Loss of land & livelihood due to erosion brought on by a wildly swinging Ganges in West Bengal has led to a slew of new Environmental Refugees.
This work was completed on a grant from The Asia Foundation and The Third Pole.
These are the areas from where I reported for The Nowhere People
This is a half eaten road that jags into a steep 100ft drop and into an 80ft deep #Ganges. It used to not be that way. Beyond this road were mango orchards and paddy fields. Homes and hopes and incomes and lives. All swallowed up by a river driven insane with hunger by the Farakka Barrage that denies it its silt. Lakhs of people, beaten back by the marauding river, balance precariously on this edge.
Manikchak village abuts the #Ganges which enters WestBengal here from Jharkhand. The far shore is thick with unmovable boulders. The river strikes it and ricochets to hit this shore, eroding and swallowing it in large gulps of bigha after bigha. These farmlands are next in line for erosion.
As the Ganges ploughs through the plains, it regurgitates the sediment and soil as sandbar islands known as chars. These chars are birthed by the river, and reclaimed, and birthed again elsewhere; they defy standard land/water classifications, and “belong” to no one.
These deposits of silt are rich, fertile; they yield bountiful crops; they tantalise with possibilities, but are too ephemeral to sustain planned lives and livelihoods.
The truly desperate take refuge on these chars. They “recognize” their land in the chars, they parcel the sandbars mirroring the mainland, they give the chars names, and they till it and reap rewards till the river takes it all back, leaving them homeless and displaced, yet again...
A household with seven children, aged 20-something to three, makes a living rolling beedis (an Indian cigarette made from stuffing tobacco into leaves of the tendu tree) ... About 1000 pieces fetch no more than 100-200/- if that. And if there's a surplus at the beedi factory, the demand drops, and their meager income goes up in smoke. These people had a few bighas of land before the Ganges rose, wandered, and swallowed the whole village.
This would be a ticket out of the desperation, Raza imagined. He lives on that ephemeral island that is neither land not water: a char.
A ticket to Bombay - better prospects, he thought, but Bombay was no cakewalk. He was not the first, and he wont be the last to have slept on footpaths and waited interminably to be "set up" with some business, somewhere. Or not.
Every house here is erosion-hit, and every family has one, two, three Razas. Sometimes no men remain behind in the village at all. They've all gone -- denied any livelihood at home -- chasing incomes across the country. Raza, soft-spoken and considered, told me he now works in the fruit bazaars of Bombay. He can send home $30 a month, and $70 in an especially good month. It is not enough, but it is better than zero. He comes home once, maybe twice, a year.
One in a hundred thousand environmental refugees still holding on to shards of a dream.
This is life in the interstice. A precipice plunges into the #Ganges river on one side, trucks thunder past on a smooth tolled National Highway on the other. Here, in-between, environmental refugees of #erosion- torn West Bengal roll beedies. Women, kids, and anyone who can and is willing, cuts the leaves, stuffs tobacco, and rolls rolls rolls.
Baskets walk out to the only painted polished half-way solid structures in the area: beedi distribution centers. "But then the UN comes," said a middle-aged man, father in law to a sarpanch. "They come and they ban beedies. They say it is unhealthy. Ok. Then give us an alternate livelihood. Give us a way to live."
Bank-line fortifications have proven useless along the hungry silt-deprived ganges, downstream of the Farakka Barrage. The land continues to fall, be eaten away by the river both in the monsoons and in winter. Crores of rupees continue to be spent in these futile efforts to prevent erosion, instead of on the more logical rehabilitation of people.
The next generation of environmental refugees working in a brick kiln.
There are many things wrong about this picture. For one, these are all kids -- some not even 6, as far as the eye can see.
Another, this brick kiln uses the mud from the banks. It is hollowing out an already weak bank, inviting the river to erode even deeper.
Third, this is one of the districts worst affected by erosion, downstream of the Farakka Barrage and ranks 6th highest in population of children in India. It is listed as one of the "Most Backward Districts" in India and gets no support from the government