Despite the advancing sea, coastal-erosion refugees in Odisha keep returning to their former homes

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Scroll.in, Satabhaya, India

Khetrabasi Behera and his wife Kausalya walk to what used to be there home in search of fish / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

One morning in NovemberKhetrabasi Behera, 69, and his wife Kausalya Behera, 60, crossed a crocodile-infested creek in the midst of Odisha’s Bhitarkanika National Park on the way to the village they once called home.

Kausalya carried some kerosene in a bottle. Her husband had a few belongings in plastic sacks hanging from a pole slung across his shoulder. The couple planned to stay in the village for a week to fish, their only means of livelihood left in a place waiting to be devoured by the Bay of Bengal.

“With our crop land lost to the sea, we are landless now,” said Khetrabasi, who wore a white shirt and a lungi folded up to his knees. “We go to Satabhaya to catch fish, crab and prawn. We have to eke out our living.”

The couple were about eight kilometers away from Satabhaya, a once-picturesque coastal village in Kendrapara district from which they had been relocated by the state government last year. They are among 571 families that had been resettled by April in Bagapatia, a colony the government created for people displaced by coastal erosion in the area.

But since there are no jobs or alternative livelihoods in Bagapatia for the villagers, and the state government has not provided them with land to cultivate or compensation for fields lost to the sea, most of the resettled villagers earn their livelihoods by catching fish, crabs and prawns from the inundated fields where they used to grow paddy not so long ago.

Most walk the 12km to Satabhaya village and back almost every day for this. During their visits, they also tend to the cows and buffaloes they’ve left behind to graze on land that turns more saline each year.

An overview of the Satabhaya area / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

Coastal Erosion

The sea has been eroding the coastline in Kendrapara district for decades, contaminating groundwater and devouring villages and paddy fields that have provided homes and incomes to thousands of people. The erosion is particularly acute near Satabhaya village.

In a report released in July, the National Centre for Coastal Research, which surveyed 6,031km of India’s 7,517km coastline between 1999 and 2016, found that 33 percent of the coast witnessed erosion, most of it on the Bay of Bengal side. Odisha alone has lost 28 percent of its 485km coastline during this period, according to the report.

Ranjan Panda, a water activist and researcher in Odisha, said that the situation in Satabhaya is a test of how the government is responding to rising sea levels and their impact on coastal residents.

Though the coastal erosion is largely attributed to climate change, many environmentalists suspect that development projects in the 1960s, such as construction of the Paradip Port – just over 80km from Satabhaya – and the felling of mangroves for other development projects, may have aggravated the process. No proper studies, however, have been taken up in this regard.

“Though global warming has undeniably affected erosion across the world, at the local level, as in the case of Satabhaya, the contribution of development activities at eco-sensitive coastal zones cannot be ruled out,” said Ranjan Panda.

What was once paddy fields are now prawn farms due to sea water inundation / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

‘Seven brothers’ dying

The word “satabhaya” means seven brothers. This refers to the original seven villages that stood, all of which had a robust economy revolving around agriculture and fishing, according to villagers. Tehsil records show that these villages were called Sanagahiramatha, Mohanpur, Habeli Chintamanipur, Gobindpur, Kaduanasi, Saheb Nagar and Paramanandapur. They were spread across 875.16 acres of land (not including cropland).

But as the sea relentlessly eroded the coastline, starting from the 1960s, the people of these seven villages moved inland and formed five newer villages – Kanhupur, Satabhaya, Barahipur, Rabindrapalli and Magarakanda. Satabhaya was the gram panchayat headquarters. Today, of these five villages, only Satabhaya remains. The last village to disappear into the sea was Kanhupur, in 2011. Gone with these villages were around 600 houses, more than 2,400 acres of paddy fields, several temples, a 125-year-old high school and a summer palace belonging to local royalty.

As the erosion continued, the presence of the Bhitarkanika National Park and the Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary on their western periphery meant that the villagers could not move further inland. This is when the government decided to relocate them to Bagapatia.

A home in Satabhaya village is buried under sand dunes created by tidal waves / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

Many village residents say they have been displaced multiple times because of the ingression of the sea.

Kalindi Charan Behera, 79, who now lives in Bagapatiasaid he must have shifted homes 10 times during his lifetime.

Another village elder, Krusna Chandra Behera, has vivid memories of how the topography in the region has changed since he was young.

“I clearly remember that between 1943 and 1945 waves from the sea started pushing enormous [amounts of] sand from the beach into the palace,” said the 84-year-old former teacher who moved to his newly-constructed concrete house in Bagapatia in July 2017. “Initially the king tried to clear the palace of the sand deposits…But then he saw the futility of the exercise and abandoned the structure completely.”

By 1948, the palace was submerged.

At that time, the Panchubarahi Temple, home to Satabhaya’s presiding deities, was more than a kilometer away from the seaNow the beach is less than 50 meters away from the temple. The deities too were shifted to Bagapatia in April.

Resettlement process

The Odisha government woke up to the reality of sea erosion in the area about 15 years ago, when it came up with a plan to rehabilitate the villages at Bagapatia, which was then a 100-odd acre plot of marshy land from where several prawn farms operated.

Odisha Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik laid the foundation stone for the colony in 2002, but things did not move for several years after that. Land acquisition did not begin for about eight years due to complications related to acquiring a chunk of private land. At the same time, the government stopped all development activities in Satabhaya, reasoning that it was pointless to waste money on a village that was destined to be abandoned.

