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When the Sea Rises: A Story from the Indian Sundarbans

When the Sea Rises: A Story from the Indian Sundarbans

Representative photo: Uprooted trees from storms past on the shores of the Sundarbans National Park. Photo: davidstanleytravel/Flickr, CC BY 2.0.

Why do all these people stay in an area like the Sundarbans?

Why can‟t they evacuate these areas permanently?

How do they live with such uncertainty?

Is it right to inhabit an ecologically and geographically sensitive area like the Sundarbans?

In the post-Amphan intellectual and public domain, the devastation in the Indian Sundarbans region – due to the cyclone on May 20, 2020 – has been well-discussed, scrutinised and eventually pitied.

However, this is not new: the perception of the Sundarbans has slowly evolved from a romanticism centred on the region’s unique eco-geography to a perception of a coastal rural lowland inhabited by millions of people. But how justified are we to place all the blame on sudden shocks like Cyclone Amphan and the COVID-19 lockdown?

In fact, how do the islanders see their lives when there is no disaster looming on the horizon?

The narratives here are excerpts from my fieldwork, carried out mid-2018, when there was no disaster around.

The condition of an embankment in Mousuni village, 2018. Photo: Sharanya Chattopadhyay

“After Cyclone Aila in 2009, the embankment of the southern side was completely devastated. Half of the village was underwater for several days. When the water receded, it was not anymore possible to do agriculture. A few of us decided to set up a small fishery. We applied for a loan, and fortunately we received the amount. Everything was set. By God’s grace everything was running smoothly. But one night, during another storm, water engulfed the fields again. The storm didn‟t make headlines, but it was high-tide time. It mercilessly washed away everything we had. All the seedlings were gone, the whole system had collapsed. Now, we have no other options. We still don’t know how to repay the debts.”

Male, 42 years, Sagar Island

Their tears were real and their helplessness unfathomable. The increasing salinity in the water and the soil has affected agricultural production. The high-tide twice a day subsumes a considerable area under water. They say the tropical easterly winds and the spring tide “bring back bad memories”. When asked about how they manage to live within 200 m from the broken embankment during storm surges, one lady said:

“I am 46 years old, and have been living in Beguakhali village with my husband and three children for 27 years. Earlier, we had our house almost a kilometre away from the old embankment. After Cyclone Aila everything was lost. My house fully collapsed at that time. I had a cow, it also died. The government built a new embankment, but the height is not sufficient to hold the waves. We didn’t receive any help either. We can’t sleep during storm surges now-a-days due to noise and the sound of waves crashing against the incomplete embankment. Who knows when the time will come? In the last two years, I’ve had to relocate thrice. But I am a woman of the riverside, I was born and brought up here only. Let’s see how much more the waves can snatch away from me. Thieves steal things from others, but in my case the sea snatches things away. I am a rich person (laughs) – what do you say?”

She pointed to the broken remains of a palm tree in the middle of the water, where she once had a home. But her determination is radiant; in fact, a characteristic mix of resilience and humour – which manifested as an infectious smile – is abundant in this complex territory. These islanders were a continuously retreating yet optimistic people that never forgot to put up a fight.

Another man, aged 35 years, from Beguakhali village of Sagar Island said:

“When the embankment collapsed during Cyclone Aila, my house was damaged. My agricultural land went underwater. For several days the condition was unexplainable. Due to a lack of transport facilities, relief work was hampered. Even when the water receded, the land was of no use due to high salinity. Later on, government officers came and promised to compensate us. They acquired my land along with that of many others for the construction of a new embankment. It all started, but I didn’t receive any money. We have been living here for generations, why should I leave? I won‟t give up without a fight. I filed a case against the government in the high court. It’s still pending though; they are pressuring me to leave the land for construction work. But I won’t do anything. Why do I care what people say? Until and unless I get the money, I won’t let anybody place a single brick on my land.”

All of the villagers said that if the new concrete embankment isn’t built quickly, there will be another breach and more saline water ingress.

