Changing landscapes, changing lives

SAGAR ISLAND, 5 AUG: Cheated. That’s what Mr Uttam Halder feels. The land he once owned on the Lohachara Island (at Sagar Islands) is gradually reemerging after having vanished from the map in the late 1990’s.
Halder, who had left the Lohachara Island, said that boatmen have told him that a landmass is gradually coming up where once Lohachara and Bedford Island were situated.
“My father and grandfather had build houses and tilled the soil on that land. We were not ready to leave the Island. This is the law of the river. If one part is eroded, another part grows. But ours was submerged completely,” he said.
Halder and many others moved to Sagar Islands’ Jibontala and founded a colony.
Another such area where “environment refugees” from Lohachara and Ghoramara have shifted to is Sagar Colony.
Lohachara was known to be the first island that was submerged due to the rising sea level and has been the centre of debate ever since. Prof. Sugata Hazra, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies, said: “A landmass is gradually rising. It is not that Lohachara has reemerged. It is, however, visible in satellite pictures in lowest of low tides.”
He also said that one of the other islands threatened by the rising sea level is Ghoramara, that is inhabited by about 8,000 people, and Jambudwip.
After Lohachara, rapid erosion of Ghoramara Island had led to widespread fear among the inhabitants of the Islands. Most of the people have left Ghoramara and have shifted to Sagar Islands. However, those who stayed behind say that it is not going under water.
The island is just changing its shape. “Ghoramara is eroding from the south but the landmass is extending in the north,” said Asim Mallick, a resident of the island.
Jhuma Haldar’s brothers have left the island with their family. She is the lone caretaker of the five bighas of her father’s property that was eight bighas to begin with. “Three bighas of land, including my younger brother’s house has gone into the sea. But I will stay here as the rate of erosion has gone down and I hope it will stop. The land being very fertile I didn’t have the heart to leave,” she said.
Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert and a member of the task force formed by the Union ministry of water resources to assess the damage caused by Aila, said: “It is not unusual for islands to change shape in the Sunderbans. It is a common phenomenon in estuaries. The Sunderbans are not fit for human habitation and nothing can be done if people stay there despite that.”
The district human development reports for South 24-Parganas released recently stated that the region is highly vulnerable to climate change and it is estimated that 15 per cent of the Sunderbans will be submerged by 2020.
But that, to the people who have their home and hearth there, means little.

Soma Basu

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