Bad Tidings: The Sunderbans’ Vanishing Islands

January 15, 2007


This story was originally published in Down To Earth Magazine (

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For the past 15 years or so, Rabindranath Das has been watching the ground slip away from beneath his feet. Back in the 1990s, his family had about 3.5 hectares (ha) of paddy fields along Ghoramara island’s northwestern shores. But every year, especially during the monsoons, the Hooghly’s strong undercurrents would erode a bit more of the riverbank’s slopes, triggering sudden collapses of large sections of the bank. Every year, either the river or advancing embankments would swallow a fresh swathe of his family’s land. Now, less than a quarter of a hectare and the thatched mud house they live in, remain. The paddy harvested from this field feeds Das’s 12-member family—wife, young children and parents— for less than three months. So, every year he leaves his tiny island for the mainland for months at a stretch to work as a daily labourer harvesting paddy in other people’s fields or excavating mud from riverbanks. The money he brings back helps make ends meet. But just about. There are days, he admits, when the kitchen fires can’t be lit.

“Next monsoon, when they build the boundary wall around the island afresh, we will probably lose the last bit of our land. It will fall outside the embanked area. Like most of the people here, we too will become bhumiheen (landless),” Das says. But even then, he won’t leave the island. So what if there’ll be nothing left to live on, he intends to cling on to the only home he’s known till the briny waters of the Hooghly and Bartala drag away the last bit of solid ground. “Till the day Ghoramara is here I will be here,” he says. Unfortunately for Das, from the looks of it that day isn’t too far away. Settled some 200 years ago, Ghoramara, apparently so called because a raja of the area, Pyarimohon Mukherjee, lost his horse (ghora) to a tiger while on a hunt in the island, was among the first of the islands in the Sunderbans region to be turned into a British outpost. It once boasted of the Sunderbans’s first post and telegraph office and police station. Now both have moved to the larger Sagar island. According to the local panchayat office, the island then had an area of 3,912 ha. It’s less than a third that size today. What’s left is going. Fast.

Expert opinion

Researchers at Jadavpur University’s School of Oceanographic Studies (JUSOS) in Kolkata say Ghoramara has been reduced in size by 41 per cent since 1969, displacing 7,000 islanders over the past 30 years. They predict the 3 km by 3 km piece of land that still offers shelter and sustenance to some 5,400 largely marginal farmers, fishermen and daily labourers, might not last beyond 2020. In fact, they say in another 15 years the sea will lay claim to a dozen islands in the Sunderbans, six of which are populated, rendering about 70,000 people homeless. These predictions are part of a study researchers at the university have conducted over several years to assess the vulnerability of the ecologically sensitive Sunderbans island system vis-à-vis climate change. JUSOS has now compiled a report for the Union ministry of environment and forests. The vanishing lands will mean displacement, and loss of livelihood, for many villagers. But the state government, which is only too well aware of the Sunderbans’s rapidly diminishing landmass, is yet to come up with a coherent resettlement plan.

Not conserved Vulnerable people in a vulnerable land The last frontier of the Bengal floodplains, the Sunderbans is a sprawling archipelago of several hundred islands, some large, some minuscule, stretching nearly 300 km between West Bengal and Bangladesh. It is part of the world’s largest delta (80,000 sq km) formed from sediments deposited by three great rivers—the Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna—as they empty into the Bay of Bengal, and is also among the world’s largest mangrove forests.

The region is crisscrossed by a maze of tidal rivers, estuaries and creeks that carry saline water nearly 300 km inland from the Bay of Bengal. The islands are low, marshy alluvial plains that are still in the process of being formed and reformed by continuous siltation and powerful tidal currents. What land the waters swallow from one end, they spit out as sandbanks and new islands at another.

The West Bengal part of the Sunderbans makes up 60 per cent of India’s mangroves and comprises 102 islands, of which 54 are inhabited. Most of them were reclaimed and inhabited under the British, who, in the late 1700s, undertook a massive drive to clear the forests and make the land cultivable, so that people could be settled there and the government’s revenues augmented.

Over two centuries of converting mangrove forests into paddy land, the exploitation of the area’s natural resources, and hunting and poaching have all contributed to the degradation of this region, making it increasingly prone to erosion and vulnerable to storms and cyclones.

