Sumitra Sahani had a busy week at the end of March. She toiled in her kitchen for several days, preparing and carefully packing containers of prawn and lemon pickles, as well as dried fish.
These provisions became part of the baggage that her 18-year-old son, Sudarshan, hauled onto a bus that he boarded a few days later, as he headed back to work after a month of leave.
Over the next two days, the bus travelled 2,000 km from Sahani’s village, Bagapatia in Odisha’s Kendrapara district, to Ernakulam district in Kerala, tracing a long arc between India’s eastern and western coasts.
Its last stop was the town of Perumbavoor, 15 km from the Cochin International Airport, where Sudarshan works at a plywood factory. His mother had packed the food for him out of concern that he might miss food he was familiar with. “Here in Odisha, we cook with mustard oil, but in Kerala, the coconut oil used is not something that they are used to,” she said.
The food may be unfamiliar. But, in Kerala, Sudarshan is surrounded by familiar faces: his elder brother, father, and uncle, Sahani’s brother, also work in different factories in Perumbavoor. So do many others from Bagapatia. In fact, the traffic between Bagapatia and Perumbavoor is large enough to make it profitable for the bus to run twice a week.
The bi-weekly bus is an outcome of a complex set of forces, which centre around climate change and cyclones, that have pushed the people of Bagapatia away from their homes to workplaces thousands of kilometres away.
The Sahani family originally lived in a village named Satbhaya, on the coast of the Bay of Bengal, around 12 km from Bagapatia. But since the 1960s, the village had been facing serious threats from coastal erosion.
While they lived in Satbhaya, up to the late 1990s, the Sahani family saw the sea slowly “eating up” fields, homes, tubewells, and temples, they said. “Sab looni ho gaya,” everything became saline, Sahani recalled.
Indeed, the Odisha coast has seen dramatic rises in sea levels in the past decades. A 2022 paper found that between 1966 and 2015, the sea level along Odisha’s coast rose 0.19 cm each year. For Kendrapara district – in which Satbhaya falls – the study predicted that if the sea level rose by 1 metre in the future, it could submerge 29% of the district.
The study traced the root of the problem of sea level rises across the world to global warming. It noted that such warming results in melting of continental ice, or large ice sheets such as found in Greenland, and thermal expansion of ocean water, or the increase in the volume of water after it warms. These phenomena, in turn, lead to rises in sea levels.
Today, Kendrapara has 694 square kilometres under “high” and “very high” risk of coastal erosion, making it the district with the largest area under risk in Odisha, according to the state-government’sIntegrated Coastal Zone Management Plan. This puts 348 villages at “high” and “very high” risk, the plan document notes. Apart from Kendrapara, the state has five other coastal districts that are at risk – Jagatsinghpur, Puri, Ganjam, Kendrapara, Bhadrak, and Baleshwar.
Scientists have also noted that the construction of ports along the coast of Odisha has aggravated the problem of erosion. Such infrastructure along the coast obstructs the movement of sand along the coast, known as longshore drift. When structures like ports are constructed, they cause the sand to accumulate on the south of the ports, while the north remains starved of the sands that it would have received through longshore drifts. Without the sands, the ocean ends up eroding the existing beaches and coastal areas. In a 2015 study conducted in Odisha, scientists found that “shoreline changes due to the coastal structures” associated with the three ports of Paradip, Dhamara, and Gopalpur, are “apparent”. Satbhaya lay just north of Paradip port.
In 2018, the Sahani family left their home in Satbhaya and resettled in Bagapatia, Odisha’s first resettlement colony for climate migrants – that is, people who leave their homes due to climate-related factors, such as climate-induced droughts and floods. When the Sahani family left from Satbhaya in 2018, the sea was just 10 metres away from their home.
They and other families moved as part of the Odisha government’s resettlement programme for the panchayat of Satbhaya – which was initially a cluster of seven villages, but of which only four remained over water when the resettlement was carried out. Starting from 2017, the state government relocated 571 families from the villages to 17 grid-like lanes in Bagapatia. On April 23, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik sanctioned Rs 22 crore for the development of the area, after his personal secretary, who also oversees an initiative of the chief minister focused on the “transformation” of the state, visited the resettlement colony and held discussions with the residents.
