How the shrinking island of Mousuni in the Sundarbans underlines the region's growing concerns about rapid land loss
In the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, a small island lying on the border of the Sundarbans tells the tale of the ecological and economic damage sustained by the mangrove forests guarding the east coast of the country.
When Cyclone Amphan came banging on our doors in Kolkata on 20 May, most of us, despite our urban privileges, didn't imagine we'd live to tell the tale of shattered roofs, flooded homes, and overturned lives for several days to come.
As the 'extremely severe cyclonic storm' barrelled through West Bengal at an initial speed of 185 kmph, the Sundarbans, lining the cyclone's point of origin in the Bay of Bengal, bared itself to cushion the heaviest blows, as is tradition. Once the storm had passed, news of death and devastation trickled in with measured restraint, as electric cables and communication channels lay hacked to death. Later that night, Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee declared an economic setback of Rs 1 lakh crore for the state, calling it a disaster greater than the pandemic itself. Consequently, this sent shockwaves through parts of Bengal that still had some access to the world beyond via surviving internet lines and cable telly.
Twelve days later, as the state capital and its suburbs still struggle to crawl back up on their feet and return to homes with restored electricity and telecommunication lines, the rural interiors continue to languish in the margins, steeped in literal darkness. Relief and hope take longer than ever to reach villages, making their way past fractured roads and flooded fields — a carnage I witness while on my way to the village of Mousuni, barely days after Amphan struck Bengal.
The island is located in the western part of the Sundarbans, belonging to the South 24 Parganas district. Nestled in the Kakdwip subdivision of the Namkhana block, Mousuni's rapidly sinking outlines now house territory of a mere 27.1 square kilometres of land, as opposed to its marginally plumper 30.28 square kilometres in 2006 (according to a study conducted by Jadavpur University's School of Oceanographic Studies, in collaboration with WWF-India).
On a regular storm-less summer day, this nine-decade-old island's waters are rather friendly, almost temperate, never betraying its bipolar tropical streak that is infamous for brewing storms far more murderous than its western counterpart's, the Arabian Sea. With an unabated spike in global temperatures, the resultant rising water levels and soaring sea-surface heat disrupt natural cycles, thereby pushing the shallow, concave Bay of Bengal to birth ideal conditions for storm surges and deadly cyclones.
According to Weather Underground's list of 'The 35 Deadliest Tropical Cyclones in World History', the Bay of Bengal has been home to 26 of them.
However, on the day we visit Mousuni's Baliara mouza (administrative district), — which lies on the southernmost tip of the island — its waters are far from tranquil, as a thundersquall is already underway. The driver parks our car on one of the ghats that survived the wrath of the tropical cyclone, following which the two of us board a ferry to cross over to our destination on the other side of the river.
"Noukadubi hote paare go! (The boat might sink)," shouts the boatman from over the bellowing winds. "Ey toh abar Amphan er moto hawa dey dekhchhi! (These winds seem to be as strong as the ones that were blowing during Amphan)," he says, as a dozen of us aboard the rickety wooden vessel — some as young as three, others as old as 80 — hang on to its shafts for dear life.
Ten minutes — and a seemingly ceaseless nightmare — later, when we step on to the opposite ghat amid pouring rain and unnervingly pacific faces, I notice the first signs of injury the island has sustained. Scores of parched, yellow trees and shrubs dot the muddy, battered brick lanes of Baliara.
From the giant sals and thicket of mangroves to the dwarfed wild grasses and bushes, every patch of green is charred to a bilious yellow. "The salt-spray of the brackish sea-water during Amphan has caused this — it seems to have burned all the leaves of even the tallest trees here," says the man collecting the fare for the boat ride, as he catches me staring blankly at the 12-foot-tall tree dressed in yellow foliage in front of us. "We've never seen anything like this before, even though storms and natural disasters have become a part of our lives," he says.