The 54 inhabited islands have no forest cover left. However, about 10,000 sq km of the Sunderbans are still covered by swampy mangrove forests (40 per cent of these lie in India and the rest in Bangladesh), much of which vanish under water for several hours a day during high tide. These dense, almost impenetrable estuarine forests have an amazing biodiversity. They are home to over 100 plant species and a variety of animals including Royal Bengal tigers, estuarine crocodiles, sharks, spotted deer, wild boar, Gangetic dolphins, otters, Olive Ridley turtles and numerous species of birds and snakes. These mangroves also act as a natural shield for the Bengal coastline, protecting it from storms, cyclones and tsunamis by absorbing much of their destructive force.

The Sunderbans, however, is best known for being the largest remaining natural habitat of the Royal Bengal tiger. It was the realisation that the big cat’s numbers were fast dwindling that triggered India’s wildlife conservation movement in the 1960s. By then, the changing landscape had already resulted in the disappearance of the leopard, wild water buffalo, Javan rhinoceros, one-horned rhinoceros, swamp deer, hog deer and several plant species. In 1973, the Indian government declared 2,585 sq km of the Sunderbans a tiger reserve under Project Tiger. In 1985, the area was included in UNESCO’s list of world heritage sites and in 1989, India designated 9,360 sq km of Sunderbans a biosphere reserve.

Mysterious forest

While these measures helped safeguard what remained of the Sunderbans, they also helped promote its image as a mysterious and exotic forest. An image that relegated the region’s human inhabitants to the background and obscured the fact that the Sunderbans supports a population of 3.9 million people, most of whom eke out a precarious living on these fragile, flood- and cyclone-prone lands by farming, collecting forest produce and fishing. This pit the protection and preservation of the mangroves against the needs of the local inhabitants. The population density here is high. Government figures peg it at 1,200 people per square kilometre.

Yet human settlements are hard to access, subject largely to the ebb and flow of tides and the availability of ferry rides. The 45,000 sq km of inhabited area has only 280 km of paved roads and a mere 42 sq km is accessible by rail. On most the islands, van rickshaws are the main mode of transport. Lack of basic infrastructure such as electricity, drinking water, hospitals and roads makes the Sunderbans one of the state’s poorest regions. The per capita income here is Rs 10,000 a year.

As Sugata Hazra, JUSOS director puts it, the Sunderbans “is a unique case where the most socially and economically vulnerable population … lives on most vulnerable land”.

In the past 20 years, the sea has claimed two islands, Lohachara and Suparibhanga, the latter uninhabited. If scientists can be believed, Ghoramara and Sagar are following suit.

Hazra and his team of researchers, who have studied the region for several years, compiled a study—‘Preparatory Assessment of Vulnerability of the Ecologically Sensitive Sunderban Island System, West Bengal, in the Perpective of Climate Change’—in 2003 in which they say an annual 3.14 mm rise in sea level due to climate change is partly responsible for eating away these islands on the southern fringes of the Sunderbans. The higher than average rise in sea level (which is about 2.0 mm annually worldwide) is because of land subsidence (the caving in or sinking of an area of land through tidal erosion) which is typical of deltaic regions, Hazra says.

Other factors that contribute are:

  • Depletion of mangroves. In 1885, the area of the Sunderban forests was about 20,000 sq km. Now it is about 9,600 sq km of which less than 4,200 sq km is mangrove forest
  • Population: a 234 per cent increase since independence. At this rate, the numbers may reach five million by 2020 and 10 million by 2050, exceeding the system’s carrying capacity.
  • Reduction in sediment supply from the rivers: silt gets blocked in the dams built along these rivers up north
  • 3,500 km of man-made embankments that, while protecting the island from erosion, prevents silt deposition and hampers islands’ vertical growth. Most of the rivers draining into the Sunderbans estuary have lost contact with their original sources, and there is hardly any inflow of freshwater. During high tide, seawater inundates the islands, but river water finds no ingress because of embankments. This causes salt deposition, which hampers cultivation and mangrove regeneration.