While the new village offered the families housing security, they were stripped of their livelihoods. Moving inland from the coast meant losing access to a bounty of produce, such as freshwater and marine fish and prawns, and honey from mangrove forests, as well as agricultural lands where the families grew rice once in the year. Families also lost access to pasture lands, which allowed them to raise cows and buffaloes for milk. “We had 12 acres of agricultural land in Satbhaya,” Sahani said. “But after resettlement in Bagapatia, we only received 10 decimals of land on which we built our houses. There was no land given for agriculture.” (A decimal is roughly a tenth of an acre.)
This was why, the year they relocated to Bagapatia, Sahani’s husband and sons began migrating to Kerala. Her sons work on various tasks that are part of the plywood manufacturing process, while her husband works as a cook in another plywood factory.
Between the three men, the Sahani family earns between Rs 30,000 and Rs 35,000 every month, of which they send a little more than half back home to Bagapatia. “My sons decided to leave their studies and join their father,” Sahani said. “It was difficult to make ends meet here.”
Today, barring a family or two, all of Satbhaya’s residents have been resettled to Bagapatia, while other families moved out before the state began the resettlement process, and constructed houses in other villages nearby.
The thoroughness of the relocation belies the fact that the state government began it only after residents had demanded it for years. “We had asked the state government to relocate us after the super cyclone of 1999, when there was a lot of loss of property and people,” said Prasanna Parida, the sarpanch of Satbhaya. (Though the original settlement of Satbhaya is largely uninhabited, six villages in the area, including Bagapatia, still fall under its panchayat.)
The government conducted a survey of Satbhaya and its impacted residents only in 2010. When work on relocation proceeded slowly even after this, the residents, including Parida, sat on a hunger strike in front of the district collector’s office in 2015. “So, it’s not like we got this colony easily, we really had to fight for it,” he said.
But families continue to deal with the economic blows of the relocation. “We have about 700 houses in this panchayat,” Parida said. “From each house, you can confidently assume at least one member, and in many cases two, are migrating out of the state to look for work.” Before he was elected as a sarpanch in 2022, Parida too worked in a plywood factory in Ernakulam, for 15 years.
“This migration is not out of the necessity for a better life as you would see in, say, Bihar,” Parida said. “It is forced, since the sea started eating villages.” He called the migration “majboori” or compulsion, a word that all families Scroll spoke with used. “When you leave your village, your lands, and you work in a different place, you work like a slave,” he said.
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Generations of children in coastal Satbhaya grew up with a folk tale that spoke of the problem of rising sea levels. The King of Kanika, who established Satbhaya under his territory, once dreamt of five deities, jointly known as Panchburahi, who guaranteed that they would protect the village if the king promised to worship them. The king agreed and decided to build the deities a temple as grand as the Jagganath temple at Puri.
But before construction could begin, vaastu experts warned the king that in a few years, the sea would swallow the temple. So instead, the king decided to build a much smaller temple – one that locals prayed at for several generations.
This temple was, indeed, submerged by the sea – it was last seen above water between 2016 and 2017. When the village relocated, residents carried with them five large, ancient statues of the deities, which were placed in a new temple that the state government built in Bagapatia. This new temple is now an important landmark – every week, two buses line up here to pick up residents of Bagapatia to take them on the two-day journey to Ernakulam.
A day after Sushmita Sahani bid her son goodbye at the bus stop, we sat in her verandah, talking about the family’s struggles, and the struggles of other relocated families. Around 50 metres from the house was a large pond, which had existed before the families were resettled in Bagapatia. Though there was light, intermittent rain that morning, several men and women from Bagapatia were busy casting their fishing nets and collecting small fish in cane baskets tied to their waists.
Sahani explained that relocated families had struggled with the nature of the land on which the new village was established – earlier, she said, a prawn farm had been located on the land, which comprised several ponds, like the one in which residents were fishing that morning. “Before we built the house, even this area where we are sitting right now was about 50 feet below, as deep as that pond,” Sahani explained. She added, “We spent a lot of money to fill up the land.”
Other families Scroll spoke with also complained about the swampy nature of the land and said they had to spend significant sums from the relocation packages the government had given them on preparing the land for construction.
