplomatic engagements have now started acknowledging the disproportionate vulnerability of women to climate change. This stems from factors like higher proportions of being in poverty, lesser access to basic human rights and facing systematic violence that exacerbates during situations of instability.
There is a growing consensus on the need to intensify women’s leadership in climate decision-making. Long-term mitigation and adaptation strategies are steadily accounting for the socio-cultural embeddedness of women in climate-vulnerable areas.
Even as global discourses advocate for greater women’s representation in climate dialogues, the conversation in Indian policy-making seems eerily silent. Our National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) of 2008 was entirely bereft of a gender dimension and few attempts have been made since then to include grassroot engagement from women most affected by such changes.
Closer to the tidal country, West Bengal’s State Action Plan on Climate Change has taken a similar direction with little to show for women’s participation in its design and implementation processes. Long after the boats disappear beyond their horizon, the women of Kumirmari, like their sisters across Sundarbans, will continue to live daily through the impacts of climate change. The onus now is upon us, to acknowledge the crucial role they can and must play as stakeholders, partners in decision making, educators and experts.
The attempts, however, to alter course for our decision-making bodies seem painfully few even as vulnerable communities across the world bear testimony to how climate justice pathways will be envisaged by women standing at the frontline.