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Year : 2022  |  Volume : 20  |  Issue : 3  |  Page : 234-244

The ‘Fluid Landscape’ of the Sundarbans: Critically Reviewing the ‘Managed Retreat’ Discourse

Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi, India

Correspondence Address:
Prama Mukhopadhyay
Institute of Social Studies Trust, New Delhi
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Source of Support: None, Conflict of Interest: None

DOI: 10.4103/cs.cs_210_20

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Date of Submission20-Oct-2020
Date of Acceptance27-Jan-2022
Date of Web Publication06-Apr-2022


The Sundarbans, spread across 10,200 sq. km in the lower deltaic region of Bengal, is the world's largest pro-grading delta. Most climatologists acknowledge that this fragile ecosystem, cutting across Bangladesh and India, will bear the brunt of climate change. It is estimated that the region, facing sea level rise and intensification of cyclonic activities, will experience the disastrous effects of global warming; and scientists have been expressing their concerns about the viability of human settlements there in the foreseeable future. In India, some researchers have floated the idea of 'Managed Retreat' of people from certain areas of the deltaic floodplains in a bid to 'conserve the mangroves and the ecosystem' of the Sundarbans. This postulation, first published as the Delta Vision: 2050 for the World-Wide-Fund for Nature India (WWF-India) in 2011, and discussed in the following years, in various platforms and research journals, has been advocating a 'phased and systematic outmigration' (Ghosh 2012) from the region, citing the 'Dutch Room for River' project as an exemplary ideal to be mirrored. This article will try to unpack the impact of this proposal on the local communities, living in tandem with the deltaic landscape for generations, if such a strategy is adopted.

Keywords: conservation, Sundarbans, fluid ecology, policy recommendation, managed retreat, Indigenous knowledge

How to cite this article:
Mukhopadhyay P. The ‘Fluid Landscape’ of the Sundarbans: Critically Reviewing the ‘Managed Retreat’ Discourse. Conservat Soc 2022;20:234-44

How to cite this URL:
Mukhopadhyay P. The ‘Fluid Landscape’ of the Sundarbans: Critically Reviewing the ‘Managed Retreat’ Discourse. Conservat Soc [serial online] 2022 [cited 2023 Mar 24];20:234-44. Available from: https://www.conservationandsociety.org.in//text.asp?2022/20/3/234/342679

   Introduction Top

It's the game of the river, brother

It's the river's game

It's one bank breaks, the other one floats—can't see where it ends

The person I was this morn, beggar in the eve I turn

It's the river's term!

The above couplet sung to me1 by Rasul Gaji, a traditional fisher-folk in the village of Bandhobpur2, in the Gosaba block of South 24 Parganas, best describes life in the ever-changing deltas of the Sundarbans. Through continued interactions with him and others in the village during my doctoral fieldwork between 2017 and 2018, I became aware of the “amphibious autochthon identity” (Bhattacharyya 2018: 7) of the Sundarbans islanders much like the charland people of South Asia studied by Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta (2013).

This article, drawn from my ethnographic research in Bandhobpur, will highlight how the fluid nature of the Sundarbans is fundamental to its identity, and will suggest to look beyond the Cartesian binaries of land and water, human and non-human to make sense of the 'soaked ecology' (Bhattacharyya 2018) of the region to be able to 'conserve' it in the truest sense.

Much like the dynamic character of the pro-grading deltaic Sundarbans, where new islands are formed and old ones are flushed out by the tidal waves, the history of human habitation in the Sundarbans can also be described as 'shifting', breaking the boundaries of a linear trajectory, filled with ruptures and discontinuities.

This article, following the footsteps of academics like Greenough (1998), further developed by Mukhopadhyay (2009) and Jalais (2010), would attempt to question the accepted definition of the Sundarbans, by problematising the unidimensional cartographic imagination of it, borne out of the colonial understanding of the region. It will thereby try to show how such a colonial idea remains the very logical basis on which the contemporary scholars advocating a 'managed retreat'3 of human population from the Sundarbans have been grounding their ideas. This will then help the readers engage with the broader theoretical arguments of 'deep ecology' conservationist ideas that promote such efforts of externalising humans from nature, without acknowledging the ways in which indigenous communities in the global South have evolved with their environment and have been adapting and dealing with climate 'disasters' in their everyday lives. This article based on empirical information collected from the village, especially after the cyclone Amphan, will argue that even though the academic discourse around climate change might be foreign to the local communities residing in the region, their experience and ways of dealing with the same cannot be ignored.

This article therefore not only problematises the theoretical premise on which the 'Managed Retreat' discourse has been taking shape, something that has been also attempted by Mehtta and Bhattacharyya (2020a, b) but moves on to bring out explicitly the inherent challenges of such a policy plan, if implemented, especially in the context of the Indian Sundarbans delta (ISD).

   The Post-Colonial 'Hunter' Top

A day or two after the Amphan hit Bengal, crippling village after village in the hinterlands of the Sundarbans, I came across an article in one of the leading news websites by an author—a well-known researcher and Sundarbans expert, who has been actively advocating a planned and 'managed retreat' of the population of the Sundarbans in order to save the fragile ecosystem from the fury of climate change. The title of the article boldly proclaimed that only the flora and the fauna of the Sundarbans are part of its natural ecosystem while humans are mere 'exotic' appendages4. Such a proposition almost sounded like the colonial administrator, WW Hunter's (1875: 13) description of the region nearly 150 years ago, where as Greenough (1998) wrote that the Sundarbans was “a sort of drowned land, covered with jungle, smitten by malaria and infested by wild beasts.” The earlier mentioned news article, from May 2020, almost painted the 'natural Sundarbans' in similar light.