The relocation package did account for this expense. It comprised a total of Rs 1.5 lakh for each family –this included Rs 1.2 lakh that was provided under the Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana, a housing scheme of the Odisha government, Rs 12,000 provided under the Swachh Bharat mission, to fund the construction of toilets, and Rs 10,000 provided to be used to fill up the land. But, many residents of Bagapatia noted, this last amount was insufficient – most said that they spent between Rs 16,000 to Rs 50,000 on the land-filling work.
As a result of this additional expense, Sahani’s house lay unfinished, even five years after the family relocated. “We now wait for my husband and sons’ salaries to build the house bit by bit,” Sahani said.
This was the case with most of the houses in Bagapatia. Red brick walls waited for layers of plaster, rebars peeped out of concrete, and some houses still only had thatched roofs. When cyclones and heavy storms hit, many residents of the partially completed homes said they rush to the cyclone shelter in Bagapatia, or to their neighbours’ stronger homes, carrying important documents, unsure of whether their homes will be able to withstand the heavy winds.
In the lane opposite the one on which Sumitra Sahani lives, 46-year-old Pratap Sahani had returned from Ernakulam on leave. “Every time it rains, the front of the house gets flooded,” he said pointing towards the light shower that was falling inside his verandah, and at water slowly pooling on the floor. “I took leave specifically to cover the verandah up.” Pratap began working in the plywood industry around 25 years ago, after his farmland in Satbhaya was taken by the sea.
While Pratap agreed that the relocation package helped him begin building a house, migrating and working in Kerala was the only way he could continue sustaining his family. “The house is not the only responsibility,” he said. “I also have to consider the future of my children, their education and care, for which we need a regular income.”
When Pratap had first migrated to Ernakulam, he was among the few people from Odisha who worked there. Today, he estimates that about 75% of migrants in Bagapatia were working in Ernakulam’s plywood industry.
Pratap earns between Rs 10,000 to Rs 15,000 a month, of which he sends half back home. He works between 8 am and 5 pm, and shares a room with six other men.
Initially, Pratap worried about the food provided in the mess at the factory. “A lot of local people there eat beef,” he said. “But we do not consider it appropriate in our culture, and we could not have eaten with them.” But not long after he began work, his factory employed an Odia cook to prepare food for the workers with flavours they liked.
Pratap spoke fondly of some parts of his work. Every Diwali, for instance, his employer organises a three-day, all-expenses-paid trip to Bengaluru for the workers. “It’s such a big and beautiful city!” he exclaimed to his sister sitting next to him, his face lighting up.
But he longed to return to Odisha. “Odisha is my motherland, I was born here and want to die here,” he said, adding that he looks forward to ultimately finding work back home one day. “When your family is here, your children are here, who wants to go to a different place? Lekin majboori hai,” it is out of compulsion, he said.
But even if he were to find work in Odisha, an unsettled life awaits workers like him in Bagapatia – and not only because of the families’ struggles to construct their houses. According to Lopamudra Sahani, a field coordinator with the Regional Centre for Development Corporation, or RCDC, an NGO that works in the area, none of the families that were allotted plots in Bagapatia own land titles to them, which they need if they want to apply for loans for expenses such as building houses or buying motorcycles. They also cannot apply for caste certificates, for which also they would have to furnish proof of residence.
“At this point, it is not possible to give them the land titles,” said Shiva Prasad Chatterjee, a clerk at the tehsildar’s office in Rajnagar, who closely coordinates the relocation project. He explained that the land had not been surveyed yet, and that the government had not prepared revenue department documents that laid out the nature, area and ownership details of land in the village.
“We have only been able to provide the people plots based on arbitrary maps,” Chatterjee said. In 2022, Chatterjee added, an additional list of 247 families who would be offered the relocation package was prepared.
Chatterjee also explained that government had not surveyed the land yet because the task was one of daunting complexity – while some of the land was under government ownership, some belonged to the erstwhile Kanika princely state. There were also some “buffers”, he added, referring to lands whose “final jurisdiction”, or ownership, were unclear. Soon, he added, a new survey would be planned to end all confusions regarding the matter, after which Bagapatia residents would be provided land titles.
