A night’s fog sat ghostly-grey on lush paddy fields and thick knots of mango groves as we set out from Berhampore, the district headquarters of Murshidabad, and drove on National Highway 34, the gateway to the north-east. It was 4.30 in the morning, and we were heading north to the place where the Ganges enters West Bengal.
The headlights of our car lit up carts piled high with hay that, in the pre-dawn dark, looked like Carlos Valderrama on wheels. Off to the edges of the highway, melting into the night-shadow of huts and coconut trees, heavily mufflered men idled beside bicycles piled high with thickly bound wares, waiting for a break in the traffic.
India’s border with Bangladesh, at this point, was about 20km away. Smuggling was prevalent; on any given day, everything from cows to electronics and medicines, rice and saris to fish and flesh, played hide and go seek with the hawk-eyed Indian Border Security Force.
We did not see the Ganges till we were upon it.
Jammed in among a long row of trucks, we inched onto a barrage that pinched the Ganges at Farakka, northern West Bengal. Cyclists snaked among the stuck trucks, casting the occasional mildly curious glance into the one car in the jam. Ours.
I was scheduled to meet Tarikul Islam at 9 am. He had lost his land and his home to the Ganges, thrice. He would walk with me along the river banks, my guide to understanding the effects of the Farakka Barrage on this part of Bengal. It was already 8 AM, and the traffic showed no sign of easing.
Silt And The City
Bengal has always been important to those who rule Delhi. The Ganges, careening through 2,500 km of Indian soil and draining a quarter of her land mass, reaches the Bay of Bengal in several braided distributaries.
These navigable distributaries allow the hinterlands to access the Bay, and that means trade. Delhi was always invested in the riches from lands near and far, and a good deep port was always vital to that need.
The small coastal town of Satgaon emerged as the champion of the 13th century. Perched strategically on the banks of the navigable river Saraswati, at the cusp of the Bay of Bengal, it had access both inland and to the sea. In the dry season, big Chinese dhows and junks transferred wares to smaller country boats that could ply deep into the interior, towards the capital of Southern Bengal, Sonargaon (near modern-day Narayanganj in Bangladesh).
Satgaon became “a big place on the Great Sea” in the words of Ibn Batutta; a medieval-era marketplace for trade and perfumes, lofty doorways and glass windows, gold and metal, and slaves of “exquisite beauty.” Rich traders flocked to Satgoan, where profits were to be had in spite of heavy duties. It was the mercantile heaven of the time.
Duzakhast bur ni’amat!
(A hell full of good things)
But Himalayan rivers like the Ganges carry another important cargo: silt.
As she tumbles down from her lofty origins, the Ganges carts more sediment than most rivers in the world — almost four times as much as the Amazon. This sediment fertilizes the delta and the plains, and is the future of rice, millet, mustard, greens, and fish — sustenance for the teeming millions of Bengal.
Himalayan rivers wander in their deltaic reaches. They meander. They deposit silt in one channel here, block their own progress, and carve a fresh way out somewhere else. Swinging this way and that, fickle, wild, unpredictable, these muddy, thick rivers move around, dumping their cargo of silt, creating deltas, making food-bowls.
In Bengal, the Saraswati is an illustrative case study. It ruled the waterways for a few glorious centuries, but over time it also choked itself with silt. Ocean-going vessels could no longer drop anchor at the port. Over time, Satgaon lost favor as the gaping mouth to prosperity.
Elsewhere, a small settlement of weavers and artisans had begun to gain in prominence. In the 17th century, the British were steadily wresting control of Bengal from the Mughals. And this other settlement on another distributary — the Hooghly — became the port of choice of the eighteenth century: Calcutta.
For the emerging British Empire, the Hooghly was a gateway to Assam, a navigable waterway into the northern Gangetic plains. Trade reoriented itself away from Asia and in the direction of Europe. Calcutta on the east coast and Bombay on the west became the Empire’s two most important ports.
The Ganges, wild, brown, and strong-willed, had her own plans.
