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Swallowed by the rising sea

Rising temperatures are raising sea levels in coastal Orissa. In Kendrapara district, all that’s left of a cluster of seven villages is a few mud huts. And the Bay of Bengal is still marching forward, writes Kumkum Dasgupta.

india Updated: Dec 01, 2009 01:14 IST
Kumkum Dasgupta

Along the coast in Orissa’s Satabhaya region were homes, fields, schools, even a summer palace.

Now, the land is no longer visible, even at low tide.

As global warming drives sea levels further up, entire villages are being forced to move further inland each year.

Others have lost the battle with the ocean altogether.

Take the Satabhaya region, 125 kilometres north of Bhubaneswar.

It was once made up of seven villages. Today, only two remain.

A total of 1,061 acres now lie under the ocean.

Seventy-five-year-old Purushottam Malik remembers the day Satabhaya village lost its largest structure to the swirling waters of the Bay of Bengal.

The summer palace — Kanika Kothi — of the local royalty, the Bhanjadeo family, was washed away in the

late 1960s.

“When it became clear that the palace would be the next to go, the royal servants came and took away the furniture, fittings, even the bright-coloured curtains,” muses Malik, a former school teacher. “We were not surprised because we knew that the sea was moving forward. But we thought it was because of the Paradip port that had just been built nearby. After a while, we thought, it will all settle down.”

It didn’t.

Over the last four decades, Satabhaya has lost its 125-year-old primary school, a rice-processing factory, five of its six tubewells and acres of fertile farmland.

The village has been forced to move inland thrice.

Just 20 years ago, the ocean was a scenic two-km walk from Satabhaya village.

Today, that original location is somewhere 1 kilometre inside the sea.

All that stands between the few remaining mud huts and the ocean is a monstrous sand dune — a playpen of sorts for the local children — and few casuarina trees.

Every few months, the dune seems to sweep forward, leaning on the roofs and covering the doorstep of the mud houses closest to the sea.

A few hundred metres away are lush paddy fields and forests, but villagers fear they will not be lush much longer.

Saline water is seeping under their fields and sand covering the earth, shrivelling their crops.

“Just a few year ago, we had courtyards, kitchen gardens and farmland,” says Sasmita Das, Satabhaya’s 34-year-old sarpanch. “Today, we have nothing.”

Of the 200 families that once lived in the Satabhaya and Kanhapur villages, only 32 remain.

Meanwhile, the only response from the state government so far has been to gradually shrink the revenue map of the area. In 1990, the map showed all seven villages of Satabhaya.

By 1999, the local tehsil office had been forced to merge the Satabhaya and Kanhapur villages into one.

Meanwhile, the total area covered by the Satabhaya cluster has shrunk from 320 sq km in 1930 maps to 155 sq km by 2000.

Earlier this year, the government finally acknowledged that the crisis has reached the doorsteps of the two remaining villages and sanctioned Rs 7 crore to shift the residents.

“These two villages will be washed away next monsoon,” says District Magistrate S.K. Panda. “Therefore, we are shifting them to Bagapatia. We have earmarked 72 acres for 720 families.”

It may not be just 720 families for long.

“There are 315 villages along the coastline between the Baleshwar and Ganjam coastal districts of Orissa and 50 per cent of them are facing this problem of erosion and ingression by the sea,” says G.K. Panda, professor with the Department of Geography at Utkal University in Bhubaneswar. “In the last 10 years, the process of erosion, ingression and submergence has picked up pace tremendously. We believe that changing climate is responsible for these problems.”

Adds U.G. Bhat, chairman of the Department of Studies in Marine Biology at the Karnatak University Post Graduate Centre: “Sea erosion happens due to wave energy and waves are created due to winds. Since wind is an offshoot of a climatic process, any variation in temperature will have an effect on wave creation.”

Back at Satabhaya, Malik and his neighbours fear for the more precious of the village’s last two concrete structures — the temple of virgin goddess Pancha Barahi.

The other pucca structure, the blue panchayat bhavan, is a safe distance from the marauding sea.

The Orissa Anthropological Department has promised to shift the temple to a safer location.

“But who knows which of the two will finish their job faster, the department or the sea,” says 60-year-old B. Moi, a paddy farmer.

Most of us, says a fellow villager, think it will be the latter.