Bijon Baidya, a farmer from Konkondighi, Sunderbans, is now a rickshaw-puller in Kolkata. The five cottah land he had in his village was inundated during cyclone Aila. Flood-water receded with time but a portion of his land is still under water and rest has become saline and thus, unfit for agricultural use. He lost his cattle and all that he had and could have helped him rebuild his life.
Sandhya works as a maid in houses in Saltlake area in Kolkata and lives in the slums with her relatives near Ultadanga after their land in Jharkhali islands, Sunderbans, was eaten away by the flood-water. She often narrates how people back at her village ask her about the situation in the city so that they can come over.
Each day people from the threatened islands of Sunderbans are trickling in Kolkata and around it not in search of better lives but to stay alive. The market in Jharkhali Islands no longer buzzes with people. It lies drab and empty with a few stalls scattered around. A few from each family in the village has gone out to search for a place to live in the city.
“Farming has become impossible after Aila since most of the land has turned saline and resources are too less. We have lost half of our lands to water. We don’t even have enough fodder for our cattle. There is no other way than to move to a better place,” says Manju Mondol, whose house is in the interiors of the Island.
Near the shore could be seen hamlets and makeshift tents ~ some occupied, some broken and deserted. These people had their brick or mud houses just a couple of meters away where now there is only water. Even mid-day meals, although infrequent, cannot lure the children to school since they have lost all their books and there is only tatters left to be worn. Vast stretches of salt-crusted barren land greets the visitors to these islands.
The Pachauri report had warned that soaring temperatures and rising sea levels would make many areas, particularly those closer to coast, uninhabitable and people would become climate refugees and move inland. The Sunderbans in India and Bangladesh were named as extremely vulnerable to climate changes.
A Jadavpur University research predicted in 2003 that there would be large-scale inward migration from the Sunderbans. “We found that with the sea level rising, and frequency of cyclones increasing — and more often than not they work in tandem — there would be more vicious tidal surges and destruction and by 2020 about 70,000 would become climate refugees and overall 23 lakh would be affected. Many of them would go towards Calcutta,” said Sugato Hazra, head of oceanography studies centre at Jadavpur University.
“There is a large influx in the number of climate refugees. The villagers there are mainly settlers and not permanent residents. There is not only the issue of migration because of the environmental problem but also because of the trans-border movement. You might not find the villager you talked to yesterday if you come the next day. There has been a growth of 237% growth in population since 1947 which is far from normal,” he added.
Tushar Kanjilal, an expert on the Sunderbans, revealed that a locality close to Kalindi, in the north of Calcutta, was called Basanti, named so by people who’d come from there. He said that people started moving out of the Sunderbans after a destructive cyclone in 1988, which sparked the fear of insecurity in the minds of the islands’ inhabitants.
An urban development expert, said: “The migration trend explains why and how the Rajpur-Sonarpur municipal area has seen the maximum decadal growth and extreme density rise (in population) during 1991-2001.”
Similarly, several wards under the Calcutta Municipal Corporation along the EM Bypass and Metiabruz, where the Muslims from the Sunderbans have settled, have seen high growth during the period, though Calcutta’s overall rate of population increase has slowed from earlier censuses. The migration is adding to the population stress on a city with a crumbling infrastructure.
Sonarpur became the chosen land because it was the closest they could get to Calcutta by train without entering the city. They stayed in Sonarpur and traveled daily to the city in search of work. Over 50,000 people from the Sunderbans have set up home in places that are within a 3-km radius from Sonarpur station. Those who have been brave enough have landed in the slums of Ultadanga, Khiddirpur and a few in Park Circus. Some can also be spotted in makeshift tents under flyovers in the city.
Climate models forecast that if the sea level rises by up to a meter this century (which is predicted), as many as 30 million Bangladeshis could become climate refugees. Then it will not be climate refugees from Gosaba alone Kolkata will shelter.
“All the maids working in the households in this locality hail from Sunderbans. I wonder how many families have moved to the city,” said Minu Ghosh, a resident of Santoshpur, Kolkata.
Pinaki Baidya, a teacher working with an NGO based in Jharkhali, said: “We see hundreds of people going to Kolkata every day, many permanently with family and even livestock.” There is nothing left here. Life has come to a standstill with no education, less food and persistent uncertainty. Also, the area has become extremely vulnerable to trafficking of young girls and women.”
Though the state government has not recognized this exodus yet, Kolkata is teeming with climate refugees and their numbers are set to rise.