Through the 19th century, the Hooghly was gradually silting up; by the early 20th century ships could barely reach Calcutta. Wary of massive underwater shoals, they had to wait for tides to turn in order to reach the port.
The fate of the port was changing and with it, that of the people of Northern Bengal. The Calcutta Port Trust tried (and continues to try, to this day) to dredge the river, with little success.
The river continued to lay it on thick.
Birth Of A Barrage
In 1853, Sir Arthur Cotton suggested interrupting the Ganges at Farakka. This, he theorised, would flush the Hooghly with the waters of the main channel of the Ganges. The Hooghly would become navigable, and Calcutta a buzzing port again.
The British engineers failed to find consensus among themselves for a suitable site of the Barrage, and the plan to resuscitate Calcutta lay dormant for over a hundred years – until 1957, when the Government of India revived the idea. They called upon a British expert, Dr. W. Hensen, to solve the muddy issue.
Hensen ratified Cotton’s idea of a barrage at Farakka.
“The best and only technical solution of the problem is the construction of a barrage across Ganga at Farakka with which the upland discharge into the Bhagirathi-Hooghly can be regulated as planned, and with which the long term deterioration in the Bhagirathi-Hooghly can be stopped and possibly converted into a gradual improvement. With a controlled upland discharge a prolongation of freshet period will be obtained, and the sudden freshet peaks which will cause heavy sand movement and bank erosion will be flattened.”
On paper, the ambiguities inherent in the “possiblys” and ‘if this then maybe that’ postulations acquired a certitude through ‘expert’ imprimatur.
Between 1963 and 1971, a 2.64 km long barrage was built at Farakka, with a feeder channel that pushed water into the Hooghly.
It did not work.
Hensen had not considered that the Hooghly was a tidal estuary. The river sees saline water inflows from the Bay of Bengal that are 78 times in volume compared to the most robust monsoon freshet.
That amount of water washing up-river, carrying with it suspended sediment, was too much for the water from the Ganges to push out. The Hooghly remained un-navigable for sea-going ships, and Calcutta’s fate as the port of choice declined, just as Satgaon’s had centuries ago.
The Farakka Barrage thus failed in the task it was constructed for – but, as my guide would explain to me, succeeded in creating a far more sinister problem.
Tarikul-bhai was waiting for me outside his jewelry store in Bangitola, a settlement of erosion-affected people in the Malda district of northern West Bengal. He was dressed in kurta and lungi and swathed over in a large maroon shawl; his smile of greeting was wide and bright and toothy.
He ushered me into a mirror-walled room where I was immediately surrounded by a million smiling Tarikul-bhais at once. We sipped ‘laal saa’, a sweet, gingery, red milkless tea. He hunched over the silver chain that he was soldering, and spoke animatedly – an interviewer’s delight and, as I later discovered, a photographer’s dream guide.
He seemed in no hurry to leave, but in due time we headed to the northernmost point of West Bengal. The sun was beginning to dip as we climbed into a long low country boat. Following a circuitous route that skirted shoals and new sandbar islands, we made our way to the ancient town of Rajmahal, in Jharkhand, where the river enters West Bengal.
Here the Ganges, pregnant with silt, comes around a bend and strikes the Rajmahal hills. Finding no purchase against the hard stone of the right bank the river ricochets, ramming into the soft clay on the left bank of West Bengal.
Rivers plays ping pong between banks – a natural phenomenon, and the reason for its serpentine course. But what the Barrage did to the river at this point was unnatural, and not pretty.
In rudely obstructing the natural course of the Ganges, the Farakka Barrage blocks the transport of sediment. With nowhere to take the silt, the river dumps it at the wall.
Over time, these deposits accrete, raising the river-bed ever higher. Finding its progress checked, the river carves new channels out of the trap and often, these channels push into the land, eroding all that lies in its path.
