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Adapting to Climate Change–induced Migration

Women in Indian Bengal Delta

Asish Kumar Ghosh was and Sukanya Banerjee ( and Farha Naaz ( are at the Centre for Environment and Development, Kolkata and are part of the Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation project.

Vulnerable groups, especially women, bear the disproportionate burden of the impact of natural disasters induced by climate change. In the wake of the destruction wreaked by cyclone Aila in 2009, about half the men from the most affected blocks of the Indian Sundarbans, a region extremely vulnerable to climate change, migrated to other parts of the country in search of livelihood. The women were left alone to shoulder the entire burden of running the household and deal with the disastrous effects of the cyclone. The impact of male migration on the women of this region and the role of women’s self-help groups in helping them cope with the socio-economic distress caused by the cyclone are examined.

This work is a part of the Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation project, carried out under the Collaborative Adaptation Research Initiative in Africa and Asia programme, which is jointly funded by the United Kingdom’s Department for International Development (DFID) and Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC). The views expressed in this work are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the DFID and IDRC.

The Indian Bengal delta (IBD) is a part of the Ganga–Brahmaputra–Meghna (GBM) delta, the largest delta in the world. The IBD (Figure 1, p 64) is composed of 51 community development blocks (CDBs) spread across the districts of North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas in West Bengal. The IBD, located within the 5 metre contour line,1 is susceptible to high-intensity storm surges, cyclones, coastal flooding and erosion. Hence, it is considered to be one of the most vulnerable deltas in the world.

The region is already experiencing significant effects of climate change. A low-lying island called Lohachara has already undergone complete submergence (Hazra et al 2002: 8), while the island of Ghoramara is likely to meet a similar fate, considering that 80% of its area has disappeared under water over the last three decades (Ghosh et al 2014: 220). In the past 30 years, more than 30,000 people have become homeless or been displaced due to the adverse impacts of climate change on the Indian Sundarbans region, a part of the IBD. This region consists of 19 CDBs.

Between 1982 and 2005, migrants from the islands of Lohachara and Ghoramara were resettled on Sagar island by the West Bengal government. The planned resettlement by the state government was carried out between 1981 and 1991. However, the compensation provided to the migrants (land was allocated to each of the emigrant families), especially the ones who migrated between 1986 and 1991 (Ghosh et al 2014: 222), was extremely inadequate. Some of them did not even receive compensation.

A field visit to Sagar island2 in April 2017 revealed that the resettled people were still bereft of basic amenities such as electricity. It has been estimated that 1.2 million people living in the eight vulnerable CBDs of the Indian Sundarbans will be compelled to migrate from their original habitat between 2030 and 2050 due to rise in sea levels (Danda et al 2011: 5–20). The people of this region are living under the constant threat of climate change–induced disasters like cyclones, storm surges and coastal flooding. Their safety and socio-economic security continue to hang in the balance because the government has not undertaken remedial protective measures such as reconstruction of earthen embankments (Dey et al 2016: 8).

In such a situation, it is relevant to note the manner in which women have been adapting to the changing climate in this vulnerable delta. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, adaptation is defined as “adjustments in human and natural systems, in response to actual or expected climate stimuli or their effects, that moderate harm or exploit beneficial opportunities” (IPCC 2001). In the context of this paper, adaptation in the IBD refers to women’s participation in self-help group’s (SHGs) as a measure to cope with devastating consequences of the cyclone Aila.

In the past few decades, substantial efforts have been made towards the achievement of gender equality, and the importance of women’s empowerment to the success of development programmes has been recognised. In rural India, microfinance interventions through SHGs have given women economic power and considerably reduced their dependence on men (Husain et al 2014; Samling and Ghosh 2013: 201). The SHG movement in West Bengal started during the early 1990s through the efforts of various government-aided programmes as well as the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) (Samling and Ghosh 2013: 203). The state government established the Department of SHGs and Self Employment in 2006. This department undertook two initiatives for the upliftment of SHG members: training of members in different skills such as tailoring, soft toy making, floriculture, etc; and the introduction of an accident insurance scheme for all SHG members in the state (Government of West Bengal 2017).