All these factors, in turn, “make the system even more vulnerable to any further bio-geophysical perturbation related to climate change”, Hazra and his team report.
Using an analysis of 15 years of tide gauge data from the Sagar island observatory, the researchers deduced that at this rate, the mean sea level in Sagar and adjoining areas of the Bay of Bengal would rise 20 cm by 2050. Club this with a corresponding rise in temperature over land and sea (the observed rise over the Bay of Bengal is at the rate of 0.019°C per year, which adds up to 1°C by 2050) and change in rainfall patterns (they found a “marginal increase” in monsoon and post-monsoon rainfall over the past decade but didn’t detect any definite pattern), and “there’s a strong probability that the sea level will rise by 50 cm at that time”, they say.

The scientists, through statistical analysis of erosion and accretion rates of the Sunderbans islands and mathematical correlation studies, have found a link between relative rise in sea level and higher coastal erosion rates in the region. Based on this, they have identified the 12 southernmost islands in the region (including Ghoramara) as “most vulnerable in terms of coastal erosion, submergence and flooding”.

Data from the state irrigation, forest and agricultural departments as well as local government records indicate that property worth Rs 130.6 crore and about 485 lives have been lost in the past two decades. “These numbers,” says Hazra, “are likely to increase manifold in the future.”

Hazra says his team’s study is a “preliminary assessment”, but he insists that climate change is affecting the Sunderbans”. He calls it an “alarming development”.


Interlopers have no claim to rehabilitation


Sagar Refugee Colony, Ganga Sagar gram panchayat: Ever since her older son went off to work as a daily labourer in Kashmir two years ago, Sahajadi Bibi has to worry a little less about how to feed her family of eight. The money he sends now and then through unofficial channels and the Rs 10,000 to Rs 12,000 a year she, her younger children and daughter-inlaw make from fishing for tiger prawn spawns (locally called meen) in the river and the grain from her quarter-hectare paddy field keeps the widow’s family fed most months of the year. That doesn’t mean things are easy. It’s just that the provisions can be stretched a little bit more and she doesn’t have to go knocking on neighbours’ doors for rice quite as often as she used to.

The time when she owned 3 ha of farmland on Lohachara island is slowly receding from her memory. Much the same way as that land slowly slipped into the waters. It has, after all, been two decades since she and her late husband moved to Sagar, when the government offered them a plot at the refugee colony. “Ours is a life of much pain,” she says, as she watches her young daughter-in-law dandle her fivemonth- old son on her knees. “Everyday is a struggle, what more can I say.”

Refugees from Lohachara and the lost bits of Ghoramara currently add up to over 6,000. The local government, namely the Sagar block administration, has, since the 1980s, been resettling them on vested state land in Sagar, the largest island in the Sunderbans. In the remaining 18 blocks of the Sunderbans, refugees haven’t yet become a pressing problem.

Families have been given two acre to onesixth- acre plots in four refugee colonies that have come up on previously uninhabited land. The paddy grown on these tiny plots don’t feed families for more than a few months. Since there are no industries in Sagar other than fishing, employment options are few. Most families, even regular settlers, have to rely on daily wage labour to make ends meet. The men go out and get jobs harvesting paddy in other farms, excavating mud from riverbanks or take up menial jobs in Kolkata. During the fishing season, whole families move to temporary camps by the sea for a few months to help with the catching, drying and transporting of fish. Sometimes, as in Sahajadi Bibi’s case, the men move to far off places like Allahabad and Kashmir. Of the approximately 37,000 families in Sagar block, around 9,000 have at least one male member working outside. The women usually stay behind, waiting for their men to send money that often never turns up.

Big promises

At the block administration office, Sagar panchayat chairman Sheikh Ismael makes big and magnanimous claims. When the time comes, the remaining 5,400 inhabitants of Ghoramara will be relocated to the Chandipur-Bishnupur area of Ganga Sagar gram panchayat where new land has come up, he says. “Whatever scheme they need to be self-reliant, that scheme we will run here. On such a big island, if 5,000-6,000 more people are brought in there shouldn’t be any significant burden on our resources.” (see box: Contested terrain)

What Ismael fails to note is that Sagar itself is among the region’s more vulnerable islands, constantly losing land to the sea. The island’s famous Kapilmuni temple built about 200 years ago at the confluence of the Ganga and the Bay of Bengal where the Gangasagar mela draws lakhs of pilgrims every year, was moved at least three times in the past century as the waters ate away more and more land. The new sandbanks that have come up on the island’s southern end are minuscule compared to what’s being washed out to sea.