The author of the news article made it seem like since the people of the Sundarbans were 'exotic' (as they were made to 'settle down' rather late in history by the colonisers), it was them whose lives were affected the most during such hazardous cyclones in the delta, whereas the animals being a part of the 'natural' ecosystem of the region, managed to cope and adapt to the vagaries of the land, with considerable ease. Hence, he asserted that not many animals die during cyclones in the Sundarbans, while humans find themselves suffering. From such an argument the author went on to logically defend his 'resilient rebuilding' strategy which would, apart from other things, mean “making space for the mangroves to migrate further inland” which could only be possible if the people of the Sundarbans are made to “relinquish the space that they currently occupy” (Danda 2020).

Problematic at various levels, the core argument of this article was, however, not something new. The proposal of a 'managed retreat,' by moving people out of 'vulnerable region' was first advanced in the case of the Sundarbans in the form of the Delta Vision: 2050 for the WWF-India in 2011. The proposition has been gaining ground ever since; even though the ideological basis of the proposed plan has been taking shape from a time much earlier as Mukhopadhyay (2009) noted in his fieldwork observations after cyclone Aila in 2009. In an article published by him within months of the cyclone, he noted how it seemed that the local government was of the opinion that the islands were primarily a place for forests and wildlife, whereas the humans were made to settle down by the British; he wrote, “it sounds as though people in the present day Sundarbans might as well be prepared to pay for the mistakes that the early settlers committed” (Mukhopadhyay 2009: 10).

Highly influenced by the Dutch 'Room for River'5 project, the proponents of the 'managed retreat' proposal, coming from vast range of disciplinary backgrounds including scientist-oceanographers, (Hazra et al. 2016), environmental specialists (Sanchez-Triana et al. 2016; Aich 2021), economists (Ghosh 2012) social scientists (Ghosh 2020), journalists (Bandyopadhyay 2021; Chaudhuri and Mishra 2021) and human rights organisations (Ebong Alap 2021), have opined, that the people of the Sundarbans need to be removed from their land to save them from the fury of further climatic change. Such a proposition, based on the ideology of the 'natural' seen as an entity that is external and outside the social, seems highly questionable especially in case of the Sundarbans as it essentially relies on a skewed understanding of human history in this fluid and dynamic landscape.

   The Dynamic Landscape Top

The ISD is spread over 4,200 sq. km, consisting of about 100 islands, some populated, while most are covered with dense, and in some places, impenetrable mangrove forests. Home to a plethora of exotic flora and fauna, many of which are classified as endangered or facing extinction, the region however remains best known for its varied species of mangroves, and the globally famed Royal Bengal Tiger. The ISD is protected under multiple administrative and legislative measures—a 'National Park,' a 'Tiger Reserve,' a 'Biosphere Reserve,' and a 'UNESCO World Heritage Site;' but these conservation plans hardly take cognizance of the 4.5 million people (2011 census) who call the ISD their home. Relegated to being 'exotic' and 'non-indigenous' by scholars such as Danda et al. (2020), and Aich (2021), these humans are most often seen as something not in tandem with the 'naturalness' of the Sundarbans ecosystem6. Ironically, the layered history of the Sundarbans tells us, that just as the forests and the animals, the people of the region too have evolved with the place and hence any attempt to see them as a category distinct and separate from the 'natural' ecosystem—would be highly simplistic (Jalais 2005; 2010).

This is because both the geophysical and the anthropogenic history of the Sundarbans have been dynamic, co-dependant and have fed on each other. The present day ISD, demarcated from the rest of West Bengal by an imaginary line known as the Dampier and Hodges line, was created in the 1830s. Named after two British Surveyor Generals, it was carved out purely for colonial interests to bring the marshlands of deltaic Bengal under the British revenue scheme, so that the existing zamindars (landlords) could not claim a right over these territories (Chatterjee 1990). Such a hard line separating the north-western side of the region beyond which the area ceases to be officially recognised as the Sundarbans thus seems to be an idea, ideologically constraining, especially since the entire region of Southern Bengal is anchored on the Ganges-Meghna-Brahmaputra basin (Bhattacharyya 2018).

Human reclamation and its fluid narrative

The history of humans in the Sundarbans too traced back in any liner way cannot be traced back in any a linearity way to a fixed time in history especially because of the unique nature of the landscape of the deltaic conglomeration that Bhattacharyya (2018) first described as a 'fluid ecology'. Unlike the way the histories of mainland ecologies are depicted, it is therefore difficult to write a comprehensive history of human habitation of the pro-grading deltaic Sundarbans, where new islands are created and old islands get washed away with the change in river courses. Even though not depicted as the Sundarbans, the lower deltaic Bengal found a mention in the Greek geographer Ptolemy's (CE 100 to CE 170) map, making it one of the earliest documents providing evidences of human settlement in the region. According to his Treatise, he described the entire region between the Bhagirathi-Hooghly and the Padma-Meghna confluence to be the ancient and flourishing kingdom of Gangaridai7. Archaeological evidences from the times of the Mauryans (third to first century BCE) and the Gupta Empire (third and fifth century CE) as well as from the Pala and the Sena dynasties ruling Bengal in the mediaeval era suggest that the history of human habitation in the Sundarbans goes long back (Datta 1989; Mitra 2000).

