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India: River embankment governance and the situation of Lodha people in the Sunderbans

20 June 2023

‘I have seen four storms before this one during which everything was destroyed … even when we are sitting at home we can get blown away. But this is where I was born, and this is where I will die.’ These are the words of Bhima Devi (a pseudonym) in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan. Now in her fifties, Bhima Devi has been a resident of the Sunderbans all her life. 

The Sunderbans is a delta region in the state of West Bengal in India. It is an important biosphere, given its unique biodiversity, sustained by rich mangrove forests and a number of major river systems, including the Padma and Brahamaputra Rivers. The region is also on the frontline of climate change and the struggle against natural disasters, not least given the intensification of cyclones and the impact seasonal storms are having on water salination and pollution.

Denial of a right to self-identification as indigenous has forced local tribal communities to live according to the status of refugee or migrant, which has led to a violation of their basic rights.

In May 2020, West Bengal experienced Cyclone Amphan, the worst storm of its kind since 1737. Amphan left a trail of destruction in the Sunderbans and breached the embankments around Chhotu Mollakhali and Kumirmari islands near Gosaba. International news and social media were quick to communicate to the world the level of destruction in the regional capital city of Kolkata but failed to record the situation of rural Bengali or Sunderbans mangrove communities, owing to the fact that most islands in the Sunderbans do not have electricity, let alone any internet connection. Lack of representation of Sunderbans tribal peoples in the communication about cyclone impacts and alleviation is part of a deeper issue involving the marginalization of indigenous communities in the Sunderbans region.

Women filling their water bottles from a tap due to a serious shortage of potable water. Credit: Daniel Murty.

During the British colonial period, people from other parts of India, including Mundas, Oraons and Santhals were brought into the Sunderbans by local landowners (zamindars) to work on the clearing of the mangrove forests. It is the presence of the indigenous Lodhas in the region, and their right to water governance, that is the prime focus of this brief case study.  

Lodha people are one of the many tribal groups found in India. Mainly located in the state of West Bengal, an estimated 100 Lodha families live in the Sunderbans region, primarily along the riverbanks. Catching small fish and tortoises from the public canals and ponds is the main income-generating activity for Lodha communitiesReduction in the number of freshwater fish species and tortoises after saline water inundation following the breaching of embankments has led to a drastic reduction in total catches, which raises questions of food insecurity and instability. Furthermore, Lodhas are most vulnerable to the breaching of embankments caused by high tides and cyclones. Indeed, many hamlets close to the river embankments have been completely destroyed during recent storms. Despite this, affected communities have not received suitable assistance during the post-disaster programmes led by government and international aid operators. 

The governments of West Bengal and Bangladesh consider the people of the Sunderbans as ‘non-indigenous’, since the communities living there are mostly descended from migrants and refugees from adjacent regions. Denial of a right to self-identification as indigenous has forced local tribal communities to live according to the status of refugee or migrant, which has led to a violation of their basic rights, including land and water rights.

People travelling on a Country Boat past Shundorbon, a hotspot unique flaura and fauna. Credit: Daniel Murty.

A major problem faced by the indigenous peoples of the Sunderbans is the Bengal Embankment Act, the main piece of legislation for the governance of the Sunderbans embankments. The current law infers a fixed distinction between land and water. In the Sunderbans delta, however, the boundaries between land and water are constantly changing. Shortcomings in the Bengal Embankment Act can be found in the correlation between the breach of embankments following high tides and cyclones, and the implementation of legislation and governance which do not prioritize the socio-cultural lives of affected indigenous populations.  

Furthermore, the embankments are public property, and their maintenance has collapsed in the absence of allocation of sufficient public funds from the state government. The authorities have consistently failed to prioritize coastal planning. Local government bodies only managed to produce a draft coastal zone map after continued protests and orders in 2017 by the National Green Tribunal, India’s dedicated environmental court. The West Bengal government’s policy of formulating a coastal zone management plan also lacked meaningful public participation, especially by indigenous community members.  

The difficulties faced by the indigenous population, for instance by the Lodha community, are continuously exacerbated by bureaucratic hurdles faced by those seeking compensation or support under various central and state-sponsored schemes for disaster alleviation. In the post-Aila cyclone phase, the Ministry of Water Resources promised around 5,000 million rupees. ‘The fund was never utilized. The state government did construct concrete structures but only in a few stretches’, comments Professor Sugata Hazra, from the School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University. Professor Hazra’s analysis suggests that the management of embankments is part of a continuous cycle of construction, cyclone destruction and reconstruction, which is corrupt at both the economic and political levels.

There is an urgent need for policy makers to focus on rural development initiatives. It is imperative that authorities engage directly with indigenous communities themselves in the distribution of aid and development funds, in order to take into account local-level needs. For instance, the Lodha community received solar cells as a development input from the government under the Rashtriya Sama Vikas Yojana scheme (RSVY or ‘Backward Districts Initiative’, launched in 2003–4), but they were not provided with sufficient training in the use of such technology. In addition, the state could undertake initiatives to promote higher-yielding varieties of salt-tolerant crops which can withstand salty water without affecting normal growth. The Central Soil Salinity Research Institute in India has developed about 120 salt-tolerant rice varieties in the past decade. Such a move towards salt-tolerant crops (particularly rice and paddy) would reduce the need for fresh water and hence, reduce the dependence on embankments.  

In sum, the situation in the Sunderbans shows that the Indian state should focus on improving basic economic conditions and livelihood opportunities for Lodha families, while incentivizing forms of land and water governance that allow for more sovereign and equitable decision-making led by indigenous communities themselves.

Photo: A river embankment where deltaic people of the Sundarbans typically live. Credit: Daniel Murty.

This chapter is part of our ‘Minority and Indigenous Trends 2023: Focus on Water’ flagship report. Discover all chapters >


Samiksha Bharati