A crisis of deepening inequality
The climate crisis and the employment crisis are inter-related, and about inequality; Tazeen Qureshy reports about how the fishing community in Digha, West Bengal, is bearing the brunt
Mridula Ramesh, in her book “Watershed”, gives a simple example of how drought can affect two farmers very differently. In the case of a farmer with access to irrigation, the drought pushes up costs. The farmer – likely to be a man since men are disproportionately owners of farmland even if women make up the majority of workers on farms in South Asia – will pay for fuel or electricity to help make up the shortfall. Even if the whole of the shortfall is not covered, the farmer is likely to at least manage to get a decent harvest.
The poorer farmer – and bear in mind that more than half of Indian farmers do not have access to irrigation other than by rainfall – cannot make up for the loss of water. There is nothing he can do. He will lose most, if not all, his investment and be left with very little in the way of production.
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But, as Ramesh shows, the difference does not stop there. In a drought production will fall across the board. This shortage of crops will likely lead to a rise of prices, meaning that if the richer farmer is able to produce the same amount, or even a little bit less, he will make a much healthier profit on his investment than he normally would have. The poor farmer will be rendered bankrupt.
There is an addendum to this example, one that Ramesh does not go into but is a natural corollary. Left without earnings, and possibly in deep debt, the poor farmer will be desperate to earn money. But in a country where poor farmers have little chance of insuring their crops, and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act the lone form of employment welfare for farmers, the only option the poor farmer will have is to sell their unskilled labour. But a drought will have affected all small farmers with limited or no access to irrigation.
The same drought which will create a shortage of crops and raise their prices will create a glut in the manual labour market and drive the price of labour lower.
This is a small, but extremely obvious, example of how fluctuation in weather patterns can create a vicious cycle of deepening inequality. Within just one season the (even marginally) rich prosper while the poor are pushed into deeper poverty.
The climate crisis and the inequality crisis are not just happening together, they are reinforcing each other in a much more uncertain world.
This is why locality of response to the crisis matters so much. There can be no broad brush response to the crisis if people – even in the same industry – experience it in starkly different manners. Any response worth its name must build from bottom up.
In this newsletter we have a report by Tazeen Qureshy about the families that made their life from fishing in West Bengal, and how both climate change and local governance are changing their lives. Like many in India, the people of Digha depend on more than one source of income depending on the season and what is available. As cyclones become more frequent and more violent, and the land around the fish market becomes a popular tourist destination, they lose their income by both sea and by land. What we end up with are rich tourists and poorer locals.
This is the future we can see. The question is, do we want to do something about it?
Tazeen Qureshy is an independent journalist based in Odisha, reporting on rural issues, climate and environment, gender, education, health and sports. She holds a master’s degree in convergent journalism from Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. She tweets at @TazeenQureshy
Tourism and change wreck fishing in Bengal
As a child, Bablu Shah of Ratanpur village near the coastal tourist town of New Digha in West Bengal would spend his time strolling in the agricultural fields with his friends and return home to a sumptuous meal of fish cooked from the fresh catch his father – a fisherman – would bring. Three decades later, his children are living a completely different experience. The agricultural fields have been replaced by concrete hotels and tourism has replaced fishing as the major livelihood source in the area.
“My family pursued fishing as a livelihood for generations. During my father’s time, there used to be 25 fishing boats in our village, now there are hardly 4 to 5 boats,” he says.
The story of Bablu Shah, now 41-years-old, resonates with most fisherfolk living in the area. With the rise in tourism activities in the last few decades, coupled with factors like frequent natural disasters, the community is looking beyond its traditional income sources to sustain themselves.
Emerging tourist destination
In the recent decade, Digha has emerged as a tourist hotspot for a weekend getaway. In New Digha, for instance, tourism has replaced fishing as the primary livelihood source. A 2015 study in the town highlights that the locals are getting economic benefits from tourism related activities like hospitality sector, transport, local eateries and souvenir shops. Some have been migrated out.
“The fishing community had a double source of income. After fishing, a small-scale fisherman usually looks for other options like working at a local store for additional income. Now, the dependence is mostly on tourism-related activities. Though the income is stable, things had drastically changed during the Covid-19 pandemic when there was complete lockdown,” says Shah, who runs an eatery shack on the New Digha beach.
The encouraging tourist footfall has also prompted the state to announce a slew of developmental projects along the coast.
One of the pet projects of the state government is the Digha-Mandarmoni marine drive, which is expected to connect the four major sea beaches in the area – Digha, Tajpur, Shankarpur and Mandarmoni and give a major boost to the tourism sector in the region. However, reports allege that the land for the project was forcibly acquired from the fisherfolk, threatening their livelihood.
