The lives of littoral people in Rehania

by Tamanna Nazneen

Rehania, a coastal village of Bangladesh in Hatiya island, Noakhali. Cyclone, coastal flood, water salinity are some of the common natural hazards in Rehania. Recently, a research survey named DECCMA (Deltas, Vulnerability and Climate Change: Migration and Adaptation) under RMMRU (Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit) has been held in this area. For this reason, I had the great opportunity to go to Hatiya and observe the lifestyle of the people in the Rehania village.

Most of the people of Rehania are the victim of natural hazards like flood, river erosion and cyclone. They migrated here from other coastal areas of Noakhali, Lakshmipur, Bhola and Sandhwip (Chittagong). They lost everything from river erosion and cyclones. Government re-habilitated them on the two sides of river dam and gave two decimal lands per family. But it was inadequate for them.

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There is lack of effective livelihoods. At first, they earned their livelihood by farming and fishing, but the farming lands in the surrounding areas are also affected by floods more than three times in a year. Flood water is very saline here and as a result, the farming lands become saline. During dry season, a white layer of salt is visible on the land. So farming becomes difficult here. Farmers grow Aaush paddy (a variation of paddy, grows in summer and be harvested during monsoon), chilli and ground nut, but in the most cases crops were destroyed because of flood and water salinity.

Due to global warming, sea levels are rising and salinity of the sea is entering up stream through rivers and feeder canals. Most of the farmers thus leave farming and change their liveli-hood. In recent years, they earn their livelihood by fishing and doing other jobs through migra-tion. Seasonal migration is an important livelihood strategy to these families. More than 70% of their incomes are derived from outside the village. Among the seasonal migrants most of them work in brickfields in Chittagong. They always go there under a contract and after a working season they come back to home with their wages, of which a mentionable amount is spent for buying fishing nets and boats (in share). They also send some remittances for their family. Fishing is their monsoon season job and during dry season they always migrate for other work (specially in brickfield).

In Rehania, many women are self-employed by animal husbandry. They lease cattle and tend. In exchange, they get some money and can sell milk after giving a specific portion to the cattle owner. When we went to Rehania village for the survey and wanted to interview them, at first, they thought of us as government workers who had come to them for reporting about their life conditions so that they could get their desired governmental help like, materials for building more sustainable house and sanitary latrine. They were eager to take effective training about cultivation method of flood prone areas and also wanted subsidy for agriculture, saline water tolerant crops’ seeds and fishing materials.

When they came to know about our research and its aim, they became tamed, but most of them spread their helping hand and cordially responded to our questionnaire. Though their life is afflicted with lots of pain, they never give up their smiles and hospitality. Whenever we went to any respondent’s house they treated us with green coconuts, ground nuts, mangoes and whatever they had. We were amazed with their cordial behaviour and realized again the hospitable nature of the Bangladeshi people.

We were also amazed with the children of Rehania. They were very interesting. They cu-riously stared at us, what we were doing with our tablets and questionnaire paper. They wanted to follow us whole the time, but we insisted that they not follow us and instead that they go to their school. Whenever it was possible we offered them chocolates, biscuits, juice to have with us. They also gave us red hibiscus flowers. This flower is available in every house and road sides.

Natural disasters are a part of their life. They always have to face it and struggle against it just like other littoral people. Naturally, they are brave and have adaptational capacities in such a hostile environment. They know how to keep their house safe from cyclones by planting banana and coconut trees around their houses. For a better livelihood they migrate to other places and try to send remittances. They are optimist about their life. They just want some governmental help to make their livelihood more sustainable. The days may be hard, but their hopes and aspirations never be tamed. The always-smiling face is the symbol of their life spirit.

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Trees and tender-heartedness in Borguna

by Shihab

Now a days, migration and climate change are talked regularly. When one person goes from one place to another, this is called migration. My long dream was to come to work with RMMRU. I think that these days were some of the greatest days of my life. As a supervisor, my main task was to supervise and monitor the field.

