Residents of fast-shrinking island in West Bengal's Sundarbans rue political apathy towards soil erosion

Today, Ghoramara island in West Bengal, like many others in the Sundarbans delta, is shrinking and could well vanish in the near future.

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Mathurapur: Although parts of West Bengal are vulnerable to a host of climate change-induced extreme events, weather anomalies and sea level rise, mitigation strategies for these are conspicuous by their absence from the campaign for the upcoming election. Political leaders who rush to meet farmers who have lost their entire crop because of adverse weather conditions don’t talk about the looming food insecurity. The distraught farmer doesn’t think beyond loan waivers.

Young CPM leader Rinku Naskar, who was the candidate for the Mathurapur Lok Sabha constituency in 2014, believes politicians are hardly aware of this issue, and this may be the prime reason why environmental refugees and people affected by climate change never find a place in political campaigns.

Today, the over 3,500 registered voters of Ghoramara may be easy to ignore. But soon, there will be many like Dipankar Kayal. The government, the politicians and nature have cruelly let him down. Mathurapur constituency consists of islands and mainland areas, but only the Sagar, Namkhana, Kakdwip and Pathar Pratima blocks have island populations. The number of such people is too small for them to have any political clout. These are people whom no one will miss if the rising waters swallow their islands.

“Big promises are made during elections, but nothing happens,” said Kayal, who expects nothing to change after the 2019 elections either. "Whatever is in our destiny will happen," he says.

Sheikh Aptauddin, who has lost his house seven times due to soil erosion. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

Sheikh Aptauddin, who has lost his house seven times due to soil erosion. Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

Ghoramara island, 155 kilometres south of Kolkata, comes under the Mathurapur parliamentary constituency in South 24-Parganas. For decades, the constituency was a Left bastion. Since 2009, it has been represented by the TMC's Chaudhury Mohan Jatua, who has again got a ticket from the party for the upcoming election.

Kayal has no clue about his MP, and vice versa. Like most others, he works as an agricultural labourer on some days, makes fishing nets, and also takes tuition classes to support his family. “It takes five kilograms of rope and 10 days to make a fishing net which fetches Rs 700,” said Dipankar. “For work in betel leaf and rice fields, I get Rs 300 per day, but work is irregular. Sometimes I get only 10 days of work in a month."

But for the residents of the other 53 islands, the real problem is soil erosion from the rise in water levels due to climate change.

Today, this island, like many others in the Sundarbans delta, is shrinking and could well vanish in the near future. Four years ago, an ISRO report based on analysis of satellite data from 2004 to 2014 pointed out that 9,990 hectares of land mass in the delta had been lost due to erosion. Ghoramara island, for instance, has shrunk from 8.51 square kilometres in 1975 to 5.11 square kilometres in 2001 and 4.43 square kilometres in 2012.

Ghoramara was originally a cluster of three mauzas (‘mauza’ is a Bengali term widely used for a rural locality), the other two being Khasimara, and Lohachara. Khasimara had a land mass of 873.30 hectares, while Lohachara had 910 hectares with 374 families (according to 1991 data) residing there. Both mauzas were swallowed by the waters, forcing the families to move elsewhere.

The changing course of the Hooghly river to the east is also adding to the islanders' woes. Kayal remembers his childhood when the river was 1.5 kilometres from his village. Now, it is not more than 200 meters away. "My ancestors had around 500 bighas of land. But the river eroded our land, and now I don’t own land even to build my own home,” he said.

Many other families have similar tales to tell, of the river and delta waters swallowing their land. Another Ghoramara resident, Sheikh Aptauddin, 70, has had to move seven times. “Our forefathers had over a hundred bighas of land, but today, I am landless,” he said. Every time he is forced to move due to his house being washed away by soil erosion, he has to spend over Rs. 40,000. “We don’t get any help from the government,” he said.

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Other factors, besides climate change, are contributing to soil erosion. In the 1970s and 1980s, the Calcutta Port Trust decided to navigate ships through the Hooghly River to reach Haldia port. A Dutch company was hired to study the consequences of river navigation. The company recommended that seven guide walls be erected to protect the islands. But only one guide wall got built, in Nayachar Island. "Due to frequent navigation through the Hooghly, the hydrodynamics of the river has changed,” said Tuhin Ghosh, an oceanologist with Jadavpur University. “This has resulted in the erosion of the southern islands."

In fact, Jatua, the local MP, said that the sinking of the island is due to the navigation, and asserted that climate change has nothing to do with it. Jatua further said that the TMC government is taking steps on the issue, although he did not give details on what action was taken.

Many families have lost all their cultivable land due to soil erosion, and the little land that some families have is used to cultivate betel leaves and rice. But saline water enters the fields during the monsoon, making cultivation difficult. Also, connectivity to these islands depends on the tides, making job opportunities other than those of agriculture labourers difficult to pursue. Emergency services like health care remain unavailable sometimes.

According to official records, 946 Ghoramara villagers have MNREGA cards, which guarantee them 100 days of work in a year. Under MNREGA, the work that is done is mainly embankment work during the monsoon season. But delays in payment, which Ghoramara gram panchayat chief Sandip Sagar says is because of the delay in the release of funds by the central government, is forcing islanders to migrate. “My two sons are working in Kolkata, and two grandsons are working in Kerala,” said Aptauddin.

Due to soil erosion, many people in Ghoramara have moved to other places. Image: Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

Due to soil erosion, many people in Ghoramara have moved to other places. Image: Umesh Kumar Ray/101Reporters

Other villagers have become transporters, using vans to bring cement, sand and other items when the government undertakes construction work. “Apart from that, we are hired when the monthly ration comes. We earn Rs 6,000 to Rs 7,000 per month," said Sheikh Diljan, whose eight bighas were lost due to soil erosion.

Soil erosion has forced hundreds of families to move elsewhere permanently, with governments providing only sporadic help. The Congress-led regime gave some families land in Sagar Island, while the Left Front, which ruled Bengal for over three decades, shifted around 140 families to safer places. “We will survive only if the government helps us move to a safe place,” said Aptauddin. Such help is far from assured, even after the din of the election campaign dies down.

Experts say many options are available to reduce soil erosion. “One is to erect boulders, but this is costly and not foolproof,” said Tuhin Ghosh. "Another solution is to increase plantation of mangroves, which will bind the soil and prevent erosion."

The Trinamool Congress government has ignored the soil erosion problem in this region. Though Rs 400 crore was allotted in 2014 to develop tourism infrastructure in the Sundarbans, Ghoramara island, which does not have anything of tourist interest, was excluded from this project.

Manturan Pakhira, minister of the Sundarbans Affairs Department set up in 1994, claimed a lot has been done for the people of Ghoramara. “The Left Front government had declared Ghoramara as 'no man's land' in 2011. We withdrew this tag and initiated many welfare projects,” he said. However, the villagers disagree.

Now, it is again the season of empty promises. "I have nothing to do with elections,” said Lakshmikant Ruidas, who was building his new house with bamboos and plastic sheets. “It is my duty to vote, so I vote. I don't care who wins or loses. My only priority is how I will survive the rising water level and how I will earn to support my family.”

(The author is a Patna-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters)


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