Besides, the development activities along the coast have also added environmental concerns. A 2020 study which analysed the erosion and accretion trends confirmed that ‘urbanization due to tourism leads to immense pressure on this coastal area more than other coastal processes.’
Climate concerns rock the fishing industry
In old Digha, approximately 30 kilometres from the tourist site of the developed new town, lies a fishing auction site, one of the oldest in eastern India. Alok Mondal, who participates in the auction for a private entity, explains the entire process.
“The auction site becomes lively from 3.30 in the morning. The fishing trawlers arrive at the harbour and the catch is sorted. The price is set as per the size and weight of the catch. The bidding starts and can continue till 11 in the morning, or late in the afternoon till the trawlers keep coming in. Since the market starts early, the trawlers coming early fetch higher prices,” he says.
Despite a bustling market, the fishing industry in Digha is facing the impact of climate change. The coast was battered by two major cyclonic storms Amphan and Yaas in 2020 and 2021 respectively. Climate change is making those storms far more frequent and devastating.
“Frequent natural disasters have led to reduced number of fishing days and hence, less catch. Apart from the regular fishing ban, we are not able to enter the sea for as many as 50 days due to erratic weather patterns. The small-scale and traditional fishermen are among the worst affected,” says Debasis Shyamal, National Council Member, National Platform for Small Scale Fish Workers (NPSSFW).
The erratic weather conditions especially the unseasonal rainfall pattern, has also hit the dry fish industry, which is not getting the required number of consecutive sunlit days for drying the fish.
Addressing the challenges
Several studies in the past have highlighted the positive role of local communities in protection of ecology. Experts in the field have also suggested a similar collaboration in the region.
The fisherfolk, on the other hand, have time and again pitched for government incentives to better their socio-economic status.
Last month, Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum, a registered body of small scale fishworkers, wrote a letter to the administration demanding temporary hut structures along the beach for the fishermen to rest. The letter also highlighted how the fishing boats were getting damaged while taking in and bringing it out of the sea, due to the boulders placed along the shores, and demanded sloping a patch for easy movement of the boats.
“India has a vast coastline which makes the fishing industry a major source of livelihood for millions of people. When we are under existential crisis, it is the duty of the government to look into our problems and address them. We can’t be ignored,” says Shyamal, who is also a part of the Forum.
The container terminal that could sink the Great Nicobar Island: The government of India is pursuing a massive development project involving an international container trans-shipment terminal, a military-civil dual-use airport, a gas, diesel, and solar-based power plant, and a township, on the Great Nicobar Island. The project has raised alarm bells among environmentalists, scientists, wildlife experts, and civil society organisations, because it is expected to lead to the cutting of over 8,52,000 trees and adversely impact avifauna, marine and terrestrial biodiversity including species such as the leatherback turtles, megapodes, corals, migratory birds and Nicobar crab-eating macaques. In addition, it is expected to impact the population of particularly vulnerable tribal groups (PVTG) on the island. The project, the push for which is coming from the highest echelons of the government including federal think tank NITI Aayog, is also expected to irreversibly change the demography of the region, being built in an active seismic zone.
Government to approve cutting down of forests without consent from tribals and forest dwellers: On June 28, the union environment, forest and climate change ministry notified the Forest Conservation Rules 2022 to shift onto state governments the union’s responsibility of ensuring that the rights of tribals to their traditional forestlands are recognised and their consent is taken before their forests are chopped down. The new rules allow the union government to permit the clearing of a forest before consulting the people living in it, forcing the hand of the concerned state government to secure consent from tribal and other forest-dwelling communities. The amendment, described as treating forest clearance almost as a fait accompli, runs afoul of the Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Recognition of Forest Rights Act, or Forest Rights Act.
The women setting the course for India's seaweed farming journey: In Pamban Island, part of Tamil Nadu’s Ramanathapuram district and at the frontline of extreme weather events, seaweed cultivation provides a small but steady source of income to women, that is thus far relatively unaffected by climate change. “Despite all the troubles, this is one income that requires little to no capital investment and it comes directly to us women. In these times when our menfolk are hardly catching any fish, this is one income that we can rely upon to see us through difficult times,” says 47-year-old Seeniyamma Kalanjiam. According to the department of fisheries, India is aiming to increase its seaweed production in the next five years to 11.5 lakh tonnes from the current 2,500 tonnes. Globally, seaweed production is expected to hit $26 billion in the next three years. The experience at Ramanathapuram, where seaweed farming dates back at least three generations, provides an early peek into the benefits and challenges of this activity.
Karnataka's port-development spree ignores coastal communities' concerns: Keen to accelerate a port-led model of development and attract private investment – especially with the impetus of Sagarmala, a nationwide port-led development initiative of the central government – Karnataka has one major port and 12 minor ports under different stages of development. Since 2014, the state government has been pursuing policies that ease infrastructure and industrial development. However, this port development activity has proven to be incongruous with coastal Karnataka’s fisher populations, as it has repeatedly ignored concerns raised by the coastal communities that live in the vicinity of the action – concerns about the loss of coastal commons, the loss of biodiversity and a loss of livelihood.
