'Fish and Rice makes a Bengali'

'Fish and Rice makes a Bengali'

Nov 5, 2023

Raphaela Betz

The Bengali proverb that 'fish and rice make a Bengali' highlights the importance of fishing and agriculture to communities in this region. Today, we're accompanying our partner, the Society for Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action (DISHA), to a fishers' village along the Teesta River. For the past decade, DISHA has focused on advocating for the rights and livelihoods of small fishing communities, fostering nature-conscious agriculture, forming fish production groups and rural Cooperatives, and advancing child educational rights. A key part of this work is to support small fishers in becoming members and organising sub-groups of the North Bengal Fishermen Forum, known as the Uttorbongo Matsyajibi Forum (UMF), which allows them to organise and advocate for their rights as small fishers.

Shyamalendu Biswas is our guide and has been a regular presence in this village for over five years. Building trust took time, he shares. Now, he is highly regarded by the community. He ardently supports their cause, and even during our brief visit, the strong bond between them is evident. A few months back, with DISHA’s assistance, every fisher in this village obtained their fisherman identity card, which is an important step in ensuring their livelihood. The men typically catch 0.5 to 1 kg of fish per day. This is not a lot, but sufficient when combined with their agricultural yields to nourish their families and earn a few hundred Rupees at the market.

Shyamalendu Biswas has been guiding us along all DISHA projects. Here, he is showing us Hugli River. In contrast to Teesta, it has not been affected by the flooding.

However, the flood changed everything overnight. For our visit, we expected to see boats on the Teesta, to hear the fishers’ tales of their catch. Most of all, we expected to see fish. Yet, there are none. For four weeks, the fishers have been returning empty-handed. Most of them have stopped trying, they seek day labour locally, while some have migrated to different states and local cities for work. Occasionally, a boat goes out, only to return and report that the situation remains unchanged. And it will stay so, for a long time. The men expect no improvement until the next monsoon, which is still nine months away. Even so, the lack of fish is not their only problem.

Men fishing in the Teesta. They have been coming back empty-handed.

The village we visit lies just downstream of a barrage. Enormous amounts of sand and silt have been washed to its shores by the flood. The river used to run close by the village. Now, about a thousand meters of grey silt separates the village from the shifted stream. In between, where there used to be fields, we walk over an endless, grey wasteland. Mud and sand have smothered nearly all the crops, leaving a scant harvest. Even the fruit trees are succumbing. We meet Gokul Roy while he dries the rice harvest. It is only a fourth of what he expected. Farther out, where the sand is less compacted, the villagers are trying to set up new fields. We walk through the desert of grey silt, along the remains of dead crops, and a hut buried to its roof in silt. The mid-day sun is reflected by the grey silt, it is hot, and walking in the sand takes effort.

Gokul Roy drying the rice harvest.

A few green leaves remain of the crops that were here before the flood.

A dead papaya tree.

The remains of a hut near the fields. Only the roof is still visible, the rest is covered in sand.

Finally, some men become visible. They are setting up a makeshift pump to irrigate the new fields. Due to the flooding, they only need to dig 20 feet to reach the water level instead of 50, they tell us. Still, their efforts seem incredibly hard in this weather. They have already managed to collect some water, which is a tiny amount compared to what will be required to transform the vast stretches of arid sand into arable land. Near the pump, a few fragile strips of green have already appeared. These are the first plants of what they hope will be their upcoming harvest.

The farmers are beginning to make new fields in the silt that has been stranded from the flood.

The first new plants. In the background, the men are building the makeshift pump for irrigation.

Hopefully, the pump will supply enough water to provide for the fields, and the crops will take root in the silt the flood carried. In the interim, the UMF has applied at the local government for compensation for the affected fishermen amid the prevailing uncertainty.

Even with the arrival of the next monsoon, the fishermen's prospects remain hazy. The deluge has wrecked half of their boats. For the remaining ones, they dug out a pond to keep them in water, preventing the wood from drying and becoming prone to leaks. The canal they once launched from to commence their fishing is now indistinguishable from the rest of the shore, as it has been completely filled with sand.

Our journey seeks stories of hope, to meet people who inspire us to keep finding answers to the climate crisis. However, today is not marked by such stories. Today, we must simply acknowledge the extent of destruction this flood has caused, and worry about the floods yet to come, as climate change continues to bring more disasters upon our planet.