Researchers say the island is likely to lose another 15 per cent of its landmass by 2020. The pressure of increasing population on the island is evident in the way successively smaller parcels of land have been allotted to the refugees over the years.

When reminded of all this, the elderly Ismael smiles benignly. “As long as we are here we will help our neighbours,” he says. Not all old Sagar settlers share his views. Residents at the refugee colonies say that though there haven’t been any serious confrontations, rumblings of discontent from old settlers are common. They routinely have to hear complaints about how their arrival has reduced pasturelands, depleted tree cover and put pressure on the island’s resources. Besides, state officials say, the government has no excess land worthy of habitation in the Sunderbans other than at Sagar. If the 70,000 projected refugees land on Ismael’s doorstep 15-20 years later, his magnanimity will be severely tested.

Little sympathy

That islands are losing landmass and creating thousands of environmental refugees is not really breaking news. It’s been happening for years now. Yet, the state has no such thing as a disaster management plan for the Sunderbans. All measures to rehabilitate environmental refugees so far have been ad hoc. This negligence stems from the perception among most state leaders and officials that the Sunderbans is a natural environment that people have infringed upon in the first place, says anthropologist Amites Mukhopadhyay. “Because this place has been assigned to tigers and crocodiles, people and their claims are somewhat secondary here,” says Mukhopadhyay, who has spent five years researching the impact erosion of bunds and embankments is having on the people of the Sunderbans. “If you simply go through the budget speeches of the state assembly you find a lot of importance being given to land erosion by the Ganga in Malda and rehabilitation of people there, but little mention is made of the same problem in the Sunderbans.”

The government viewpoint, which is commonly shared, is that because people settled in the Sunderbans before the siltation process was completed they were probably working against nature and therefore it was ony to be expected that they will have to face the consequences of living on such shifting land. But from the perspective of the people, all they are trying to do is survive. The government’s lack of concern to their plight only reinforces their perception of being neglected and marginalised, Mukhopadhyay says.

The state has been making some noises recently about wanting to rectify the situation. In early 2006, it held a workshop on disaster planning at which there was some talk of drawing up a master plan to save the Sunderbans from erosion. An all-party team later met Union parliamentary affairs minister Priyaranjan Das Munshi who asked them to come up with a framework for the master plan. But not much has happened since then.


Government’s plans make little sense


So, is there any way the islands can be saved while maintaining the ecological balance of this unique mangrove system? The problems of human habitation in this region are so complex that it seems there is no definitive answer. When these lands were initially cleared of forests and settled, no one took into account the fact that the islands were prone to inundation twice a day during high tides. To combat this flooding and to prevent saline water from entering their fields, the early settlers built 35,000 km of crude mud embankments along the islands’ perimeters. But these bunds, no matter how high you build them, are neither ecologically sound (they block siltation and hamper the normal land formation process) nor foolproof. During cyclonic storms, crashing waves easily breach the loosely packed walls, and on any given day, strong underwater currents quietly and steadily erode the slopes and foundations of the embankments causing large sections of it to suddenly crumble into the sea. In fact, most breaches are caused by these underwater currents, which can’t be controlled.

Open system

Which is why Tushar Kanjilal advocates the ‘open system’ option. Though not a permanent solution either, this more organic system involves regular monitoring of physical developments in and around the islands and initiating natural defence mechanisms. Kanjilal, a Padma Shree recipient who’s spent over three decades working on rural development in the Sunderbans, says the key to combating this natural phenomenon is not by creating artificial barriers, but rather understanding the system and working in harmony with it. “The efficacy of the ‘Open System’ is dependent on an improved data base relating to tidal regimes, impact of water flows in the Sunderbans waterways and the accumulation and erosion of silt deposits,” Kanjilal writes in his book Who Killed the Sunderbans? “It’s useless to spend money repairing the embankments while ignoring the root cause of their weaknesses,” he says. The only viable solution, he says, is to push the existing embankments further inland and build ring embankments around the islands with mud still the primary raw material and supplement this with mangrove plantations along the riverbanks to arrest and hold silt down.

