Sagar Island, Sundarbans _ Parvati Das has spent 60 summers in Sumati Nagar, her native village on Sagar Island in the Indian Sundarbans Delta. Three years ago the embankment meant to protect her village and its residents from the rising sea was breached.
"Since then, the government has tried fixing the embankment. But the sea keeps breaking the embankment again and again. Since my childhood, the sea has come right at our doorstep," said Parvati, a widow and mother of three sons.
Two of her sons, both fishers, used to sell dry fish. The third son, 30-year-old Shakti Das, both physically and mentally challenged, is completely dependent on her for all his daily activities.
"After the embankment breached, my fisher sons lost the land meant to dry the fish, which went into the sea. They both migrated out of the island in search of livelihood," she said.
One of her sons now works 2,000 kilometres (kms) away as a construction worker in Tamil Nadu. The other has migrated further away to Kerala. Parvati has nowhere else to go.
"Soon the sea will engulf my hut, too. But, where can I go with my bed-ridden son, Shakti?" she asked, wiping saliva off Shakti's face.
Sagar Island, the largest island in the Indian Sundarbans Delta, is thickly populated with coastal villages where men have migrated out in search of work leaving behind wives, mothers and sisters to look after the old and sick and raise the children.
These women bear witness to the impacts of a changing climate on their fast-eroding lands and livelihoods.
"Agriculture, mainly paddy, and fishing-related activities are the main source of livelihood of people in the Sundarbans. Some people are also involved in honey collection," said Tuhin Ghosh, a professor with the School of Oceanographic Studies, at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.
"Research studies conducted by us show that due to various reasons, including climate change, agriculture productivity is on a decline in the islands, forcing people to look for other sources of livelihood and migrate. The number of cultivators in the islands has dropped, too," he added.
The Sundarbans is a tide-dominated region of the enormous Ganga-Brahmaputra Delta, spread over about 40,000 sq kms in India and Bangladesh. It is formed from sediments delivered to the Bengal Basin by three rivers — the Ganga, Brahmaputra and Meghna.
The Sundarbans hosts the world's largest contiguous mangrove forest (about 10,000 sq km, of which 40 per cent lies in India and the rest in Bangladesh). The Indian part of the Sundarbans delta has a total of 102 islands, of which only 54 are inhabited and the rest are forested.
These inhabited islands accommodate a human population of 4.6 million. These are some of the poorest of the poor people in the country.
"Around 34% of the 4.6 million people residing on [the] different islands … are under extreme poverty and 75% of families there has at least one member working in other states of India," reads a 2018 research paper, 'Agricultural Productivity, Household Poverty and Migration in the Indian Sundarban Delta'.
Land erosion and agriculture decline
Sagar Island, one of the 54 inhabited islands in the Indian Sundarbans Delta, is 282.1 sq kms in area and accommodates 42 villages or mouzas. Ghoramara Island, located to the north of Sagar, covers an area of 4.8 sq km, whereas Mousani Island covers 24 sq kms.
Just like any other delta region, formed by the deposition of sediment where a river meets the sea, the islands of the Sundarbans are continuously undergoing changes due to land erosion and accretion. They are also highly vulnerable to frequent embankment breaches, submergence and flooding, beach erosion, cyclones and storm surges.
A chapter on the Sundarbans in a book published in May 2014, ‘Landscapes and Landforms in India’ notes: "… the Sundarbans continues to aggrade each year from the deposition of river-sourced sediment. From May to September, when river discharge is highest, sediment is transported along the coast westward from the river mouth and into tidal channels by twice daily tidal flooding… The nexus of river discharge and strong tidal currents along the Bengal coast allows river-borne sediment to reach the remote interior areas of tidal islands."
Apart from aggradation, the islands of the Sundarbans also face erosion, which, experts say, is both a natural process and also impacted by climate change and sea-level rise.
A study that mapped erosion and accretion between 1969 and 2009, shows that the Indian Sundarbans Delta lost 210.247 sq km of land to erosion.