While this recorded human presence in the lower deltaic Bengal from the second and third century CE can be considered somewhat tentative, the history of extending the frontiers of Bengal into the southern territories, can be surely ascertained from around the twelfth and the thirteenth century CE (Eaton 1993). This was when, according to historical evidences, Islam started spreading in southern Bengal, mostly through the Sufi saints coming from the north-western provinces, to spread their religious ideals. Large tracts of forested lands were cleared and cultivated, as had been described through accounts of explorers of those times. These Sufi pirs (spiritual guides) were known to have magical powers in managing the 'tempers' of the animals of the forest, and they are, in fact, still remembered and revered as saviour fakirs (person devoted to Allah) by the fisherman and crab collectors across religious identities, even today. Architectural evidences like the Sixty Dome Mosque in Bagerhat district in present day Bangladesh, built in the fifteenth century CE during the time of Khan Jahan Ali or the terracotta temple at Jatar Deul in Raidighi, South 24 Parganas, belonging to the tenth or the eleventh century CE, are testaments of early human habitations in the Sundarbans (Ray 1949).

The delta, however, was 'depopulated' sometime before the eighteenth century as Rennel's map, drawn in 1779, described the region as vacated due to raids by Arakanese and Portuguese pirates. These raids and a few disastrous cyclones as suggested by some historians led to a temporary desolation of the region, when the forests might have claimed the entire territory leaving it human-less. Soon with the arrival of the British, parts of the region were once again cleared off and both original habitants as well as 'settlers' were brought in from places as far as Chotanagpur, and from the Arakan coast in Myanmar (Chattopadhyay 1987, 1999). This therefore, strengthens the argument that the history of the Sundarbans, both in its 'geophysical' as well as in its 'anthropogenic' sense, needs to be studied together, for both are found intertwined with each other.

In Bandhobpur

While conducting fieldwork in Bandhobpur, I had quite expectedly been curious to trace the generational trajectory of the villagers living there. Often, my interviews with the respondents would reflect their family history. A predominantly fishing village with 133 out of 223 households involved in fishing actively, Bandhobpur had a mixed demography of Hindu, Muslim and Adivasi (aborigine, indigenous) populations. When I asked Mitra-di, my primary contact in Bandhobpur, about the history of the village, she acknowledged that it was reclaimed by the British—'Hamilton sahib8' to be specific. However, when I asked if there were no habitations before the sahibs arrived, she did not agree to this proposition.

”Many families here lived in the Sundarbans even before the Sahibs came. The Muslims and the Pods were here from before,” she had said with a tone of authority.

Mitra-di's assertion was supported by many elderly villagers. The last living bauley9 of the village, Jafor Gaji spoke about how he had heard about the sahibs. His father had come to this island soon after the sahibs had arrived.

”In those days land was cheap; my father came here as a labourer,” he said.

I queried if Gaji was aware of the place from where his father had migrated, but he seemed uncertain. “Must be somewhere from another part of the Sundarbans,” he replied.

This narrative was also supported by the Adivasis10, all from the Munda tribe, of the village. While tracing their lineage, my Adivasi respondents spoke about how they were among the “firsts to arrive” in this village and were instrumental in making the region habitable.

”We used to be the leaders, the sardar in clearing these forests to make it liveable,” Horen Sardar had said. Horen's grandfather, I was told, had been close to the manager of Hamilton's estate, and had managed to secure quite a bit of land in Bandhobpur village.

”Our ancestors were brought in from Ranchi area, not like the Muslims, who had been 'floating' around the Sundarbans from much before we had come,” said Horen.

Horen's usage of the word 'floating' resonated with another community living in this region, known as the Bhasha or floating 'Pods'. The Pods find mention in all colonial documents about the lower deltaic Bengal and have been often described as an 'indigenous' of the place (Risley 1892) The Pods are however considered higher up in the caste hierarchy over the other major Scheduled Caste (SC) category, the Namasudras, who too seem to be residents of sourthern Bengal from much before the colonial reclamation had formally started but had mostly arrived to the Western parts of the Sundarbans (in India) from the Eastern parts (from places like Khulna, Backergunje and Barishal in Bangladesh) after Partition of Bengal in 1947 in various phases11. The other major Hindu caste groups that are found in the Bandhobpur village are enlisted under the Other Backward Class (OBC) category. These include the Mahishyas or the Halia Kaibarttas and the Kapalis, most coming to this land from other parts of Bengal, like Medinipur and Bardhaman, in phases, for better livelihood options (field data 2018). Therefore, it seems that while the Muslims were possibly the early settlers of the region, the Pods and the Namasudras too had probably been living in the deltaic areas for a long time. The Sardars however, had come to the region with the advent of the colonial leaders, and so did the OBCs in search of better livelihood alternatives.

Human settlement in the Sundarbans, therefore, seems to have taken place in 'waves' akin to the high and the low tides of the delta as and when new possibilities emerged. Human habitation had to adapt to what Mitra (1914: 254) described to be the 'humour of the land'—one that remains intrinsically linked to the river. And hence, much like the flowing nature of its geographical ups and downs, human habitation in the region, before colonial reclamation, had its vicissitudes.

