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

Umesh Kumar Ray | Apr 6, 2019 | 7 min read


By Umesh Kumar Ray

Few Indian MPs care about climate change. //Sitting MP Chaudhury Mohan Jatua said that he was aware about shrinking island but refused to accept that climate change has anything to do with this. He said that navigation is only reason of erosion. 

Young CPI (M) leader Rinku Naskar who was candidate for Mathurapur Loksabha Constituency in 2014 believes politicians are hardly aware of this issue and this may be the prime reason why environmental refugees' and climate change effected people never find place in their (politicians) campaigns. 

// Fewer still consider it a campaign issue. And none care about the impact it has on the lives of voters. Like those living in Ghoramara island in the Sundarbans delta, one of 54 inhabited islands out of the out of 102 that dot this unique UNESCO world heritage eco-system

Dipankar Kayal, sitting in the shadow of his hut in Ghoramora, is resigned to his fate as he works on a fishing net. The government, the politicians and nature have cruelly let him down. “Big promises are made during elections but nothing happens,” said Kayal, who expects nothing to change after the 2019 elections either. "Jaa Bhagye Aachhe Tai Hobe (whatever is in our destiny will happen)."

Ghoramara island, 155 kilometers south of Calcutta, comes under Mathurapur Parliamentary constituency in South 24-Parganas, a left bastion for decades, now represented by Trinamool’s Chaudhury Mohan Jatua since 2009, who has got the TMC ticket again in 2019.

Dipankar Kayal has no clue about his MP and vice versa. After all, the island has just 4800 residents, 3600 of whom are registered voters. Like most others, Dipankar Kayal works as agricultural labourer on some days, makes fishing nets and also takes tuition to support his family. “It takes five kilograms of rope and10 days to make a fishing net which fetches Rs 700,” said Dipankar. “For work in beetle leaf and rice fields I get Rs. 300 per day but work is irregular. Sometimes I get only 10 days work in a month, so I take tuitions too."

But for Dipankar and the residents of the other 53 islands, the real problem is soil erosion from rise in water levels due to climate change, a fact the electoral contestants are blissfully unaware of. Local people tell a century old story about the name of the island. A royal Bengal tiger killed a British man's horse and people started calling the island Ghoramara (death of a horse). The British also opened the first post office in Sunderbans in Ghoramara.

Today, this island, like many others in the 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 9990 hectares of land mass 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 Bengali terminology widely used for locality in countryside), the other two being Khasimara, and Lohachara. Khasimara had a land mass of 873.30 hectare 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. Dipankar 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”.

Many other families had 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”.

Many factors, besides climate change, is causing soil erosion. In the 70s and 80s, the Calcutta Port Trust decided to navigate ships through the Hooghli River to reach Haldia port. A Dutch company was hired to study the consequences of river navigation. The company recommended seven guide walls be erected to protect the islands. But only one guide wall got built in Nayachar Island. "Due to frequent navigation through Hooghly, the hydro dynamic of the river has changed,” said Tuhin Ghosh, an oceanologist with Jadavpur University. “This resulted in erosion of the southern islands."

Many families have lost all their cultivable land due to soil erosion, and the little land that some families have, they use to cultivate beetle leaves and rice. But saline water enters the fields during monsoon making cultivation difficult. Also, connectivity to these islands depends on the tides, making job opportunities other than as agriculture labourers difficult to pursue. Besides making emergency services like health care unavailable, especially during low tide.

According to official records, 946 Ghoramaro villagers have MNREGA card which guarantees them 100 days work in a year. Mainly embankment work is done under MNREGA during the monsoon season. But delays in payment, which Ghoramara Gram Panchayat Chief Sandip Sagar says is because of delay in release of funds by the central government, is forcing islanders to migrate to Kerala and other states. “My two sons are working in Kolkata and two grandsons are working in Kerala,” said Sheikh Aptauddin.

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.6000 to RS.7000 per month," said Sheikh Diljan, whose eight bighas was lost in erosion.

Soil erosion has forced hundreds of families to move elsewhere permanently with governments providing only sporadic help. The Congress regime gave some families land in Sagar Island. While the left front, which ruled Bengal for two decades, shifted around 140 families to safer places. “We will survive only if the government helps us move to a safe place,” said Sheikh Aptaudin. Help that is far from assured, even after the din of 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 fool proof,” said Tuhin Ghosh. Another solution is increased plantation of mangroves and other species which will bind the soil and prevent erosion." // Mangrow is proven success as its root has soil holding capacity which stop erosion. According to experts mangrow has dense roots who keep hold on soil and stop it from erosion. It help in stabilizing the coastline.  Interestingly a decade ago Central Government had announced National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) 2008 to tackle climate change issue. Rs. 20000 crore was to spend on this but local people said nothing has been done so far to save Ghoramara Island.//

The Trinamool government has ignored the soil erosion problem while providing ration at subsidised rates to these villages. Though Rs 400 crore was allotted in 2014 to develop tourism infrastructure in Sundarbans, Ghoramara Island, not having anything of tourist interest, was excluded from this project.

Manturan Pakhira, minister of the Sundarbans Affairs Department set up in 1994, claimed a lot had been done for the people of Ghoramara. “The left front government had declared Ghoramaro as ‘No Man’s Land’ in 2011. We withdrew this tag and initiated many welfare projects,” said Pakhira. The villagers, obviously disagree.

Now, it is again the season of empty promises. "I have nothing to do with elections” said Lakhshmikant Ruidas who was building his new house with bamboos and plastic sheets. “My duty is 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 Mathurapur Constituency consists of islands and mainland areas. Only the Sagar, Namkhana, Kakdwip and Pathar Pratima blocks have island population, whose numbers are too small to give them any political clout. And whom no one will miss if the rising waters swallow their islands.


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