Researchers present different scenarios for sea-level rise in the Sundarbans. For instance, as per tidal gauge data at the Haldia and Diamond Harbour stations, as quoted in a 2016 research article, the annual mean sea level rise from 1950 to 2014 was 6.8 meters (m) to 7.23 m at Diamond Harbour and about 6.92 m to 7.17 m from 1970 to 2014 at Haldia.
"There are a large number of sea-level rise studies in the Sundarbans varying from 2 mm per year to 14 mm per year,” said Ghosh. “A lot of land is submerging in the Sunderbans and at the same time new lands are emerging."
According to him, climate change is an important factor affecting the livelihoods of the local people.
"Apart from sea-level rise, the pattern of rainfall in the region has changed,” Ghosh said. Although the total volume of rainfall has increased, the number of rainy days has decreased. So, in a shorter time period, the islands receive heavy rainfall, which impacts agriculture practices."
Ghosh also blamed salinisation of the soil for hampering agriculture. While increasing levels of salt in the river is affecting the availability of fish and crabs and changing the mangrove species, he said.
The 2018 study on agricultural productivity, poverty and migration, which focused on the western boundary of the Indian Sundarbans Delta, including Sagar Island, Ghormara Island and Mousani Island, recorded a time series map of the islands that showed a considerable change in shoreline due to erosion and accretion, which has affected agriculture activities.
As agriculture becomes unproductive and land continues to erode, the poorest of the poor in the Indian Sundarbans migrate in order to stay afloat.
'All my land fell into the river'
Until roughly 18 years ago, Sunita Doloi and her family lived in Ghoramara Island, where her husband's family-owned 6.4-8 hectares of agricultural land. Farming was their main source of income.
"Slowly and slowly, the sea kept eating into our land. Finally, it reached a point where our entire land went underwater and we had to leave Ghoramara," said Sunita.
She now lives in Kamlapur village on Sagar Island where the government has provided her family 0.24 hectares (or 1.5 bigha) of land.
"What can one do on 1.5 bigha land? We have built our house on it and do a little vegetable cultivation. My husband sells pukur [pond] fish and seasonally migrates in search of work. I look after my in-laws and children," she told Gaon Connection.
Sixty-three-year-old Lal Mohan Das sensed “the hungry tide” two decades back when his 12 bigha of land in Ghoramara eroded into the sea.
"About 23 years back, I bought three bigha land in Bankim Nagar village of Sagar Island and left Ghoramara. I now grow paddy here, while my son works as a mason in Kerala. His wife lives with us in the village," said Lal Mohan.
But the land in Bankim Nagar village on the eastern side of Sagar Island is no safer than Ghoramara.
The original residents of this village say it has lost at least 100 bigha (16 hectares) in the last three decades. And the embankment has breached three times and still not been repaired.
Fifty-one-year-old Ashok Mandal of Bankim Nagar claimed to have lost seven bigha (1.1 hectares) of land in 2014 when the sea engulfed a large chunk of the village.
"I am now left with 10 kattha [0.06 hectares] of land on which I do beetle nut cultivation," he said.
Sandhya Mandal of Bankim Nagar lost 10 bigha (1.6 hectares) to the sea and has no agriculture land left.
"My husband seasonally migrates out of the island while I do daily wage work to make both the ends meet," she said. "Men can migrate, but we women have to stay back to look after the house," she added.
Similar stories emerge 15 kms away in Beguakhalli village on the western side of Sagar Island.
Thirty years ago, Parvati Das married Ashim Das and moved to Beguakhalli. Since then she has been noticing the sea come closer to her home. In 2009, when Cyclone Aila hit the eastern coast of India, Parvati and her husband lost everything.
"Our house and 15-16 bigha [2.4-2.5 hectare] of land went into the sea. Now, we have only two bigha land left, which is shared between my husband and his four brothers. My husband migrates for work, while I look after the children here," said Parvati.
She has built a new house at a new location in the village, but the sea has already come very close.
"During high tide, sea water enters my home and we take shelter on the embankment," she added.
According to Sanjay Vashist, director of Climate Action Network in South Asia (CANSA), an international network of non-profit organisations working on climate change, climate change induced migration is a big concern in the Sundarbans.
