Meet the Indian islanders losing ground to the sea

In the Bay of Bengal, Ghoromara faces disaster as the rising ocean eats away at people’s homeland

Childhood friends Das and Dolui say climate in Ghoramara is getting worse with each passing year

Childhood friends Das and Dolui say climate in Ghoramara is getting worse with each passing year

By Deepa Philipps

“When the ice on the mountains melt, the sea level rises and causes flooding,” says Firoz all of twelve years. For this young inhabitant of Ghoramara Island, located in the Bay of Bengal, climate change is not just a lesson in geography but an everyday reality.

“One night my mother woke me up hurriedly saying that our house was crumbling,” he recollects with a toothy grin, his innocence evidently untouched by misery.

Once sprawling across 8.51 sq km, Ghoramara, part of Hooghly river’s estuary, has now been reduced to 4.45 sq km. “Continual rise in sea level due to climate change, will continue to create havoc in the estuary causing the island to erode away,” notes Tuhin Ghosh, faculty in the School of Oceanographic Studies in Jadavpur University, West Bengal, who has been studying the effects of climate change on the Sundarbans since 1993.

Climate change and the associated sea level rise is seen to be a major threat to low-lying areas like Ghoramara. One among the 54 islands of the Sundarbans — a vast mangrove delta shared by India and Bangladesh — Ghoramara has lost 75 percent of landmass just over 31 years (1968-1999). And it continues to recede, forcing villagers like Firoz and his family to rebuild homes further inland.

Among themselves, the villagers float various theories regarding why they are losing their land to the waters. “The extension of the Haldia port by the [West Bengal] government forces the water towards the island,” says Vishnu Poda Das, a secondary school teacher in Ghoramara.

His words have an element of truth. In the 1970s, the state government had drawn up the project despite warnings of increased frequency and intensity of cyclones and tidal floods. The proposed seven guidewalls to contain ecological damages to surrounding areas have also not been constructed. This has diverted the flow of water towards Ghoramara that lies 12 km away from the port.

“High flow of water hits the island and takes away the soil, loosening it from beneath, as a result the land slowly gives way to the sea,” says Vishnu Poda Routh, a native, pointing toward the latest prey of climate change — a road leading to his village. The land, wet and clayey, clings to his bare feet as his eyes recollect the moment when the brick road was lapped up by the waters.

A gaping hole in the landscape with bits of red brick strewn all around is all that remains of the road. The island is closing in on its inhabitants. And they have nowhere to go.

Villagers lose their ancestral land, houses, cattle and even their loved ones to the waters that lash the island. Take the case of Shaumoresh Das who owned 30 acres of ancestral land and now barely has one left. A few kilometers away from Das’s property, Routh is joined by his wife and adolescent son for a herculean task: their ancestral house that weathered the elements for over a hundred years has succumbed to the waters.

Routh and his family salvage the remains of their decimated ancestral house

Routh and his family salvage the remains of their decimated ancestral house

“The storm that raged last night was the last straw, as waters caused the front wall to collapse,” says his wife. “Thankfully my mother-in-law was not inside.”

The mud house that contained the family’s ancestral possessions lies decimated the coconut fronds that framed its roof, graying under the blaze of the sun have crumbled inwards like a pack of cards. Old memories die a slow death as Routh and his family sift through rotting wood, to pick up anything remaining of worth.

“We have seen our neighbors drowning in the water when their house and livestock was washed away,” recollects Feroza Bibi, mother of Firoz. The water creeps up stealthily on them leaving them hapless. So what do they do when drowning is inevitable? “We make a grab for the food items and run towards higher grounds,” she says.

For the villagers fleeing the inundated swathes of land, houses of relatives or the local school, turn into makeshift shelters. “We stay at our grandfather or uncle’s place till the time the new house is built,” says Firoz. His new house, fifth in succession, is also precariously perched behind a mud wall that also doubles up as a road for the villagers.

Various studies have labelled Ghoramara’s inhabitants as ‘environmental refugees’ but neither the state nor central governments have budged an inch. It was 2006, when Pradip Saha, director of Damage Control, an organization based in Delhi, had released a documentary ‘Mean Sea Level’ on Ghoramara.

