Amjad Khan’s mud hut is barely a few metres from the riverbank in Ghoramara island, at the confluence of Hooghly river and the Bay of Bengal, in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district. Khan, who is in his 60s now, inherited 80 bighas of betel leaf plantations as a teenager. Now, he owns a tiny piece of uncultivable land on which his hut stands. The last sliver of cultivable land that he owned was washed away five years ago. “Over the last decade, I lost all my land to the river,” says Khan, dressed in a muddy vest and a threadbare lungi. His three sons work as daily wage labourers in Kakdwip, a 20-minute boat ride from Ghoramara, but their combined income of Rs 6,000 is barely enough to take care of the 15-member family, including the families of Khan’s sons. These days he is busy getting the small hut repaired, but knows that this is not a permanent solution. “It’s only a matter of time before this patch too sinks. Then we will have to move inland,” says Khan, his eyes squinting against the bright sun. After a moment’s silence, he adds, “But that place is already full of people, who can afford to move there? I don’t know where we will go eventually,” he says.
Khan is one of the several residents of Ghoramara island, where high tides and floods have, over the past decade or so, washed away tracts of land. The island has earned the sobriquet of a “sinking island”, as climate change and rising sea levels have ensured that the island, which was spread over 22,000 bighas and is a part of the ecologically sensitive Sunderban archipelago, is now reduced to approximately 5,000 bighas.
The island is now the subject of a photo project by Swastik Pal, a student of photo journalism in Ateneo de Manila University, Philippines, called “The Hungry Tide”. “I went there in July last year, and the sheer magnitude of the loss overwhelmed me. Entire houses came down under the force of the river. People were stranded on rooftops. But what amazed me is the way the inhabitants have surrendered to their fate,” he says. Almost one-third of the island was in inundated due to floods during Pal’s visit. Ever since, he has visited the island 15 times over various seasons. “Due to the floods last monsoon, the saline water bled into a large part of cultivable land. People can’t even grow vegetables here now,” says Pal.
Since the 1980s, more than 600 families have been displaced from the island. The ever-dwindling population now stands at about 5,300 with young adults leaving the island in search of greener pastures. Ratan Das, 16, who has appeared for his class X examination this year, can’t wait to escape from this “prison”. “I plan to work as a labourer in Kerala, where my cousin is working now. Many from our village have migrated there,” says Das. His father, Sukhdeb, who was born and raised in Ghoramara and lost 60 bighas to erosion, does not have a problem. After losing all his land, he became a fisherman and earns about Rs 3,000 per month. “It’s barely enough to feed the four members of my family,” says Sukhdeb, who is convinced that his son has no future on the island. “Tomorrow, his home may get washed away. It’s better that he goes somewhere else and starts a new life,” he says.
Since little outside help reaches the village during the perilous monsoon season, the villagers have developed their own relief system. “We help each other. The ones whose homes are not affected give shelter to others. The school and panchayat buildings are opened for all,” says Sanjib Sagar, pradhan of Ghoramara gram panchayat. At one side of the small market place — a jumble of unused stalls that come alive only on Saturday — is the island’s only secondary school, Ghoramara Milan Vidyapeeth, the lone concrete building in this melee of shacks and huts. “This is one of the places where families take shelter when the island is flooded,” says Aloka Maiti, 50, the school’s cook.
To a newcomer, the village seems no different from thousands of others in West Bengal: a tightly packed settlement of palm-thatched huts and bamboo-walled stalls and shacks. But as you walk down the breadth of the island, the scars begin to show: mud huts with caved-in walls, abandoned buildings and boats. The insubstantial embankment is the only wall between the mighty river and the village. “Cutting of mangroves, which once grew on the fringes of the island, for farming has had a devastating effect. These mangroves were a binding factor for the soil. Without them, the soil is easily washed away,” says Sugata Hazra, professor, school of oceanographic studies, Jadavpur University (JU).
According to the panchayat records, about 15 years ago, 150 families were rehabilitated in the nearby Sagar island. “Ages ago, the Sagar island (about 25 km away now) and Ghoramara were connected. But thanks to erosion, the connection is long gone. And in the last decade, we have seen the island sink so rapidly that we can only hope that it’s still there in the next decade,” says Sagar. A study conducted by the school of oceanographic studies, JU, estimates that 15 per cent of Sunderbans is likely to sink by 2020. “It’s not just the residents of Ghoramara that need to be rehabilitated. Residents of islands like Mousuni and Sagar will lose their homes too,” says Hazra.