Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Gender, Displacement and Resistance in South Asia: The Case of Women Uprooted by River Erosion in West Bengal and Bangladesh

Sreya Sen - Doctoral Fellow, Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies
University of Calcutta, India. This paper was presented at a workshop on Gender, Development, Resistance at the University of Lapland, Finland in June 2015. 

Recurrent river erosion on the banks of south western Bangladesh, such as in Khulna since early 2000. has led to massive displacement of the local population. Simultaneously, the slow but steady erosion of the Ganges River in the district of Malda in West Bengal, India has caused the people residing in these areas to lose their homes. This article draws upon archival sources of data, namely national and state government reports on policy and planning, district human development reports, reports generated by non-governmental organizations (local and International) working in the river erosion affected areas of Malda and Khulna and clippings from national and sub national dailies, to examine the impact of river erosion induced displacement on the lives of women residing here. It also attempts to see the ways in which these women have emerged as forces of resistance to the phenomenon of displacement instead of being mere victims of the process.

The problem of displacement caused by river erosion became extremely acute in the early years of the 21st century owing to the advent of development projects, prompting state authorities in both areas to take note of the severity of the problem. The construction of the Farakka Barrage in West Bengal for instance, has aggravated saline intrusion in both Khulna and Malda, leading to a rise in river erosion. The early part of the new millennium was also a time when International and domestic provisions for the protection of the IDP’s were widened in both India and Bangladesh in addition to the fundamental rights available for the protection of such persons in both countries. This was when Bangladesh became a signatory of the United Nations Convention of Human Rights (UNHCR) and thus bound to abide by their mandate. It became a member of the UNHCR in 2002, and consequently became bound to abide by its mandate as well as to take on board the Guiding Principles relating to IDP’s. In India, the National Resettlement and Rehabilitation Policy whose draft was prepared in 1998 by the then Ministry of Rural Development, became an official policy in 2007. Additionally, India being a member of the EXCOM of the UNHCR was also bound by its mandate to look into the well being of IDP’s in the country.

Assessing the Impact of Displacement on the Lives of Women

The Case of Khulna, Bangladesh

The lives of women displaced by river erosion in Khulna are at serious risk owing to the absence of community and national support. Displaced women are particularly marginalized because of restricted mobility and limited working opportunities. Women are mostly employed in the informal sector such as labour in the shrimp industry, daily labour, as domestic help, hawkers, vegetable vending and small business. Unhygienic sanitation and water conditions in the resettlement areas often result in the spread of vector and waterborne diseases such as dengue and diarrhea all of which affect the health of the women severely. Due to the lack of finance for medical care facilities, women have little or no access to medical services. With regard to financial assets, one finds a reduction in the household income generating activities for women because of the absence of space as well as opportunity. Public loans characterized by a high rate of interest make the women IDPs economically vulnerable.[i]

Left organizations such as the Communist Party of Bangladesh and local non- governmental organizations like Prodipon, Sushilan and Nijera Kori have mobilized displaced women and men and given them the opportunity to speak out a[k1] gainst their situation. Women members of Sushilan would often occupy land owned by state authorities in order to build structures for the most needy of women in their group. Law and order authorities have sometimes had to comply with their demands as a consequence of their solidarity. Landless women in the erosion afflicted areas are also found to be taking part in protest marches often with their dependent children by their side.[ii]

The Case of Malda, West Bengal

Women are usually the first to be impacted by displacement due to river erosion in Malda. Displaced women are compelled to provide financial support for their families in addition to dealing with domestic hardships. Common occupations among the displaced women include labour in the tobacco industry and couriers in the smuggling nexus.[iii] The greatest problem faced by women IDPs is in the area of health and sanitation. Most of them occupy land which belongs to others and have no access to toilet facilities. Access to clean and safe drinking water is also a problem in districts that are arsenic prone. The vulnerability of displaced women is also determined by the religious category to which they belong. [iv] Displaced women among the Muslim community, especially widows receive help from financial practices such as Asul, Zakat and Fetura. Through such charities, the displaced Muslim women are able to sustain themselves and consequently the tendency among them to migrate is a lot less.[v]

People displaced and devastated by river erosion in Malda have formed organizations to look into their welfare; a notable example being the Ganga Bhangon Pratirodh Nagarik Action Committee. Women participate very actively in this organization although their numbers are few. Self help groups for women exist in many parts of the areas that are affected by river erosion. Support provided by the self help groups is not restricted to finance only. Familial and social support is also provided. The displaced women are also greatly interested in educating their young ones. Several of them are eager to educate their daughters, an opportunity which most of them have missed out on. Women IDPs in Malda have indicated their preference for their daughters to go to school and be recipients of mid-day meal schemes rather than sit idle at home all through the day even though studies are often affected due to the severity of river erosion. [vi]


It is recommended that state authorities in the districts take on a gender sensitive approach towards rehabilitating the displaced in order to assist the empowerment of these resilient women. A considerable number of public and private organizations, in addition to state policies that cater to the welfare and agency of displaced women, also need to emerge in order for women to voice their demands and issues in an articulate and consistent fashion and receive the assistance that they rightfully deserve.

[i] Report of the Association for Development Activity of Manifold Social Work, “Impact of Climate Change Displacement on women’s livelihoods in the urban slums of Bangladesh, 2014
[ii] Guhathakurata Meghna, The Gendered Nature of Migration in South Western Bangladesh: Lessons for a Climate Change Policy”. 2011
[iii] Mukherjee Jenia, “No Voice, No Choice: Riverine Changes and Human Vulnerability in the “Chars” of Malda and Murshidabad” in Occasional Paper 28, Institute of Development Studies, July 2011
[iv] O Niel Brian, “Women and Displacement: A Case Study of Women Displaced by Ganga Erosion in Malda District of West Bengal in India.”
[v] Dutta Priyanka, “Migration as Source of Risk Aversion among the Environmental Refugees”
[vi] Bandopadhyay Krishna, Ghosh Soma and Nilanjan Dutta, “Eroded Lives”, Calcutta Research Group, 2006 pp 18-19

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