Our contact person Kaium Khan, a local member of the Mousuni panchayat, had been unreachable over the phone for long, as communication lines lay dead following the thunderstorm the night before. Since 20 May, the village has also been suffering from a chronic case of dying phone batteries, owing to the disrupted electricity supply that was made available to the village barely two years ago. They now resort to charging their devices at shops running on generators in the local market for four hours a day. "Some of these shopkeepers are even charging us up to twenty rupees per hour (for phone charging)! Can you imagine? The panchayat says it'll take over a month to restore electricity. Is this even a life?" the fare collector asks with a snigger.
For over the next 40 minutes, we wait for the storm to subside in vain until we finally decide to hop onto a chicken-carrying van and head over to Khan's home. The journey opens up grid-like narrow paths snaking out in every direction and melting into flooded fields and ponds lying side by side. It's impossible to distinguish one from the other. The familiar canopy of trees shrouding the sky in this corner of Bengal has gone strikingly missing from several parts of the Sundarbans, with Mousuni losing a significant percentage of it to Cyclone Bulbul last year as well.
According to the 2011 Census, of the 4.5 million people residing in the Indian side of the Sundarban settlement region, a total of 22,073 live on the island of Mousuni (comprising four mouzas of Baliara, Bagdanga, Kusumtala and Mousuni) enveloped by Muri Ganga river on the western and north-western sides, Pitt's Creek on the east, and the Bay of Bengal on the south. Skirting and punctuating the Sundarban National Park — home to the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger — are villages such as Mousuni that are primarily sustained by fishery and agriculture, both of which have been severely impacted by aggressive terrestrial erosion, accelerated by natural disasters such as cyclones. The flooded fields and scorched trees bear jarring testimony to said devastation.
I ask the van driver about his home. "It's gone," pat comes the reply. "There's barely anything to eat either. We only get about five kilograms of rice and pulses every month from the government due to the lockdown. How can a family of seven to eight live on that much?" he asks, while carefully steering his vehicle away on to the side of the path to allow a 'toto' to pass.
Soon after its electrification, Mousuni began warming up to these quaint e-rickshaws that ply through the length of the island. Services, however, have already been interrupted by Amphan. "It has become a routine here," the van-driver says as we get off in front of Khan's home — a hut with tiled roof, standing on the banks of what looks like a pond; it is hard to tell. As I wave him goodbye and walk into the house, Khan's wife informs me that her husband has already left for work to the market.
Before taking off to meet Kaium, I inquire about using their bathroom. "I am not sure if you will be comfortable, didi. A wall has fallen off," she says apologetically, as I make my way through their backyard swamped with rainwater. While I climb into the cubicle, the woman next-door gestures to indicate that I should hold on to the walls for support, as the floor has gathered moss from the stagnating rainwater dripping from the perforated roof.
The mighty Sundarbans, bedecking the active delta region in the Bay of Bengal, fans out across the coastal rims of India and Bangladesh and covers an area of roughly 40,000 square kilometres. Nearly 40 percent of the 10,000 square kilometre of forested land lies on Indian soil, of which a lion's share falls under the jurisdiction of the West Bengal government. According to an India State of Forest report (2019), the mangrove cover in Bengal extends over an area of 2,112 square kilometres, divided unequally between the districts of South 24 Parganas (2,082 square kilometres), North 24 Parganas (25 square kilometres), and East Midnapore (4 square kilometres).
This buffer zone of salt-tolerant trees has been a veritable sentry, guarding the gateway and barring tropical cyclones from causing even heavier damage in the mainland. A study on Odisha's Kendarapara, which is arguably among the worst-affected districts of the state during storms and cyclones, proves that mangroves reduced the death toll by a notable margin during the 1999 Odisha Supercyclone.
Amphan, the strongest tropical cyclone to have emerged from these waters ever since has officially claimed 98 lives and 1,660 square kilometre of mangrove forestland in the state of Bengal so far.
