Friday, November 25, 2011

Bring the spice back The men have left the Sunderbans after Aila. But a woman’s world is not helping the women much, says Chandrima S. Bhattacharya
Bring the spice back

The koi fish, a delicacy, has vanished from the paddy fields of many Sunderbans villages. Same for magur, shol, layta and mourala, all sweet fish, which are not seen in the rivers any more. On land, mango, jackfruit and guava trees have disappeared.

The men have been swept away too.

It's been over two years since Cyclone Aila devastated the Sunderbans. Its aftermath has left the villages without their men.

Some of the remaining men are afraid that society is turning "matriarchal". While that may be a long shot, for the time being the women are "manning" everything, including the paddy fields, though the new job profile and greater responsibility have not exactly led to their empowerment.

With the men have gone the spice.

The Sunderbans was proud to grow its chillies, both "Bullets" and slender ones, which were famous for their sharp, hot taste. Chilli grew in paddy fields after the rice crop was harvested. But the salt water that flooded in with Aila did not let any chilli plants grow.

Not so, fortunately, for rice, the main crop of the Sunderbans. This is the first time since the devastation that rice has been planted. The monsoons washed away much of the salt water. Everywhere paddy shoots fill the fields, topped by the golden grain; the local long-grained "Dudher Sor" variety has done better than the hybrid ones. This is harvest time.

But the men are all away in "Bangalore, Chennai, the Andamans".

Forced migration, especially of male labour, began from the Sunderbans since the Nineties in large numbers. Women here are not new to hard labour or a hard life. Panta bhat (rice soaked in water from the previous night) has been a staple in the villages as breakfast; many families are used to eating panta the whole day in the absence of anything that can be cooked. Villages were, and are, without electricity. In Mathurakhand, an island village about a one-and-a-half hour's motor boat ride from Gosaba, the only connection with the outside world is an occasional battery-run radio and the mobile phone. A few solar street lamps were installed, but some tried to steal the plates off a few. When they could not, they broke them. After sundown the darkness is total, the water and the chars one dark smear, all across the river Bidyadhari on which Mathurakhand stands.

Houses are reconstructed now, but villagers insist that only a few have been given the compensation package of Rs 10,000 from the government to rebuild their houses.

Before Aila, too, things were bad, but there was a structure to life. If the men were away, they would come back during the farming seasons, whether chillies or rice, sowing or harvesting. Not everyone grew enough to sell, and in most cases there was only one crop in the year; but whatever they grew would feed the family for months. Or they would work on another's plot as labourers, getting a share of the produce.

Then Aila descended on the villages. The men left.

"All our boys have left for Bangalore, Chennai and the Andamans. She has sent three sons to the Andamans," says Gaurahari Mandal, a village elder, pointing to an elderly woman. Mathurakhand is home to 1,054 families, informs its panchayat member Swapan Patra. "Almost 70 per cent of the men from our village have gone," says Mandal.

They have travelled to distant cities like "Chennai", mainly for construction work, as the wages are higher, Rs 180 a day, when in Calcutta they earn less, sometimes only Rs 120 a day.

But increased wages hasn't meant increased well-being for the family back home. When men migrate, they may earn just enough for their own survival. Or they may spend a lot on entertainment in a big, bad city. This is threatening the fabric of Sunderbans society.

"So many of the complaints before the panchayat are about these boys," says Patra. "Once they are out, the boys become used to the city and its pleasures. When it's only an addiction, we try to save the boy and his family by asking both parties to forget what has happened. But when he starts another family, there's nothing much we can do," he says.

"Every month there is a problem. With the crops gone from the villages the men don't have a choice or interest to return," he adds.

It is the same story in village after village, from Mathurakhand to Harekeshtopur near Basanti to Ramapur near Dhamakhali.

The woman is now the farmer, who also catches fish, the other major Sunderbans livelihood. She gets up early in the morning, feeds the children and leaves for the field at seven and is not back till eleven. She cooks lunch and is off to the field again to come back in the evening, cook, wash utensils and collect water.

Fish farming is her responsibility too — growing the prawn seeds and fish, catching them, from flooded paddy fields, or a pond, or the river, and selling them to the byapari(trader).

NGOs are trying to provide livelihood choices. Gaurahari Mandal works for NEWS (Nature Environment and Wildlife Society), an NGO that began with planting mangroves in extensive stretches of the Sunderbans to prevent soil erosion but is now involved with livelihood problems. Mandal sees to it that the women of his village get paid work to grow saplings for mangrove plantations and plant them again. Another NGO helps run a primary school in the village.

Any NGO that steps into a Sunderbans village is expected to be the government. An NGO worker from NEWS is bombarded with demands: start a health centre, start a rice mill, bring experts to educate villagers on right agricultural practices.

Women working — and earning — has led to another anxiety. Much of the Sunderbans is looking at its women with moral disapproval.

The homeopath-cum-school teacher from Mathurakhand, Sachinandan Das, says with the men absent, women in his village are turning "wayward". He cannot spell out all the problems, but says they watch too much "video". "The children are uncared for. The old and the sick too. Every evening the women are out," he complains.

He is sitting on a bench addressing a meeting; more than a dozen women stand around him. They don't protest; they just smile. Banabir Bhaumik, a farmer from Harekeshtopur, takes the fear about women to another extreme: he is afraid that society is turning matriarchal with Mamata Banerjee at the helm of affairs in West Bengal.

With the salt water gone, there is hope for more crops: vegetables, including of course, the chillies. They are cultivated in the paddy fields after the harvest.

Swapan Patra says the men have to come back where they belong: the fields. But even if the soil is ready, the market is not. "Please bring us some experts. They should teach us about the right use of pesticides and fertilisers," he says.

"We spend about Rs 3,000 per bigha on rice plantation as diesel, fertilisers and pesticides are growing costlier by the day, but often the crop brings less. This is another reason why the men have gone away," says Rajnarayan Mandal of Harekrishnapur village.

Patra wants the NGO to provide guidance on packaging chilli powder, so that the villagers can market these themselves. "There should be no middlemen. The whole world should know the power of Sunderbans chillies," he declares.

That will only happen if society regains its balance. "Men and women need to work side by side. The men have to come back to the villages. Then the Sunderbans will get back its jhaal, the name we give to the chillies," he says.

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