Meanwhile, Chatterjee said, a number of relocated families from Bagapatia were demanding more land. “We first did the survey of Satbhaya in 2010, based on which a list of all those married at that point were included as beneficiaries to the relocation package,” he explained. But, by the time the relocation took place in 2017, many more young men had married, none of whom were considered eligible for the plot or the monetary package. “There is only limited land available, and development work also has to be planned on it, like digging ponds, and making parks,” Chatterjee said. “How can we give so much land as plots then?”
So far, in Bagapatia, the government has built a cyclone shelter, a panchayat office, and a government school. Sahani’s daughter attends the school. It has students from Class 1 to Class 10, but all of them are taught by just one primary school teacher. The school building has very few classrooms, and most of the classes are conducted in Bagapatia’s cyclone shelter, a large concrete hall, constructed several feet off the ground.
As the rain finally paused, Sumitra Sahani stepped out into a dense kitchen garden around her small plot of land. In it, she cultivates green chillies, brinjals, tomatoes, and poi, a type of spinach. She sells her produce directly to other families in Bagapatia, and to the market in Gupti, a village about three kilometres from her house. “I decided to grow this kitchen garden to support my family,” Sahani said.
Like Sahani, members of around 290 other families in the resettlement colony have been experimenting with kitchen gardens since the beginning of this year. RCDC partnered with the Odisha state government to support the initiative by providing seeds, waste decomposers, and saplings to the families.
“When the families initially moved here, there were no local livelihood options at all,” said Lopamudra Sahani, the field coordinator with RCDC, whose family also migrated from Satbhaya, and whose maternal house is in Bagapatia. “Now, we have been providing training for composting, and forming self-help groups to support initiatives like tailoring, and poultry and goat rearing. While our efforts have just begun and it would take time to see the impacts, at least the women left behind have some livelihood options available.”
Sarpanch Parida argued that if the government helped create livelihood options in Bagapatia, migration from the village could be arrested. “With proper linkages with the market, people here can catch and export fish,” he said. He added that many locals could also be trained and employed as tourist guides, since Bagapatia is adjacent to the Bhitarkanika National Park, known for its mangrove forest and healthy crocodile population. “If this area is developed as a tourist destination, we can invest in building hotels,” Parida said.
The idea is not far-fetched. About 20 km away, in another village, Dangamal, which has one of the entry gates to the national park, many small guesthouses and restaurants have opened up, most with support from the forest department.
The forest department formed ecotourism societies in some villages, Hemant Panigrahi, a field assistant at Bhitarkanika National Park said, “to provide locals with alternate livelihood opportunities.” These groups included those that would be indirectly linked with tourism in the area – Panigrahi explained, for instance, that some groups work with households that grow vegetables, and supply them to restaurants and guest houses.
Sahani’s neighbour and sister-in-law Padmavati Pradhan took help from RCDC earlier this year to begin rearing poultry – the organisation provided her with chicks at no cost. She has been rearing them for three months, and is waiting for a few more months before she begins selling them.
About a decade ago, Pradhan had briefly migrated with her husband Pramod to Ernakulam and lived there for five years. “I saw my husband work for about 12 hours a day, and I worried about his health,” she said. She added that she also heard other wives talking about the deteriorating heart health of their husbands working in the plywood industry. “They inhale plywood powder, which also causes breathing trouble,” she said.
Pramod migrated about twenty years ago, when residents of Satbhaya first started noticing the sea eating their agricultural lands. He, along with his parents, decided to shift further inside to the village of Kilbad – outside of Satbhaya panchayat – to escape the sea water. To build a new house in a different village, the family needed the money. “So, my husband started going to Kerala,” Pradhan explained.
By the time she and her children returned to Odisha after their years there, their old fields in Satbhaya had turned completely saline, making them unfit for agriculture. Some male members of the family took to fishing, travelling to and fro from their new house to their old village of Satbhaya for the work.
But over time, they noticed more private trawlers entering the sea and dominating the fish catch. This only exacerbated locals’ struggle to access the natural resources in and around Satbhaya – since 1988, when Bhitarkanika forest became a national park, the forest department had steadily grown stricter in controlling villages’ access to the forest, and resources like honey and wood. Today, even to enter Satbhaya, one needs permission from the forest department. Pradhan hopes the government’s support in Bagapatia will help ease their struggles to make ends meet.
