At Ground Zero, Ground Giving

A ravenous sea, a weathered people. Jayanta Basu and Chandrima S. Bhattacharya report from the Sunderbans

By Jayanta Basu and Chandrima S. Bhattacharya
  • Published 24.12.17
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MEASURE ISLAND: A rising sea level threatens Mousuni

Nothing can stop the rising sea. But those who live on this rapidly shrinking island have to struggle every moment to keep it away.

Mousuni, a long strip of an island in the southwestern part of the Indian Sunderbans, has its entire length on the west exposed to the Bay of Bengal. With the sea level rising, chunks of the island have been falling into the waters, especially the last two decades.

The island, spread over 28 square kilometres, is home to 25,000 people. Many of them are continuously displaced. They do not know when the sea is going to descend on them again. Or what to do at all.

Mairun Bibi lives in Baliara, the southern part of Mousuni. About 200 feet from her home, the sea stretches starkly, only interrupted by fragments of the embankment that survived Aila, the 2009 cyclone that destroyed the Sunderbans. The sea has been moving in at a greater speed since then.

To block the salt water, Mairun Bibi has placed the trunk of a coconut tree across a side of her mud hut. It is as desperate an attempt to battle the sea, as it is futile. "The sea will be my death," she says. Her neighbours have built small earthen banks around their homes. "This is my fourth house in 10 years. Even the land we use to bury our dead has not been spared," says Sakina Bibi.

The salt water has killed the two main livelihoods of the villagers - farming and fishing. The land is no longer arable and the fish in the ponds have died. Even drinking water is a problem.

Mousuni is Ground Zero of climate change, demonstrating the effects of sea level rise, sea surface warming, increased high intensity storms and erosion.

"Natural calamities have always been a routine in the Sunderbans," says Anurag Danda of World Wildlife Fund - India, who has been visiting the island for two decades. But these events have been significantly exacerbated, he says, by immediate and long-term climate change impacts "in the last decade or so, especially after Aila".

"From the data measured at Sagar, adjacent to Mousuni, the rate of sea level rise in the Indian part of the Sunderbans is about 12 millimetres per year, which has increased nearly four times since the late 1990s," says Sunderban expert Sugata Hazra, who teaches Oceanography at Jadavpur University.

"The sea is rising at a rate of 8 to 10 millimetres a year, about three times above the global average. This is mainly due to the rise of the sea surface temperature, which has gone up 2.5 times since the end-Nineties," says Hazra.

The Mousuni panchayat says 2,200 families have been either displaced or severely affected, but they stay on as they have nowhere else to go. About 150 families have left. So have all the young men.

"At least seven embankments have been destroyed by the sea in the last 20 years and nearly four kilometres of land have vanished," says Adalat Khan, local panchayat pradhan. "Most of the families have to send the men to work in Calcutta or elsewhere," he adds.

"The state government is trying to do whatever possible to put up embankments, but the land has been washing away so rapidly that the process is affected," says Srimanta Mali, who heads the Namkhana Panchayat Samity, under which Mousuni falls. The villagers, however, insist the government has done nothing apart from acquiring land for a new embankment.

"To date the embankment has not been built. The Baliara mauza is flooded with rising sea water every year. The Kusumtala and Bagdanga mauzas are sinking, as well as part of the Mousuni mauza," reads a letter written by Mousuni residents to the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee. "It seems that despite all improvements in technology, we are yet to find a suitable solution to counter flooding and erosion and, hence, every monsoon we have to look towards the heavens to save us," adds the letter, written in precise, polished Bengali.

Mousuni boasts of a very high literacy level, like the rest of the Sunderbans, a cruel irony. "So many of our boys have passed Higher Secondary. But they are forced to take up work as masons away from home," says an elderly man.

Each and every one of Sakina Bibi's seven sons has left Mousuni for work. Mairun Bibi introduces with pride her daughter-in-law, a girl of delicate beauty. "She is Madhyamik pass," she announces.

"When we talk about loss and damage due to climate change at international meetings, often it is a projection for the future. But if the experts came here, they would be able to see how real the damage is in this part of the world," says Harjeet Singh, global lead of climate change at NGO Action Aid, who was in Mousuni. "Thousands losing lives, livelihoods and being displaced despite contributing nothing to climate change," he adds.

At the local ferry ghat, Adinun Bibi, accompanied by her husband, is preparing to meet the block development officer (BDO). "For more than six months, the floor of my hut has been wet. And I can't even begin to tell you how embarrassing it has been using the toilets, especially for us women," she says.

"All I want is a plastic sheet from the BDO office, of which he should have a stock. I have asked again and again. Today, I will raise hell," she says.