   Acknowleding the Fluid Ecology Top

Such a 'fleeting form' of life, inherently dynamic in nature, where the residents, much like the people of the charlands (Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta 2013), never managed to lead a settled life in “neatly divided, discrete territorial blocks” (Storey 2017), has often been misconstrued resulting into the disenfranchisement of the community from its claim to indigeneity (Montu 2020). The sovereign State, deeply invested in the idea of a 'bounded entity', in this manner ends up disregarding the vast amount of knowledge and know-how that one can see in the life philosophy of the “amphibious autochthonous” (Bhattacharyya 2018: 7) living in the water-soaked landscape of the deltas. Hence neither did the colonial administrators, nor did the post-colonial State, show any intention of accommodating these “anomalies” (Bhattacharyya 2018: 78). This is why, when the world is realising the need to hear the voices of its 'indigenes', the Sundarbans islanders face a curious problem of establishing their very indigenous identity.

The need, thus, is to understand the region by going beyond the binaries of land and water, much like the views posited by scholars like Lahiri-Dutt and Samanta (2013). According to them, to understand the nature of people living in low-lying areas, one cannot simply rely on the 'hard edges' of distinction between water and land that the physical sciences teach us (Lahiri-Dutt 2014). Rather, one has to look beyond and find out newer means of studying an 'aqueous' existence in a 'spongy environment' that, in fact, is an essential feature of the lower deltaic Bengal. This would therefore mean defying the 'Cartesian binarism' so as to make sense of an 'hybrid environment'—towards a theory of 'socio-natures' (Lahiri-Dutt 2014; Bhattacharyya 2018).

Traces of aqueous existence

One can most definitely see traces of such 'aqueous' existence, mostly among the fisherfolks of Bandhobpur, as was recounted to me by various fishing families—mostly women—when they described the rules that they were expected to maintain 'at home' in the 'land' when their husbands were 'out' fishing in the rivers which passed through the forest.

Nusrat Begum—Jibon Miya's wife—told me how their mothers and in-laws taught them to abide by certain strict rules to ensure the safety of their husbands while they were in the forest waters. “We have learned these over generations, how the house should be kept clean and how the women should not lie or waste food and money when the husbands are inside the forest,” she said.

”We were instructed by our mothers and in-laws to sweep and clean our home only when the water in the river is high. That is the time when our husbands are in the middle of the river and are safe. Once they are near the forest, we should not sweep the floor or even give alms to any strangers. Who knows when Baba Dakhhin Rai12 would be on prowl and take these as signs of our agreement to take away our husbands!” exclaimed Nusrat with innermost conviction.

I was intrigued with what Nusrat said and it was then that Mitra-di explained to me the inner meaning behind such rituals.

”Here in our deltas, one cannot really demarcate where the river begins and the land ends. The same land, which you can see during low tide, is under the river's surface when the high tide takes over. Thus, you cannot really say that our homes are in [on] the land and the forest is on [in] the river. Because, nothing in the Sundarbans is static. The same place can be land at a particular time of the day and turn into the river's course at some other time of that very day. Thus, when the men are in the forest, the women too believe that they are in the extension of the same forested land. And just as the fishermen, they too need to remain pure-hearted to ensure that no accidents occur.”

Similar signs of fluid existence as well as abiding by the necessities of being 'pure-hearted' were observed by Jalais (2004) and by Amitav Ghosh (2004) while he was conductingresearch in the region for his novel The Hungry Tide. In his words, “the landscape is so dynamic that its very changeability leads to innumerable moments of recognition” (Ghosh 2016: 11). And quite truly, in the Sundarbans, “even a child would start a story about his grandmother with the words: 'in those days the river was not here and the village was not where it is'” (Ghosh 2016: 11).

   The Climate Change Narrative Top

Quite ironically, while changeability of the fluid landscape of the delta is etched into the collective memory of the region, not many residing in the villages of the Sundarbans would recognise the rhetoric of climate change in the exact terms in which it is discussed by the policymakers and environmentalists. In fact, the ones who are most dependent on the local ecology, have the least understanding of the disciplinary parlance of 'climate change', in the way it has now gained currency in the worlds of natural and social sciences (Nixon 2011). However, each of them would have vivid descriptions and explanations to give when enquired about changing river paths or the fast-deteriorating health of the forest. Many a times such descriptions would be so intimate, cutting across the familiar Cartesian binaries of humans and the nonhumans13 that it would resonate what the French Philosopher Gabriel Marcel had written, “an individual is not distinct from his place; he is that place” (Relph 1976: 43). For instance, when I asked Rahim Gaji, a fisherman in his late 60s about how he has been seeing the forests changing, Gaji said:

”We are not well; we will soon perish and the land of Maa Bonbibi14 will disappear along with us. The tigers have turned against us, and we too have become ferocious. Maa Bonbibi is not happy—the tigers these days do not behave like how we used to know them earlier. They have become like the foresters (forest guards15)—mean, crooked and evil. We too are losing our patience and grit. Maa Bonbibi's land is dying a slow death. The rivers will soon flood our villages; the trees will no longer hold our soil. We will be left homeless.”

Gaji's grim forecast about the island's fate, almost echoes the ones made by climatologists today. Only this time, the way it is expressed is very different from the “scientific and ideological language,” as Zadie Smith (2014: 1) has highlighted.

