SUNDERBANS, India (WOMENSENEWS)–Cyclone Aila hit parts of eastern India and Bangladesh in 2009 and never really went away. The flooding and aftermath devastation in the villages caused a large-scale migration of the men to larger cities.

Here in the world’s largest river delta, Panchanan Das, a local forestry official, says the soil was spoiled for growing by the salinity of receding waters.

"Forget paddy, even fruits and vegetables refuse to grow," says Das. "Prawn and fish cultivation is also at a standstill, as the ponds in which they were reared were filled with saline water. Incidence of viral disease in fish, post-Aila, has gone up as well."

Das says that with few livelihood options left, 90 percent of the male youth and about 20 percent of the young women in the Sunderbans moved to cities such as Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai and even to the Andamans and Gujarat.

"In most villages," Das says, "only women are left behind with young children."

Ishika Mondal, 34, is one of them.

For two hours each day she works in waist deep water, trying to keep alive the fragile seeds of seaweed plants–Gracilaria or Seola–at a small experimental seed bank in her village of Harekrishnapur.

"This is our hope for the future. Selling the seaweed every 40 days will bring money for our families," Ishika Mondal says.

This agricultural rescue project was initiated by the Kolkata-based Nature Environment and Wildlife Society on a trial basis in four plots in three villages.

"We had seen a similar project at Mandapam in Tamil Nadu, where there is a seaweed processing factory as well," says Barnita Dasgupta, a coordinator for the group. "Seaweed needs both saline and sweet water to flourish and the Sunderbans is ideal for this, as saline water regularly flows in during high tides."

Involving 800 Women

Organizers hope that each plot will produce between 15 and 30 kilograms every 40 days.

"We aim to involve about 800 women in this project," says Rajnarayan Mondal, 42, a local project coordinator for the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society.

Aparna Mondal, 35, runs the seaweed project for the village of Harekrishnapur. "’Seola’ offers a nutritious dietary alternative and is extremely beneficial for pregnant women," she says. "It’s excellent food for the people in Sunderbans. We can also sell it to baby food and diet-supplement manufacturers. There will be a yield every 40 days if the experiment works."

If the experiment succeeds it could provide women with a far easier way of life than many of the other options left in the area.

Raushi Singh, 45, shows how hard survival can be. Singh wakes up at 4 a.m. and treks for about one-and-half hours along the muddy banks of the river Bidya, searching for crabs. When she sees a hole she plunges her hand in to try to find a crustacean.

"It’s risky and crab bites are common, but most women in our village forage for crabs like this. We then walk to the market, about two-hours away, to sell them so that we can buy essentials for our family," says Singh.

A project to promote mangrove groves, also sponsored by the Nature Environment and Wildlife Society, offers other employment hope.

Anjali Sardar, 45, is a widow whose two sons have left Sunderbans in search of work.

"We are cultivating ‘kalobain’ (Black Avicenea) saplings that we’ll sell for one rupee each to the nongovernmental organization when they are ready," says Sardar. "We also plan to plant them along the river banks to earn extra money…The seeds have now been planted in the clay. That was hard work. These days we spend two hours every morning and evening watering and caring for these saplings."

The project could protect the communities from another cyclone as well, because after Aila areas with dense stands of mangrove trees were relatively unscathed.

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This article is adapted from one that was released by the Women’s Feature Service. For more articles on women’s issues log on to:

Ajitha Menon is a correspondent for the Women’s Feature Service in Mumbai.

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