Hazra suggests enforcing the coastal regulatory zone stipulation of barring habitation within a distance of 500 metres from the coast and instituting “informed retreat” of inhabitants from vulnerable zones. “Of course, for this the administration will have to first admit that this is happening, but to date there has been no official recognition of the state of the crisis the Sunderbans’s inhabitants face,” he says.

Sunderbans affairs minister Kanti Ganguly, however, seems ready to take Hazra for his word, even though he hasn’t seen the JUSOS report. “It is definitely not possible to relocate so many people. We will consult the oceanography department about what to do and whatever environment protection is possible will be tried,” he told Down To Earth. Ganguly also said he would ask Union minister in charge of ocean development Kapil Sibal to provide expertise to tackle the situation.

For all these measures to be effective, participation of the local people is crucial. Which again brings in the role of education and the need to provide the basic needs of people, such as energy supply, healthcare and livelihood options. As long as these needs are not met people will continue to cut trees and mangroves for firewood and to make money.

“We have found education plays a great role in disaster management, but though the official literacy rate in this region is high, so is the drop-out ratio after Class V,” says Rajashree Dasgupta, a research fellow at JUSOS who is part of the climate change research team. “There’s virtually no enrolment of children between six to 14 years. So people here may be technically literate, but they are not educated.” Though every block has a government hospital, most of them lack adequate equipment, staff and medicines. The health system is so poor on most of these islands that the state has had to hook up with local NGOs to provide mobile health services.

Castles in the air

While the state is yet to formulate an action plan on island erosion and refugee rehabilitation, the Sunderban Development Board, on the recommendation of international consultancy firm McKinsey, is investing Rs 650 crore on the overall development of the region.

The entire sum is being provided by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development and will be utilised to construct 23 bridges, 11 jetties and roads to connect far-flung islands to the mainland, develop market complexes, water supply systems, multipurpose cold storages, parks, community halls, bus terminuses and sports complexes. Work has already begun on 10 bridges. “Bridges are essential over some rivers like the Matla in Canning, which has no water during low tide,” says Ganguly. Though the minister has given explicit assurances that all construction will be done “without disturbing the environment”, many people are sceptical, especially when it comes to building bridges connecting shores that are constantly changing. Environmentalists also fear that sinking pillars in the riverbeds could change the direction of rivers.

Kanjilal offers another argument. “Any development initiative in the Sunderbans is pointless unless the fundamental problems that threaten its existence are addressed,” he says. “Let them build bridges,” Hazra adds, shrugging. “After five years they’ll be building them again.”

Changing frames

Hazra and Kanjilal are both pointing in the same direction. The problem is that for a couple of centuries no one has looked at the issue through the lens of the distinctive ecology of the Sunderbans. Few people have acknowledged that even in an ‘unspoilt’ state the region will be subject to the ineluctable pull of the tides. Thus the rivers will erode the land and the sea engulf it.

The more the ecological balance is disturbed locally, through the destruction of the mangroves, and globally, through climate change, the more precarious the situation is bound to get. With a conservation perspective coming into the frame over the past few decades some of these issues have become more important. Unfortunately, this framework has blanked out the people who have lived here for many generations and whose fundamental quest is survival in what indisputably, though precariously, is home to them. Which adds a further element of grim irony to the latest development plans for the Sunderbans.

Photo: Ian Umeda
Girls play in a field beyond the levee on Ghoramara Island in the Sunderbans. The levee that encircles the inhabited part of the island is built from the earth immediately adjacent to it which is the cause of the water filled divits in the foreground.
Photo: Ian Umeda
Low tide reveals the muddy shores of LOT#8, the main access point by ferry from the mainland to Sagar Island in the Sunderbans
Photo: Ian Umeda
A crowded ferry boat shuttles people from Sagar Island to Ghoramara Island
Photo: Ian Umeda
A house on the water on Ghoramara Island
Photo: Ian Umeda
A cart-mounted P.A. system tours the raised brick roads on Ghoramara Island advertising a local performance
Photo: Ian Umeda
Women cook in a village on Ghoramara Island
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Far off shrimp fisherman dot the murky delta waters of the Sunderbans
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda
Photo: Ian Umeda

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