Research Focus and Methodology

This paper focuses on the impact of male migration on women in the aftermath of cyclone Aila, which struck the Indian Sundarbans in May 2009. It analyses whether the members of women self-help groups (WSHGs) are better equipped to shoulder responsibilities of their households in the absence of male members.

To contextualise this, global climate change experts consider that the cyclones and storm surges in the Bay of Bengal since 2009 have been triggered by unpredictable changes in rainfall patterns, glacial melting, sea level and sea surface temperature rise, linked with the rise in greenhouse gas emissions (Dey et al 2016: 8; Ghosh et al 2014: 25). These include cyclone Sidr (2007), Nargis (2008), Aila (2009) and Phailin (2013). This article deals only with the impact of cyclone Aila as the other three did not cause as much devastation. Cyclone Aila had major, long-term adverse impacts on the people. It caused salinisation of agricultural fields and waterbodies, endangered food security and led to large-scale displacement and male migration (Kar 2016: 261).

The area of study (Table 1) has been selected from the most vulnerable blocks of the IBD identified in a World Wide Fund for Nature-India report (Danda et al 2011: 37–39) on the basis of rate of erosion, condition of mud embankments, profile of dwelling houses and their vulnerability to saline water intrusion (Ghosh 2014: 26). Other available research on these vulnerable blocks in the IBD has also been considered.

The methodology used for the study includes desk review of published and unpublished documents along with field visits carried out by the research team of Centre for Environment and Development (CED), a Kolkata-based organisation, to the five vulnerable blocks of IBD as mentioned in Table 1. Data was collected through focus group discussions and a household survey, which were carried out between 2012 and 2017. Information has also been gathered through community-based organisations (CBOs) and NGOs in the Aila-affected areas with whom the CED networks.3 Areas where WSHGs were functional before Aila struck are compared with areas where WSHGs were not present or functional.

Impacts of Cyclone Aila

On 25May 2009, the devastating cyclone Aila caused unprecedented destruction in the Indian Sundarbans with a wind velocity of 125 km per hour. In one day, over 1,300 km of the total of 3,000 km earthen embankments were washed away and enormous damage to property and loss of human lives and livestock took place. The Government of West Bengal and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) carried out a damage impact assessment, and it was reported that there were a total of 70 deaths. Approximately, 9,20,000 houses were damaged in the area (Chakraborty 2016; Suvankar Chakraborty 2015). Cultivable fields were affected by salt water intrusion.

In Ghoramara island, agricultural lands were damaged because the surface water salinity increased by 25%, and the production suffered a serious setback for over 10 months (Mukherjee 2016: 253). Farmers were the worst sufferers, since the cyclone occurred during the harvesting season. As women do 70% of the farm work, the recurring cyclones have increased their hardship. In some areas, salinisation of fresh water ponds led to large-scale fish kill, while in others, intrusion of salt water into fresh water tube wells made it impossible to use water for diluting dry baby food; a supply of 50,000 water purification tablets from UNICEF, facilitated by an NGO, enabled the children to avail themselves of essential nutrition.4

With rising sea temperatures, the magnitude of cyclones has increased, evidenced by the pattern of heavy rainfall and extensive flooding. The seas around the Sundarbans are rising at a pace which is double the global average, and it is feared that a large part of this region will be submerged by 2050. The efforts towards mangrove conservation in the region have resulted in a marginal increase of the mangrove cover by just 1% (MoEFCC 2015: 64). This does not bode well for the people of the region as they are entirely dependent on the mangroves as the first line of defence against cyclones and storm surges. Cyclone Aila completely destroyed 1,300 km of earthen embankments, and so far only some portions have been rebuilt. But, even these reconstructed embankments are being eroded by the invading sea waters.

Vulnerability of Women

Though women’s vulnerability has been a focus of both policy and research in the context of climate change (Adger et al 2007: 730; Parikh 2009: 49–53; Rao et al 2017: 1), what is missing is the focus on women’s agency and adaptive capability. This paper tries to fill that gap.