First of all, RMMRU selected a team. That team consisted of seven members (including myself). My first trip was to Assassuni in Satkhira Districts. After a long journey, we came Satkhira, but when we disembarked from bus, we faced different types of problems that came one after one. Due to the strong bond of my team, we overcame all the problems. Every member of my team was kind and our sophisticated thinking allowed us to handle any type of problem easily. After Assassuni, we went to Kaligong in Satkhira. Kaligong was excellent area. After completing our work in Kaligong, we reached Satkhira Sadar.

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As usual, we woke up early in the morning, and after completing our breakfast, we went to field, but we didn’t find anyone. After searching, we came to the conclusion that there was a listing problem. So, we came back to Dhaka with the work unfinished. After four days rest, we went to Borguna. Borguna field was very much enjoyable compared to the other areas. Every village of Borguna was covered with trees and informants were so friendly to us. Right now we miss those people. That was the story of two fields, they are Hoglapasha and Borguna Sadar. But Gendamara was different field and also difficult. I’ve never seen a village as massive village as Gendamara. There was no transport systems in whole village. Villagers were used to walking. So, they have no problems, but we are not accustomed to walking. We worked here easily and were enthusiastic about being there. After completing our Taltoli field, we went to Patuakhali Kalapara. After completing Kalapara field, we got one day vacation, we use it to visit Kuakata where you can watch sunset and sunrise. We saw some nice nature and water. In this same way we finished our Patuakhali Sadar and Mirjagong field. Banajora Boufol in Patuakhali was so dif-ferent from the other places. We encountered some folks who held strong views and this created some difficulties. Still, we enjoyed afull moonlit night with the river blows. That was amazing. After four days rest, we prepared to go a new field in Chandpur. We know Chandpur was abounding with fish. Above all, I like to describe my happy moments. However, I think I hold this memory in the corner of my heart. Thanks to RMMRU for this excellent trip, I eagerly await the next opportunity.

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Migration & Adaptation: A Short Story of Khulna & Jessore

by Md. Niaz Murshed

Khulna is the third largest city in Bangladesh. It is situated on the banks of the Bhairab and Rupsha rivers. It is also the centre point of the Khulna division. Khulna is also known for its port. This division consisted of ten districts and it is the gateway to the world largest mangrove forest, the Sundarbans. Mangla is home to an important port for Southwest Bangladesh. It has fabulous natural beauty, but the lifestyle is not so easy here: drought, cyclone and other weather events are a regular phenomenon here. With each day, the risks increase. The local people have to fight for water on a regular basis. Khulna is also in a dangerous point because of climate change. Experts think that the future will be worse than the present.

image001 Phultola is a village in Batiaghata Upazilla near Pashur river. Most of the population is educated. Some people are living in other cities because of their studies and employment, and some are living abroad. People are mainly involved with agriculture. They are producing seasonal fruits and crops including paddy, daal, several vegetables etc. Most of the houses are made of wood and leaves. Some people are engaged with prawn cultivation. Drought and cyclone are the main natural disasters here. Because of the saltiness in the soil, agriculture is becoming increasingly difficult.

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Saral ward of Paikgacha Upazilla is situated just in the middle of the Upazilla. Most of the peo-ple are permanent residents here. They are mainly engaged with business, though some people are involved with prawn cultivation.

The devastating form of nature can be seen from Amurkata , a village of Soladana Union of Paikgacha. It is situated near the river, Shibsha. The village has poor communication systems. Van, motorcycle and various local vehicles are the main medium for transport. For 2 pots of wa-ter village women have to go three or four kilometres away from the village. They don’t have proper drinking water or water for daily use. Most of the people work outside of the village. Most of them go to Gopalganj or Khulna district for a job. During cultivation, men and women work together in the field. Amurkata has huge lakes for prawns. Those who have smaller fields cultivate prawns and crabs. Because of saltiness in the water, they do not have any other option for cultivation. Houses are made of several leaves and soil. Because of the cyclones, there is a school which can be used as a cyclone centre as well.

image003Our second place was Jessore beside Kapataksha river which is related with poet Michael Madhushudan Dutta. Jessore is one of the districts of Khulna. Jessore is also one of the oldest cities. It has eight Upazillas. During the British Raj period, Jessore was a “mahakuma”.
Kotoali, Bagharpara , Keshobpur and Manirampur were our workplaces. Bahadurpur of Kotoali Upazila had less risks. Sekandardarpur of Bagharpara and Panjia of Keshobpur are less affected by natural disasters. Only Diganga of Manirampur has the risk of flood, but it is not because of nature, but because of drainage problem.

