Sankizahan in Kultali area of the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove ecosystem made of islands, rivers and creeks, used to be a village of fishermen who hunted on traditional and motorised boats in the local rivers and creeks and on trawlers in the Bay of Bengal. It is now a village of migratory fishermen who fish in India’s coastal states of Kerala and Karnataka, that house part of the western coastline and Tamil Nadu to the south, for the better part of a year.
Sankizahan resident Rakhal Das, a 38-year-old fisherman, recalled that the situation used to be different a decade ago. In 2015, when one of his two brothers informed him of his plan to migrate to Kerala to work in trawlers engaged in marine fishing and insisted that he too should do the same, Das had resisted.
He didn’t want to leave home. His bother Nikunja was convinced that the gradually declining fish catch around Sundarbans had left them with no other alternative. Nikunja left for Kerala. Banamali, his other brother, followed Nikunja the next year. And from 2017, Rakhal Das, too, has been working in Kerala from the beginning of the winter to the onset of the monsoon. The three brothers have to earn for a family of 15, including their elderly parents.
“My father never faced shortage of fish during winter. I have been fishing for nearly 20 years. The situation was not like this even 10 years ago. But now fishing in the winter hardly helps. The haul starts reducing from November,” Das said.
About 500 fishermen from Sankizahan now migrate west and southwards to work in other coastal states. Most of them work there from November-December to June, while some work there throughout the year. And Sankizahan is only one of the many villages in Kultali, Kakdwip, Gosaba, Basanti and Namkhana administrative blocks in the Sundarbans region that underwent this transformation over the past five-six years, as depleting fish catch in the rivers and creeks affected their livelihood.
“We knew that some fishermen from the Sundarbans were migrating to other coastal states but had no idea about the extent of their migration until they started contacting us from the end of May, in their hundreds, for help returning home. Now, we estimate that about 10,000 fishermen from this area work in those coastal states,” said Milan Das, general secretary of Dakshinbanga Matsajibi Forum.