In the context of climate change, an assessment of social vulnerability in Baliara village on the Mousani island in the IBD shows that women are more vulnerable than men. In times of disasters, women tend to put themselves forward in order to protect their children and the elderly. Also, in the case of displacement due to disasters, women have little opportunity in terms of alternative livelihoods, which leads to wage discrimination, least paid jobs as well as sexual harassment and exploitation in the workplace. Divorced women or widowed women with children find it difficult to migrate, since leaving behind their young ones is not an option and migrating with them poses a lot of problems (Chakraborty 2016: 179).

Some media reports suggest that women in the Indian Sundarbans are increasingly migrating to the red-light district of Kolkata due to climate change–induced distress. According to Samarajit Jana, an epidemiologist who set up a collective that fights for the rights of sex workers, the number of women who moved to Kolkata’s red-light district increased by 20% to 25% in the aftermath of cyclone Aila (Verchot et al 2016). Many of these sex workers identified themselves as bhasha (environmental refugees). Women struggle to get even basic necessities such as sanitary napkins and baby food in the aftermath of natural disasters. They are often bereft of a safe place to live and end up being susceptible to sexual violence. Thus, they have no choice but to migrate to slums in cities, where it is difficult to get work and live in derogatory conditions without any recognition of their rights. Women who are forced to enter into prostitution in order to look after their family and children face social ostracism and the threat of sexual exploitation at the hands of their clients, and fall prey to sexually transmitted diseases like HIV/AIDS (Verchot et al 2016).

Male Migration and Impact on Women

Recent global estimates show that 25.4 million people are displaced due to disasters annually (Verchot et al 2016). The Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, a humanitarian organisation recognised by the United Nations(UN), states that the risk of displacement due to extreme weather events has doubled since the 1970s. However, it is to be noted that these figures do not include displacement due to the effects of climate change, like rising sea levels, drought and land degradation (Verchot et al 2016). There is no comprehensive data on displacement after Aila, but recent studies in the region have documented the migration, particularly of men, after the cyclone. For this particular study, migrants are considered as people who have migrated to a place for a year or more to earn a livelihood.

A post-Aila survey in four villages of the Lahiripur gram panchayat, Gosaba block conducted by a local CBO with help from the authors, revealed that there was large-scale migration of able-bodied males from these areas after the cyclone struck. Reportedly, 50% of the able-bodied males5 migrated to seek profitable employment, while their families comprising elderly parents, wives and children were left behind. The data collected by the CBO shows that a total of 30% migrants moved to Kolkata or other peri-urban areas of West Bengal, while 70% of them travelled to 10 other states of India, including the union territory of Andaman and Nicobar Islands (Table 2, p 65). Another finding of the survey was that although these male migrants sent regular remittances to their families, they could only visit them once or twice a year (Ghosh 2015: 119). As a result of the migration of the male members of the families, women had to take up the entire responsibility of running their households, and they turned into decision-makers overnight. Besides taking care of the children and elderly, they were now saddled with additional responsibilities.

Table 2 shows that a total of 3,014 people migrated from the area where the study was conducted and, out of these, a total of 2,566 were male migrants and 448 were women. This reveals that the migration ratio of males and females after Aila was quite skewed. The migration of men can be attributed to the fact that in a majority of cases, men, as household heads, have the primary responsibility for earning an income for the family. The lack of livelihood opportunities after the cyclone led the male members to migrate alone to seek employment. The rest of the household members stayed back since family migration was not encouraged by recruitment agents. Moreover, being marginal and small landholders, these men were apprehensive of leaving the village along with their families as they were afraid that their land could be grabbed by unscrupulous people with strong political connections in their absence. Further, rural family traditions do not encourage women to move out since they have to look after their elderly in-laws and children. In addition to all these factors, the uncertainty regarding their physical safety and security in the receiving areas also discourages these women from migrating.

However, as a result of the migration of the male members, women had to take up the entire responsibility of running their homes. This was revealed in a survey of 100 households in eight villages of Namkhana and Gosaba blocks, and Sandeshkhali block II.6 Almost every household reported a loss of domesticated animals and being marooned without any food supplies for days after the cyclone. There was also loss of and extensive damage to property. Migration to other places in the state and country was resorted to as a coping mechanism. This migration had three different patterns: (i) permanent migration to a place of work; (ii) temporary migration with limited visits to place of origin; (iii) seasonal migration where the migrant oscillates between workplace and place of origin every few months.