Such a deep connect; yet also disconnect between the languages of science and that of emotion makes a cultural understanding of climate change necessary; for as Hulme (2013: 2) suggests, “no one has ever seen climate.” On the contrary, climate is something that is felt, experienced and lived every-day. Thus, climate and its changes might have a certain generalised definition in the world of natural and physical sciences but in regions like Bandhobpur, it is primarily understood in terms of cultural connotations that are purely localised and situational. Unfortunately, climatologists and policymakers have hardly recognised the need to appreciate the local ways of understanding and adapting to climate change, something that could be perceived from the responses of the villagers of Bandhobpur to the cyclone Amphan; as my own encounter with them suggests.

Apart from Jalais and Mukhopadhyay's pieces on cyclone Amphan and what it has meant for the islanders to be compounding the aftershocks of Amphan and COVID-19 (Jalais 2020; Guru et al. 2021; Jalais and Mukhopadhyay 2020), not many others have tried to understand how the locals responded to the cyclone or to the pandemic. Pouring over or exploring their ways of survival could have spoken volumes about indigenous ways of resilience and adaptation.

Amphan and its aftermath

The meteorological department had started forecasting a cyclone by the second week of May 2020, declaring it to be a possible super cyclone of extreme severity. Researchers were prophesying the probable extent of damage that the cyclone might cause on an already ravaged Sundarbans trying to limp back to normalcy following another cyclone that had hit the area only six months ago. But Mitra-di seemed to be calm, on the other side of the telephone line, when I asked her about the emergency arrangements being made. The global pandemic had already set in by then; India was reeling under the effects of a suddenly imposed complete nationwide lockdown. And the news of the cyclone, seemed to be like a dual curse to the people living in the region.

Thus, there were indeed reasons to be concerned about the manner in which an already battered Sundarbans would cope, but Mitra-di's voice seemed hardly to have any air of urgency. She spoke to me with her natural affectionateness, almost as if to allay my worries:

”Don't worry. The water in the Garal river is still not as rough as it usually gets during super cyclones and considering that it is near the new moon day when the water levels are anyway higher than during the normal times, the river still does not look too disruptive.”

I hardly knew how to respond to her seeming nonchalance.

Anxiously I called up Jibonbhai. Being a fisherman, and living next to the river bund, I was wary about what would happen in case there was a breach in the embankment like the time when Cyclone Aila had struck the region in 2009. Jibonbhai said that he was, in fact, standing near the embankment. He too seemed to depend more on the appearance of the river than on the 'radio forecast' that he had heard himself.

Amphan struck Bengal around noon on May 20, devastating areas in lower deltaic Bengal and inland too. For weeks, villages across the Sundarbans remained mostly unreachable with damaged telephone networks and electricity poles. Slowly, information started trickling in, and finally the local media could resume reporting from the field. The impact of the cyclone was overwhelming as shocking images of homes, washed away due to the storm surge flooded social media. Bandhobpur, however, remained totally cut off as I waited anxiously not knowing what had happened to the village where I had almost become a fictive daughter.

At last, after two weeks of fearful wait could I manage to get in touch with Mitra-di in the village. “No earthern house stands any more,” she informed me, but the village was saved due to a last-minute change in wind direction during the cyclone's journey and there had been no breach in the embankment, nor any loss to human lives even though a few cattle could not be found, she described to me hurriedly before I lost her phone connection once again.

Jibonbhai too reported the same. “The school was turned into a relief centre, and as soon as the wind started getting stronger, all of us went in there leaving our cattle untied so that they could flee. Some came back, but many died,” said Jibonbhai.

I enquired about any other losses, especially of boats, something that had happened last time during the Aila cyclone.

”No, this time we could somewhat predict the wind movement and hence tied our boats in locations inside the mangroves in such a way that our boats weren't damaged,” answered Jibonbhai.

Living with disasters, thus, has repeatedly shaped the lives and adaptability of the Sundarbans islanders. And, not only has natural disasters exerted its influence on the everyday lives of the humans here, it has most invariably affected the non-humans too.

Stories of animals 'sensing' danger and thereby finding ways to save themselves during natural disasters have been discussed widely16. In the Sundarbans there have been myths of how tigers save themselves by finding shelter in inhabited islands and snakes find refuge in relief centres with humans with no altercation. There have been events of tiger straying post-Aila, when the animals were neither harmed nor injured by the villagers. Cyclones even affect fish movement in the rivers, suggest fisherfolks; one can understand that there is going to be a natural disaster by observing the school of fish in the river, Jibonbhai had once told me.

Thus, to understand climate generally, and climate change specifically, one cannot restrict the study within the disciplinary borders of the natural-physical, as Hulme (2013: 7) suggests following Tetsuro climate is not merely a natural phenomenon, “for climates become ways of life—cultures in other words.” Thus, to understand climate change in the Sundarbans one most definitely needs to see it in the perspective of the fluid ecological tradition of the region and try to make sense of the local know-how. Because only then can unique knowledge in the form a 'memory-collective', help decolonise the western understanding of the 'one world, one future' approach of the present-day climatologists and policy makers of the world (Moreira and Inoue 2017; Endfield and Veale 2018).

   The Managed Retreat Model in the ISD Top

While advocating the managed retreat model for the Sundarbans, its chief proponent Danda et al. (2019, 2020) suggest that, “in other words, the cost of protection (of the Sundarbans) is higher than the value of what is sought to be protected.” But what exactly is lost, when a person decides to stop protecting, give up, and relocate, depends entirely on the context of that individual (Marchman et al. 2020). For instance, people might develop strong connections with their physical locations, which might become part of their collective identity, making it extremely difficult to relocate them even in the face of repeated disasters (Marchman et al. 2020), something that was also witnessed by coastal communities struggling to adapt to the managed retreat plan in Florida (Schwartz 2018).

