Going with the wind

64girlfetchingwater Cutting edges: A girl fetching water at the fast-vanishing island of Ghoramara | Salil Bera

Bistirno Dupare, Ashonkhyo Manushe, hahakar shuneo, nishobde nirobe, o Ganga tumi, o Ganga Boicho keno…

(Spreading yourself on both sides, even hearing cries and roars of thousands, so selfish you are my Ganges that you keep flowing...)

This popular song rendered by Bhupen Hazarika in Bengali, Hindi and Assamese decades ago illustrated the damage caused by the Ganges flowing down the eastern region of India. The song could have been sung by anyone in Ghoramara, a vanishing island at the confluence of a river and a bay in the Sunderbans. Bishnu Raut, a fisherman from the island, says in a soft and heavy voice: e Sagar boi keno? Eto kosto amader. (Why does this bay flow here? It causes so much pain!)

Fifty years ago, Ghoramara was one of the biggest panchayats of West Bengal with more than 20,000 acres of land and a population of two lakh. Today, there are around 5,000 people living in 800 acres of land. Around 370 acres of land has gotten submerged every year in the last five decades in the Muriganga-Sagar, a river at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Ganges which is also known as a bay. No politician visits the island to seek votes and no doctors come here to treat patients. Ghoramara used to be part of Sagar island till 1990 when the high tide washed away Ghoramara’s last land link with Sagar island, making it completely isolated.

During high tide, the Muriganga turns violent. Within moments, at least 25 square feet of land from the perimeter of the coast goes under the water.

Anima Patra, a middle-aged woman from Ghoramara, has shifted her house five times in the last five years because of the erosion of the bank. “My hut used to be in the middle of the village,” she says. “In the last seven years, the bay came closer to it. Then one day, it suddenly washed away my house. I pushed my hut back. But the next year, the same thing happened and it keeps happening every year.” Each time Patra has to pay Rs 10,000 to construct her house without any help from the government.

If given a choice, the villagers would leave Ghoramara. Their nearest options are either Sagar island or a busy town called Kakdwip on the other side of Muriganga. But Patra says that there is no available space on Sagar island and land in Kakdwip is very expensive.

Environmentalists say that Ghoramara has been going under water because of the high tidal wave.

“There has been a rise of water level because of global warming,” says Ashish Chakraborty, an environmentalist from Kolkata. “The location of the Sunderbans is unique, being situated at the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and rivers like the Ganga, Padma, Meghna and Brahmaputra. Even a small change in temperature results in high tide that leads to erosion.”

As Raut says, “Our land is mostly soft and sandy. Here we cannot produce rice three times in a year, but only once a year. So, trees and forests are much more important to keep the land solid and hard.” He says around 1,200 families in the last five years have been shifted to different parts of the Sunderbans but the government has stopped the shifting because of lack of vacant land on any of the islands.

“The nearest place where we can find a doctor is Kakdwip but no boats go there after evening,” he says. According to Raut, seven allopathic quacks act as doctors when things turn critical. They treat fever, diarrhoea and snake bites. The government health centre is locked as these “doctors” are fanned out across the village treating patients. “Most of the people of Ghoramara are living with fever now,” says Sanjib Sarkar, Ghoramara panchayat president. “So daktarbabus (doctors) are all busy visiting from house to house.”

Like health, education is also in a dismal state. There is one high school and five primary schools here but there are only three teachers for 500 students in the high school; the primary schools have one teacher each. “We collected donations from the locals and got some local boys to teach in these schools without getting permission from the government,” says Sarkar. “What else could we have done?” The government teachers come from Kakdwip by boat and they leave early so as not to miss the last boat at 3.30pm.

Sarkar says the headmaster of the high school has not been allowed to retire as they know it will be tough to find a replacement. “Apart from his pension, he gets some token money from us which we collect from the people.”

The people ask me to let the government know how desperate their condition is. They hope the news report will inspire it to act. But no one knows whether the island will still exist when the government wakes up. Three-fourths of it have already gone under water, much like the promises of the government.

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