A Changing Social Construct

For the last three decades, seasonal migration of men to metro cities from these vulnerable blocks has been occurring. They mostly work as unskilled labourers or artisans in textile or jewellery factories in the receiving areas and visit their homes during the harvesting season. Such emigration increased manifold after the devastation caused by Aila in 2009. One of the villages in Sandeshkhali block II, Shitola, which suffered the maximum devastation due to Aila, reported 55% migration. In comparison, people from only 22% of the households in Namkhana and Gosaba blocks migrated. This was because the destruction caused by the cyclone was not as severe in these villages. Approximately 44% of the total number of respondents surveyed migrated to various parts of the country for a specific period of time, which varied from two months to almost a year.

Overall, in Sandeshkhali block II, every third household has a member who has migrated. Some women have migrated along with their husbands to work in destinations like Kolkata, Delhi, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. These migrants work as daily wage labourers, construction workers or workers in textile mills. According to local villagers, there was sufficient agricultural and fish production for self-consumption and sale earlier, but the production dwindled after Aila struck. Although most of the households have rainwater harvesting ponds, production is only adequate for self-sustenance and not for commercial purposes. Local villagers also reported cases of trafficking of women, but no official records were found in regard to this (Mondal 2016: 27–37). The threat of getting trafficked, however, remains high both for women and children (Sinha and Bhattacharyya 2009: 15 and 16).

In three hamlets of Satjelia, an island in Gosaba block, the research team found that the people continue to suffer from the consequences of the cyclone due to the damage caused to the social, economic and civic infrastructure. After the natural disaster, the region remained waterlogged for two to three months, creating health hazards and difficulty in transport and communication. The agricultural fields were covered by a thin layer of salt and waterbodies also became saline. The food supply suffered a hit due to agricultural failure, resulting in inflation. The migration of male members to the suburbs of Kolkata such as Sonarpur, Baruipur, Kestopur, Bagmari and also to other cities of India such as Chennai and Mumbai was witnessed. Some people also migrated to Singapore and Dubai in search of work. All these migrants started working as unskilled labourers in these new destinations.

According to the people who were interviewed, migration, especially in the wake of cyclone Aila, has led to family disintegration and social insecurity. Women were left to fend for themselves as household heads, and that added an extra burden on them. Many children had to drop out of school as their parents lost their livelihood, resulting in increased poverty. This study indicates that the cyclone has completely altered the lives of the people of the Indian Sundarbans (Kar 2016: 257, 261–62). It was observed in the field that migration had affected households headed by single women enormously and in multiple ways but not always negatively. Some women turned to WSHGs which increased their earnings and their independence.

In Kultali7 and Patharpratima blocks in the IBD, all the households had at least one male migrant. A total of 96.15% of migrants from these households had migrated to different cities and states of India in search of livelihood in the aftermath of the cyclone. All the migrants were male members in the age group of 17–40 years. Another striking finding of the study was that 20% of the migrants migrated to towns or cities in West Bengal, whereas 80% moved to other states of India, including Gujarat, Kerala and Karnataka. A changing social construct is visible as a result of family disintegration and a sudden shift in the profession of the people (Chakrabartty 2016: 285).

The migrants, who were mostly agriculturists and fishers, now had to work as class four employees in hotels, labourers at construction sites and idol-makers in cities. They were exploited, and suffered from physical and psychosocial trauma as they could visit their families only once or twice a year. They started contracting HIV/AIDS while living in cities. The women in these families are facing tough times because they have to run their households alone and decision-making lies solely with them. Also, they are at risk of contracting life-threatening diseases like HIV/AIDS from their husbands (Paul 2017). Male migration in large numbers has created a temporary demographic change which has placed these women in a more vulnerable position. Their responsibilities have suddenly changed, but they have shown resilience and tried to adapt with support from the WSHGs.

