No place to go

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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-in-law 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 five-month-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 one-sixth-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.

Forged identity

The Sunderbans is sometimes referred to as Kolkatar jhi (Kolkata’s maidservant) because a large number of people from this region work as household help in the homes of the city’s affluent classes. Most of them are women. The term is a clear indication of how the inhabitants of this estuarine outpost are viewed by the rest of the state.

The Sunderbans is populated largely by Scheduled Caste, tribal and Muslim communities, usually engaged in fishing, artisanal work and daily wage labour. Their ability to sustain themselves is as tenuous as the land is fragile.

It is difficult to trace the historical pattern of how the Sunderbans came to be settled. The little information recorded is generally from British colonial records.

According to one theory, the first to make a home in this inhospitable terrain were “boat dwellers”