Going under

Print edition : January 26, 2007

A rising sea level and continous erosion are expected to engulf a dozen islands in the Sundarbans in the next 15 years.

SARBARI SINHA recently in Ghodamara

ON THE GHODAMARA island. Boats are the only mode of communication between the islands of the Sundarbans archipelago. There are many narrow creeks, but sometimes the rivers stretch so wide as to tip over the horizon.-IAN UMEDA

WE were going to see the sinking island, the tiny five-square-kilometre piece of land wrapped by the Hooghly and Baratala rivers as they flow into the sea in the western part of the Sundarban delta in West Bengal. We were going to the land of the `hungry tide', to witness the great human tragedy of homes and farmlands washed away by rivers and creeks that carry the salty waters of the sea they flow into. It was only a four-hour journey from Kolkata, by bus up to Kakdwip and then by boat to the Ghodamara (pronounced `ghoramara', with the tongue rolling over the first `r' sound) island; but it seemed to take us several worlds away.

We started meeting the people we were looking for as soon as we got on the boat, around 9 a.m. on a sparkling November morning. They were returning home on the first of the only two motorised boats that ferry every day to and from Ghodamara and Kakdwip, the island's closest point of contact with the mainland. Most of them were fishermen and farmers, wiry men and women with sunburnt faces. Almost all of them said that their families once owned "a lot of land" now swallowed up by the angry waters that surround their existence. A media team immediately arouses interest in this part of the world, not least because it seems to come from a mysterious world of the written word, from the city that is so close and yet so far. As we sailed further away from the mainland, moving across a river so wide that the bank soon became invisible, they warmed up to the story of their sinking island.

Haldia was once so close to Ghodamara that people could carry out shouted conversations across the river, said Nasir Mia, son of a schoolmaster but himself a school dropout who goes out to fish on the high seas to feed his family. But now the river has widened, claiming huge chunks of the island, and Haldia is just a speck in the horizon. Later that day, villagers on Ghodamara would point to ships far out in the mouth of the Hooghly, close to the Haldia port, and say that they sailed over what once were paddyfields. That was probably not an exaggeration; experts say that by 2001, Ghodamara was reduced to 59 per cent of what its size was in 1969.

Researchers say the island will go under in another 14 years, as two other smaller islands - Lohachara and Supuridanga - have done in the past 20 years. Supuridanga was not inhabited, but the sinking of Lohachara displaced 6,000 people, mostly marginal farmers and fishermen. The prediction is that the rising sea level will sink a dozen (six of them inhabited) more islands in 15 years, creating thousands of environmental refugees. Ghodamara has been steadily sinking for the past 25 years, though local residents say the erosion has slowed down in the recent past. Fifteen to 20 years ago, the island had a population of about 20,000 people; according to the 2001 Census, it has 5,236 people.

The School of Oceanographic Studies of Jadavpur University in Kolkata blames climate change, soil erosion and depletion of mangrove forests for the gradual disappearance of the islands. Its researchers have studied the tide gauge record at the Sagar island over 10 years, and say that the sea is rising at the rate of 3.14 mm every year. The prediction of the number of islands that will go under in 15 years is based on the assumption that the sea level will continue to rise at this rate in the delta. The global rate of sea level rise is 2 mm a year, but the sea has been rising at the rate of 3 mm a year in this region for the past 70 years. Over the past 30 years, the West Bengal part of the delta has lost about 80 sq km of land to the rising sea. (The figure is obtained by subtracting the total new land accretion - 82.5 sq km - from the total land lost to erosion - 162.88 sq km.)

EMBANKMENTS LIKE THIS one in Ghodamara ring all the inhabited islands of the Sundarbans, sustaining life and livelihoods by keeping out the twice-daily floods of the delta.-SARBARI SINHA

The boat quickly emptied as we reached Ghodamara, most of its passengers hitching up their dhotis, lungis and sarees to jump off the gently swaying vessel on to the dark, soft clay of the river bank. There was no jetty, and the brown legs sank almost knee-deep in the mud, but only for a moment before the agile bodies ran up the clayey incline on to the embankment that rings the island. For the city-breds on the boat, and for a few elderly people, a wooden plank was lowered at a point from where the embankment could be accessed with more ease.

Similar embankments or bunds ring all the 54 inhabited islands of the delta in West Bengal, covering a length of 3,500 km. Tushar Kanjilal, who for 30 years was the headmaster of a high school in Rangabelia, a remote island village in the delta, and who piloted the Rangabelia Comprehensive Rural Development Project, describes the embankments as the `lifeline' of the Sundarbans. They are as old as the first human settlements in the delta in the 19th century, fragile bulwarks against the saline waters that inundate the archipelago twice every day during high tide.

Tidal inflows fill the rivers and creeks of the Sundarbans with salty water, which makes the soil unsuitable for farming if it is allowed to come in during high tide. Without the embankments, the islands would be completely submerged during high tide, when the water can rise up to 20 feet above the ground level. So the men who first cleared the virgin forests of the archipelago, to push Bengal's agricultural frontier further east, built mud embankments to keep the salty water out. A century and a half later, these embankments still stand as the chief defence of life and property in the Sundarbans. They prevent flooding and erosion and protect the fertility of the soil.

