In May 2020, cyclone Amphan in West Bengal and Bangladesh destroyed everything that lay ahead of its path. Apart from West Bengal, the natural disaster left a sea of destruction in the fertile Sunderbans, home to millions and uprooted their lives within hours.
“The cyclone instilled fear among us. For the entire night we heard strong winds in the dark and did not know what was happening,” says Saheb Dani, a 31-year-old farmer from Bally island in the Sunderbans about 2.5 hours away, from Kolkata.
Saheb says the villagers in the island returned to see houses collapsed, trees uprooted, rivers overflowing and farms submerged in water. “The roof of my house blew off and the walls were damaged. I found fish dead in the pond and plants washed away from the fields,” he recollects.
Along with Saheb, there were 15,000 such people from the island affected by the extreme weather phenomenon.
Six months later, the people on the island have new houses, a stitching centre for women, a school and a better income. The visible transformation in the island has come about because of the efforts of Kolkata-based 22-year-old Aayush Sarda who visited the village for the relief effort.
“I formed ‘Ek Packet Umeed’, a student-volunteer organisation when the Nepal earthquake struck in 2015. Starting with 10 volunteers to provide relief work for the disaster, we continued working to help specially-abled and the needy. There are over 100 volunteers now,” Aayush says.
Hope stems from the young generation
As soon as the aftermath of cyclone Amphan wore off, the volunteers visited Bally.
“We selected seven villages that were severely damaged and raised Rs 13 lakh to rebuild 1,250 houses and help with other relief work. However, over the weeks we realised that more help was needed and raising funds was becoming increasingly difficult. Moreover, the villagers started relying more on the relief aid,” he says.
Aayush says that is when he realised that temporary efforts would not sustain for long. “The men in the villages were able but were completely traumatised due to the devastation and fear. We needed to help the villagers get back on their feet and become independent again. That is when we decided to use the existing skills in farmers and empower women to help them in the process,” he adds.
The founder of the NGO informs that the occupation for 90 per cent of the people in the Sunderbans is fishing and collecting honey. “Honey is indigenous to Bengal, and we decided to use it as a source of strength to make the farmers in the villages independent and help them increase their livelihood,” he says.
The NGO formed a social enterprise, ‘Sweetness of Ethics’ by training the villagers to source honey from the forest of Sunderbans in an ethical way, process it by cleaning and filtration methods, and eventually, packaging it.
“The traditional method was to collect the honey and sell it in buckets. But there was a lot more that could improve to fetch more value for the pure natural produce. The volunteers trained the villagers to market the product priced at Rs 450 for 500 grams,” Aayush tells The Better India. About 1,200 bottles of 500 kilos each sell each month.
Rebuilding a village
The founder says 80 per cent of the earnings were reinvested in the villages to build houses, a stitching centre for women and a school for children. The remaining income of 20 per cent went in expanding the business. The practice continues to attract more people for the cause.
The income of the families have increased as selling honey became an additional source of livelihood. Saheb says that he was never involved in selling honey from the forest before the enterprise started. “Now I earn about Rs 6,000 a month from selling honey along with other farming activities,” he adds.
Aayush says that shifting the mindsets of villagers to become independent and training them was a challenge. He adds that it was also challenging to work on the social and cultural aspects of the village. “The villagers had experienced cases of cheating through chit funds, not being paid for the honey sourced by them and other similar bad incidents. The concept of bottling and selling the honey was alien to them. It took a lot of time to build trust and get accepted by the residents. The school, which will become operational in January 2021, was built especially for children who lost their fathers in tiger attacks. Such initiatives helped build relationships among the villagers,” he adds.
The initiative of selling honey started with 10 families has now expanded to 50. The average income of farmers has increased from Rs 2,500 to Rs 10,000, the NGO claims. It plans to adopt 10 more villages by 2030 and improve the local economy.
To buy pure Sunderbans honey and support the locals, call +919735021522.
(Edited by Yoshita Rao)