Professor Kalyan Rudra has worked extensively on this problem and studied the geomorphology of the area. He explains the situation in a paper from 2004:
Deltaic rivers have a tendency to oscillate within wide limits. This “swatch of meander sweep” is proportional to the discharge flowing through the river. The principal river also throws off distributaries to facilitate delta-building operations. These distributaries may be alternately rejuvenated and left moribund with the passage of time.
The case of the Ganga in West Bengal is quite different. The river in this stretch upstream of the Ganga is so clogged with sediment that the river is compelled to alter its course. The mighty river even threatens to outflank the Farakka Barrage and open a new route through the presently moribund channels of Kalindri and Mahananda.
Tarikul-bhai and I stood on the banks of the Kalindri one morning. There was no water flowing through it. It was lush with paddy fields and dotted with farmers. The Mahananda, on the other hand, flows thinly through the loud press of Malda town. If the Barrage forces the Ganges into taking these dried paths, the displacement and loss in the district of Malda will be enormous.
It would also mean that the Ganges would return to a path it followed in medieval times, adjacent the ancient capital of Bengal, Gour — which today is a collection of ruins, just inside the Indian border with Bangladesh. The glory of Gour had turned to dust when the Ganges abandoned its path and moved westward in medieval times. Now, that same fate could befall other cities.
If the bulk of water in the Ganges were to flow past Gour once again, other cities will perish. West Bengal’s water supply will be drastically reduced because, once past Gour, the Ganges will head off into Bangladesh.
Once, rivers like the Ganges determined the fates of cities and whole civilizations; today, it would seem, man-made follies do.
Landlord To Bed, Beggar To Rise
As we stand at the ferry dock in Jharkhand, looking out over the Ganges as it courses into West Bengal, Tarikul-bhai points out the old channel and the new. “Everyone in this area of West Bengal has lost everything to the river – not once or twice, but several times,” he says.
“The solution to save Calcutta port did not work, and it has instead wreaked havoc on Northern Bengal.”
The erosion is at its worst twice during the monsoon season, when the flood waters rise and again when they recede. Roofs and walls and beds and trees and fields and goats and cows and schools and mosques – everything collapses, the river swallows it all. “Some people here have moved homes 17 times in the last two decades,” says Tarikul-bhai.
Unlike earthquakes and floods, erosion is not a “natural disaster” in the calculus of bureaucracy. Thus, where governments are quick to announce “relief” in the event of a disaster, loss due to erosion is neither calculated, nor relieved.
“We lose our world,” Tarikul-bhai says. “Everything goes into the river, leaving us empty-handed. And the government does not consider this a disaster – there are no allocations of funds for relief. We get nothing, we have gotten nothing till date.”
“Raat ko zamindaar, savere ko bhikari”
(We go to sleep as landowners and wake as beggars).
Charlands: Lost And Found ... And Lost Again
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.
When the Ganges swung wildly eastward into the channel it occupies today, it threw up a large char just off the right bank. An estimated 175,000 homeless people from the lost villages on the left bank of West Bengal made a new home here, and began to farm.
Palash Gachhi is like most chars: fertile, rich, unowned, and unserviced. But it is also a char with a disconcerting subtext.
When it appeared, it showed up on the wrong side of the Jharkhand-West Bengal border – which, unlike other state borders, is not fixed. For some inexplicable reason, the Survey of India demarcated a part of the border between the two states as “the path the Ganges takes.”
The problem is that the Ganges adheres to no permanent path. It moves. A lot. And the border moves with it.
Neither side likes the idea; both dispute the border. Jharkhand claims this char (which has over time added more sediment and joined the mainland) as its own – but it does not claim the people who live on it. Thus the people of Palash Gachhi are nominally Bengalis living in Jharkhand – they fall between bureaucratic cracks and can avail no services from either Jharkhand or West Bengal.
They are the nowhere people — nowhere on any government’s radar, living in the here and now, unsure of what tomorrow holds.
Twenty of these disenfranchised walked beside us as we transected the char, discussing the issues they battle with.