“I held a global premiere in Ghoramara itself, highlighting the plight of the island,” he says. During his research for the film, he was disconcerted with the government’s apathy.

“The islanders are losing land to the sea and left to fend for themselves and there is no sarkari [governmental] mechanism is place, it is very odd!” he tells TEHELKA. “The government has to officially declare it as a ‘disaster’, if any progress has to be made.”

Indeterminate future

Legend has it that two British brothers were allotted the erstwhile Ghoramara Island as their zamindaari (revenue land). Soon, the younger brother came riding on his horse to inspect the land. After taking a few rounds of the land, he left his horse tied to a tree. On returning, he found the horse missing and discovered later that it had been eaten by a tiger. Thus the island infamously got its name as ghora (horse) mara (killed).

Back then, the island was home to a post office that was an observation tower in disguise. With high and thick walls, the post office resembled a fort and was discreetly used by the Britishers to relay information about passing ships. The post office was among the prime heritage buildings that have disappeared into the water along with its villages of Baishnabpara, Khasimara, Khasimara Char, Raipara and Baghpara. The loss of land has meant separation from the mainland and thus a forced isolation.

Ghoramara that was once a stone’s throw away from Kakdwip located on the mainland now takes half-an-hour to reach in a ferry. “If you would stand in Ghoramara and speak, the person standing on Kakdwip could easily hear you,” Ram Bari Maity tells TEHELKA. “Now there is a huge gap with acres of land having gone into the water.”

The loss is telling. Owing to the gulf created by rising water levels, access to medical help is also restricted. “It takes over an hour to get a patient to the nearest hospital on the mainland,” says Shahana Bibi as her daughter clothed in bare minimum clutches at her shoulder. There is one primary health center in the island that caters to a population of 4284 (Census 2011). It opens doors till noon, and has medical staff who travel back to their homes after the allotted window of time.

The situation is particularly disturbing for women. “In case of pregnancy, there is no provision in the island for safe childbirth,” says Bibi. “There have been many instances when women have given birth in the ferry itself.” Those desiring to reach the mainland for pre and post-natal care find themselves at the mercy of ferry drivers. “Many a time, they simply refuse to ply the ferry. They don’t care if we [women] die or live,” says Jaitun Devi angrily.  As a mother of three, she remains occupied in protecting her children from the incessant flow of water that rushes in. “When the water enters the land, it sweeps over everything and leaves no room even to keep the children,” she explains.

Women like Jaitun Devi are uncertain about the future of their children

Women like Jaitun Devi are uncertain about the future of their children

Livelihood of the islanders is also affected by the sinking land where betel nut cultivation is the mainstay besides fishing and prawn seed collection. Green houses made with nets tied around poles, serve as a hotbed for betel leaves that wind their way through the net mesh. The crops often drown in water while soil erosion adds to the misery. “If this continues, the land will become so barren by the time I grow up that I might have to move to my relative’s place,” says Firoz.

Disappearing island

On the clayey mound, two friends sit with their eyes on the waters. Rabindra Nath Das and Ronojit Dolui have been fishing together all their lives. It was merely 26 years ago that they saw an adjacent island Lohachara disappear. “We used to visit Lohachara for fishing and collecting wood,” Das tells TEHELKA. “We saw the land slowly being eroded and then one fine day it fully submerged in the waters.” The submergence had displaced over 374 inhabitants of Lohachara. Today, their own homeland is under grave threat.

“Every year the climate is changing and becoming worse,” says Dolui. The look on his weathered face, betrays fear. “Na more beche acchi (we are barely living from day-to-day),” he mutters. His friend sighs in approval, as he turns his eyes back to the receding shoreline.

Villagers are increasingly looking to the government for help. “We will stay for as long as it is possible, if then the government intervenes, it is fine else we are clueless about what we will do,” says Devi.

The government on its part, had enrolled inhabitants to place boulders on the western point of the island, where erosion was most intense. The huge boulders enmeshed in black wires have been laid across the western shore by its port body — the Kolkata Port Trust, but the wages of the laborers are yet to be cleared. This creates reluctance among them to take up more such initiatives of the government. “The boulders have managed to stem the erosion, but we are yet to receive pay for our toil,” says Khaidat Das, a laborer enrolled in the government’s anti-erosion drive. The boulders however, have been restricted to the western tip alone, leaving the rest of the island unprotected. “It [Ghormara] is not private property and so unless the government decides to help, nothing can be done,” says Vishnu.

