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HUNGRY TIDES

The only means of transport, which the 5,000 odd inhabitants of Ghoramara in the Sunderbans have to depend upon, is the motorized boat. It runs five times a day and links Ghoramara with the mainland. The last trip takes place before sun-set.

The rising sea level has been threatening the inhabitants of Ghoramara for centuries. The island once spanned over 22,000 bighas. Ghoramara has now been reduced to 5,000 bighas, and holds the unique distinction of having the smallest gram panchayat in West Bengal.

There is no electricity on the island. Solar panels fitted on the top of nearly every kutcha house provide electricity. The island has a couple of schools, but local villagers allege that people choose to work in schools if only they are selected as teachers.

Snigdha Sasmal, who has grown up in Ghoramara, now works as an auxiliary nurse and maid in a primary health centre. She remembers several localities being swallowed by the rising waters. The remains of two churches that were established by the European community in the 17th century were also washed away.

Ranjit Shaw, a 65-year-old man, has lost 60 bighas of land in the last 30 years. He now possess a tiny patch. It has been divided into two parts: one portion comprises his mud house and the other has been left for the cultivation of betel leaves. He wants to spend the rest of his life in Ghoramara in spite of his fear of losing his land and home to the fast approaching river.

Shaw is a victim of climate change. In the coming years, he will turn into a climate-change refugee, and will have to seek shelter in some other island or on the mainland. However, he is not alone. A similar fate has befallen the other residents of Ghoramara.

To escape the onslaught of climate change, hundreds of families have already left the island in search of a new home and livelihood. A few families have bought land on other islands and have started living there.Those who are holding on to their lands on the sinking island find the going tough. Basic facilities are not readily available. There are not enough teachers on the island. A total of 635 students are enrolled in Ghoramara’s only high school, but there are only three teachers to teach them. The primary schools, too, have an abysmal student-teacher ratio.

Institutional delivery has improved elsewhere in the state. But Ghoramara records 60 per cent of its childbirths at home. There has been a long demand for a ‘water ambulance’, especially for medical emergencies and delivery cases. ‘Nischay Yan’, an ambulance service for pregnant women to encourage institutional delivery at low costs, is already popular on the mainland. But health service providers seem to be oblivious to the needs of the inhabitants of the island.

Climate change is threatening Ghoramara, apart from other panchayats like Dhabilat Shibpur, Muri Ganga and Musami. A recent report published by the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, has estimated that 15 per cent of the Sunderbans would sink by 2020. Besides Ghoramara, other islands such as Mousuni and even bigger ones like Sagar may sink due to the rising sea level.

Local residents claim that the shocks of the rising seas are felt strongly in the coastal region because the labyrinthine rivers that run across the different islands have been blocked by developmental projects. The remedy, according to scientists, lies in a planned retreat from vulnerable areas and in the planting of mangroves on the threatened sites.

An estimated one million people would become climate change refugees by the year 2050. Scientists point out that building embankments in fragile ecosystems such as the Sunderbans cannot be a permanent solution. What is required is intervention at the policy level. Training should also be provided to those who are migrating from the vulnerable areas. Countless people are facing the hungry tides. We cannot turn a blind eye towards them.

Sabir Ahamed