A transformer has been stolen, plunging one half of the meagerly electrified island into inky blackness. They have no identity, they belong to no state, they have no address. There is no sanitation; there is no light. There is a hospital building but no doctors; there are school buildings but no teachers (one school is exceptional in that it boasts a teacher – who shows up once in two days, teaches for a couple of hours, and leaves).
Given the lack of medical aid, childbirth is a hazardous process – but there are an astounding number of little children on the char. It is a source of local pride. “Have you seen so many kids anywhere else?” they ask.
Dozens of them flock around us, eager-eyed and bright-faced. Reena, 12, says she wants to become a teacher. Gehul, 14, wants to be a moulvi. They are the exceptions – children who have some notional idea of a ‘future’. Most others just return blank stares when I ask what they want to be when they grow up.
Hovering over them a flock of women — their faces half-covered with their saris — accompanied us. Rabha Bibi spoke up from the throng. She lost her daughter at birth because she couldn’t reach the hospital in time, she recalled.
When Rabha Bibi went into labor, four men carried her on a khatiya (a woven cot), some three kilometers to the ghat. From there, a country boat thup-thupped for almost an hour to reach the village of Panchanandapur. From there, the men carried her another four kilometers to the hospital.
It was the nearest medical aid available to her, and the journey took a precarious five hours even as her labor intensified.
The story plays out in a generational loop. Rabha Bibi’s daughter has lost a child. Her neighbor has lost a friend – the woman died in childbirth.
Since these nowhere people don’t exist on paper, there are no statistical surveys done, no data is mapped. But anecdotal evidence supports the widely held belief that Infant Mortality and Maternal Mortality on these chars is inordinately high, as most births occur at home with no proper medical oversight.
“We need a functioning hospital here, to save the lives of children and mothers,” Rabha Bibi said, to an emphatic assenting chorus.
They hope, they desire, they dream that their life will change – but there is no indication that it ever will. The women continue to long, to dream; the men take destiny into their own hands and go looking for jobs elsewhere. Some leave home as young as twelve.
Mumbai is by consensus the destination of choice.
Almost every able-bodied man from the region now lives in Mumbai – and this is true not just of the chars but also of the villages on the banks. Driven away by lost lands and degraded livelihoods and the desperation to make ends meet, they leave.
When Tarikul-bhai’s family lost their land to the river the first time, his father sold the door of his house so the family could eat. The incident was a knife through young Tarikul’s heart. He bought a ticket to Mumbai. It cost him 56 rupees.
At an intermediate stop, Tarikul got off the train to drink some water. The train left without him. Other misadventures later, he landed in Mumbai with no place to go, nowhere to sleep.
He slept on the footpath – it’s only for a day or two, he consoled himself. Days became weeks, became months, became years. It took him that long to make enough contacts, to garner enough goodwill, to get permission to sleep inside someone’s shop.
By day he sold tender coconuts and earned 80 rupees a month. He did not drink, or smoke. He apprenticed himself at a jeweler’s store in his free hours. Over a ten-year period, he managed to save enough money to return home. When he got there, he saw that Panchanandapur had been devastated. Again.
Tarikul’s friend Md. Inamul Haque is 60 years old, and teaches at Panchanandapur. He remembers that time well.
“There were 628 shops in the market. A lot of trade would go through Panchanandapur back then. I was secretary of the Market; it was famous. And I saw the river swallow it in front of my eyes.”
There were no banks in Panchanandapur. People stashed their savings in their homes. When the river swallowed their homes, it took their savings with it. They lost everything. Businessmen and landlords were suddenly forced to beg for work, to beg for food.
“This is not just my story,” Haque says. “Everyone here has stories like this. Some people had 200 bighas, others had 400.”
Haque lost 100 bighas. He has endured the seismic effects of erosion eight times. After his eighth displacement, he sunk all his savings into a small piece of land 5 km away from the river and built himself a sturdy brick house. If he lost this too, he would be left with nothing. “While it was being built, I went to the roof and prayed hard.”