WSHGs as an Adaptation Strategy

Women’s collectives are an important agent of change, carrying the potential to enhance confidence and self-reliance among rural women (Das and Baishya 2015: 1). In Uttar Pradesh, as a strategy to rectify women’s exclusion from decision-making in relation to access to land and the use of productive resources such as seeds, SHGs and their federations have been encouraged to introduce stress tolerant rice varieties (Subash et al 2016: 88). In Maharashtra, farmers have found SHGs helpful as an adaptive measure. Through these collectives, they have “easy access to credit and in some cases knowledge to address yield losses due to climate variability” (Singh et al 2012: 5). Though WSHGs have been around for a long time in West Bengal, they are not as well established as they are in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, where the states have played an important role in mobilising women. This paper examines the effectiveness of WSHGs in helping women adapt to climate change.

The study undertaken by the CED in Pathankhali island (Ghosh 2017: 11–12) revealed that Biprodaspur (Biprodaspur gram panchayat) has over 50 WSHGs which are extremely dynamic. The first WSHG in Biprodaspur was started in 2007, two years before cyclone Aila struck, and was formed with the initiative of the community. Inspired by its success, several others have come up during the last decade, offering both microcredit and micro-saving, with little assistance from the state government. Earnings through beadwork helped the women cope during unfavourable situations. They could also rely on themselves since any WSHG member in need of money could avail of loans at a rate of only 2% interest, while the rate for outsiders was 3%. These groups also act as facilitators between the villagers involved in beadwork and the middlemen and agencies who bring work to them. While some groups have remained in place after Aila, many others have not. In Kacharipara, the WSHGs collapsed due to lack of funds and other internal issues, but they have left a positive impact on women by giving them the confidence which they lacked before the formation of these groups.

Some empirical studies, conducted a few years after Aila had hit the Sundarbans, have demonstrated that WSHGs played an important role in helping women cope with the consequences of the natural disaster. A comparative analysis of the male and female SHGs was undertaken in Mathurapur II block of the IBD in 2012 (Samling and Ghosh 2013: 206–08), three years after cyclone Aila devastated the region. The WSHG members stated that the promotion of self-reliance and self-empowerment were the main objectives behind the formation of these groups. Available data indicate that there has been a considerable improvement in the lives of the people after the formation of WSHGs, which have enabled them to cope with the adverse impacts of cyclone Aila. The members could negotiate and access loans from the WSHGs, and utilise the same for economic activities. The cumulative income generated by the members changed their standards of living. All the members were firm in their objective to educate their children. The number of cases of domestic violence significantly decreased in the village through the intervention of WSHGs. These groups also followed a rigorous system of accounting and keeping meticulous financial records (Samling and Ghosh 2013: 206–08).

Another study conducted in Sandeskhali block II in 2015 reflects the positive impact of WSHGs on the community.8 The members of WSHGs save regularly, have their own bank accounts and make deposits into these accounts. The increase in household income of the members has resulted in the acquisition of assets such as solar home lights, mobile chargers, etc, by more than 50% households. The WSHGs—already established before the occurrence of cyclone Aila in 2009—enabled the women to access additional benefits to adapt to changing conditions in the IBD (Shreya Chakraborty 2015: 9–10). Night classes organised by NGOs on various topics have provided new skills to the members.

The majority of WSHGs in the IBD were initially promoted by NGOs who worked within the community and through CBOs. However, government agencies now appear to be playing a predominant role in encouraging and promoting them (Samling and Ghosh 2013: 21). Overall it can be observed that WSHGs are playing an important role as members of these groups are better equipped to adapt to the changes. They are helping women develop alternate livelihoods and earn extra income. The WSHGs have provided these women, living in vulnerable areas adversely affected by climate change, a positive and supportive space for developing strategies to cope with male migration.

A general assessment is that women belonging to families where the male members have migrated have largely been able to take on the role of household heads efficiently and with confidence. This confidence can be attributed to the WSHGs which have been working in the block for years. It shows that these groups can go a long way in empowering women and help them establish themselves in decision-making roles (Paul 2017).

In a comparative analysis of 20 male and female SHGs located in 15 different villages of Mathurapur block I and II, carried out by the authors in 2012, it was seen that many men and women had been working in agriculture and fisheries before Aila struck. With agricultural fields salinated and most men having migrated, women were left to undertake locally available work, ranging from traditional to modern. Some women engaged in zari work (a type of gold thread decoratively used in Indian clothing) through the WSHGs. Focus group discussions with the women revealed that zari work is a tedious job and a lot of labour goes into it. However, they receive meagre payments due to the presence of middlemen and their inaccessibility to the markets.