"As villages in the Sundarbans go underwater, people are moving out to Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and other states. There is a lot of internal migration from one island to another, too," Vashist told Gaon Connection. "Right now there is no tension among people in the islands, but in future, as migration continues, some friction may arise as land is a scarce resource in the Sundarbans," he added.
"In Sagar block alone, which includes the Sagar, Ghoramara and Lohachara islands, about 227 hectares of agriculture land has been lost in 14 villages," said Bankim Chandra Hazra, a member of the legislative assembly from Sagar Island.
Since the 1960s, over 1,120 families from Sagar, Ghoramara and Lohachara islands have been resettled in various parts of Sagar Island.
"Initially refugee families were given 2.08 acres [0.8 hectares] of land each for farming plus homestead. But, thereafter, we have been providing only an acre [0.4 hectares] each to a family," he added.
Take the case of Jibantala village in Sagar Island, which has about 500 families.
"Of these, about 150-200 families have come from Ghoramara Island, parts of which have gone into the sea. The government has given these families 1.5 bigha char land each along the local river to build their houses," said 40-year-old Aasima Bibi, a resident of Jibantala.
She has three sons and all three work in construction in Hyderabad, 1,500 kms away from their home and families.
"I run a small tea shop in the village and look after my daughters-in-law and grandchildren," she added.
Asked about the possibility of tension between original settlers and refugee families, Aasima acknowledged that migration had put additional pressure on existing resources. For instance, there are only four hand pumps to meet the water needs of all the families in Jibantala. In adjoining Kamlapur village, there is one hand pump for 80 families.
"But people who have come from Ghoramara are also human beings and have children who need to be raised. They have lost their land to the sea, so we share resources with them," said Aasima.
Without alternate agricultural land, however, the ability for environmental migrants in the Sundarbans to sustain themselves remains in question.
Eighty-five-year-old Kushal Das Doloi, a relatively new resident of Kamlapur village in Sagar Island, lost 125 bigha (20 hectares) of land (common to him and his six brothers) in his native village in Ghoramara. In return, he received only 1.5 bigha of land.
"We lost 15-16 bigha agriculture land but have not received any alternate land for farming or monetary compensation for that land, though the government compensated us for the loss of [our] house during the Aila cyclone," said Parvati Das.
Ratikant Mallik of Dhabla Radhikapur village claimed he had lost about 1.6-hectares of agriculture land to the rising seas.
"The government hasn't compensated [us] against the loss of agriculture land. Rather, post Aila cyclone, it acquired land to build an embankment in our village. But the same has also not been done," he complained.
Banking on embankments
While embankments provide a sense of security to the local people, they are also one of the potential reasons for the sinking of the islands, prohibiting sediment from reaching these patches of land masses in the delta.
"The entire Indian Sundarbans region has 3,500 kilometres [of] embankments. Of this, 176 kilometres was washed away during the Aila cyclone and 777 kilometres is partially damaged. Another 1,043 kilometres is lost due to various reasons," said Hazra.
Thus, more than half the embankments meant to “protect” the Indian Sundarbans either do not exist or are partially damaged.
Both the state and central government say they are working toward building and strengthening the embankments.
The central government has so far provided Rs673 crore toward rebuilding (out of the estimated Rs1,339 needed). Meanwhile, Hazra says the state government has already spent Rs950 crore in reconstruction.
According to him, 84 kilometres of embankments in Sagar Island have been strengthened, with work ongoing for an additional 25 kilometers. The state government has also invested another Rs77 crore in a project that will use submerged geo-tube technology to arrest beach erosion in parts of Sagar.
But questions are being raised over the viability of such projects to keep the sea at bay.
Deltas are live landforms that are continuously growing or receding. And climate change and sea-level rise are exacerbating changes in the Sundarbans Delta, say experts. And as men migrate out of the islands in search of livelihoods and a less uncertain life, women are each day watching the hungry tide inch closer to their homes.
Banner image: As agricultural productivity declines in the Sundarbans, people are forced to migrate in search of new livelihoods / Credit: Nidhi Jamwal