She had just finished feeding her hens bird feed when another spell of rain began. Sahani watched her as Pradhan quickly ushered the birds back into their cages.
Looking at the rain, Sahani said, “When we were living in Satbhaya, how to deal with cyclones and storms was our hobby” – she was using the word “hobby” in English to refer to expertise. “Now, how to live alone without husbands has become a hobby,” she added, before we went on to eat our lunch of mustard fish curry, rice, and masala-filled eggplant.
On a Sunday, almost a month later, I sat in Perumbavoor market, 2,000 km away from Pradhan’s home, eating a breakfast of idlis, vadas, coconut chutney, and sambar. Against the calm of the Sunday morning, Pradhan’s hen business had caused a small tizzy.
“This hen business,” Pradhan’s husband Pramod scoffed. “Better not to talk about it. She wants to do this business to help but you know, I have sent her almost Rs 6,000 through PayTM for the bird feed since she has started raising them! This has become a heavy expenditure.”
He added that he worries about how they will afford the expenses of getting a business up and running with only money from his income. He and his wife had been fighting about this matter for three months.
Pramod is the head of operations at the plywood factory in Perumbavoor where he works. The town is centred around a busy road, on which trucks ply timber. The road and others around it are dotted with many hotels, low-budget eateries and medical stores. Away from the market are multiple plywood factories, easily recognisable with their tall, expansive tin sheds, piles of timber, drums of wheat and maida, which are turned into glue for the plywood, and neatly stacked readied boards of ply.
As we finished our idlis, Pramod moved on from his worries about his wife’s hen business, jumping between fluent Malayalam and Hindi as he addressed me and our taxi driver, a local resident of Ernakulam. “Around noon, it will be extremely busy with all our Odia friends here enjoying their Sunday in the bars, or visiting the market,” he said. Our taxi driver added with a smile, “Five hundred meters from here, you will rarely find any Malayalee. Just north Indians in Perumbavoor!”
While most of the plywood factories here are owned by residents of Kerala, their labour force is overwhelmingly comprised of workers from Odisha and Assam. It is in this town’s bus stop that the 36-hour journey from Bagapatia ends.
“Sookh jata hai insaan,” the journey sucks people dry, Pramod said. He explained that a ticket for the bus, which is not air-conditioned, costs Rs 1,500, and that two drivers take turns to drive, halting occasionally at dhabas where water is available, so that passengers can relieve themselves and freshen up. “We just sit through the journey and watch videos on the phone,” he added.
Pramod first migrated from Satbhaya when he was 16. “If you have to depend on two meals a day instead of three, what would you do?” he said, as we spoke in a taxi on the way to visit a few of Perumbavoor’s plywood factories. “You have to find ways to feed your family.”
After the sea started eating their agricultural land, Pramod tried his hand as a cook’s assistant at an Indian army camp within Odisha, and as a worker in multiple plywood factories in Perumbavoor, before he was promoted to head of operations at the factory where he currently works. Though he had spent over 25 years outside of his village, memories of collecting honey and hunting in the Bhitarkanika forest flowed through his conversation with me.
Workers told me that the money they earn is just enough to support their families, and meet their own expenses. Ram Malik, who is 24, and who was also allotted a plot in Bagapatia, explained that his family house is slowly being built with money from his income, while his wife and parents live in a rented accommodation in Gupti, a village about three kilometers from the resettlement colony.
Malik, who asked to be identified by a pseudonym, earns about Rs 16,000 a month, disbursed in weekly instalments. “The best part is that the salary never gets delayed,” Malik said. “But we are not able to save anything.” His colleagues listed down various expenditures in a month – Rs 700 for the mess where they eat, between Rs 5,000 and Rs 6,000 to be sent home, Rs 10 for each cigarette they smoke, and other miscellaneous living costs in Ernakulam.
Malik and others I spoke to work 12-hour shifts through mornings and nights, engaging in different tasks, including drying peels of wood, firing them, flattening the peels in a hot press, then layering them to the required thickness. One “patta”, or slab of plywood, takes work from about 75 men at different stages, a worker informed me.