Therefore, when researchers advocate a managed retreat for nearly 0.8 million people17 living in certain 'Vulnerable Zone' of the ISD to give the rivers some space, they essentially disregard the people, their lives, and their livelihood opportunities when they plan to relocate, in a one size fits all manner of policy advocacy. This is what researchers like Tubridy et al. (2020) have been arguing against when such retreats are planned. According to them, such relocations might have implications 'beyond loss of property' and therefore a cost-benefit approach planned in a 'top-down' 'expert-led' model might not always be beneficial (Tubridy et al. 2020). Ironically, the way in which the managed retreat plan is being advocated for the ISD today, faces an exact similar challenge.

As a part of this plan, primarily charted out by Danda et al. (2019, 2020), six Community Development Blocks have been identified to be particularly vulnerable (out of the 19 Blocks) within the ISD. People from these areas, according to the proposal, will be required to move out to certain semi-rural settlements. These places selected by the researchers, however, also fall within the borders of the present day ISD. According to a study published by another set of geo-scientists, the newly relocated people will also experience regular high diurnal tidal fluctuations (Chatterjee et al. 2013). This, therefore, means that such a 'retreat' would not be a permanent solution and that very soon, the rest of the region within the ISD, especially inside the areas falling in the 'active' deltaic zone (See [Figure 1]), would also need to be vacated to 'save' it from the effects of impending climate change. Such a plan, thus, will only prove to have a short-term efficacy; and this seems rather ironic when considering how adopting a proposal with an extent as massive as this, might be just about good enough for 'buying some time'.
Figure 1: The Delta of South Bengal
Source: Banerjee 2013. Map used from Banerjee K. 2013 open access article distributed under the terms of Creative Commons License. https://www.omicsonline.org/articles-images/marine-science-research-Ganges-Brahmaputra-delta-S11-002-g002.png, accessed on October 02,2020

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Besides, such a proposal seems to be out of touch from the ground reality when it claims that the 'retreat' would be based entirely on the 'pull' factor in terms of “strong financial inducements and attractive compensations” for affected families and not on any other coercive 'push' factor (Danda et al. 2011; Ghosh 2012). In a region where thousands of villagers have been deprived of compensations owed by the government after each cyclone or embankment break, such a proposal seems a little too untenable for a country like India, especially if we are reminded of the lessons learnt from incidences of the Narmada Dam Project and Marichjhapi displacement plan. Further, the proposal evolving over the years seems to have totally ignored the socioeconomic vulnerabilities that the people of the region already suffer and has almost assumed climate change to be the primary reason of marginalisation of the 4.5 million people living here. As Mehtta and Bhattacharyya (2020a) point out, such a postulation almost makes all other problems that the Sundarbans islanders face, look insignificant and frivolous18.

Much like people from any other region, the Sundarbans islanders too should not be viewed as a set of homogenous population with a fixed set of interests and aspirations19. Hence, while some inhabitants living in the marked 'vulnerable zones' with city-based connections may find it easier to move out and accommodate in a neighbourhood far away from home, others, mostly from more underprivileged locations, will certainly find such a movement difficult in manifold ways (as noted by Mehtta and Bhattacharyya 2020b). The plan almost perfunctorily talks about addressing “social, cultural, psychological and economic needs of both migrants and host population” (Danda et al. 2020), but states in no concrete way as to how such a move of the already marginalised can be accommodated in areas high in population density, without increasing vulnerability for all.

It is interesting to evoke here Paprocki's (2019: 257) field experience, where she talks about how her respondents originally hailing from villages in the Bangladesh side of Sundarbans often have to migrate to the newly formed urban extensions of Kolkata in Rajarhat-New Town for better livelihood opportunities, but with a lot of ambivalence. In her words, “even though they blend in the urban space in some ways quite inconspicuously, New Town has also been planned in many ways to actively exclude them.” They are 'squeezed' in narrow slums where they continue to live their own segregated lives (Paprocki 2019: 257). Therefore, when the proposal suggests that the efficacy of such a plan can best be evaluated by trying to find out the “willingness to return to vulnerable locations of those who have managed to escape the situation and have been able to establish themselves not at the margin, but within the mainstream society in less vulnerable but densely packed location” (Danda et al. 2020) it seems to be a case of misplaced priority, for most of these people, much like Paprocki's respondents, who hardly ever manage to become part of the 'mainstream'. Besides, in a country where unemployment has been a constant source of worry, trying to imagine that such a 'planned movement' would enable to create a shift in location of all the people who are made to move from 'margins to the mainstream' in terms of economic and social condition seems highly improbable.

In all likelihood, such a proposal, if implemented, will mean an increase in the already huge informal economy that exists in India, which as Paprocki (2019) quite rightly suggests, may prove beneficial for the existence of city centres like the 'urban modern Kolkata' (Mukherjee 2017). However, one cannot help but wonder whether such a rise in the informal sector, already plagued with uncertainty and inhuman work conditions, be able to allay the precarious existence of these people any further.