In the last century, increased storm activity in the Bay of Bengal has resulted in an intensification of cyclones by a prodigious 26 percent due to climate change, thereby rendering the region vulnerable to more frequent and severe natural disasters. This, in turn, has significantly exposed the Sundarbans to greater mangrove cover loss, and terrestrial erosion.
"This erosion and accretion is an ongoing process, and anyone living close to coast is vulnerable to it," says Anamitra Anurag Danda of the Observer Research Foundation, who has worked extensively on nature conservation and sustainable development in the Sundarbans.
Danda mentions that the net land loss suffered by the Sundarbans occurs at the expense of private land being encroached upon by the raging waters of the Bay of Bengal. "However, the silt that is accumulating after erosion in this region does not obviously disappear; it goes and settles down as an island, or attaches itself to some piece of existing land, thereby resulting in some form of terrestrial gain. That, however, does not always amount to an increase in habitable land, even though it adds to forest land, which then falls under the jurisdiction of the forest department," he explains.
While the dissolution of the terrestrial component happens across the entire stretch of the Sundarbans, it is the sections fringing the waters — like Namkhana, Patharpratima, Gosaba, Ghoramara among others — that manifestly bear the greater brunt of the phenomenon.
The agricultural land in the region too has visibly suffered a major setback in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, giving rise to an "immediate dependency on the ecosystem, in the form of fish, crabs, biomass, among other things," Danda says.
These resources, however, are strictly guarded by the forest department, which polices their distribution among locals by restricting their extraction upto a certain number of days following a natural disaster. "People will hopefully not be penalised this time for extracting them. There's not much you can do about — if there's a pressing need for these goods in order to survive, rules will be disregarded. To add to it, there's also the lockdown that has kept people from leaving their homes to go elsewhere in search of livelihood," the scholar says.
Besides, some might even sign up at the fishing fleets, hoping to earn whatever little that comes their way when the fleets make money. But according to the inhabitants of Mousuni, the fish in the ocean have mostly shrivelled up and died due to the cyclone.
On reaching Kaium Khan's office in the heart of Baliara Bazar, we are offered a cup of piping hot tea before venturing deeper into the island. By 12 noon, I find myself pillion-riding on a bike with Khokon Baig, a local contractor who volunteers to take me around town for interviews. The wind is blinding and the rain stings our eyes, as we make our way to his house that stands 300 metres away from the coast.
"We go around saving people from storms, but look at our home here — broken beyond repair," says Khokon, as we tiptoe our way past slushy fields to enter his mud-house with a missing front wall. A flimsy black plastic sheet acts as a substitute. The 35-year-old man with his wife and children shares living-space with his mother, younger brother, elder brother and his wife and children.
"I used to have a fishing boat, but I lost that to (Cyclone) Bulbul last year. Now I have to resort to doing odd jobs to earn a living," the elder brother tells me. The family's expenses amount to a minimum of Rs 30,000 per month, but their income since the lockdown "has been zero". "When our fathers settled in this part of Mousuni in the 1970s, the ocean was at least a kilometre away from our home. We might get drowned by the time the next storm happens," the brother says.
Conversely, Shanu Ara, another resident of Mousuni who owns fishing boats, has now resorted to seeking shelter in her vessels after her home got washed away by the storm. "My house was right at the coast, and now it is somewhere in the ocean," she tells me. According to the locals, the dykes built after Cyclone Aila in 2009 on various sides of the island have been mostly smashed by destructive storms that followed. As a result, stretches of land by the coast have dissolved at an alarming rate, forcing people to build their own protective embankments around their homes.
"In places like Sundarbans, development does not mean building only bridges. They are rendered useless if there are no embankments to protect the ever-growing population on a rapidly shrinking strip of land. You tell me — how many times since the new dispensation came to power have we seen discussions on embankment building in the Sundarbans in the Vidhan Sabha?" asks Subhas Acharyya, former Joint Director at the Sundarban Development Board. According to him, the momentum and vision for the region's holistic development has been completely lost, after a fraction of the restoration work happened post-Cyclone Aila.