After observation on four Upazillas of Jessore we found that people are mainly involved with agriculture. But they work in their own fields with different vegetables, paddy, mustard, daal and wheat. They produce fruit for a commercial purpose.

To have good lifestyle, people work in the capital city, their own divisional city or abroad. For higher education many people live in cities.

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Work with RMMRU and DECCMA: seeing a new side of Bangladesh and feeling a deeper connection to the country as a whole

by Rabeya Bosri Chandni, Research Assistant

While working at RMMRU, it was easy to forget I was in an office. Everyone is very cordial there. Colleagues are often introduced as “senior friends.”

image001We worked in Khulna, Jessore, and Bagerhat Districts. Among the various field-sites we worked at, I remember two names especially – Moralganj and Amurkata. In my opinion, the situation in Amurkata indicates the unequal development that occurs across Bangladesh. Many essential facilities seem to be lacking or in need of improvement. Similarly, people in Moralgonj face difficulties in accessing clean water, while also being vulnerable to getting trapped in the oppressive loan-interest cycle.

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These experiences have certainly impacted my professional life, but they also made an impression upon my personal life. The culture of team-work that I encountered in the work, especially, has influenced me in a personal way. As well, I feel even more connected to my identity as a Bangladeshi citizen because of my participation in this work.

Through this work, I have seen my country in a new face, which is not gorgeous, not well-developed. It is, I think, a sleeping beauty. The visits to various Upzillas of Bangladesh have created a feeling of real citizenship for me. Living in a particular area gives a person a particular sense of identity, of belonging. However, I feel as if this fieldwork experience has enabled me to go beyond my Dhaka and Gazipur identities, so that I now feel that the whole country is my place.
I would like to thank the DECCMA project and all of my colleagues at RMMRU – I’m grateful that I had the chance to work with them, and learn so many things from them.

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The lengths one must go for drinking water

by Aysha Akter Akhi

image003I went to Noakhali, Laxmipur, Khulna, Bagerhat, Jessore, and Gopalgonj for field surveys for the DECCMA project. I gained so many experiences from this journey. Among them, I can share the place called Amurkata of Paikgacha of the Khulna district. In Amurkata, there is a scarcity of drinking water. This area of six or seven kilometres has no internal transport. People paddle from one part to another. The ground in that the area is high in salinity. There are also very few trees and the weather is quite rough. People often travel three of four kilometres by foot to collect drinking water from a deep well which is placed in “Local Bazaar.” Every day in the morning or evening, they go with one or two jars to collect water. In today’s age, this scenario is shocking to see.image001

Working with RMMRU on DECCMA; The memories I will not forget

by Rafiqul Islam, Research Assistant (RMMRU)

Life is full of experience. I want to write my experience about the journey to perform research with RMMRU, and about the memorable time which I spend with my colleagues.

I can’t express myself so smoothly in writing. First, I want to give thanks to my lord, because I think I am so lucky to work with RMMRU for a few months. In those few months I have learned many things from RMMRU and from my colleagues.

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I joined RMMRU in March, and then I started my work. First, I went to Chandpur, Lakshmipur and Bhola to conduct household listing surveys. We faced some accommodation problems. My colleagues were very supportive and helpful to me as we overcame all sorts of problems regarding staying, eating, and travelling. I was one of the younger boys on my team, so I have received love from my senior brothers. Basically I am a jolly-minded boy, so I can communicate with my respondents and my colleagues spontaneously. But when we had to go do the surveys, we had faced some problems because we had no female member in the group. When we reached each household, a few people were reluctant to participate in our survey, but generally the majority were very helpful to us in our research. After completing these surveys, we returned to Dhaka.

