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In Search of Jobs, and Brides

Repeated cyclones, sea-level rise and increasing soil salinity have disrupted farm yields and hampered the matrimonial prospects of young men in some villages of Odisha


Aishwarya Mohanty



A house in Udaykini village of Odisha's Puri district with a fading traditional wedding painting on the wall. The village has not hosted a wedding in nearly a decade. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story


Udaykani, Odisha: In Udaykani, a coastal village in the eastern Indian state of Odisha, the walls of houses were once adorned with the vibrant tapestry of tradition—symbols of conches, shehnais and wedding motifs, considered auspicious for bride and groom alike. Today, the designs have all but faded. The village, once a hub of joyous celebrations, has not welcomed a bride in over a decade. 

 

Hemmed in by the sea on one side and agricultural fields on the other, Udaykani is 20 kilometres north of the renowned Sun Temple of Konark in Puri district. Along with the neighbouring Tandahar village, it was among the worst victims of the super-cyclone that lashed the state 25 years ago. The impact, along with the growing volatility of the Bay of Bengal over the years, has led to a rise in soil and water salinity and the subsequent loss of agricultural land, livelihoods and marriage prospects.

 

“When the soil turned saline, our crops shrivelled,” Tandahar resident Vaidehi Kardi (64) told The Migration Story. “Gradually, the water too turned saline and our lives withered. It has become difficult to get our sons married. Everyone feels our village is not safe anymore.” 

 

Udaykani is situated in the Bay of Bengal region, which, with its long history of severe cyclonic storms, high sea-level rise and projected flood risk, is considered the most vulnerable to climate change and climate security risks.

 

With its 4,700-mile (7,500km) coastline , the Indian subcontinent is exposed to nearly 10 percent of the world’s tropical cyclones, according to India’s National Disaster Management Authority. Most of these cyclones form over the Bay of Bengal and strike the eastern coast, where Odisha is located. The Bay of Bengal records four times as many cyclones as the Arabian Sea on India’s western coast. Between 2020 and last June nine cyclones hit the Bay of Bengal.

Odisha state has recorded a 28 percent erosion along its coast largely due to cyclones and floods. A shoreline analysis carried out by the Indian Space Research Organisation in 2021 along the 450-odd km of its coastline showed that 144 km of the coast had recorded erosion while 99 km recorded accretion or the deposition of alluvial sediments left behind by the receding sea. In an answer tabled in the state assembly in March 2023, the state government stated that 16 villages in the state had gone under seawater and 247 other villages were likely to face displacement due to increasing sea levels. 

 

“It took us a long time to recover from the devastation after the super-cyclone,” said Budheswar Kardi (74), a native of Udaykani village. “Our houses were completely destroyed, and most of us lost our agricultural land. The sea had moved inward so we relocated further  towards the inland. We tried to gradually revive our lands but without much success. Now it feels like the sea is moving inwards every year.”


Young men seasonally migrate to other states and return home during the sowing and harvest seasons in Tandahar village of Puri district, Odisha. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

Changing social fabric

 

Arjun Pradhan (58) has been looking for a bride for his son Abhijeet for the past five years in vain. Four years ago, he urged him to move to a different city. “There was a time when men in our village got married by the age of 20 or 21,” he said. “Today, we have bachelors in their 30s who are yet to find a suitable match. I asked my son to migrate not just to find a job but also a wife. We usually have certain restrictions when it comes to matrimonial alliances but I don’t wish to impose any on my son. I want him to be well settled.”

 

It's not just marriage prospects—with the change in soil quality and resultant unpotable water leading to rampant water-borne diseases, even friends and relatives are loath to visit. “Anyone who comes to visit us never stays the night,” said Kanchan Swain (50). “For one, we don’t have water that’s fit to drink. Even bathing is out of the question for visitors, who fear skin ailments.” The occasional visitor is greeted with reluctance, their stay limited to a few hours. For those who linger longer, the villagers begin bartering their grain or oil for potable water, sourced from villages 15 to 20 kilometres away.

 

Globally, coastal agricultural soils and geochemically important wetlands are threatened by soil salinisation caused by the rise in sea level. Salinisation of agricultural soils is considered one of the most pressing environmental challenges faced by humankind. According to a study by the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), over 833 million hectares of soil worldwide is already salt-affected as is 10 percent of cropland.

As agricultural lands succumb to the encroaching tide of salinity, traditional livelihoods hang in the balance. “What is left in the village for us to continue staying here?”  lamented Budheswar. “We have practised agriculture for generations, but today the land fails to yield. What option do we have other than to send our children away?” 


Budheswar Kardi till his land for the next harvest on his 1.5-acre of land in Udaykini village in Puri, Odisha. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

With young men leaving to seek new pastures, the villages are now home to mostly elderly men and women, left behind to tend to their land. Young women in the villages tend to move away when they marry, to live with their in-laws. However, neither jobs nor brides are easy to come by even after migrating.

“My work here is not permanent,” said Abhijeet Pradhan, who migrated to Hyderabad. “I work at a hotel as a waiter. I have switched three jobs in the last two years. Whenever I am out of work, I return home. Who would agree to marry someone with such an uncertain future?”

 

A 32-year-old man, who also hails from Udaykani and did not wish to be identified, revealed that he had been rejected more than four times by women who his family approached with a marriage proposal. “Every prospective bride who visited my home was apprehensive about her future,” he said. “My parents have asked me to find a girl and get married in Chennai where I am currently working. They are scared that if she or her family visit our village, they might refuse too.” 

 

The parents and grandparents of Satya Kardi (27), a native of the neighbouring Tandahar village, also asked him to find a bride for himself in the city he works in. “But I have yet to make up my mind about whether I want to get married to someone with so many cultural differences and so far away from home,” he said. “Also, how can I sustain a family—wife, parents, younger siblings—on a meagre salary of Rs 17,000 a month?” 


The forest department has undertaken a casuarina forest plantation as mitigation measures in Tandahar village in Puri, Odisha. Aishwarya Mohanty/The Migration Story

Devastation wrought by salinity

 

Satya’s 53-year-old father Jagannath Kardi reminisces about the bygone days of flourishing fields and abundant harvests. “We tried to revive our crops but the salinity had taken its toll,” he said. “Our crops never grew to their full capacity. The vegetables we cultivated attracted pests. We could barely manage to harvest enough for our own consumption, let alone sell the produce to earn a living.” 

 

Jagannath also grew betel leaves but the produce gradually dwindled on account of salinity. “There was a time when we earned Rs 1,000 a week from the harvest of betel leaves,” he said. “Today the revenue has come down to Rs 200.” Jagannath earns Rs 20,000 to 30,000 annually through the sale of his agricultural produce. 

 

Udaykani and the other villages once had wells, groundwater recharge and borewells for irrigation. The repeated cyclones damaged all these, rendering the ground water saline. Since then, the villagers have been completely dependent on rain-fed agriculture, with the major crop being paddy. But the produce and revenue vary from year to year depending on the rainfall and condition of the soil. 

 

“The impact of climate change has become gradually visible in these villages, prompting the forest department to plant casuarina forests to mitigate the impacts of sea ingression,” said N A Ansari, a social activist working in the region and the owner of a community radio station documenting and disseminating information on climate change. “But there has not been a proper assessment yet of the damage and impending consequences, to help these villages.”

 

Edited by Radha Rajadhyaksha

Aishwarya Mohanty is an independent journalist based in Odisha, and reports on the often overlapping themes of gender, human rights, climate change and environment.

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