Treading on Troubled Waters: Exploring Livelihood Vulnerabilities among Coastal Communities in the Indian Part of the Sundarban Delta

Text and Visuals By: Amitrajit Chakraborty 

Editor: Soumya Singhal

The Sundarbans is one of the largest mangrove concentrations in the world. It is characterised by a  rich estuarine [1] and coastal marine ecosystem, awarding the delta with a wide range of natural forest and aquatic resources. The inhabitants of Sundarbans have historically depended on natural resources for their daily subsistence and to earn their livelihood. A large population is involved in fishing, prawn and honey collection, wood cutting and boat making, and allied activities. Agriculture has also been common in the region since the colonial period, when large tracts of mangrove forests were converted into paddy fields [2]. 

Fishing boats and a trawler remain stationed on the mud banks as water retreats during low tide.
Fisher walks smoking ‘beedi’ after unloading the net from the boat.

However, at present, a complex interlinkage of social, economic, political, and ecological factors threatens the livelihood of coastal communities in the Sundarbans. The inhabitants of the Sundarbans are exposed to a wide range of climate change-induced disasters such as cyclones, storms, coastal erosion, rise in sea level, and flooding. With the frequent onslaught of such extreme weather conditions, saline water from the open sea encroaches the agricultural lands, ponds, and freshwater resources, breaching the embankments.  Extreme weather events such as cyclones and storms result in economic losses in agricultural production and also cause severe damage to infrastructure and property built with and on mud. This photo essay explores the vulnerabilities of the livelihood of coastal communities in the Sundarbans in the wake of climate change and the frequent fallout of extreme weather conditions.

A typical fisher's house is made of thatched roofs and mud walls. In some cases, when households achieve upward economic mobility, they incrementally build a brick house with an asbestos roof [3]. Most households mentioned that their roof had blown away during past storms and had to be repaired.
Nets, fish trays, bicycles, and mechanical parts to repair the boats stored at a fisher’s storehouse.
A woman walks on flooded agricultural land.

I observed and interacted with fisherfolk in the small village of Kishoremohanpur in Kultali on the banks of the Matla river. Nirapodo Mandal, a fisherman in the village, told me about the fishing period’s cycle and the fisherfolk’s hardships. The peak season for fishing activities starts from July to late September. Fishermen venture into the buffer zone of the forest area with their motor boats or ‘bhotbhoti’ for 5-8 days. 

Based on the rise and fall of tides (high tide and low tide) during the day, the lunar cycle determines fishing activities. Fishers complete at least two monthly trips. According to the fishers of Kishoremohanpur, each trip costs approximately Rs 4,000, including the cost of 5 litres of diesel, ice blocks to store the fish, food supplies (rice, lentils, oil, salt, sugar, and spices), a stove, and a cylinder. After the catch, fishers usually take the fish to the nearest ‘arot’, a large cold storage unit. The fishers have no bargaining power and are often offered a price below the prevailing market price for their catch by well-off ‘arotdars’ who own the cold storage units or by the middlemen who take the fish to the market. Sometimes, if the catch is not significant, some fishers sell directly to local households. 

The rising cost of commodities and low-profit margins have forced many small fishers to drop out of fishing activity. The financial instability of fishing and the constant risk of the fallout of extreme weather events have caused a significant percentage of the fishing population in the village of Kishoremohanpur to migrate. They settle in nearby towns and cities, sometimes outside West Bengal. They usually take up manual labour in construction sites and brick kilns or fishing in Southern states like Andhra Pradesh, Kerala, and Tamil Nadu. Badal Patra, a fisherman for the last 30 years, said, 

“Earlier, we used to catch enough fish to earn a profit. Nowadays, there are not enough fish in the nearby jungles; you have to go far. The price of diesel keeps on increasing, and everything costs more than what it used to be. We are poor people with basic subsistence. How can we maintain our boats like this? I had to sell my boat and rely on my son who works in Kolkata. There is no end to the woes of people  here.”

Due to stark poverty, women and children often join male members to catch fish in the forest to contribute to household earnings.

A kid rows a boat with his mother during low tide.
A lady prepares her monofil net to catch prawn seeds on the mouth of a tidal creek during low tide.

Apart from financial stability, the decreasing number of fish in rivers is one of the biggest concerns. According to them, anthropogenic factors like the intensification of trawling activity and commercial fishing were major factors in depleting catch. A group of 15-20 fishermen go on a month-long fishing trip in trawlers during monsoon to catch large quantities of fish. Their trawl nets have a small mesh that traps even the smallest fish and aquatic species. Dragging big trawler nets with smaller mesh through the ocean bottom to chase tiger prawns results in an immature catch [4], which further destroys the bottom habitat of prawns, other shellfishes, marine algae, seaweeds, and plankton [5]. Additionally, the baby fishes trapped in the trawler nets do not survive and are dumped back in the ocean. 

“Trawling party is finishing all the fish available in the river. The mesh of their nets is so small that it traps even the  smallest fishes. Once they are trapped, they are dead and dumped back in the rivers and sea. Our nets have bigger mesh which does not catch small fishes,”

said Gouranga Mondal, a fisherman in  Kishoremohanpur. 