Then, in April, we left Dhaka again for another round of field work and to conduct interviews with selected respondents. This time I was in a new group. Our journey was good. We had 7 members on our team including me. My partner was Tamanna Apu. Frankly speaking, at first I was not comfortable with her because her way of thinking and my way of thinking was a little bit different. Gradually we under-stood each other’s work and we became good friends for the purpose of the work. My other team members like Musabbir Bhai, Saiful and Roni Bhai, Ridita and Popy Apu were too good. We had two members replacing Roni Bhai and Saiful were Himel and Tanjim Bhai. They were also friendly. Girls were so sincere for their work. Every morning girls were got up from bed early in the morning and got ready quickly. After getting ready they were waiting for us. All of these moments were so memorable for me. All these things made for a very friendly work environment. This friendly attitude among team members was not limited to the work, but also in all spheres, generally, we got along as a team. I really will not forget those days.

Another memorable day was visiting our field work by Ricardo and Rocky Bhai in Lakshmipur. I was little bit sick and nervous that day because Rocky Bhai scolded us for our mistake. At that moment I was sad after that I have realized that it was my fault. I always respect and love Rocky Bhai from the core of my heart undoubtedly. A most horrible experience occurred on 28th May 2016.On that day we started our journey from Lakshmipur sadar to Bhola on a trawler ship, when suddenly a storm began. All of us had begun to fear for our lives, but by the grace of almighty Allah we made it through with our lives. We have finished our journey through some ups and downs, but, in the end, the experience left me with one of the more significant memories in my life.

It was a great opportunity for me to work with a reputed organization like RMMRU. Finally, I want to thank all the members of RMMRU.

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Land disappearing beneath your feet – environmental migration in the Sundarbans

by Colette Mortreux, Rituparna Hajra and Tuhin Ghosh (DECCMA)

Like all deltas, the islands in the Sundarbans are constantly being remoulded by environmental forces. Formation and reformation of islands results from the balance (or otherwise) between inflows of water and sediment load. When rainfall or snowmelt in the highlands is high, the greater erosive force of the river reduces the size of the islands; but when water in the river is reduced it encourages sedimentation and the growth of the islands. Sea level rise also plays a role in the dynamic environment.

Map 1: location of Ghoramara and Sagar islands in the Indian Bengal delta

Map 1: location of Ghoramara and Sagar islands in the Indian Bengal delta

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Ghoramara island, in the Hoogly estuary in the southwest of the Sundarbans (map 1), was formed in the early 20th century. Particularly high water levels submerged a larger island – Sagar (see map 1), resulting in the formation of five additional islands. It remained relatively stable when the freshwater flow from the Ganges River was fairly stable. Underground tectonic movements then led to a slight shift eastwards in the course of the Ganges. The result was that water inflow was significantly reduced and, as the dynamics in the estuary responded, Ghoramara began to be eroded. Its land area has halved in less than 40 years – from 8.5km2 in 1975, to less than 4.5km2 in 2012 (map 2).

Map 2: Shrinking area of Ghoramara island between 1975-2012

Map 2: Shrinking area of Ghoramara island between 1975-2012

Recognising the dynamism of deltas, in the late 1970s the Government of West Bengal declared Ghoramara island as ‘No man’s land’. Support for protective infrastructure, such as the construction of embankments, and services such as health, drinking water and education was stopped. As the land disappeared beneath their feet, the 5000 inhabitants of Ghoramara had no choice but to leave their homes – true environmental migrants.

Together with environmental migrants from two other islands that has been completely submerged – Lohachara and Khasimara – residents of Ghoramara were resettled in seven colonies on other islands, or on the mainland. Land Records from Sagar Block highlighted that legal titles, or pattas, were granted to the environmental migrants to Sagar Island. First phase migrants in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly from the submerged Lohachara sland, received 1.2-1.6 acres per each household. Those from Khasimara and Ghoramara tended to migrate later, in the 1990s. They were granted smaller plots (0.4 to 0.8 acres) but also received a one room house from the government schemes (Indira Awas Yojana).

Environmental migrants to Sagar Island were also supported with activities to enable them to rebuild their livelihoods. Stable embankment, fresh water ponds were constructed, and government food rations were available until they became established (including 300 gms wheat and 500 gms rice per head per week).

