As the Bay of Bengal experiences more frequent cyclones, villages devastated by the ingress of saline water are becoming attractive sights for private businessmen interested in expanding commercial shrimp aquafarming.

While small-scale shrimp farming has been a source of income for rural residents of deltaic Bengal for several decades, a particularly striking feature of the current expansion to more intensive and commercial aquaculture is that private owners are targeting already disadvantaged groups of society who, as a result of their distress, become obliged to lease their land for saline water aquaculture. This transition from paddy cultivation to aquaculture becomes the first step toward the further production of long-term vulnerability.

Shrimp aquaculture is promoted as an adaptation strategy in the cyclone-prone areas of the Bay of Bengal. Evidence from coastal villages in Bangladesh and Orissa shows how, alongside destruction to the ecosystem, intensive shrimp aquaculture leads to the further immiseration of poor landowners.

Disasters foretold

Longitudinal studies of the impacts of shrimp farming from both Bangladesh and Orissa uncover how, alongside an increase in national foreign currency through shrimp exports, shrimp aquaculture has led to the widespread displacement of some of the most vulnerable members of rural communities in coastal areas while also causing immense negative impacts on local ecosystems.

Shrimp production in Bangladesh has risen from 14,773 tonnes in 1986 to 1,32,730 tonnes in 2016 and the land area under shrimp farming has increased from 272 square miles in 1986 to 1,064 square miles by 2016. Such a rapid expansion, and the creation of shrimp-farming chambers, has resulted in the cutting down of mangrove forests.

These salt-water chambers have, over the years, led to deteriorated soil quality irreversibly changing land-use patterns. Shapan Adnan shows how in Bangladesh, international banks and development organisations were behind the promotion of commercial shrimp production, which accompanied with it land grabs dispossessing poor peasants.

A file photo of Bangladeshi farmers displaying shrimps. Photo credit: Rafiqur Rahman/ Reuters

Such support from donors and bourgeoning public-private partnerships emanate from the fact that commercial shrimp aquaculture is paraded as an adaptation strategy. Kasia Paprocki and Saleemul Huq write that the underlying logic is to “transform the hazards of growing coastal vulnerability and rising soil salinity into an opportunity for market growth and export-led development”.

However, the story of market growth and profit-led development hides a story of immiseration as a recent case study from Orissa by Vasudha Chhotray and Joe Hill reveals. Their study of recovery after super cyclone Ersama in 1999 shows how aquaculture is not only a poor adaptation strategy but, in fact, invites and exacerbates disaster.

Large quantities of saline water during cyclones, storm surges and floods destroy shrimp larvae. Furthermore, the effects of pesticides, fertilisers, soil and water treatment chemicals and antibiotics used to contain viral outbreaks have several adverse health and ecosystem hazards. Disease outbreaks of bacteria and viruses not only leave farmers at the mercy of global capital’s booms and busts but have forced farmers to abandon farms and entire swathes of erstwhile fertile land.

In echoing the situation in Bangladesh, Chhotray and Hill describe a similar scenario of how state-led development toward aquaculture farms leads to widespread cyclical immiseration and the emptying out of landscapes deemed as unproductive, only to further exacerbate unproductivity. Such market-led adaptation narratives are a false veneer for further immiseration.

The state is complicit in the impoverishment of farmers as well as the degradation of the coastlines as it embraces commercial aquaculture for corporate interests. Examples from within West Bengal itself also foretell disasters.

In the North 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, several aquaculture farms, due to the vicissitudes of the global market, disease outbreaks, and price fluctuations have now been converted into brick-kilns leading to even more acute forms of environmental damage with irreversible changes in land-use patterns.

Preying on poverty

In the southernmost coastal villages of West Bengal, shrimp aquaculture accompanies another even more alarming trend. In March 2021, during a visit to a coastal village in the South 24 Parganas, I discovered that the most disadvantaged households were the ones that were being convinced to lease their lands for shrimp farming.

Kalidaspur – the names of people and the village are being kept anonymous – is a predominantly Muslim neighbourhood on an island in Gosaba Block. I met Idris Sheikh, a middle-aged man who has been a paddy cultivator for the past twenty-five years. His homestead is located on the side of an island facing heavy erosion – a recent breach in the embankment after the super cyclone Amphan in 2020 led to an ingress of saltwater.

Residents of South 24 Parganas district salvage tin sheets from the rubble of a damaged house in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan. Photo credit: Rupak de Chowdhuri/ Reuters

At the time of our meeting, almost a year after Amphan’s destruction, he was in the process of readying his land for shrimp aquaculture and had been approached several times by a “businessman from Siliguri” to lease his land (along with several other neighbouring homesteads) for farming vannamei shrimp, a variety of shrimp that has seen an export boom in the recent years.

The man from Siliguri was in search of a 100 bhighas. The lease duration was to begin with five years but could be extended. Sheikh had been sceptical about converting his farmland and homestead sweet water pond into saline water chambers.

While his land’s productivity had already diminished due to the ingress of saline water after the cyclone, leasing his land for aquaculture would mean no longer being able to grow paddy or any other vegetables.

Vannamei shrimp feeds the tastes and demands of the Global North – exports travel to the United States, China, European Union and Japan, along with several other Southeast Asian countries – but it does not add to the local food systems or improve the nutritional intake of the rural poor. This form of monoculture and breeding one species of shrimp has dangerous implications for the long-term resilience and adaptability of coastal ecosystems.

Sheikh refused the man’s offer. At the time, he had been offered Rs 4,000 per month, per bhigha. A year later, the Siliguri businessman returned and upped his offer to Rs 6,000 per bhigha. Despite the long-term disadvantages of vannamei cultivation, the distress caused by the repeated cyclones, conjugated by the precarity brought on by the Covid-19 induced lockdowns meant that Sheikh, his brothers, and neighbours were unable to refuse the offer.

Disturbing trend

Kalidaspur is one of the poorest neighbourhoods on the island. The social indicators of the 50-odd homesteads in the neighbourhood reveal a disturbing trend. Thirty-four of them live on government-owned land on which they have squatter rights (khas jameen), 12 households have land titles (ryoti jameen) and eight households belong to Scheduled Caste fishing communities (jheley baggdi and tetul baggdi).

Muslim households in Kalidaspur, as is the case across the Sundarbans islands, have “minority status” but have not been included in the Scheduled Caste category. Despite extremely poor socio-economic indicators, these households do not receive any welfare benefits afforded to other disadvantaged groups.

It is precisely the neighbourhoods’ poverty and the destruction caused by cyclones and storm surges that make them attractive for private businessmen. Sheik and his neighbours are being targeted for their perceived desperation, making it easier to convince them to convert their land into salt-water chambers.

Kalidaspur is just one example in the rapidly changing landscape of West Bengal, where a form of disaster capitalism is unfolding and some of the most socially and economically disadvantaged communities are being taken advantage of due to their pre-existing distress.

While shrimp aquaculture might be a short-term adaptation strategy, long-term adverse effects, such as the contamination of drinking water sources as salinity seeps into groundwater and several environmental hazards accompanying aquaculture, will lead to further immiseration. Alongside cyclones and storm surges in the Bengal Delta, profit-driven commercial farming that preys on poverty and vulnerability, while parading as a form of adaptation, will only cause further destruction.

Megnaa Mehtta is a Fellow at the MS Merian - R Tagore International Centre of Advanced Studies “Metamorphoses of the Political”, New Delhi, India.

The article was first published in India in Transition, a publication of the Center for the Advanced Study of India, University of Pennsylvania.