"This is complete myopia and negligence; nothing else," he tells me.
Hasina Bibi, Mousuni's panchayat pradhan for the past two years, says that the contractors for building embankments in the island have refused to show up for work consistently, leading to collapsing tenders.
"The embankment in the first mouza has not been rebuilt since 2009, after Aila. Our four storm shelters don't have electricity or water supply, among which the two new ones have smashed doors and unhinged windows that need repairing since Cyclone Fani last year. The government has sanctioned only Rs 16,000 for fixing damages for each structure. How can the panchayat carry out repairs on such a paltry budget?" Bibi tells me.
However, the village authorities still managed to rescue the entire population of the island, ducking casualties, even though it failed to save over 6,500 homes across all four mouzas from being completely gutted. According to the panchayat chief, an additional two kilometres of embankment around the island, on top of the existing — and constantly depleting — two, may still be able to salvage some of their homes from drowning in the future.
While riding across to the other side of town to visit Bibi's father-in-law Jalaluddin Shah, the renowned 'Mastermoshai' (teacher) of Mousuni, we encounter the local girls' high school that had doubled up as one of the cyclone shelters on the night of the storm. The building had apparently housed over 2,000 people during Amphan despite a missing roof, as the asbestos cover got blown away.
On reaching Shah's house — one-thirds of which is made of brick, while the remaining two-thirds is built with mud — a motley of curious faces peek out from behind the living room window. "Mastermoshai, khoborer kaagoj theke eshechhe! (Sir, someone from the newspapers is here to meet you)," Khokon yells over the winds that continue to roar remorselessly. A wrinkled, smiling face in its 70s greets us, leading us into a room of 11 people of various ages and heights. Mastermoshai's fourth and current home is neatly-ordered and well spread out, transitioning seamlessly from concrete to earth through a tunnel-like conduit.
Hailing from the neighbouring Sagar Island, Shah moved to Mousuni in 1970 as a young man keen on building a career in teaching. And so he did, taking up a job at the local school and setting up his first home on the west coast of the island, from where he could walk into the ocean anytime he pleased. "It was my dream to have a house by the ocean, you know?" he tells me.
However in 1974, his dream succumbed to a storm, thereby forcing the man to buy another plot of land and build a second home barely a few metres to the east of where his previous house stood. This too lasted only four years, following which he moved another 200 metres towards the south.
"I just couldn't be convinced to stay away from the ocean!" he laughs, signalling to one of his daughters-in-law to serve us refreshments — a small platter of fruits and traditional sweets. "This is all we can offer; please don't refuse it," he insists before continuing with his story. Shah was finally persuaded by his sons to settle a kilometre away from the coast, which is where they currently reside.
"I survive on my pension and my sons don't even have permanent jobs. Living in a place like Mousuni means spending whatever you earn on repairing your house, which amounts to at least Rs 30,000 a year. We don't have a penny of savings," he says, adding that every time he lost a home, he got poorer by a lakh while erecting a new one.
Shah goes on to give me a tour of his house. Upon reaching his backyard, he breathes in the wet, salty air, as the winds begin to slow down. His bright, childlike eyes barely betray his wisdom, as they light up and widen while recounting the day of the cyclone. "It was unlike anything I have ever seen in my long life," he says, flitting across to the inundated field on the other side of the road to show how the water formed peculiarly tall waves when the cyclone made landfall.
Mimicking the swaying movement of the lone coconut tree standing by the field, he remarks on the "unbelievable sight" that his eyes beheld. "Our food began to taste salty that night, even though we hadn't added salt. The Bay of Bengal was hovering in the air; it had crept into our homes and bloodstreams," Mastermoshai says.