A map showing the relative location of Sagar Island. The island is the left-most of the numbered locations (also marked 5 and 6). Photo: Wikimedia Commons

However, the maintenance of embankments in this area has been reactive in nature – there’s an attempt to mend the structure only after there has been a breach. A considerable fraction of respondents also complained that they hadn’t received the promised sum even after land acquisition.

When people started inhabiting these islands, they didn’t have a patta (the legal document for land ownership), and most don’t to this day. After Cyclone Aila, when the government started acquiring land for new embankments, many of these people couldn’t provide any proof of ownership. This incident had a bidirectional effect. First, the affected households couldn’t receive any assistance from the government. Second, in some cases, the actual owners of the land, who are now settled outside the Sundarbans, came and claimed the sum. But the people still living there didn’t receive any help.

And now, rapid erosion is pushing them further inland – even as they refuse to leave the island. At times, many have relocated to private lands. An NGO worker (name hidden to protect identity) said:

“The original owners of many of these lands are already staying in Kolkata; they shifted there long back. After Cyclone Aila, when the government provided the compensation for the land, these fellows appeared in the village and claimed it. When they left with the money, some other people started staying in the same plot of land. And when the government officials came again, they faced resistance from these ‘settlers’. These people also received some money. But it’s like a cycle: when these people left, someone else occupied the area. It goes on like this.”

This story is not uncommon here. Different people occupying the same land disrupts administrative intervention, and slows down work on the embankments as well.

When work resumes after it has stopped for a while, the older section of the structure would have become eroded, allowing the surrounding land to get washed away. I saw some torn pieces of the geotechnical tube sacs, used for construction, in some houses. When I asked about them, they replied:

“Water is engulfing everything. Our land is gone, our houses are fully damaged. Do you call it a house? The government is not doing anything. No one cares for us. The irrigation department refers to these bamboo geotube sac structures as embankments. They are useless. During the monsoon, we need some shade over our heads. We deserve at least that shade, don’t we? So we use these sacs. But we are not stealing them. They are torn anyway and of no use.”

This pugnacity was pretty common on Mousuni Island, probably as a result of the administration’s long history of neglect. It was obvious that the islanders felt their basic rights had been violated, and that their struggle for survival and loss had been commodified.

Waves lashing a tubewell, Mousuni, 2019. Photo: Sharanya Chattopadhyay

“During the spring tide, there is water everywhere. We reduce consumption of food and water to limit the need to access toilets. We catch [prawn seedlings] daily, wading in chest-deep water. This saline water is triggering health problems, body pain, gynaecological issues, skin infections, etc. But we have mouths to feed, what else can we do?”

Female, 28 years

Why do you all stay here?, I asked.

They had no immediate answer, their eyes were blank. But after a few moments of silence, they always had the same thing to say.

“Where can we go? We have nowhere to go. We have never known anything other than this land and these occupations. Now that is also changing. We don’t know it anymore.”

In his 2004 novel The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh wrote: “The rivers’ channels are spread across the land like a fine-mesh net, creating a terrain where the boundaries between land and water are always mutating, always unpredictable… There are no borders … to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea.”

Ghosh’s words capture a fundamental truth of the Sundarbans and its people. In 1770, the very fertile soil in the region and its proximity to Calcutta attracted some people to start cultivating it, while the government erected embankments and organised settlements. It was old wine in a new bottle – to attempt to tame nature’s unpredictability for profits.

The families of the people living in the Sunderbans today have lived here for many generations. But the ‘developmental’ process the British began, and which the Government of India has continued, has left most – if not all – of these people stranded, branded as the unauthorised occupants of their own lands, as if their very existence threatens the natural dynamics of the Sundarbans ecoregion.

Away from the mainland, living in the southern coastal stretches of the Sundarbans and at the mercy of a fluid water-land divide, gives rise to a type of inferiority. The people here are bereft of social recognition without geographical accessibility, basic amenities and good livelihood options – even as they adapt to the effects of climate change and state apathy, and pay a huge price.

Sharanya Chattopadhyay is a research scholar at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences.

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