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Lok Sabha elections 2019: ‘Where will we go if this island is gone?’, says a first time voter from Ghoramara

Chandan Pal is among India’s first climate refugees with an uncertain future

lok sabha elections Updated: Apr 29, 2019 07:24 IST
Dhrubo Jyoti
Dhrubo Jyoti
Hindustan Times
Ghoramara,Ghoramara Island,Sunderbans
Roughly half of the Ghoramara island has disappeared over the past 30 years, with rising water levels in the local river, Muriganga, and the Bay of Bengal hastening its erosion. (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint Archive)

In his heyday, Panchanan Pal was the pride of Ghoramara. Pal and his family had 20 bighas (roughly a third of an acre) of prime farmland, and Pal went to university after finishing high school – a rare feat in the underdeveloped Sunderbans area at the southern tip of Bengal. But what really made him popular in one of the largest islands in the delta was his drama club.

Pal and a small group of men and women would travel across Bengal, and often as far as Delhi or Hyderabad, to perform one-act plays in Bengali. One time, he says, he came across legendary Bengali comic Rabi Ghosh, and another time, bested top theatre actor Chinmay Ray in a competition. “Our island was number one; and there was a pride in our culture and education,” reminisced Pal, now 63.

His son, Chandan, 23 years old and a first-time voter in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections, knows little of this — mostly because he doesn’t live there anymore. About three decades ago the waters of the local Muriganga river that pours into the Bay of Bengal a couple of kilometres further south surged through the mud-and-brick barriers one day, inundating the fringes of their fields. By the next year, the waters were crashing around the edge of their pond. “Now just three bighas are left of our 20-bigha land. The rest is under water,” said Chandan, standing outside their two-room thatched house in Sagar island, where most of the original inhabitants of Ghoramara have settled.

Roughly half of Ghoramara has disappeared over the past three decades, with rising water levels in the local river and sea hastening erosion at the shorelines. From a population of 20,000, roughly 3,000 people remain on the island now and are constantly shifting. “Younger people are leaving their homes, and settling on the mainland,” said Chandan, adding that mostly older people are left on the island that is now connected to the rest of the state only through a twice-a-day ferry. “At least it is still there; islands we would frequent with our drama club like Lohachora have disappeared completely,” chimed in Pal.

Chandan now runs an e-rickshaw in Sagar, the largest island in the delta now and home to the famous Gangasagar Mela. He has three uncles left on the island and hopes that the government rehabilitates them soon. His family, and thousands like them, is among India’s first climate refugees in a region where the fragile ecosystem has been devastated by the vagaries of climate change. But as Bengal hurtles towards another election, theirs are not issues that the political leaders are thinking about.

NEW HOME

Sagar is where everyone comes. As the largest island in the Sunderbans delta, and the main hub for supplies ranging from fish to petrol, the 200-sq-km island is home to roughly 170,000. People come from all over the Sunderbans area, to catch ferries to the mainland, for jobs, for celebrations, education (it has a college and a good high school), and of course, to pray at the holy confluence of the Hoogly with the sea. The latest influx is of people fleeing erosion and rising water levels.

Chandan and his father live in Bankim Nagar, one of several hutments created by the then Left Front government in the 1990s to settle the refugees. But as the numbers swelled, the sizes of the allotments shrunk. The Pals had received roughly three acres of land, a pond, and a few coconut trees. His brothers are likely to receive only one acre, if at all the government rehabilitation plan is approved.

Chandan has thrown himself into his new life with zest. After failing the high-school leaving examinations, he began working as a painter, helping local offices and religious institutions – there is one at almost every bend of the road – spruce up their exteriors every few years. “I know who likes which colour, and how to do the best kind of distempering,” he said proudly, pointing at the colour of the bench he is sitting on – “golden yellow!”