He observes that some of the new batches of mangroves planted refuse to survive beyond a few months, indicating a change in soil composition. "Something has definitely gone badly wrong. Maybe the salt composition in the soil has changed or has been corrupted. How else do you explain this?" he asks.
According to Anurag Danda, the spiked salt levels in the Bay of Bengal following a storm surge also disrupt the freshwater food-chain, since high salinity kills planktons that support the marine ecosystem. This, in turn, forces Sundarbans' natives to consume more salt-water fish, even though their palettes are attuned to fresh-water fish.
Besides brackish water infiltrating their food, people across Sundarbans ran the risk of consuming contaminated drinking water after storm surges even until a few years ago. Subhas Acharyya blames it on the State's lack of planning. "It's only recently that the borewells were reconfigured to pull water from a slightly higher level, in order to keep saline water from entering the accessible water table. How difficult was this to do in the first place?" he asks.
The corrosive water licking Mousuni's shores has melted Anwara Baig's first home that stood a few feet away from the erstwhile Aila dykes. While standing atop a mound that used to be her second home —flattened by Amphan — she looks longingly at the horizon laced with Sundari trees and points to an invisible spot that once was her kitchen. "What do I have left? The ocean took away everything yet again," she says rather unfeelingly. A few feet away from where we stand, a makeshift hut is being built by her sons; in the background, a group of young boys laugh and tease a neighbourhood dada for being privileged enough to have a home with an asbestos roof. "What do you have to worry about? Throw us a party!" they say, urging the latter to shoo them off in jest.
Anwara picks up a shiny string of beads from the rubbles and wraps it in her fist. "I was looking for this. Thank God it survived," she says, as her face breaks into a smile before waving us goodbye.
The contested subject of dyke construction and repair has long been a serious bone of contention among various stakeholders in the region. According to Bankim Chandra Hazra, the Trinamool Congress MLA for the South 24 Parganas, the proposed embankments will be built soon. "The lockdown has kept contractors from starting work; that should be resolved soon," he tells me. According to him, Sundarbans is currently staring at economic losses worth Rs 200 crores in the aftermath of Cyclone Amphan, with over a lakh of betel leaf vines lying completely decimated. "Parts of Sagar Island have already received electricity, but it will take another 10-12 days for regions like Mousuni and Bakkhali to have their electric lines restored," Hazra says.
"[H]ere, in the tide country, transformation is the rule of life: rivers stray from week to week, and islands are made and unmade in days. In other places forests take centuries, even millennia, to regenerate; but mangroves can recolonise a denuded island in ten to fifteen years. Could it be the very rhythms of the earth were quickened here so that they unfolded at an accelerated pace?"
The idea of change as the only uncontested reality of our corporeal beings is perhaps most poignantly exemplified by the metaphor of the ocean's turbulent marriage to its coasts. In the above lines from Amitav Ghosh's 2004 novel The Hungry Tide, based in the Sundarbans, the pathos of this persevering flux is almost palpable.
When 23-year-old Shaikh Abdullah returned home to Mousuni from Kerala's Tirur — where he was employed as a construction labourer — four months before the lockdown, the thought of being homeless in the near future had barely crossed his mind. As he and his wife shovel up piling mud to strengthen their new home, ghosts from their past float in the air, as the wind tosses and turns a torn calendar that once adorned the walls of their old home. In Mousuni and its neighbouring villages, hundreds of young men like Abdullah flock to the states of Gujarat and Kerala as labourers, while some even migrate to the Arabian Gulf, supporting their families from afar.
"I now run my family by doing odd jobs around the village, since I haven't been able to go back to Kerala after the lockdown was imposed. We haven't been getting any help from the government besides the regular ration," he says. Abdullah and his neighbours lived 500 metres away from the waters; all of their belongings are now buried in the ocean-bed along with the ancient secrets of the forests.