The WSHGs also prepared mid-day meals for children in local government schools. It was observed that WSHG members generated income as service providers (giving tables, chairs, lights, marquees, etc, on rent) during regular village events. They also purchased paddy on a large-scale at low prices, stored the produce and sold the same at a higher price with market prices changed. Their income ranged from ₹300 to ₹1,500, and in a few cases went up to ₹20,000. As income for most women was very little, many of them resorted to loans. As these were taken from banks linked to the WSHGs, the loan interest was only 2% and was easy to repay. Many women could repay it within a limited time.

The intervention of NGOs/CBOs was very critical as not only did they introduce the concept of SHGs to the community, but also built their capacity to hold meetings at regular intervals and manage its functioning (Samling and Ghosh 2013: 204, 207–08). They also encouraged the SHG members to save and pay back their loans on time. Four years after the occurrence of cyclone Aila, a majority of WSHG members had achieved economic freedom, and established some control over family resources or assets. Women’s involvement in household decision-making with regard to purchase or sale of assets, family savings, children’s education or marriage and casting of their vote during elections increased after they joined these groups (Reddy et al 2012: 51–52). In a society where women rarely have independence, access to land and other assets, and the right to mobility, this has been a remarkable change.


Ahmed and Fajber (2009) argue that “making adaptation policies and programmes sensitive to gender issues does not simply mean ‘adding on’ a concern for women. It also requires a nuanced understanding of gendered forms of vulnerability, and a stronger commitment of resources—financial, technical, and human—to address specific gendered priorities.” In this context, it can be argued that SHGs in the IBD have embraced the concept of gender mainstreaming. They have paved the way for economic independence of rural women, and have thus contributed substantially towards improvement of their socio-economic condition, resulting in the eradication of poverty and helping them adapt to the changing conditions.

The WSHGs covered by the study were run by NGOs as an alternative to mainstream financial institutions to reach the weaker sections of society. These groups are effectively assisting the community to adapt to climate change by generating extra income for the families. Hence, in the present climate change scenario, it is becoming increasingly necessary to strengthen the WSHGs so that in the context of large-scale male migration, the vulnerability of women can be reduced to a considerable extent.


1 Under the “Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation” (DECCMA) project, the 5 metre contour has been used to identify the area most vulnerable in the Indian Bengal delta.

2 Two authors of this article visited the Ghoramara resettlement colony in Sagar island in April 2017, where interactions with the resettled community revealed their present living conditions.

3 Field visit data collected by CED researchers/interns:

(i) Clare Lizamit Samling: Role of WSHGs, Mathurapur II, 7–15 November 2012 (published).

(ii) Debapriya Mondal: Post-Aila Migration, Sandeshkhali II, Namkhana and Gosaba, May 2015–January 2016 (unpublished).

(iii) Shreya Chakrabarty: WSHGs, Sandeshkhali II, March 2015 (unpublished).

(iv) Sreya Paul: Post-Aila Migration, Kultali, 2–7 April 2017 (unpublished).

(v) Kusumika Ghosh: Post-Aila Migration and Role of WSHGs, Gosaba, 1–7 June 2017 (unpublished).

4 The supply was facilitated by ENDEV-A Society for Environment and Development in 2009; the assistance was provided to Hingalganj block of Indian Sundarbans in North 24 Parganas.

5 Males between the age of 18 and 45.

6 The study included three different field visits (May 2015, November 2015 and January 2016) by Debopriya Mondal, a CED intern. The study was based on a survey using a purposive sampling method of 100 households. Other methods used to collect data were focus group discussions and case studies.

7 The study was carried out in April 2017 by a CED researcher, Sreya Paul, from the Department of Human Rights, University of Calcutta, under the guidance of Asish Ghosh.

8 The study was carried out by a researcher from the Department of Human Rights, University of Calcutta under the guidance of Asish Ghosh.


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Updated On : 3rd May, 2018


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