The migration, poor living conditions, and relentless washing off of houses have made climate refugees out of the islanders of Ghoramara in Sunderbans delta of Bay of Bengal. While the issue has received international traction, no serious program has been put in place for them. Without proper rehabilitation and improved living conditions, the future of the coastal community looks bleak.
Nikita D | TwoCircles.net
WEST BENGAL – A lot has been written about the Ghoramara island located in the South 24 Parganas of the eastern Indian state of West Bengal – however, the lives of its residents hasn’t changed for better. The island, located in the Sunderbans delta where the saltwater of the Bay of Bengal combines with freshwater from three Indian rivers – Ganga, Brahmaputra, and Meghna, is known to be an early example of the consequences of climate change. Located just 30 kilometres north of the Bay of Bengal, the rising sea levels have caused erosion of land, thereby shrinking the size of the island year after year.
The island has shrunk to less than half its size and is currently less than 5 square kilometres large. This is because the sea level rose from 2.26mm every year from 2002 to 12mm in 2014 and again 2.9mm in 2019, as opposed to the national average of 1.7mm increase in a year.
Other islands on the western side of the Ganga estuary such as Ganga Sagar and Mousumi are experiencing a similar fate, although not as rapidly as in Ghoramara. The Lohachara, Suparibhanga, and Bedford- other islands in the delta region, have vanished into the sea in recent years.
The shrinking island has caused a decrease in its population of 5,000 in 2001 (Government of India census) to less than 3000 in recent years. The 2001 data marks a huge dip from an estimated 40,000 population in the 1960s. Folklore suggests that Ghoramara was given its name after a tiger in the region killed an Englishman’s horse. The colonial authorities settled the native population on the island and gave them the job of watching over enemy ships arriving near the coast.
Post-independence, the primary occupation of the islanders has been rice and betel cultivation; and fishing, and prawn seed collection. However, in recent years, forced to migrate and leave behind their land and livelihood, the ex-residents of the island find themselves in acute socioeconomic distress. Residents from Ghoramara are moving out to the nearby islands, especially Ganga Sagar, the largest island in the archipelago that saw a decadal population increase of 20.38% between 2001-2011.
Anjani Kapoor, a researcher at the City University of New York carried out a capstone project on the Ghoramara island, the outcome of which is a documentary film Inching Closer. The paper describing the purpose of the project brings up the question of the disproportionate burden of rising sea levels faced by Ghoramara island as compared to other nearby islands like Nayachar or Jambudwip.
The paper suggests that while the role of natural force in reshaping the island cannot be disputed, it has been pointed out that port activities and improper dredging have resulted in rising sea levels.
The paper further quoted the work of author and journalist Anuradha Sengupta who has written that, “the problem started in the early 1980s when the Kolkata Port Trust started building several underwater walls to divert the river and widen the Kolkata-bound shipping route. The project was abandoned halfway. These underwater walls have led to higher tides and stronger currents.”
“To complicate the presence of already existing stresses on the habited islands in this fragile ecosystem, climate change is increasingly acting as a stress multiplier,” the researchers pointed out.
While researchers point to natural as well as anthropogenic causes for the steady disappearance of the island, the authorities seem to be dealing with immediate concerns rather than the bigger reality of the island and its residents.
Several reports suggest that most of the young adult male islanders have shifted to other states in search of work. The pradhan of Ghoramara, Sanjib Sagar talked about the lack of work on the island with TwoCircles.net. He said, “There is no work here as such. Sometimes you get 100 days of work a year under MNREGA but not everybody gets it. The water has receded after the last cyclone and houses have been built again, but we still cannot start farming”.
According to Sagar, the houses that were destroyed due to the cyclone have been built again. “The government gave some 18,000 rupees for building houses. A lot of NGOs came to do relief work. With their help, we have been successfully built back everyone’s house,” he said.
“We have made a 5-kilometre long embankment that has helped in preventing the water of the river from coming to the land,” he added.
Talking about the bigger problem of erosion, Sanjib said, “This is Sunderbans. Erosion is a fact and it will happen. Till now there has been no proper solution to it. We can put boulders but that can only stop the erosion for some time”.
West Bengal saw heavy floods in September 2021 caused by rains and worsened by the overflowing of Gauldin Barrage Dam on the Subarnarekha River in Ulda in the neighbouring state of Jharkhand. While the Purba Medinipur and Paschim Medinipur districts were the worst hit, Hooghly, North 24 Parganas, and South 24 Parganas (where Ghoramara is located) districts have also been affected.
Bankim Hazra, the MLA of Ganga Sagar and Minister-in-Charge of the Department of Sunderbans Affairs, told TwoCircles.net, “We made a report of all the people who lost their houses to the flood. There were some 30 people. The Housing Department has built back their houses. They were given 20 decimal of land after they lost their land to the flood.”
Hazra said that “Ghoramara is already washing out.”
“It is an international challenge. The state government is doing its best to develop the place. One primary school drowned in the flooding. So, we are trying to open new schools,” he said.
However, as the immediate issues are waded off, the migration, poor living conditions, and relentless washing off of houses have made climate refugees out of the islanders. While the issue has received international traction, no serious program has been put in place for them. Without proper rehabilitation and improved living conditions, the future of the coastal community looks bleak.
Nikita D is an intern with TwoCircles.net.