Soon after, as we head out of the neighbourhood in a hurry, we are suddenly alerted to the clear blue sky with a burnished sun, and soothing, docile winds. The storm seemed to have mysteriously packed up and fled without leaving a trace, scrubbing every surface clean and dry. At the end of the alley, we spot a man, perhaps in his 60s, standing on the topmost rung of a ladder, struggling to pin a blue tarpaulin sheet to a bald roof, under which stand 16 people. "There are three families living in there," Khokon tells me, as he beckons to one of the young women to come and speak with us.
"Not only have our homes been destroyed, but even our fields have also been rendered fallow. Look at them...completely flooded. We have been using them as makeshift toilets for now," she says. Her father has been struggling for an hour to put up the tarpaulin sheet given to them by the panchayat. "This has become a routine — he wakes up and spends the entire morning covering the roof so we can sleep peacefully at night. Past midnight, the cover gets blown away by the strong winds and rain," the woman says, before running back into the house.
The mercurial waves of the Bay of Bengal are wont to devouring land in the blink of an eye, controlling the fragile lives of the people born on its shores. But despite the evident carnage left behind by Amphan, the villagers agree that it could've been much worse had the high tide coincided with the cyclone as it did during Aila over a decade ago. "Had that happened, I don't think we would've lived to tell the tale. All the estuarine regions, Namkhana, Kakdwip, Gosaba — basically the entire Sundarbans would've gone underwater," Bankim Chandra Hazra says.
As the generators are kickstarted in the market, flickering halogen bulbs light up some parts of the evening-clad island. We make our way to the final stop of Salt Gheri in Mousuni, lying on the western side of the island. Over the last two years, this part of the village — overlooking Sagar Island and the forbidden Jambudwip — has been converted into a seaside retreat with camps and tents for tourists populating the beach.
Sheikh Manirul, one of the locals who built the Achievers' Nest Camp along the beach, is reeling under debt. His one-year-old facility, built on a loan of Rs 20 lakh from neighbours and villagers, has been razed to the ground by the cyclone. Rs 10 lakh is still due, to which the added cost of rebuilding his property from scratch will only prove to be backbreaking. "It was all going so well. I had installed air-conditioners, a dining space, even campfires. So many locals who had migrated out of Mousuni in search of jobs had come back and were employed here too. Now it's all gone," he says, informing that repairs will cost north of Rs 2 lakh. Complicating the situation further is the fact that repairmen are hardly available due to the lockdown, as transport in and out of the island is strictly regulated.
"It's like the year 2020 is playing a T20 cricket match with us! It keeps knocking us out of the park with fours and sixes, leaving us wheezing for breath," Manirul laughs, inviting us to walk with him on the beach. The thick top layer of white sand seems to have been washed away completely, revealing a bed of rocks underneath. On examining closely, I realise nearly a foot-and-a-half of the sand cover has been destroyed in the wake of Amphan, aggravating Mousuni's terrestrial damage.
A scraggy little dog with ribs poking through his skin approaches me with a friendly hop, howling and barking in joy. "These guys became used to people on the beach. This one used to be overweight until lockdown happened. We feel bad for them, but what can we do? We can barely feed ourselves, how do we feed them?" Manirul asks.
As we prepare to head back to our homes, the young resort owner asks us to come back at a happier time, promising free lodging and food. "We wouldn't like anything better, trust me," Manirul assures us. "As soon as I pay off my debts, I will call you and you all can come to stay over," he says as we part ways, with our steps taking us further and further away from the island. It soon diminishes to a flickering dot, resembling a frail, yet stubborn and buzzing firefly.
At this moment, I am reminded of a paragraph from Sunil Amrith's book, Crossing the Bay of Bengal (2013), which says:
"[I]magine the sea as a mental map: as a family tree of cousins, uncles, sisters, sons, connected by letters and journeys and stories. Think of it as a sea of debt, bound by advances and loans and obligations. Picture the Bay of Bengal even where it is absent..."
All images by the author except where indicated otherwise
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