Figure 1b: Population Growth Trend in Sagar Island during 1971-2001 (Source: Ghosh et al. 2014)

Figure 1b: Population Growth Trend in Sagar Island during 1971-2001 (Source: Ghosh et al. 2014)

Figure 1a: Population Growth Trend in Ghoramara Island during 1971-2001 (Source: Ghosh et al. 2014)

Figure 1a: Population Growth Trend in Ghoramara Island during 1971-2001 (Source: Ghosh et al. 2014)

The problem is that the ongoing influx of migrants led to population growth in Sagar Island exceeding projections (figure 1a & b). This has placed a strain on resources. Resettled migrants now complain of degradation in their living conditions, including lack of availability of drinking water and sanitation.

Neither India’s national government nor the state government of West Bengal have resettlement and rehabilitation policies to cover displaced people, which means that there is also no planned compensation package. Population pressure and the resultant demands on resources mean it is not realistic to expect the authorities in the receiving areas to provide livelihood compensation for environmental migrants. Some are able to practice fishing, deep sea fishing, and agriculture. Others are forced to migrate again, shifting the problem elsewhere. Given that the nature of the delta means land is going to continue to disappear beneath people’s feet, a proactive approach by government is necessary to provide for environmental migrants.

 

 

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Left-behind women, left-behind wives

by Georgia Prati

The gendered impact of migration in the Mahanadi delta

Woman preparing food

Woman preparing food

Bina lives in a remote village situated on a spit of land at the crossing of the rivers Brahamani, Hansua and Kharasrota. Her husband is working in Delhi while she is looking after their two children, one boy and one girl. They live in a mud house, on the edge of the Brahamani. It is their third house, the first was lost in the river 15 years ago and the second house had to be evacuated three years ago for the same reason.

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She stares at the water flow determined to show me the exact location of their previous house when she suddenly says “It’s there! Our second house was right there. There was also some agricultural land next to it but now is all lost” her finger points towards the downriver, her tone is powerful, almost excited. I couldn’t help myself from thinking that I would have been devastated if I was talking about my house submerged by the river but, as she will explain later, environmental challenges are the norm in this area. Something you get used to since you are a child, something you learn to cope with and eventually accept as part of your everyday life. Yet, she admits to fear that the river will also take the house where she is currently living and to get nervous sometimes during flood events especially because she is alone with two children. Soon after the birth of their first child, Bina’s husband migrated to Delhi to work as plumber, a common employment for migrants from Kendrapara whose plumbing skills are notorious. He was previously working in agriculture but when they lost the last of their 4 acres land in the river, and he realised that there was no job in the locality, he decided to migrate. At the beginning Bina was living with her in laws in an extended family “I was the youngest sister in law, thus I was the primary carer and I had to ask for permission to leave the house to my mother and sister in law but it was nice to share things, prepare food and eat together”. Odisha3Few years and several economic disputes later, her husband decided to separate. Therefore, she is now living alone with her children in a one room mud house made of a tiny little entrance, a thatched roof made of rice straws, one bed and a small shrine for God’s worship. She receives around 4,000 rupees in remittances every month that she uses for the family primary needs and medical expenses, just enough for living without resorting to loans to make ends meet. Joining her husband in Delhi is not an option, it is too expensive for the whole family to live there. He only returns home once a year for 15 days. “What does it mean to be left-behind?” I ask. She looks at me and takes a deep breath “It means to depend on others and to bear the whole brunt of the responsibilities. If my children want something or they are sick I have to ask my brother to accompany me to the market or to the hospital. I often feel overburden. I can’t give my children the time and attentions they deserve”. Social norms impede women from leaving the village unaccompanied, in some cases they cannot even leave the house. For this reason, men usually take care of any activity that takes place outside the village such as shopping for groceries, going to the bank or accompany family members to the doctor. When men migrate women depend on relatives or neighbours to address these needs. I ask Bina if there is any positive in having a more active role in decision-making, especially concerning financial decisions as she manages the remittances. “The positive aspects are outnumbered by the negatives. I have to think about everything by myself, I don’t feel comfortable and I often feel very emotional. Being alone makes you foolish!” she adds “When my husband is here I feel free”.