Stirring hope

“It has been 34 years in Ghoramara,” says Satyabrata Tripathi with a gleam in his eye. He is a senior teacher in the only secondary government school in the island. Originally hailing from Midnapore district in West Bengal, Tripathi’s first assignment was to teach in Ghoramara. Three years into his retirement, he still hasn’t left. How does one explain this attraction to a sinking island? “All my relatives, my sons keep prodding me to leave the island, but I can never bring myself to it, I am in love…” he says chortling.

The secondary school established in 1951, offered education till class eight. From 1981, classes were extended up to the tenth standard. Having an enrollment of 500 students, the school has produced many doctors, engineers and teachers over the years. Literacy rates have surprisingly been high in the island. According to the 2011 Census, literacy rate of Ghoramara was 91.02 percent compared to 76.26 percent of West Bengal. “But the dropout rates is sadly very high as students have to provide for their families or assist their parents in fishing or cultivation,” he points out.

Students learn physics in the secondary school established in 1951

Students learn physics in the secondary school established in 1951

On his part, Tripathi has been an active campaigner for the island. He has been speaking on various occasions, asking islanders to plant more trees and thereby prevent Ghoramara from sinking.

He believes in, and promotes a methodology called ‘bio-engineering’ by scientists for sowing of plant species that will rapidly develop into dense populations, in order to check the flow of erosion. “Bio-engineering is a traditional, low-cost method of trapping soil and thereby protecting it from erosion,” explains Ghosh.

But he wages the battle alone. “Mostly my pleas fall on deaf ears, they [islanders] ask me to stop lecturing them,” Tripathi tells TEHELKA. So is his fight to save the island pointless? “I would not say my efforts are in vain, there are a few who pay heed and join me in planting trees,” he says.

However, individual efforts need to be backed by mega efforts both at national and international levels. In the talks leading up to the UN Framework for Climate Change Conference in December 2015, highlighting the plight of islands like Ghoramara is crucial.

“The issue of migrant population displaced from coastal areas due to climate change and sea level rise is global,” says Sugata Hazra, director, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University. “The world needs a clear policy on how they should adapt to such situation, will they be provided with compensation, what would be the policies for migration, how India and other countries can take care of these global refugees.”

With its pragmatic intended nationally determined contribution (INDCs), India may have taken a right step towards addressing climate change concerns but has failed to recognise islands like Ghoramara in its own backyard, as victims of the global phenomenon.

“It is imperative that the government declare the situation as a disaster,” Saha tells TEHELKA. “Just because Ghoramara generates little or no revenue, one can’t overlook the disaster that it is facing or more importantly, ignore the ecological value of the Sundarbans themselves.”

India’s call for ‘climate justice’ in the INDCs is apt in the context of Ghoramara and surrounding islands. “When we speak of climate justice, we demonstrate our sensitivity and resolve to secure the future of the poor from the perils of natural disaster,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi had recently said in his address to the UN General Assembly. But how the country goes about recognizing and then securing justice for its environmental refugees remains to be seen.

Vishnu Poda Routh believes his native island will go under water within ten years

Vishnu Poda Routh believes his native island will go under water within ten years

In January 2014, the World Bank released a strategy report ‘Building Resilience for Sustainable Development of the Sundarbans’. In its report, the organization has pegged losses to India due to climate change occurring in Sundarbans at Rs 1290 crore annually. It is evident that in overlooking the damages, India is harming none but itself. And many on the eroding island second that.

“I have been seeing the waters, eat up my island since I was a boy,” Maity, now 48 years old, tells TEHELKA. Walking home barefoot, after buying essentials from Kakdwip, his white dhoti is splayed with mud but he has more important things to worry about. “We are like rose petals that can wither away any moment,” he says, as each word hangs ominously in the damp, moist air.

This story was sourced through the Voices2Paris UNDP storytelling contest on climate change and developed thanks to John Upton, @ClimateCentral

Read more on: Adaptation | India