by Colette Mortreux, Rituparna Hajra and Tuhin Ghosh (DECCMA)
Like all deltas, the islands in the Sundarbans are constantly being remoulded by environmental forces. Formation and reformation of islands results from the balance (or otherwise) between inflows of water and sediment load. When rainfall or snowmelt in the highlands is high, the greater erosive force of the river reduces the size of the islands; but when water in the river is reduced it encourages sedimentation and the growth of the islands. Sea level rise also plays a role in the dynamic environment.
Ghoramara island, in the Hoogly estuary in the southwest of the Sundarbans (map 1), was formed in the early 20th century. Particularly high water levels submerged a larger island – Sagar (see map 1), resulting in the formation of five additional islands. It remained relatively stable when the freshwater flow from the Ganges River was fairly stable. Underground tectonic movements then led to a slight shift eastwards in the course of the Ganges. The result was that water inflow was significantly reduced and, as the dynamics in the estuary responded, Ghoramara began to be eroded. Its land area has halved in less than 40 years – from 8.5km2 in 1975, to less than 4.5km2 in 2012 (map 2).
Recognising the dynamism of deltas, in the late 1970s the Government of West Bengal declared Ghoramara island as ‘No man’s land’. Support for protective infrastructure, such as the construction of embankments, and services such as health, drinking water and education was stopped. As the land disappeared beneath their feet, the 5000 inhabitants of Ghoramara had no choice but to leave their homes – true environmental migrants.
Together with environmental migrants from two other islands that has been completely submerged – Lohachara and Khasimara – residents of Ghoramara were resettled in seven colonies on other islands, or on the mainland. Land Records from Sagar Block highlighted that legal titles, or pattas, were granted to the environmental migrants to Sagar Island. First phase migrants in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly from the submerged Lohachara sland, received 1.2-1.6 acres per each household. Those from Khasimara and Ghoramara tended to migrate later, in the 1990s. They were granted smaller plots (0.4 to 0.8 acres) but also received a one room house from the government schemes (Indira Awas Yojana).
Environmental migrants to Sagar Island were also supported with activities to enable them to rebuild their livelihoods. Stable embankment, fresh water ponds were constructed, and government food rations were available until they became established (including 300 gms wheat and 500 gms rice per head per week).
The problem is that the ongoing influx of migrants led to population growth in Sagar Island exceeding projections (figure 1a & b). This has placed a strain on resources. Resettled migrants now complain of degradation in their living conditions, including lack of availability of drinking water and sanitation.
Neither India’s national government nor the state government of West Bengal have resettlement and rehabilitation policies to cover displaced people, which means that there is also no planned compensation package. Population pressure and the resultant demands on resources mean it is not realistic to expect the authorities in the receiving areas to provide livelihood compensation for environmental migrants. Some are able to practice fishing, deep sea fishing, and agriculture. Others are forced to migrate again, shifting the problem elsewhere. Given that the nature of the delta means land is going to continue to disappear beneath people’s feet, a proactive approach by government is necessary to provide for environmental migrants.