A car accident two years ago cut short his career as a painter when higher floors became inaccessible to him because of a leg injury. It was then that he took to running an e-rickshaw, known locally as a Toto. “I am now the secretary of the local Toto union. I have 80 boys under me, and we make a killing every Gangasagar Mela,” he said. He is especially proud of his brief hobnob with Bengali journalists who came to cover the Gangasagar Mela last year. “We set up a quick food delivery system with customised menus, and none of the babus could stop eating,” he said, flashing a smile. His income? Anywhere between ?400 and ?700 a day. His occupation has triggered some consternation in his father, a retired government clerk, who doesn’t approve of his blue-collar job. Chandan has to often hear jibes about his English and is called a “nincompoop” fairly regularly.

LIVING ON THE EDGE

A collection of roughly 102 islands, around half of which are inhabited, the Sunderbans mangrove archipelago is a crucial carbon sink and eastern India’s biggest protection against coastal flooding. But steady erosion over the past three decades has ensured that about a dozen islands are already underwater, and others – such as Mousuni and Ghoramara – are teetering on the brink.

A 2016 paper published in Climatic Change journal said the Sunderbans – with an average elevation presently approximately 2 metres above mean sea level – was “under threat from inundation and subsequent wetland loss”. Tuhin Ghosh, one of the authors of that article and a professor at Jadavpur University, says the Sunderbans area is battling a multitude of climatic factors: Rising sea levels, shifting monsoon patterns, higher rainfall, and fewer very rainy days – which means the intensity of rainfall on certain days of the year have become harsher.

To be sure, he is of the opinion that climate change is not the only factor responsible, and that human error – for example, the imperfect and incomplete building of guide walls in nearby ports that has changed the course of the local rivers – is equally responsible.

Chandan and his father know nothing of this. They and other refugees, many of whom are Dalits or Muslims (the local Lok Sabha constituency is reserved for scheduled castes), are too busy eking out a living. But they are wary of the future, even building themselves a pucca house because they know that their new home is sinking too.

Sagar is facing erosion on the northern and western fronts, and has already lost roughly 30-sq-km of land, say experts. This means that Chandan’s fear finds reflection in his neighbours, who are all wary of where they will go next if displaced again. “I have given my life’s worth to building ourselves a new house, where will we go if this island is gone? Everyone takes their home for granted, their land for granted. What is there for us?” he asked.

Another neighbour, Srimati Sahu, says she feels scared everyday. “We know Sagar is sinking. What if the government says leave – after all, the allotment of land has stopped since 2005,” she said.

In the minds of many Ghoramara refugees, the island – which, legend has it, was named after a British officer who killed his horse -- has been romanticised. “We had everything in plenty. The kind of rice and paan we would grow you cannot imagine,” said Pal, while Chandan nodded in disapproval.

MY VOTE GOES TO...

For the first time in Sagar, saffron flags of the BJP are fluttering on street corners. But Chandan and his father are united in their assessment that the party will not pose a significant challenge to the Trinamool Congress incumbent, CM Jatua, from the Mathurapur Lok Sabha constituency. Their reasons, of course, differ.

The senior Pal, a former diehard communist, says many people’s votes would be dictated by the fear of retaliatory violence from the ruling party. Besides, what stops him from even considering the BJP candidate is that he is not a local, and not widely known in the area. The junior Pal has another reason: chief minister Mamata Banerjee.

“Look at what she has done for us. We couldn’t walk on these roads without our feet getting caked with mud; now we can sleep on them given how clean they are. She has brought electricity, given us streetlights, and is thinking about us. I have 80 boys under me, and each has about five people in their families, that means 400 votes for Didi,” he said.

Transportation remains the biggest challenge for the island, especially in times of medical emergencies, and a rickety boat that doubles up as a “water ambulance” cannot suffice. A proposed bridge to the mainland has been hanging fire for decades. “I have been hearing since my birth about it. Let’s see if they build it before I die.” But what about their home? And where will they go next? Chandan has no answers. And neither, it seems, do his political representatives.

