Amar jomi nodi kheye niyechhe (the river has eaten my land),” is a common refrain among the hundreds of families whose land deeds have turned to worthless paper in the Sunderbans region of West Bengal. Rising sea levels, worsened by man-made environmental degradation, have snatched away their homes in this vast expanse of coastal mangrove forests.

In many of its islands, such as Ghoramara and Mousini, the edges look like nibbled cheese after being gnawed at continually by rising tides and violent seas.

“There were more than 30 families living here till a couple of years ago, but now most have left,” says Bablu Payal, a daily wage labourer in Ghoramara. His is the last house standing on the coast for miles around.

Payal, whose weather-beaten face looks older than his early-40 years, fears that his small mud hut — barely a couple of metres from the mud embankment — will get inundated with salt water once again this year. “I have lost count of the times I have moved house,” he says, pointing towards the river to show where his house once stood years ago.

The losses have been massive, the compensation too little. The 6,000-odd residents of Lohachara, an island that became completely submerged in the 1980s, were rehabilitated on the nearby Sagar island. A young man at the time, Sheik Intaj is today a septuagenarian grandfather of three. He belongs to a family of farmers, but was forced to work as a cart-puller in the new place, struggling to educate his youngest son, even as the older two dropped out of school to earn for the family.

Today, those living on islands such as Ghoramara, Mousini and Sagar have no rehabilitation programmes to fall back on, even as the ground beneath their feet is slipping away bit by bit. Of the 3,000 residents in Ghoramara, the more fortunate ones have been able to buy land in nearby islands such as Kakdweep and Sagar, where they hope to move once their current homes go under. The rest find themselves at the mercy of the rapidly advancing tides. Some have moved to the larger Sagar island, but without any legal titles to the land they have been given.

Natural heritage under siege

The low-lying Sunderbans is reputed to be the largest mangrove forest in the world — nearly 10,000 sq km, of which almost 6,000 sq km is in Bangladesh — and the only one inhabited by tigers. Today it faces a grave threat from rising sea levels — an estimated 3-8 mm per year, according to a World Bank report — than most other geographies.

A Unesco World Heritage site, the archipelago has lost nearly 9,990 hectares on the Indian side, according to the Indian Space Research Organisation. The islands of Bedford, New Moore and Lohachara are among those already lost to the hungry tides.

Research by the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, estimates that Mousini has lost over 15 per cent of its area, while Ghoramara has been nearly halved. Sagar, currently a safe haven for the climate refugees from surrounding islands, has not been spared the wrath of the sea either. Ingress of salt water has turned Boatkhali village into a barren expanse of dead trees.

Apart from climate change, the rising sea levels are also being blamed on human activities such as the movement of barges and ships to and from the nearby Haldia Port, disruption in the flow of rivers upstream due to dams, and the compaction of the land accelerated by depleting groundwater levels. Pushed to the corner, desperate residents have moved to the bigger cities such as Kolkata or Delhi, or even to distant Chennai and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.

Those left behind are largely the older denizens. Skilled in fishing, and collecting crabs and honey, they see little hope of finding a livelihood opportunity outside the delta.

“What will I do in Kolkata? Pull a rickshaw? I can’t work in a farm, nor am I skilled in manual labour. I will go back to fishing once the forest department gives permits again,” says Bhoopal Gyne, a 55-year-old resident of Dulki village.

A lost fight

Experts see planned migration as the only recourse for the thousands rendered homeless by the sea change in Sunderbans.

“We need to plan where we will put all the people who are getting displaced. We need a plan for their rehabilitation. We have to start utilising money from the climate change adaptation funds,” says Subhas Chandra Acharya, former joint director of the Sunderban Affairs Department.

“All these people who have been dislocated hold deeds of the land they have lost for no fault of theirs. They need to be compensated. The government has a policy that people who have encroached on land next to rail lines will not be dislocated without proper compensation. But these people are legal owners of the property, which was their source of income and sustenance — they had ponds, farms, betel leaf plantations... Won’t you compensate them?” Acharya asks.

The measures currently used to counter the erosion, including construction of concrete embankments and jetty ghats, are seen as far from successful by the villagers and experts alike. “This is the second time they have poured concrete on this ghat,” one villager points out, “but can you fight the sea?”

“Concrete embankments won’t be effective. So long as silt does not come here [owing to reduced flow of freshwater due to geographical reasons, and worsened by upstream dams], there is no help. Because the mangrove also needs something to hold on to,” explains Anurag Danda, head of WWF India’s Sunderbans programme.

While concrete embankments get washed away over time, heavy jetty ghats tend to sink into the soft mud of riverbanks, requiring frequent maintenance, the villagers say.

Under such circumstances, informed migration can be the only adaptation in a land whose descent can be slowed but not halted, says Sugata Hazra, director, School of Oceanographic Studies.

“You have to exit from the most vulnerable areas. You have to train the new generation to take up other forms of employment. By 2050 we have to shift at least one million from the most vulnerable area, otherwise all the four million living in Sunderbans would be hurt. It will be one of the biggest retreats of our times,” says Hazra, who is credited with first bringing attention to the flood of climate refugees in the Sunderbans.

(The writer is part of the WWF-India Young Climate Fellowship Programme 2017)