Shifting from fishing and agriculture to the tasks of plywood making was not easy, and it took the Satbhaya migrants a few months to learn, as they shadowed more experienced colleagues. Even after they learnt the work, it took a physical toll on them, since it requires standing for hours at a stretch, with only a tea and lunch break in the middle.
Most workers have accepted that back pain is a normal part of their work. “Yes, pain is common,” Malik said. He added, nonchalantly, “We eat a tablet whenever needed,” referring to painkillers.
As we walked past equipment in the factory, there were fine, dust-like particles of plywood floating in the air, which caused me to cough. Pramod explained that the inhalation of this powder is a health hazard in the line of work. “We are provided masks to wear while working,” he said.
Apart from their struggles here, workers also worry about their families’ circumstances in Odisha. Ranjan, who is 35, explained that though he was married at the time the government surveyed Satbhaya ahead of planning the relocation of residents, his name did not appear in the list of beneficiaries. “My name and one brother’s name did not appear in the list,” he said, as we stood in the open kitchen of the factory where he works. An Odia cook was preparing their lunch for the day, and fish covered in mustard and masala was ready to be fried in a large wok. Ranjan added, “Three other brothers got the package.”
Ranjan’s father did receive a resettlement package, of 10 decimals of land, and money for construction – he did not give Ranjan any part of the land he was assigned. In 2018, Ranjan constructed a kachha mud and thatch house in Bagapatia for his wife and children to live in. “I decided to build this house in Bagapatia so that my family could be close to the rest of Satbhaya’s residents,” he said. He admitted that he had not bought the land yet.
In the plywood factory where he works, 18 workers are from Satbhaya. Of them, at least four shared similar concerns about not being given any relocation package. “It looks like an error by the government,” Ranjan said. “We don’t know if this will get resolved soon.” The collector of Kendrapara did not respond to Scroll’s queries about these errors that local residents referred to.
Ranjan’s children study in Bagapatia’s government school along with Pramod and Sahani’s children. But since the school does not have enough teachers, Ranjan’s children also go for tuitions in the same colony, which are an added expense for the family. In total, Ranjan sends about Rs 10,000 every month to his family in Bagapatia.
“Some also get their families with them to live here,” Pramod said. “But then, there are extra expenditures, like renting an accommodation, which goes up to Rs 4,000.” Despite their ongoing strife, Pramod fondly remembered the five years his wife lived with him. “The five years felt like five months when she was here,” he said later, when he showed me the hospital in Perumbavoor where his elder son was born.
Today, since he manages operations, Pramod’s employer has assigned him a room of his own – what was earlier his factory’s office. The room has a tin roof and walls, with a whirring floor fan in one corner, a narrow bed, an old car seat refashioned as a sofa, a red electric kettle which Pramod uses to boil milk, and a television.
Other workers in this factory typically share a room with four or five others. The rooms are located in barracks with common toilets. In summers, temperatures soar, and in one such accommodation, workers had set up mosquito nets in the open factory warehouse area, where it was cooler.
Watching his colleagues resting in their stuffy rooms on that Sunday, Pramod said, “There is a big difference between working on your own land, and working for someone else. But we have to do it.” He added, “Since other people from Odisha are here, it is not that bad, it feels like family.”
“He says it often feels like family,” Pramod’s wife Padmavati Pradhan had said when I met her almost a month before meeting Pramod, as we chatted in their unfinished home in Bagapatia. Thinking of her husband then, she had given me a fair picture of how her husband would usually spend Sundays – “He meets other friends from Odisha, sometimes they go out to eat at a hotel.”
Indeed, a month later, I shared meals with Pramod and others at local restaurants – first breakfast and then lunch, when Pramod’s friend, Braj Kishore, a manager at another plywood factory, took us to a restaurant that served chicken biryani. “The only Kerala meal that we enjoy,” said Kishore, who is also from Kendrapara district. As we dug into the biryani, Pramod and Kishore engaged in playful banter, then discussed Pramod’s home in Bagapatia which needed one last round of work before it would be complete. This led Pramod into stories about hunting as a child, and gathering honey from the trees in and around his village, much of which lies under the sea.
This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.