Caught between Covid-19 and Amphan, Bengal’s environment refugees face an uncertain future

Hindustan Times, Kolkata | ByJoydeep Thakur | Edited by Sparshita Saxena
May 25, 2020 05:52 PM IST

Every time the rivers erode a portion of the island, some villager loses his house and is pushed further inland to rebuild his house.

Caught between the Covid-19 pandemic, the lockdown and the devastation left behind by cyclone Amphan, the environmental refugees from Bengal’s ‘vanishing’ island of Ghoramara now face an uncertain future.

In picture: Sheikh Abdul Rauf.(HT Photo)
In picture: Sheikh Abdul Rauf.(HT Photo)

While 50-year-old Sheikh Abdul Rauf returned home in Ghoramara a day after the Janata Curfew in March, his four sons – in their late 20’s and early 30s - managed to return from Kerala a day later on March 24. All of them had left the island at some point of time in search of a livelihood. But now they have all come back because of the fear of the pandemic and the lockdown.

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“But see our fate. We were forced to leave the island in search of work after losing all our farmlands due to the erosion caused by rivers. Then the virus forced us to come back. Now the cyclone has again evicted us. Where are we supposed to go now?” said Rauf, while standing outside his hut badly damaged by the cyclone.

Also read: Cyclone Amphan wreaks havoc on IIM Calcutta campus

Located at the southern tip of Bengal, at the mouth of the sea, the island has been reduced to 4.8 square kilometre (sq km) as compared to more than 9 sq km in the 1970s due to severe erosion by three rivers. Hundreds of people like Rauf have left the island for other states in search of job. Rauf works as a tailor in Kolkata’s Kidderpore area.  

“From a total of around 7,000 people around a decade ago, the population has been reduced to 5,000. While many have gone to other states in search of work, around 1,200 have left the island permanently and have settled elsewhere like Sagar Island, which is much bigger. But because of the fear of the pandemic and the lockdown, at least 200 – 250 people, of the 500-odd people who had gone to other states for work, have come back,” said Sanjib Sagar, panchayat pradhan of Ghoramara. The panchayat has only five members and is the smallest in West Bengal.

Every time the rivers erode a portion of the island, some villager loses his house and is pushed further inland to rebuild his house. Some have been forced to rebuild their houses six times and have no farmland left, last time they had to purchase land from other villagers.

“I returned home after a woman in the locality where I used to stay in Kerala tested positive for Covid-19. There were 20 of us from various villages on the Ghoramara island. We all returned together just before the lockdown. But now we have been evicted again. We can’t even go back to Kerala as the disease is spreading. Back home we have lost everything because of the cyclone,” said Chandan Chowdhury whose family had to rebuild the house at least five times.

Chowdhury and his family, along with a few hundred other villagers, had to be evacuated just before the storm. Some returned to the island on Sunday to restart life.

Ghoramara, once comprised three Mouzas (a type of administrative district) of which two, including Lohachura, have eroded completely. It once boasted of a three-storey post office, one of the largest post offices in the state. But even that has been washed away by the erosion.

“The island is vanishing primarily because of river erosion. Many argue that it is the rising sea level. Had it been for the rising sea, many other islands in the area, like Nayachar, would have vanished. But whatever reason it may be, these environment refugees now face an uncertain future,” said Tuhin Ghosh, director of School of Oceanographic Studies at Jadavpur University.

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