Agricultural life in the Sundarbans

Agricultural life in the Sundarbans

Nov 24, 2023

Patrick Robichaud

The Indian Sundarbans are characterized geographically by a group of islands surrounded by mudflats with tidal streams and channels of water in between them. Houses, small ponds, paddy (rice) fields and aquaculture farms are spread out on the land, while mangrove forests cover the islands comprising the Sundarbans National Park and the intertidal zones of inhabited islands. Most communities of the around five million inhabitants (0.2 million of whom are tribal) use substance farming. As such, many men, and increasingly women, migrate up to 2,000 kilometres away to other parts of the country for daily-wage work, which can pay well but can also be dangerous and competitive. Most land in the Indian Sundarbans is developed into farm fields or ponds for aquaculture with little natural land or wild areas outside of the protected forests.

To reach this southern region of West Bengal, we drove four hours from Kolkata until we arrived at the side of the Gobadia River. After a ferry ride across the 100-meter-wide river with some motorcycles and bicycles on board, and a short ride in an electric vehicle, we reached the village of Uttar Kasiabad in the Kakdwip Block of the Indian Sundarbans. There we visited a tribal hamlet of 50 families that the Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC) have been working with to promote organic climate resilient agriculture and other interventions to reduce the community’s climate risk. We sat down cross-legged in a school building with 16 women, who are implementing the projects within the community, to discuss the agricultural projects that DRCSC has introduced. The projects included backyard gardens (also known as nutrition gardens), organic farming, aquaculture, and multi-cropping. The women were pleased with the projects DRCSC had introduced as it has allowed them to reduce the cost of agricultural inputs, improve their nutrition and food security, and become more self-reliant.

Community meeting

Before the interventions of DRCSC, some households in the community were already using a backyard garden to grow produce for their family. However, the practice was not widespread. They farmed one crop of paddy during the monsoon season, which required the use of expensive synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. This limited the profit they could make from paddy cultivation. In the past five years, rainfall has become more sporadic with higher intensity rainfall events. This has contributed to less water for farming or recharging the aquifers, which are used as a source of drinking water.

Aquaculture ponds in foreground with paddy fields in background

DRCSC chose to work with this tribal community as they are socioeconomically more vulnerable and, being non-native to the region, lack land rights. The introduction of organic farming using organic fertilizers of cow dung and natural pesticides of cow urine reduced the costs previously associated with applying synthetic alternatives. DRCSC has also encouraged double cropping where possible, which allows them to grow winter paddy, vegetables, and some oilseeds. DRCSC recommends growing indigenous varieties of paddy and other crops, which are more climate resilient, than the previously used commercial varieties. The women said organic farming has reduced the labour and cost needed to grow crops for the community. Additionally, DRCSC promotes aquaculture in brackish water ponds on land, which otherwise would not be useable. Fish and shrimp are grown in these ponds providing an additional source of nutrients and income. With the interventions of DRCSC, the women and their families are becoming more resilient and prepared for the future.

Group photo of community and us with kitchen garden in foreground