Light for Livelihood
The Sundarbans region in West Bengal, India, is one of the most remote and underdeveloped parts of the country, comprising mainly islands and forests. A diverse, complex, and volatile ecosystem rules the region. Each village is an island surrounded by rivers that are affected by the high and low tides of the Bay of Bengal. Natural disasters such as cyclones and floods are inevitable due to biodegradation and global warming. The families of the Sundarbans are some of the most marginalised in the world, living well below the poverty line.
India faced a severe blow from the COVID-19 pandemic, lacking the infrastructure, hospital equipment, health kits, medicine and oxygen required for such a large population. The situation rapidly became a monumental humanitarian crisis. Overcome by fear, death and despair, the entire nation was in turmoil. For those living in the Sundarbans, high salinity levels, regular flooding, poor soil conditions, and high temperatures meant survival was already a struggle. The COVID-19 pandemic saw widespread job loss in the region and many families on the verge of starvation. Super Cyclonic Storm Amphan in mid-2020 caused widespread damage and destruction, hitting the remote Sundarbans particularly hard. If that wasn’t enough, in May 2021, Cyclone Yaas saw water levels rise to break the banks of the rivers and enter villages, destroying homes, ruining crops, and killing livestock. Families were forced to migrate to high places to survive, with only tents to house them. Hundreds of families currently live in tents covered with plastic and tarpaulins.
Together, the pandemic and cyclones have severely impacted the already minimal delivery of electricity to the area. Thousands of families are still without electricity; many have to use kerosene lanterns as their only source of light, which are a severe fire hazard. Furthermore, the toxic nature of the kerosene causes chronic disease, breathing problems, asthma, and cataracts.
MWIA, together with the Kolkata Mary Ward Social Centre (KMWSC), has been delivering solar lanterns to remote Sundarbans villages and cyclone-affected families living in tents without electricity. The light has enabled children to safely study at home and provided light to cook meals and weave fishing nets. The solar light offers income-generating opportunities to the villagers – women can sew, and men can fish in the evenings to trade at the local market. The solar lanterns further protect villagers at night when they need to use the outdoor toilet – tigers and poisonous snakes are prevalent in the Sundarbans due to the lack of streetlights in the villages.
Unfortunately, the Sundarbans will continue to be affected by its volatile environment, making solar power even more critical to local communities. Solar energy is the best solution for light in the region. It is clean, environmentally friendly, and long-lasting. This project also supports women to access their legal rights and entitlements through self-help groups (SHGs). Over 130 women are part of a SHG that provides training on the use of solar lights and ensures that women can obtain the legal documents required to access government support services such as food schemes, pensions and health care. Small local groups in the villages keep a record of each family and provide data to the local administration, helping distribute these government schemes. They play a significant role in mobilising members of the local community and raising awareness of their rights and entitlements. They further play a vital role in reaching out to the neediest families in the villages.
During this time of crisis and natural disaster, the solar lanterns are a ray of hope for families. Throughout 2021, 80 solar lanterns were assembled by locals trained by the KMWSC staff in a solar growth centre. KMWMC field associates distributed the solar lanterns to 80 cyclone-affected families in the Sundarbans, providing an independent and reliable light source. These families were living in the dark and only had kerosene lamps and candles for light as they shifted to open and higher places for safety and survival.
Minati Sardar is a 64 year old widow in the village of Manmathnagar. She cried with tears while telling her story…
“I am a widow since 1990. My husband died while he was collecting honey from the forest, the man-eating tiger attacked him and he was eaten away along with Surjo Debnath, my neighbour. I am all alone at an old age. Yaas was the first silent killer cyclone I have ever seen in my life. The livelihood stocks of my family have been destroyed. I have nothing to eat. My daughter and I are starving for food. I thank you from the bottom of my heart for giving us one month of groceries. Millions of thanks to KMWSC for standing beside me during this starvation of my family and providing me the solar lantern to light the house. I am grateful to MWIA team for giving us solar lanterns” – Minati Sardar
Many more families are still in desperate need of solar light. COVID-19 has delayed training and the purchase of raw materials required for production. Together with the KMWSC and our valued supporters, we strive to overcome these challenges in 2022 and light up the homes and lives of struggling Sundarbans families.
Author: Anna Turkington, Manager, Communications & Marketing, Loreto Ministries
Feature Image: Sundarbans locals with their solar lanterns.