In the mid-2000s, the slow process of relocation and lack of development in Satabhaya forced more than half of its total population of 3,000 residents – that is, those who could afford it – to move to Okilapala, located 10km away near the highway.

The villagers who were relocated by April moved with government assistance.

The rehabilitation colony at Bagapatia / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

According to Nihar Ranjan Mallick, the tehsildar (land revenue officer) of Rajnagar tehsil, which Bagapatia is part of, the state government has provided each resettled family with plots measuring just over 400 square meters and financial assistance of Rs 1.35 lakh to construct their houses.

The state government has also built a high school, a cyclone shelter and a market complex in the colony and provided it with piped drinking water through the rural water supply and sanitation department, Mallick added.

But the new colony is a barren blend of concrete and thatched houses, a sharp contrast to Satabhaya’s picture-postcard views. Residents criticise its lack of infrastructure. They say drinking water, for instance, is provided for just 30 minutes every day.

Government officials do not seem too sympathetic to their complaints.

“The people expect the government to do everything,” said Mandardhara Mahalik, the Rajnagar block development officer responsible for infrastructure, rehabilitation and development in Bagapatia. “In such rehabilitation programmes, the support of the people is also vital.”

Mahalik said that the government has connected homes with piped water and is developing infrastructure such as ponds, roads and other amenities. He added that the majority of families from the village have now been relocated and any problems in the colony would be resolved soon.

Ranjan Panda said that people who are internally displaced by the impacts of climate change struggle for recognition and redress across the world because there is no immediacy to their plight.

“The government considers such people just as any other displaced people,” he said, referring to those displaced by mining or other development projects. “Except for normal revenue laws, there are no specific laws to categorise these kinds of displaced people and evaluate the quantum of loss they suffer in terms of livelihood.”

The rehabilitation process in Satabhaya is still not over, with a few people still living in the village.

Revenue officers tasked with identifying the land for relocation and enumerating the beneficiaries, say that the list of families to be relocated was prepared taking 2011 as the base. But in the last seven years those numbers have expanded due to marriages and births. After examining claims and physical enumeration two years ago, the state administration recommended that another 148 families still living in Satabhaya be relocated to the new colony.

Unable to cope without basic amenities in Satabhaya, some families that have not been relocated officially have shifted to homes of their relatives in Bagapatia. Some others have sent their children to live with friends and relatives in the resettlement colony so that they can attend school.

The Satabhaya gram panchayat office now operates from Bagapatia. People still living in the village have to travel here to collect their rations under the public distribution system, as well as to access their pensions and other state entitlements.

Manorama Behera repairs her house in Satabhaya. She has not yet received a resettlement home in Bagapatia colony, she says / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

Youth migrate

In the late 1990s, local wildlife authorities declared Satabhaya a wildlife zone and banned fishing, further diminishing available livelihood opportunities. The residents of Satabhaya then started migrating locally to look for work.

But as crop land and the lack of infrastructure to transport agricultural products to markets outside Satabhaya continued to shrink, youth began migrating further away -- to plywood factories in Kerala, for example.

“At least 400 youth of Satabhaya are in Kerala now,” said Kailash Mallick, who also works in Kerala but had returned to Bagapatia temporarily after floods ravaged the state in August. “They all work in plywood factories earning between Rs 5,000 and Rs 10,000 per month.”

Khetrabasi and Kausalya Behera’s two adult sons are also working in the southern state. They send their parents around Rs 1,000 every month, which just about covers the cost of their monthly groceries.

Manorama Behera’s husband, Jagabandhu Behera, is in Kerala too. The couple have not been allotted a plot in Bagapatia so Manorama remains in Satabhaya, living alone in a thatched hut that she painstakingly repairs with mud periodically to prevent it from collapsing. Her two sons live in the resettlement colony with her brother-in-law so they can attend school. The family once owned five acres of land, all of which have been claimed by the sea.

With most people gone, it is difficult to live in the village, Manorama said. “The tube wells, our only sources of drinking water, are getting defunct.”

A tube well, which was in the midst of a village several years back, now stands tall near the sea. The soil beneath it has shifted due to waves and villagers have tied a rope to its handle and connected a pipe to its nozzle to collect water / Credit: Priya Ranjan Sahu

In the last 20 years, at least 10 tube wells in the area have been damaged by the ingression of the sea. One such tube well near the beach in Satabhaya looks unlike any other because of erosion. It is a 15-foot-tall pipe awkwardly jutting out of the ground; its height indicating the extent of erosion that has taken place. The villagers still painstakingly collect water from this well using a rope is tied to its handle, a pipe attached to its nozzle.

The village as such looks deserted, with its many houses and the village school building crumbling. Sand dunes cover several homes that lie near the beach. There is no electricity and the roads look neglected. But there are still some traces of life. A few mud and thatched houses are regularly maintained to keep them habitable so that those who have left – like Khetrabasi and Kausalya – can stay in them when they return for short periods.

The villagers know their livelihoods are shrinking fast. They cultivate shrimp in their inundated lands despite the threat of arrest and extortion by wildlife officials. They have also been selling their milch cows and buffaloes as the grazing fields turn more saline. There are now just 100 animals, down from 400 a few years back. “Ultimately, the whole area is doomed,” said Khetrabasi. “And with it we are too.”

This article was reported with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network.