Rising heat stress in India: In a July 2022 publication, the Urban Lab of Centre for Science and Environment (CSE) analysed the temperature trends in India from January 2015 till May 2022, and found that 2022 pre-monsoon summer heat trends overtake 2016 as the second hottest pre-monsoon season on record for India. It also reports that the monsoon is hotter than the pre-monsoon period on average, while winter and post-monsoon seasons are warming up faster. The report seeks to understand the warming trends by covering all three dimensions of heat stress – surface air temperature, land surface temperature, and relative humidity (heat index) – at the national, regional and local levels. Comprising national and city-wide analyses, it also assesses trends in the metropolises of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Hyderabad (one located in each of IMD’s four homogenous regions).
Dual threat of drought-like conditions and flash floods puts Kashmir Valley's food security at risk: In the Kashmir Valley, dry conditions prevailed from March to mid-June this year, followed by flash floods later, triggering fears of severe economic losses among farmers. The streamflows in the Jhelum river have depleted significantly. An increase in average temperatures, low precipitation and loss of glaciers in the region, are considered to be the primary reasons. Rivers and their tributaries across Kashmir have been recording a drop in water levels. Worsening weather conditions that have affected the main crops of the valley (apple and paddy), are expected to impact the food security of the region. Advised to pursue alternate crops, the farmers claim this could aggravate their economic woes. The farmers expect crop insurance and say that they are unaware about any schemes introduced for the benefit of farmers.
New study from Karnataka evidences impact of windfarms on biodiversity: A study from central Karnataka that analysed the responses of birds and mammals to wind turbines, found that species richness, abundance, and unique species of birds were relatively higher in areas without wind turbines over wind turbine sites. Conducted from January 2016 to May 2018, the study is an investigation of the fatality rate of birds due to collision with wind turbines, the response of the diversity and composition of birds and the occupancy pattern of terrestrial mammals in the windfarms located in the Chitradurga and Gadag districts. Researchers and wildlife conservationists note that wind energy and its impact on biodiversity is an understudied subject in India and recommend long-term assessments in important landscapes that are suited for windfarms, to ensure wind energy development is environmentally responsible.
Extreme flooding from intense cyclones to affect more people in India, Bangladesh: Exposure to flooding from cyclone storm surges, such as those brought on by cyclones the size of supercyclone Amphan, is “extremely likely to increase” in the future in South Asia if greenhouse gas emissions continue at the same scale, warns a new research study led by the University of Bristol, which included scientists from Bangladesh. “Storm surge causes the largest loss of life during super cyclones. Experts say India and Bangladesh need to revisit their national policies and adaptation strategies for tackling climate change with mounting losses and damages from recurrent cyclones breaking through limits to adaptation. Lead author Dann Mitchell, Professor of Climate Science at the university’s Cabot Institute for the Environment said, “Low-lying areas such as the coast of Bangladesh and India will certainly see negative impacts of climate change, so every 0.1 degree Celsius limit in temperatures will help their populations”.
What's causing mass fish death in India's ponds and lakes? [Explainer]: Every year, several ponds and lakes across various Indian states become sites of mass fish deaths–for example, in the Banganga tank in Mumbai’s Malabar Hill area, where it is almost an annual occurrence. More recently, this was seen in the Najafgarh drain along the Delhi-Haryana border. The primary cause for this phenomenon is water pollution, most often stemming from anthropogenic activities. A key parameter of water quality is dissolved oxygen which can indicate the capacity of a water body to support aquatic life. In a survey of water bodies across six Indian states, not a single water body had a dissolved oxygen range, where all fish can survive. Water bodies are a crucial part of the culture of any civilisation,” points out Priya Ranganathan, a PhD scholar at the Ashoka Trust for Research in Ecology and the Environment, adding that “when an aquatic ecosystem is adversely affected, local species are wiped out and this harms local livelihoods.
Can Emission-Trading Markets Help India Tackle Its Industrial Pollution Crisis?: Over the last year, several state governments have announced the launch of emission trading schemes (ETS) to control air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. An ETS is a market-based regulatory instrument designed to limit the emission of specific pollutants in a certain geographical area or industrial cluster. Globally, the number of ETS’ is growing with significant examples including markets for carbon in China and South Korea. Such schemes can prove to be effective mechanisms in regulating harmful emissions from industry, provided the right enabling conditions exist. However, questions around transparency, reproducibility, state capacity, and policy design and clarity threaten the viability of the ETS approach in the Indian context.
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