Aila! The Cry From The Sunderbans

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By Soma Mitra, Womens Feature Service

Sabita Mondal, 32, Kanchan Sarkar, 28, and Saraswati Halder, 33, from Rangabelia village have become climate refugees ever since cyclone Aila hit the Sunderbans delta on May 25. Today, Sabita is living in a country boat with her two children and her cow, while Kanchan has taken shelter at a nearby relief camp along with her two daughters.

But it is Saraswati’s condition that is by far the worst. With her one-and-a-half-year-old son in her arms, the frightened woman refused to leave the flooded village on Kumarmari island. When relief workers tried to take her away, she resisted saying that her husband had gone fishing and the family was waiting for him to return. Saraswati refuses to believe that her husband, Kamal, will never return. The cyclonic storm has washed away at least 50 fishing boats and Sarawati’s belief that her husband will return some day is just a delusion.

Sabita, Kanchan and Saraswati are among thousands of women in the Sunderbans, who have lost not just their mud houses but their entire habitat.

The storm hit the fertile delta region in the South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal at about 12.30 in the afternoon on May 25 and the region was lashed by heavy rainfall for the next 48 hours. Almost all the major tributaries of the Ganges, like the Raymongal, Sasa and Bagna, flowed above the danger mark. Gigantic waves – some soaring above 20 feet – destroyed about 400 kilometres of earthen embankments, roads, bridges and electricity poles. Water entered 10 out of the 19 blocks in the Sunderban. Many continue to be inaccessible.

The impact of the disaster was immediate, as people were left dazed and marooned. Ratna Nasker, 28, complained that the government relief boats distributed materials only to those villages that were near the riverbanks. Says she, “We got the first relief material only after five days. I had no food to give my three-year-old daughter and two-year-old son. Both of them now suffer from intermittent diarrhoea.” She adds that all the health camps are inundated with patients and there are no doctors to treat them.

Diarrhoea and other diseases are endemic in Basanti and Gosaba blocks – with over 25 deaths having been reported. The two blocks have a combined population of 500,000, of which about a quarter now suffer from waterborne diseases.

There is an acute drinking water crisis. Apart from some packaged water supplied by the government and some non-government agencies, potable water is unavailable. All the deep-water tubewells are flooded. The most common sight in the area is that of women hauling pots of drinking water from great distances. Sabina Bibi complained that the nearest tubewell from the relief camp where she and her family are currently located is about eight kilometres away.

But while scarcity of food, poor shelter and inadequate drinking water – distressing as they are – can be addressed, far more pernicious is the long-term impact of Aila on the Sunderbans. Geographer Satyesh Chakraborty of Jadavpur University predicts that the incursion of saline water will have a debilitating impact on agriculture and fishing in the region. While the top layer of soil has already been washed away, the fishing ponds are flooded with sea water. “At least for the next two years it will be difficult to expect any yields from the soil here. The same holds true for the fisheries, as saline water has flooded all the fishing ponds,” he says.

Villagers in the Sunderbans are very aware of the environmental challenges they now face, which is why so many are deserting their homes and hamlets and heading for Kolkata, which is over 70 kilometes away from their natural habitat. Sasamati Saha, 38, says, “The situation is so bad here that we have to leave this place. Our house is completely destroyed. Our field is still inundated and the entire stretch of embankment has been washed away. The only school and health centre in the area too are completely under water.”

According to South 24 Parganas district officials, there are about 15,000 people in relief camps across Diamond Harbour, Kanning, Sonarpur and Baruipur, while there are 10,000 refugees in places like Bongaon in North 24 Parganas. In the camps, the government has provided cooked food twice daily. Aila refugees are also getting work under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA). In fact, the government is banking on NREGA to provide them with work and the Indira Awas Yojana to fund houses for them.

This is not the first time the Sunderbans have witnessed large-scale migration. Just two years ago, on November 17, 2007, Sidr, a category four super cyclone hit this region. Sidr destroyed 22 per cent of the mangrove forest here and devastated the lives of more than 100,000 people. The frequency with which these episodes occur seems to conform to predictions of climate scientists, who have warned that climate change could cause storms to become even more frequent and devastating.

Research conducted by the Jadavpur University some years ago had indicated this. ‘Incidents of man and animal conflict are increasing day by day due to unplanned use of Sunderbans flora and fauna. Animals are forced to come out of the deep forests and enter habitats in search of preys. Increasing man and animal conflict in Sunderbans is outcome of environment crisis,’ it said.

Lakhs of people inhabit the mangrove forests along with a varied and rich flora and fauna, including the Bengal tiger. And sure enough tigers, which having been displaced by the rising water levels, have now been sighted near human habitations. In Sandeshkhali block, which lies very close to the deep forest area, the tree cover has been almost totally wiped out. As a result, tigers are the entering villages almost every night forcing people to camp in the local school, which is a two-storied structure. People here are constantly under threat. The men guard the shelter with kerosene lamps but with kerosene supplies running low, the whole camp is bathed in darkness as soon the sun sets. Women who live in this camp with their children say it’s like living in the hell.

Every day Tanu Naskar, 38, and her fellow villagers make plans to leave the area forever and find some employment in Kolkata. Says her neighbour Swapna, “We will go to Kolkata and will work as domestic help. Even if we stay on the pavements the situation would be better than what we have to face now.” The only thing that worries her is schooling for her children. “Will the schools in Kolkata take our children?” she asks, anxiety writ large on her face.

Swapna’s poignant question reflects the uncertainty that has come to mark the lives of innumerable ordinary people in this vulnerable region, which has become even more fragile in the wake of Aila. Tragically, although the world talks a great deal about climate change these days, there is nobody who can answer her question.

Womens Feature Service covers developmental, political, social and economic issues in India and around the globe. To get these articles for your publication, contact WFS at the www.wfsnews.org website.