OdishaI left Bina with many questions still floating around in my head but it was almost lunch time and she had to start cooking. She made me think about the socio-psychological impact of migration, especially when it is so gender biased. In Kendrapara, a coastal district of the Mahanadi delta, sociocultural norms restrict women’s mobility and access to paid work resulting in larger numbers of women left behind by migrating husbands, brothers and sons. Trapped in challenging environments and disadvantaged by unequal gender and power relations they brave life alone in patriarchal societies where most activities are dominated by men. This often implies having low or no access to assets and services (i.e. credit, capital, livelihoods) and a very low bargaining power. Their strength and ability to thrive and take care of the household despite the difficulties is astonishing but I was also taken aback by the psychological bearing. Although there are differences in terms of exhaustion, mobility and power, depending on factors such as their kinship, age or the household composition, an almost common trait is a sentiment of unhappiness, resignation and loneliness. Migration is accepted for the sake of the family wellbeing or, in most cases, survival but it is very rarely reported by women as an optimal choice. As I was leaving Bina’s house she took my hands and said “Even if I want my husband to return, I know that we don’t have any other choice. I want my children to study and have a better life. What can I do? I hold on and when I’m desperate I cry. I don’t share these feelings with my husband, he is there to work I don’t want to upset him”. She then went to collect the rice straw for cooking, there are still so many things to do until dusk that there is almost no time for her to think about the future.

*Bina is a fantasy name used to protect the privacy and anonymity of the respondent.

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Conducting fieldwork in a highly stratified society

 – On the use of participatory visual methods to engage with the marginalised within Indian rural communities

by Tristan Berchoux

Social issues in rural India

Inequalities are omnipresent within Indian rural communities. They are perpetuated by the system of castes, which leads to a social stratification of India’s population. Moreover, vulnerability to external stresses is also driven by gender discrimination, which follows on from the systemic marginalisation of women and the differences of power relationships that exist between men and women, especially in India. In order to get an overview of communities, social scientists have to face the challenge of getting access to the views of such marginalised groups. This blog presents some of the methods I implemented to address this issue during a research fieldwork conducted in the Mahanadi Delta in India during winter 2016.

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Methods to get the voices of marginalised groups out

As part of our work associated with the characterisation of livelihood dynamics under the threat of external stresses, we’ve conducted an in-depth fieldwork in the Mahanadi Delta in India. First, the fieldwork team interviewed members of governmental agencies, NGO representatives and academics in Bhubaneswar. Then, the team spent 6 weeks conducting Participatory Rural Appraisals (PRAs) in 10 rural communities in the Districts of Nayagarh, Puri, Jagatsinghpur and Kendrapara, spending 2 to 3 days in each community. Participatory Rural Appraisal (PRA) was chosen as the main method for creating primary data as it enables rural communities to share, enhance and analyse their knowledge of life and condition. Different activities were used to cross-check the data collected and to cover all the aspects of livelihood systems, such as wealth ranking, seasonal calendar or community mapping. The PRAs were conducted by one researcher with the help of a translator and a facilitator who were trained before conducting the activities. The researcher monitored the evolution of the PRA and provided guidance to the translator and facilitator.

Implementing PRA in a class and gender-based structure

Focus groups conducted for each PRA activity were purposely held separately between men and women to capture gender differences and to give women, who suffer from a lack of recognition in India, the opportunity to express their opinions and issues. It enabled the women to express their opinions in an environment free from the power pressure of men, focus groups being conducted by a female translator. In some communities, implementing such an approach raised discussions amongst men, many arguing that “women should not be consulted because they don’t know anything”. This example of the social pressure existing between genders was also felt between castes and we also conducted PRAs with Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs) separately. This enabled us to gain access to the opinions of women and socially marginalised groups.

Photovoice to increase participation during PRAs

However, we were also confronted to the ‘habitus’ of social stratification: even with homogenous groups of socially marginalised groups (women, SCs/STs), it appeared to be sometimes difficult to animate the focus group and to co-create the primary data. This lack of participation can be explained by the fact that such groups cannot express their opinions within the community and this pressure remains during focus groups. In order to get round this issue, we decided to add another activity during the PRAs. This activity, called photovoice (www.photovoice.org), is a participatory visual method that uses photography to initiate discussion within the focus groups. After a one-hour training course and the identification of a theme (“household and community assets that are important for their livelihoods), participants were given a camera each for two days so they could document the theme. After the two days, we met in a focus group to review the photos and discuss them. This method was a real success and marginalised participants (women, SCs/STs) got very involved. It led to very interesting discussions that had not been tackled within the previous activities and was a successful way to get the opinions of such groups out.