   Seeing the Sundarbans Holistically Top

The major lacunae of this 'managed retreat' proposal thus is very similar to most other Statist interventionist methods that is in place in the region as each of them are steeped deep inside a colonial understanding of wildlife and ecology, without trying to recognise the nuances of the ground level situation in an ecosystem as complex and fragile as the Sundarbans. It advocates a need to 'return to the untamed nature', in a way very similar to the 'Deep Ecologists', following the 'Cult of Wilderness' school (Martinez-Alier 2002). Let us remember, as Koslov (2016) suggests, that retreat is not only about relocating, but also about “unbuilding land and returning it to nature in perpetuity.” Such an argument is based on an assumption of 'restoring nature' away and apart from culture, something that re-establishes the Cartesian binary of the 'Deep Ecologists', without really acknowledging what Martinez-Alier (2002) would possibly refer to as the 'Environmentalism of the Poor'.

Borne out of the Global South, such groups and communities like the Sundarbans forest dependent islanders see nature as a necessity, a requirement for livelihood and hence something that needs to be saved. Such communities have had long histories of living and evolving with nature and, therefore, their demands for climate justice is something that emanates from their day-to-day existence. Saving nature for them, thus, does not stem from the same ethical or aesthetic foundation of the 'Deep Ecologists'. Rather, their quest to 'conserve' has its roots in their everyday existence, as also noted by anthropological work by academics working in the same terrain (Jalais 2010). Thus, when peasants whose pastoral lands or agricultural fields are destroyed by mining companies, when artisanal fishers suffer due to the plundering of the sea by big trawler fishing, or when the Kanaka Maoli—the native Hawaiians talk of saving their culture in the face of literally drowning inside the ocean, we understand the relevance of this particular school and their interest in saving nature (Martinez-Alier 2002; Enomoto and MacKenzie 2018).

Such a position, therefore, has strong foundation in the post-colonial politics as it seeks to study environmental change from the perspectives of those who are most brutally affected by it, essentially because of the aggression of the State-corporate nexus that renders them on the 'frontline' of these struggles (Parasram and Tilley 2018). And, most interestingly, such a position hardly takes shape through our age-old perception of climate protests movements or activism but are based on the notion of a “protective ontology20” (Pasaram and Tilley 2018: 303). This is exactly what I had felt when I heard Rahim Gaji talk about his forest, its 'ill health' and how it affects his everyday life.

”So, if they (the forest guards) think that they can save the Sundarbans by evicting us, they will never be successful,” Gaji had said agitatedly when I tried to enquire about the high handedness of the forest guards who are meant to 'save' the Sundarbans from these very people who call it their home.

Quite ironically, while these local humans are considered to be a hindrance in the 'conservation project' of the Sundarbans, neither the advocates of the present 'fortress styled' conservation efforts nor the policy planners seeing an alternative in the 'managed retreat' method, consider the rapid growth of tourism to be a hindrance in protecting the fragile ecology of the Sundarbans. In fact, they consider it to be a possible source of income diversification for the locals (Ghosh 2012: 42) and a way of enhancing profit generated from it (Danda et al. 2011: 40).

Such an approach, as Koslov (2016) suggests, makes relocation a value laden approach gaining meaning within a particular political, cultural, and historical context, something that we cannot or should not ignore. Such an agenda of clearing the landscape of its people and then promoting a more 'profitable' tourism into the untouched wilderness almost resonates a colonial legacy of getting untrammelled rights over the forests of India to increase the State's profit except this time the economic dividend would also benefit the industrialists investing in tourism in the area.

However, can a landscape exist bereft of its people, or does it then become a changed space altogether?

One is reminded of the last lines of Bengali novelist Adwaitya Mallabarman's literary piece, Titash Ekti Nadir Naam, an auto-ethnography of sorts about the fishing community of his homeland. It is from the section when the author describes how the Malopara, the neighbourhood of the fishers, look without its people. In the author's words: But the Malopara has reduced to rubbles. That Malopara does not exist any longer. Trees and bushes have grown over the empty houses. The wind makes hissing sound passing through them; as if those who finally stayed and died here, sigh with this sound (Mallabarman 1956: 354).

Does the project of Managed Retreat envisage such a fate for the Sundarbans, one is left wondering?

   Conclusion Top

”Our experience of place and especially of home a dialectic one—balancing a need to stay with a desire to escape,” suggests Relph (1976: 42).

The Indian Sundarbans has witnessed a high rate of migration over the past decade. Pointing at these movements, the proponents of 'managed retreat' suggest that “it is already happening” while indicating that these movements can be 'managed', typically happening in an ad-hoc manner. The researchers, however, forget the critical relations that migrant have with their home in the Sundarbans. This was acutely felt during the uncertain times the COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in, making migrants eager to return to the safety of their 'homes' even in the face of the harshest of conditions (Jalais and Mukhopadhyay 2020). Having a home to 'return to' is thus an essential feature of the kind of cyclic migration that occurs in the ISD, where people most often leave their homes in search of alternative livelihood options only to keep coming back from time to time. Not many sever their ties totally with their village-homes and, therefore, a 'managed retreat' cannot be considered synonymous to the need-based migration that typically takes place from the deltaic region of the ISD today.