Yet, these embankments are easily breached, making life on the islands a constant struggle against disaster and dislocation. They are vulnerable to the storms and cyclones common to this region. With the steady depletion of the mangrove forests, cyclones have increased in ferocity in recent years. Tushar Kanjilal says in his book Who Killed the Sundarbans?: "Months of effort, years of development, are in a moment razed to the ground in the wake of Nature's fury that renders the lot of the residents of the Sundarbans extremely fragile and vulnerable."

But the danger is not limited to the moments of "Nature's fury" alone, as Kanjilal goes on to explain. Erosion is Nature's constant, furtive way of getting back at humankind in these islands, which are still young and which were forced to support human habitation and agriculture before they could attain the necessary height through the natural process of siltation. The underwater currents in the rivers and creeks, which follow a tidal regime set by the sea, silently eat into the foundations of the embankments, making external repairs not only expensive but also irrelevant in the long run. Siltation and erosion are twin processes that change the map of the Sundarbans almost daily.

There are no metalled roads in Ghodamara, only mudtracks and some lanes paved with bricks, like this one.-

Experts generally agree that there are no permanent or foolproof solutions to the problem. But the hunt for a solution cannot be given up when the lives and property of over three million people (the 1991 Census put the total population of the Sundarbans at 32,05,528) are at stake. Breaches in embankments endanger lives and livelihoods even on islands that are in no immediate danger of going under, because they bring floods in their wake. Kanjilal's suggestion is to move the embankments further inland; to use the "right kind" of mud to build them; to build up a database of information on tidal flows and currents, siltation and erosion through research and constant physical monitoring; to restore the mangrove vegetation, especially along the embankments; and to foster an awareness campaign among the local residents so that they can take principal responsibility for protecting their environment.

The residents, of course, constitute the human face of the environmental tragedy unfolding in the Sundarbans. Most of them are marginal farmers and fishermen, who are the hardest hit when disaster strikes. On Ghodamara, they face not just the prospect of flooding, cyclones and the loss of fertility of their soil but the certainty that their island is steadily sinking. There used to be three `mouzas' (a mouza is a revenue unit in rural Bengal, and usually consists of one village) on the island. Now there is only one; the other two have gone under. Experts say nothing can be done about it.

Kanti Ganguly, West Bengal's Minister of State for Sundarban Development, said that the State government's efforts were directed at protecting lives and livelihoods on the islands that were not in immediate danger. These efforts consist of repairing and strengthening of the embankments; awareness campaigns among the residents, especially the youth; a committed afforestation drive; disaster management programmes; agricultural subsidies; and schemes to promote the use of organic fertilizers. These programmes are executed by the Sundarban Development Board, and through panchayats and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) at the local level.

As for the sinking islands, Ganguly said that the government had no plans, as of now, to save them because they were beyond redemption. Scientists, he pointed out, had written them off. However, he added that the government had requested the Union Ministry for Science and Technology and Ocean Development to commission further research to save the islands.

A RESETTLED FAMILY in the Sagar island tends to the harvested paddy, gathering it into mounds.-

Most of the 950-odd families on Ghodamara, which like many other remote islands in the Sundarbans has no electricity, post office or bank, live below the poverty line. Typically of the delta, fishing and rain-fed, single-crop agriculture are the two main sources of livelihood. The chief crop is paddy, but now two other crops - betel and green chilli - are also grown. Like everywhere else in the Sundarbans, pressure on land is immense and most residents of Ghodamara are marginal farmers and share-croppers. Even people who own land find it hard to feed their families because the holdings are generally too small to take care of their needs through the year.

We visited the island at the best time of the year, when there is enough food to go around and the golden paddy is visible everywhere, cut and left out to dry in the fields or gathered into little mounds in the mud courtyards. Yet, the hunger that surely stalks the island for the rest of the year is hinted in the simplicity of the mud homes and the bareness of their kitchens. Most homes comprise a simple mud structure, divided at best into two rooms with a bed in one of them, with thatched roofs. The kitchen is outside, the chulla dug into the courtyard. Vegetables are scarce on the island, because not much is grown and there is hardly any money to buy. Fish is scarce too; though fishing is a major occupation, the catch is meant to be sold and little of it finds its way into the kitchens at home.

As in most islands in the Sundarbans, there are no pucca roads on Ghodamara and the only mode of transport within the island is the cycle-van. The `main road', leading from what passes as the "ferry ghat" to the village market square, paved with brick but without asphalt to cover the bareness of the bricks; other `roads' are mud-and-dirt tracks. The only brick-and-mortar structures are the schools, the panchayat building, the mosque and the temple. When villagers opened the temple door for us, there was no image of the deity inside. The paint had been peeling off it, we were told, so they had sunk it in the river. A new idol would be bought when there was enough money. Absence of the idol was bearable, but not the peeling paint; an image of the deity must exist as a symbol of hope and renewal, not as a reminder of hardships.