Fishers are compelled to trawl despite its fatal outcomes to secure their livelihood instead of venturing to the forests with motorboats. The fishers do not own the trawlers. Trawler owners employ them on contract. If the catch is subpar, fishers are frequently exploited. The decrease in fish forces small fishers to venture deep into the forest with their boats. Occasionally, they mistakenly enter the core area under the Sundarban Tiger Reserve [STR], where fishing activities are prohibited. “The risk is extremely high in our work, and on top of that, if we are caught by the ‘Forest babus’ [Forest officials], we have to pay hefty fines or give away part of our catch to them. And if one does not have the Boat License Card [BLC], their boat will be taken away right there,” added Gouranga Mandal. With many fishers unaware of the rules, they run into various issues about fishing permits with the state’s Forest Department. The state follows a fortress conservation model in protecting the large mangrove base [6], with the Royal  Bengal Tiger getting the highest protection. The fortress conservation model is a biodiversity conservation model that locates any kind of human intervention as a threat to biodiversity. It is based on the belief that biodiversity can be best preserved by creating protected areas to enable wildlife and marine population growth. 

Although the state has invested in infrastructure to prevent accidents, the villagers and fishermen fall prey to tigers while collecting fish, crabs, or honey in the forest. A  common saying in the villages is that “if a villager dies in a tiger attack, it will not make it to the  news, but if a tiger dies, everyone in the country will get to know about it.” Simultaneously, prolonged depletion of mangrove forest cover due to climate-induced variability has exacerbated human-tiger conflict in the region. According to the villagers of Kishoremohanpur, tiger invasion has become more frequent. A study assessing the change in mangrove extent from 2000 to 2012 found that about 110 km2 of mangrove cover has disappeared within the reserve forest due to soil erosion, a rise in sea level, and an onslaught of extreme weather events [7]. “Nowadays, storms have become frequent. If the forest cover starts to deplete, the tigers will automatically come close to the villages in search of food,” added another fisher.

A fisherman mends his net on the bank of river                        
A fisherman mends his net on the bank of river Thakuran.
A fisher navigates his boat in the mangrove forest,
                                                                                                 prepared for a trip with all the essentials.
A fisher navigates his boat in the mangrove forest, prepared for a trip with all the essentials.
A fisherman stares sharply at the forest as they always have to be alert while venturing into the forest.

The coastal communities are in a precarious position vis-a-vis their socio-economic condition and relation with the biophysical environment, which directly threaten their survival and affect their well-being. Low income from agricultural activities, fishing, and prawn collection restricts communities from investing in proper housing infrastructure for safety during extreme weather events. Since industrial development opportunities are low in the fragile ecological region, along with low levels of education and limited skill development, a significant population of the islands have migrated outside the state of West Bengal in search of work in the informal sector. Frequent storms and cyclones have severely damaged households and property, inflating economic distress and escalating migration. Hence, there is a dire need to create resilient livelihoods that build upon people’s adaptive capacities in ecologically fragile regions vulnerable to climate-induced disasters. The consequent development framework should go beyond an ecocentric approach central to the region’s biodiversity. It must ensure social justice and dignified life for the communities in the Sundarbans. 

Fisherfolk mending their nets after returning from a fishing trip in the village of Kishoremohanpur.


[1] An estuary is a coastal area where one or more rivers meet the sea. The Ganga and Brahmaputra form their estuary in the lower part of West Bengal, and most of this estuarine system is surrounded by Sundarban mangrove forest. This mangrove-based estuarine ecosystem harbours a large number of fin fishes. 

[2] Rathore, V. (2020, June 10). Creating Resilient Livelihoods in the Sundarbans, Sans Embankments. The Bastion.

[3] Asbestos roofs are made up of fibre sheets, metal sheets, or cement sheets aligned slanted. They can not withstand strong winds due to their fragile nature. Commonly referred to as ‘asbestos’. 

[4] Immature catch refers to catching juvenile fish that have not matured yet and can not breed. When caught in the trawler nets, they do not survive and are dumped back into the ocean since they can not be consumed either. Using such trawler nets with small mesh sizes depletes the fish population since the period of growing and breeding is cancelled out.

[5] Das, M. (2009). Impact of commercial coastal fishing on the environment of Sundarbans for sustainable development. Asian Fisheries Science, 22(1), 157-167.

[6] Ghosh, P. (2014). Subsistence and biodiversity conservation in the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, West Bengal, India [Unpublished doctoral dissertation]. University of Kentucky.

[7] Samanta, S., Hazra, S., Mondal, P. P., Chanda, A., Giri, S., French, J. R., & Nicholls, R. J. (2021). Assessment and attribution of mangrove Forest changes in the Indian Sundarbans from 2000 to 2020. Remote Sensing, 13(24), 4957.

[8] Mandal, B., Mukherjee, A. & Banerjee, S. (2013). A review on the ichthyofaunal diversity in mangrove based estuary of Sundarbans. Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries 23, 365–374.

Amitrajit Chakraborty is currently pursuing M.A. in Development from Azim Premji University, Bangalore. His interests are in sociology and documentary photography. His ongoing research focuses on livelihood and biodiversity conservation in the Sundarbans.