The Bengal Delta: "We Are Floating in the Middle"

The Bengal Delta: "We Are Floating in the Middle"

Two school girls walk along an embankment damaged by a cyclone in Gabura, SW Bangladesh in 2020. Image credt: Tanaya Dulta Gupta


“Climate Refugee Stories: Bangladesh”

Produced by Tanaya Dutta Gupta and edited by Thor Morales

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Bengal Delta Region of Bangladesh and India

by Tanaya Dutta Gupta

Sitting inside a room in one of the largest slums in Dhaka, her voice breaking with effort to keep tears at bay, 40-year-old Nafisa (pseudonym) shared her experience of migrating from rural Bangladesh:

“We used to live on the banks of the Payra river, near its confluence with the sea… My house fell outside the embankment, near the river. When the river started breaking, my home was wiped away, that is when we came to Dhaka…When this slum burnt in 2004, we again became destitute… I went back to our village with my small children. In 2007 during cyclone Sidr, the water came, and in only five minutes… seven members of my family, including my parents, were washed away by the water… everything became a graveyard, where would I go? Nowhere else to go, so came again to Dhaka with my children.”

Nafisa’s ordeal is not an isolated experience. It conveys how, for people moving within Bangladesh and India, migration is not a linear move from rural to urban areas but consists of circular trajectories that may not follow a fixed seasonal rhythm. Rather, these circular movements can be characterized as erratic and uncertain, often occurring in uneven intervals.

A lane in Korail slum, Dhaka, Bangladesh
A lane in Korail slum, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Image Credit: Tanaya Dutta Gupta

What role might climate play in making people from this region variably mobile and immobile? And how might circular (im)mobility of people moving within their countries be related to experiences of insecurity and violence?

Using borders as an analytical tool, I propose moving beyond what I call the “people crossing borders” framework that has dominated migration theories, and call for developing a deeper critical understanding of how borders cross people, which then place certain groups on the “wrong” side of history, territory, and policy.

Divided yet connected by the India-Bangladesh border, the Bengal delta, also depicted as a “climate borderland,” is characterized by shared ecology, culture, colonial history, and climate impacts. Climate impacts in this fragile ecoregion could be experienced through loss of homes and livelihoods due to intensifying cyclones, storm surges and saltwater inundation of agricultural lands. Many then are left with no option but to migrate to cities like Dhaka, while at the same time “keeping one foot in the village” through social ties and remittances, for safety nets and a pathway to return, especially during a crisis.

In fieldwork I conducted in Bangladesh and India in 2020, I sought to examine how migrants, specifically internal circular migrants from this region moving within Bangladesh and India, could experience violent border-like effects without having physically crossed an international border. In Bangladesh, I interacted with a wide range of actors including migrants in Dhaka’s slums, inhabitants in rural polder areas, as well as organizations working on research, policy, humanitarian aid and development in the region. My fieldwork in Bangladesh was abruptly truncated due to the advent of the COVID-19 pandemic, and closure of the India-Bangladesh border. I arrived in India just before the countrywide lockdown began.

This lockdown, as a national policy response to COVID-19, disproportionately affected internal migrant workers who found themselves stranded in urban centers without adequate food, shelter, and income support. I spoke over the phone with migrants, who returned to their villages in the Indian Sundarbans, navigating checkpoints and barriers in their perilous journeys across impermeable state boundaries. They were further confronted by the disastrous effects of cyclone Amphan that made landfall in coastal areas of Bangladesh and eastern India on May 20, 2020.

Intersecting impacts of COVID-19 and cyclone Amphan created a peculiar juxtaposition of mobility and immobility for these return migrants, trapping them in a precarious limbo—facing serious food and livelihood insecurity, without the ability to plan for future.

“There is water in every direction, and we are floating in the middle.” Abir’s words describing a cyclone-damaged village during a global pandemic, echo an outcome of the structural violence that continue to shape human security and survival for such “floating” people in this era of shifting climates.

Read more about how the intersecting impacts of COVID-19 and climate change are compounding the vulnerabilities of coastal communities in the Bengal Delta region in Confronting Cascading Disasters, Building Resilience: Lessons from the Indian Sundarbans, by Tanaya Dutta Gupta, Amrita Chakraborty, and Anamitra Anurag Danda.  

“Climate Refugee Stories: Bangladesh” is supported by National Geographic Society

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