Life is a constant struggle in Ghodamara, a condition not unusual in villages of eastern India. What seems to add an extra poignancy to the poverty on the island is the memories of a time when there was enough land to provide food through the year. The fishermen and peasants we met on the rickety boat ride to Ghodamara and the people we met on the island all had stories, handed down by their parents, of how every family on the island once owned 30 to 40 bighas (bigha as a unit of measurement of land is common in Bengal and Assam; 7.5 bigha = 1 hectare). The figure varied with the narrator, sometimes going up to 70 bighas, and in a couple of narrations to 150 bighas. The only constant was the memory of better times, of food throughout the year and enough rice to feed all mouths in the family. Had they seen those times? Did they actually ever know its pleasures? As it turned out, most of them had not. The `memories' turned out to be stories inherited from grandparents; the degeneration started in their parents' youth.

(Curiously, we hardly met any of those `grandparents' on the island. The longer life span guaranteed by the greater wealth and health care in India's cities often eludes the villages.) But there were more general memories too, of orchards and fields that people in their late twenties remember and which were washed away in the past few years. How many years ago? That question did not draw any specific answers, but the memory was recent enough to have survived as a felt experience in the minds of young adults.

At present, however, marginal farming, share-cropping and fishing are practically the only livelihood options available to the residents of Ghodamara. As most of them said, income from these occupations is often supplemented by catching "meen", the local term for shrimp farming. Bagda shrimps come into the rivers and creeks to lay eggs, preferring their relatively less saline waters to the sea. The spawns of the bagda shrimp, so tiny as to be almost invisible to the naked eye, are caught when they swim back to the sea. Women and children, many of them truants from school, block their way back to the sea with fine nets; the spawns are then bred in bheries (water bodies for growing fish) of brackish water.

Shrimp farming is an important source of income in the Sundarbans. Kiranmoy Nanda, State Fisheries Minister, said the volume of shrimp trade from the delta, including exports, was worth over Rs.100 crores, which was a substantial fraction of the State total of around Rs.600 crores. However, the real beneficiaries are middlemen and exporters. The relatively easy money that comes to the people who catch the spawns, at the lowest end of a long chain that constitutes the shrimp trade, comes at considerable cost.

One of the consequences is dwindling catches of the other kinds of fish that once abounded in the delta. The nets that trap the bagda spawns also trap eggs of many other kinds of fish, but these are thrown away once the bagda spawns are harvested. Indiscriminate and excessive harvesting of bagda spawns also means that fewer shrimps come in to lay eggs over the years. Unregulated shrimp farming, thus, has resulted in dwindling catches of both bagda shrimps and other kinds of fish.

CYCLE-VANS ARE THE only mode of transport in many islands in the Sundarbans.-IAN UMEDA

The trapping of brackish water to grow shrimps results in diminishing fertility of the soil. Also, the nets used to trap them interferes with the natural process of siltation. "Thousands of people walk along the embankments every day in search of spawns," Kanjilal writes in his book. "They walk along the base of the embankments in knee-deep water. This weakens the embankments, making them more vulnerable to breaches."

Kiranmoy Nanda said the State government had undertaken an awareness campaign to alert residents of the Sundarbans to the dangers of indiscriminate shrimp farming. The government is also working on making alternative livelihood options available to the people, such as crab culture, livestock rearing and cultivation of fish in ponds. The problem, however, persists, and the results of the government's drive to regulate indiscriminate shrimp farming are yet to make a major difference. The struggle to eke out a livelihood thus contributes to the kind of steady erosion which, in islands like Ghodamara, eats away huge chunks of land.

Dr. Sugato Hazra of the School of Oceanographic Studies confirmed that there was no feasible solution to the problem of the sinking islands. Efforts could be made to strengthen the embankment, he said, but such efforts were no guarantee against a fate that now looked unavoidable. Ghodamara, especially, is expected to go under in another 15 years. Resettlement of and compensation for the people living on Ghodamara and the other sinking islands in the delta, then, seem to be the only option.

The State government is prepared to rehabilitate all the people still living on the islands that are rapidly sinking, Ganguly said.

Over the years, residents of Ghodamara have been gradually shifting to land allotted on Sagar, the largest island of the part of the delta in West Bengal. They have moved to more secure homes, if not to necessarily more secure futures.

Most of the resettled population in Sagar still live below the poverty line and livelihood options continue to be limited. People from Lohachara have also been resettled on Sagar, which houses four refugee colonies - Bankimnagar, Chakphuldubi, Jibantala and Sagar Colony.

Sagar is eroding too, having lost 30 sq km of land in the past 30 years, but experts say the island is in no immediate danger of sinking.

Resettling, however, is not an easy option for people who have learnt to think of a particular piece of land as `home'. Everyone on Ghodamara knows people who have left the sinking island to move to Sagar and elsewhere. Yet, if one asks them whether they, too, are planning to move away from their sinking island, they are at a loss. "The government should do something," is the recurring response. Yes, but what are their plans? "What can we plan? We are poor people, we have nowhere to go," is the answer. They know that their island is sinking, but as long as their own homes are still standing, it is hard to think of moving.

Yet, a comprehensive policy for resettling and compensating the people who are losing land and homes on the Sundarban delta is the only way to deal with this environmental tragedy.

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