The Ganga enters West Bengal in Malda district, from where it goes to Murshidabad district before splitting into two: the Bhagirathi, which flows south through West Bengal, and the Padma, which flows east into Bangladesh. Although part of a richly fertile deltaic network, the riverbanks in Malda and Murshidabad are also prone to erosion. Every year, during the monsoons, the river swallows up villages and agricultural land, leaving hundreds of families homeless overnight. While the displaced men usually migrate to States such as Kerala or Maharashtra to find jobs as daily labour, women are left behind to run the families on their meagre incomes and the little money that is sent home by their husbands.
The women often take up beedi (hand-rolled cigarettes) binding, an occupation potentially injurious to health. Children drop out of school to support families and become part of the country’s invisible army of child labour.
Although the erosion and flooding have largely been annual natural disasters, local people and experts are of the opinion that the destruction has been exacerbated by the Farakka Barrage on the Ganga, which falls in Murshidabad district and has been operational since 1975. The barrage was commissioned to flush out sediment deposits from Kolkata Port and revive it. While it failed to do this satisfactorily, it did disturb the natural flow of the Ganga, whose landbanks now began to collapse under the force of water in the barrage. The obstruction also causes the river to find recourse through adjacent riverine villages: high lands have been converted to low-lying riverbeds in the last five decades, wreaking havoc.
The Farakka Barrage is one of the prime examples of what development projects undertaken without thought to ecological costs can do to the environment and to the people. In adjacent Bangladesh, the diversion has reportedly hindered navigation, led to a decline in fish population, and made deserts out of erstwhile fertile lands, besides posing a constant threat to human and animal life because of the frequent floods.
I was in some villages of West Bengal like Lalpur, Dhuliyan, Lalutola, Gendharitola, and Birnagar in October 2021, when the monsoons were just over. These villages are mostly populated by lower-income groups, where the men are daily wage-earners or small-scale farmers. They have nowhere to go once the river eats up their homes: they usually take refuge in makeshift tarpaulin tents distributed by the local panchayat and keep moving with the changing riverbank. The people whose homes are partially damaged often remain there until the river claims them fully. The lucky ones find a place in the nearest school buildings and survive on dry food distributed by the local administration.
Even the well-off suffer—they lose fields, bamboo groves, and mango orchards to the erosion. But they have the advantage of being able to move away from the river and buy new property; they often cut and sell the trees in their gardens before the monsoon, empty their concrete houses, even carrying away the bricks to build a new home elsewhere.
The response of the government’s irrigation department has invariably been to dump sandbags along the banks. It holds back the river temporarily, but another village in the area gets submerged.
Each year the problem returns, and thus far no permanent solution has been found.
Sudip Maiti is a professional photographer exploring the intersections of mythology, climate change, the environment, and human relationships with the wild.