ConstituencySitting MP
Madhya Pradesh
Balaghat Bodhsingh Bhagat, BJP
Chhindwara Kamal Nath, Congress
Jabalpur Rakesh Singh, BJP
Mandla Faggan Singh Kulaste, BJP
Shahdol Gyan Singh, BJP
Sidhi Riti Pathak, BJP
Rajasthan
Ajmer Raghu Sharma, Congress
Banswara Manshankar Nimana, BJP
Barmer Sona Ram Choudhary, BJP
Bhilwara Subhash Baheria, BJP
Chhittorgarh Chandra Prakash Joshi, BJP
Jalore Devji Patel, BJP
Jhalawar-Baran Dushyant Singh, BJP
Jodhpur Gajendra Singh Shekhawat, BJP
Kota Om Birla, BJP
Pali P P Choudhary, BJP
Rajsamand Hariom Singh Rathore, BJP
Tonk-Sawai Madhopur Sukhbir Singh Jaunapuria, BJP
Udaipur Arjunlal Meena, BJP
Jammu and Kashmir
Anantnag Vacant
Maharashtra
Bhiwandi Kapil Moreshwar Patil, BJP
Dhule Dr. Bhamre Subhash Ramrao, BJP
Dindori Chavan Harishchandra Devram, BJP
Kalyan Dr.Shrikant Eknath Shinde, Shiv Sena
Mumbai North Gopal Chinayya Shetty, BJP
Mumbai North West Gajanan Chandrakant Kirtikar, Shiv Sena
Mumbai North East Kirit Somaiya, BJP
Mumbai North Central Poonam Mahajan, BJP
Mumbai South Central Rahul Ramesh Shewale, Shiv Sena
Mumbai South Arvind Ganpat Sawant, Shiv Sena
Maval Shrirang Chandu Barne, Shiv Sena
Nandurbar Dr Heena Gavit, BJP
Nashik Godse Hemant Tukaram, Shiv Sena
Palghar Rajendra Gavit, BJP
Shirdi Lokhande Sadashiv Kisan, Shiv Sena
Shirur Adhalrao Shivaji Dattatrey, Shiv Sena
Thane Vichare Rajan Baburao, Shiv Sena
ConstituencySitting MP
Uttar Pradesh
Akbarpur Devendra Singh Bhole, BJP
Etawah Ashok Kumar Doharey, BJP
Farrukhabad Mukesh Rajput, BJP
Hamirpur Kunwar Pushpendra Singh Chandel, BJP
Hardoi Anshul Verma, BJP
Jalaun Bhanu Pratap Singh Verma, BJP
Jhansi Uma Bharti, BJP
Kannauj Dimple Yadav, SP
Kanpur Murli Manohar Joshi, BJP
Kheri Ajay Kumar, BJP
Misrikh Anju Bala, BJP
Shahjahanpur Krishna Raj, BJP
Unnao Sakshi Maharaj, BJP
Jharkhand
Chatra Sunil Kumar Singh, BJP
Palamu Vishnu Dayal Ram, BJP
LohardagaSudarshan Bhagat, BJP
Odisha
Balasore Rabindra Kumar Jena, BJD
Bhadrak Arjun Charan Sethi, BJD
Jagatsinghpur Kulamani Samal, BJD
Jajpur Rita Tarai, BJD
Kendrapara Baijayant Panda, BJD (now in BJP)
Mayurbhang Rama Chandra Hansdah, BJD
West Bengal
Asansol Babul Supriyo, BJP
Baharampur Adhir Ranjan Chowdhury, Congress
Bardhman Purba Sunil Kumar Mondal, Trinamool Congress
Bolpur Anupam Hazra, Trinamool Congress
Birbhum Shatabdi Roy, Trinamool Congress
Burdwan-Durgapur Mamtaz Sanghamita, Trinamool Congress
Krishnanagar Tapas Paul, Trinamool
Ranaghat Tapas Mandal, Trinamool
Bihar
Begusarai Dr. Bhola Singh, BJP
Darbhanga Kirti Azad, BJP
Munger Veena Devi, LJP
Samastipur Ram Chandra Paswan, LJP
Ujiarpur Nityanand Rai, BJP

First Published: Apr 29, 2019 06:45 IST