Conclusion

As a conclusion, it is necessary to extend the range of methods used in social sciences in order to capture the diversity of opinions that exist across the different social stratum within communities. As an example, we successfully used the visual method Photovoice to initiate discussion and get the opinion of marginalised groups such as women and scheduled castes and tribes. The challenge now is to integrate such methods in vulnerability assessment and to take such groups into account in the design of public policies.

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Motivations and challenges of integrating local peoples views into a deterministic model

by Gregory Cooper

From predicting traffic to budgeting monthly expenses, mental models inform everyday decisions by relating possible conditions (e.g. number of cars) to expected outputs (e.g. delay length). As with computational models, mental models are continuously updated as new information comes to light. Consequently, no two perceptions of the world are the same, shaped by individual experiences of interpersonal relationships, culture and the environment around us.

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Mental models have played important roles in the history of Chilika: a 1000 km2 coastal lagoon in the Mahanadi delta, India. For instance, it was hoped that the legalisation of shrimp aquaculture in 1991 would bring economic prosperity by diversifying local livelihoods and boosting annual fishery production. Instead, benefits were reaped by non-native aquaculture entrepreneurs, triggering cultural and socio-economic instability. The institutional settings soon adjusted, largely due to local pressures and scientific contributions of the newly formed Chilika Development Authority (CDA), leading to the banning of shrimp aquaculture in 2001.
Mental models also prompted studies of Chilika’s sediment dynamics in the 1990s, resulting in the new tidal outlet which has since increased fishery productivity 10-fold. Going forward, a balance exists between the institutional-led discouragement of juvenile catch and the desires of some fishers to maximise hauls.
I (very excitedly) travelled to Chilika in early 2016, hoping that both my mental and system dynamics model (SDM) would benefit from exposure to the system and its people. Until February 2016, my SDM was projecting future fishery production from empirical data and published work only. Interviews could tap into decades of experience working, living and ‘dancing’ with the system, as the pioneering system dynamicists Donella Meadows would say. I concentrated on how Chilika’s fishers, scientists and governors perceive the causes of the 1990s collapse, the subsequent recovery and the lagoon’s future. I also hoped the insights would help model evaluation and provide governance scenarios for simulation.
In practice, various barriers exist to integrating qualitative data into SDMs. For example, SDMs assume lumped populations making the same decisions, different to agent-based modelling which can simulate individual decisions. Yet workarounds exist, like disaggregating populations and/or estimating proportions making a decision for a given condition. For example, the former principle splits Chilika’s fishers into traditional and motorised fleets, associated with different fishing schedules and catch capacities; the latter workaround estimates the proportion of traditional fishers purchasing motorised boats for a given average income.
Furthermore, interviews may provide a quantity of opinions which cannot all be incorporated into the model’s finite structure. Therefore, it is useful to consider the rationale bounds of each stakeholder to understand how each mental model is shaped. Regional scientific experts may possess holistic system understanding, whilst fishers live and breathe the conditions important to their activities. Prior to the interviews, I was debating spatially disaggregating the fisher population into northern, central, southern and outer channel fleets. But from the fisher interviews I learnt northern sector fishers commute south to exploit the relatively abundant fish stock, dispelling my preconceived idea that fishers rigidly stick to their locality.
Overall, the field visit exposed me to different qualitative insights not acquirable from my desk. Understanding that traditional fishing communities may collectively begin using motorised boats when socio-economically favourable has highlighted how fishers adapt to intensify practices. Paradoxically, fishers exhibited environmental stewardship during the 1990s collapse by limiting their days fished, doing their bit to calm extraction stresses.
And finally, discussions with state and district level policymakers helped design feasible management approaches to test within the model (e.g. continued ecological restoration, bans, alternative livelihoods). The issue of policy implementation and adherence was continuously stressed, meaning any policies simulated in the SDM must be framed as ‘if all fishers complied with regulations, the resulting dynamics may be as follows…’, which is important for model design and scope. A big thank you to all who shared their mental models with me!

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