The call, therefore, is to reframe the language around conservation, to be more inclusive in its approach (Maldonado et al. 2020). Communities have long relocated and resettled in the face of disasters, and they have done that in a community-led manner. The Sundarbans islanders too have moved in and out of the deltaic landscape as its history itself suggests. They have co-evolved with their land and moved in response to natural and man-made disasters, but they have done that purely from their own sound understanding of their homeland. Thus, what is required is not to plan 'relocation' or 'manage a retreat' for the islanders, but to think about how to tackle the problems they face whilst working with them and taking their suggestions onboard. Only when policymakers decide to be sensitive to the fluid philosophy of the people living here, where 'hard edges' of distinctions most often give way to the possibility of a soaked ecology, can a collectively made plan for mitigating climate change in the ISD be reached.

   Acknowledgements Top

This article is based on the research findings of my Ph.D. dissertation. I am deeply indebted to the villagers of Bandhobpur (village name changed) without whose cooperation and trust this would have not been possible.

Declaration of competing/conflicting interests


Financial Disclosures

This research was supported by an ICSSR doctoral fellowship 2019-20.

Research Ethics Approval


Data Availability


   Notes Top

  1. Interview conducted on December 10, 2017 by the author.
  2. As part of my doctoral dissertation, the name of respondents and of the village where I have conducted my fieldwork have been changed to maintain anonymity.
  3. The proponents of 'Managed Retreat' tried to establish that the history of human settlements in the Sundarbans started with the British reclamation of the marshlands. See, Danda 2020 https://www.firstpost.com/india/in-sundarbans-cyclones-worst-impact-not-on-natural-areas-and-inhabitants-but-on-non-indigenous-and-exotic-8414271.html. Accessed on October 02, 2020.
  4. See, In Sundarbans, cyclones' worst impact not on natural areas and inhabitants, but on non-indigenous and exotic, accessed from https://www.firstpost.com/india/in-sundarbans-cyclones-worst-impact-not-on-natural-areas-and-inhabitants-but-on-non-indigenous-and-exotic-8414271.html. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  5. The 'Room for river' project was adopted by the government of the Netherlands to address flood protection in areas around the Dutch rivers, by letting the river flow, removing all 'obstacles' that prevented them from flowing. See, https://www.dutchwatersector.com/news/room-for-the-river-programme. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  6. AA Danda, a senior scientist associated with WWF-India, the World Bank and the think tank—Observer Research Foundation (ORF), has been arguing for this plan. See his article in First Post on May 29, 2020 https://www.firstpost.com/india/in-sundarbans-cyclones-worst-impact-not-on-natural-areas-and-inhabitants-but-on-non-indigenous-and-exotic-8414271.html/ Accessed on June 15, 2020. The article/post was republished on the ORF's website at https://www.orfonline.org/research/in-sundarbans-cyclones-worst-impact-not-on-natural-areas-and-inhabitants-66878/. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  7. For a detailed understanding, see http://en.banglapedia.org/index.php?title=Gangaridai. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  8. Sir Daniel Hamilton, a Scottish businessman coming to India in 1880, had taken the ownership of three islands—Gosaba, Rangabelia and Satjelia—in the Sundarbans region in 1903, when land was being reclaimed from the forested marshes and leased out by the British Indian government.
  9. The Sundarbans fishers believe that the Bauleys are gifted with knowledge of the 'ways of the forest.' They are entrusted with the responsibility of guiding the fishing teams inside the forests to save them from the unknown perils that such ventures entail, with their traditional know-how and understanding of the forest and its wildlife.
  10. The Adivasis of the Sundarbans include the communities who have been classified under the Scheduled Tribes category by the Indian constitution. They were mostly brought in from the Chhotanagpur region by the colonial administrators while reclaiming the marshlands from the middle of the eighteenth century.
  11. The effects of Partition on the lower castes and the confusion that followed for especially the Namasudras and the Paundra Kshatriyas have been much discussed by scholars. While some decided and managed to migrate soon after Partition, many others decided to stay back until they found themselves in a situation where they had 'nowhere else to go.'
  12. The Human-Tiger God.
  13. Also see Jalais 2010 for similar details.
  14. The protector goddess of the forest.
  15. The ground-level patrolling staff of the Forest Department in charge of the state's conservation project in the STR region.
  16. See how animals saved themselves during the Tsunami in Indian Ocean in December 2004 https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/2005/01/news-animals-tsunami-sense-coming/. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  17. The initial proposal published as the Delta Vision 2050 had stated the need to move 0.8 million people of the region from certain vulnerable zones. Later, the proposers changed the required number of humans to be moved from 0.8 million to 0.6 million, as can be seen in the ORF Issue Brief, July 2020—accessed from https://www.orfonline.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/07/ORF_IssueBrief_387_Retreat-Sundarbans.pdf. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  18. The various kinds of threats that people of the delta face range from every day disasters like tiger accidents and coercive actions of the forest officials to insufficient access to public health and education infrastructure and corruption of political parties. For more, See Mehtta and Bhattacharya 2020. https://thediplomat.com/2020/08/more-than-rising-water-living-tenuously-in-the-sundarbans/. Accessed on January 1, 2023.
  19. To understand the various shades of hierarchies, look at Annu Jalais (2004, 2005, 2010) and Amites Mukhopadhyay's (2016) work.
  20. Protective ontology, as understood here, encapsulates more-than-modern ways of being in which nature is not conceived of primarily in its colonial forms of land and commodity to be owned and exploited. Instead the human is understood as inseparable from nature within which the role of human should be one of protection and partnership rather than ownership and domination (Parasram and Tilley 2008: 303).

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