The house has sheltered him for 12 years – a sufficient span to nurture a sense of security. Except that in that time, the river has crept up until today, it flows just 500 meters away from his front door.
A few kilometers upstream from Haque, the river runs right below Arati Mandal’s house. It is her fourth home – a weak floppy bamboo and khod (a kind of reed) construct with little in it except some pots, a kettle, a bundle of clothes.
Come the next monsoon, cracks will appear, and widen. She will wake with a start one night, possibly disturbed by the fearful bellow of her tethered calf. She will rush out of her home, clutching her pitifully few possessions. Her neighbor Arun Mandal will hoist a child on his shoulders, his wife will grab a TV. They will seek shelter and they will watch, despairing, as their world disappears into the river in slow motion. Again. And they will move on. Again.
But to where?
Arati Mandal and her neighbors in the settlement of Malda are running out of options.
“The erosion doesn't stop at our doorstep, it gnaws its way in, eating through every family.”
The Nowhere People
Prof. Rajiv Sinha of the Indian Institute of Technology in Kanpur has done an extensive study using remote-sensing technology and survey maps to tell the story of the land before and after the barrage. He believes the management of the barrage is dismal.
“You don’t just build a barrage on a river like the Ganga and forget about it. This is not the Thames. The sediment flows we are talking about are enormous. Impede Ganga’s progress as the barrage does, and the sediment has nowhere to go,” he says.
Prof. Rudra puts the scale of the sediment problem in perspective: if a truck carries seven cubic meters of sediment, the number of trucks needed to dredge the Farakka Barrage could go around the equator 126 times!
The people of Malda are caught between the sediment and the wandering, eroding river.
The river is democratic in its ravenous appetite. It eats everything — paddy fields, mango orchards, schools, homesteads, factories, bakeries, markets, textile shops, sugarcane fields… everything. Malda has lost over 250 sq. km. of land — more than half the size of the city of Chennai — to the river.
Each of the swallowed bighas once employed people — sometimes all members of a family. Land sustains them – they grow, they eat; they lose their land, they starve and, often, migrate.
Besides agriculture, the only industry in the area is beedi-making, but the income is meager, insufficient to sustain families of five or eight or twelve. Rolling 1,000 beedies takes two days and fetches one hundred rupees — less than a dollar a day. If the beedies the women make are surplus to demand, they are not paid.
Haque and the Mumbai-returned Tarikul formed a committee, back in 1995, as fulcrum for the erosion-affected people.
Their demands were simple then, and are the same today: They ask that the government release information on vulnerable areas, acquire that land, pay the villagers at market rates, and rehabilitate them.
They don’t want the government to “sanction relief”, as they know from experience that it will be siphoned off by middlemen and functionaries, by those who grow fat on the misfortune of their fellows. They would rather the government acquire the land at risk, and give them in return land, electricity, schools, hospitals, and a life away from the erosion.
The government, instead, has pumped crores into fortifying the banks with boulders to stem erosion. It costs over one lakh rupees to protect one meter of river bank – and it doesn’t guarantee against erosion, say experts, who point out that the river in spate washes the boulders away along with the land and everything on it. Yet the effort continues; overall, the government has spent upwards of Rupees 13 crores on futile fortifications.
“It is a collusion between the government, which allocates the funds, and the contractors,” says Tarikul with the fatalistic smile of one who has seen it all before, is not fooled by promises any more, but has not lost hope.
“Often, they do 10 per cent of the work and claim for 100 per cent. Also, they start work in the monsoons, which is stupid. How can you work on fortifying the bank-line when the soil is already wet and soft with rain?”
Professor Kalyan Rudra agrees with Tarikul’s assessment. In a paper on the subject, he quotes from a Comptroller & Auditor General of India dated March 1999:
“Implementation of anti-erosion scheme suffered all through from recurring weakness in planning, execution and monitoring at senior level of the Department and also the Government. Disregard of the recommendation of the Experts’ Committee, absence of master plan, delayed tendering, non-testing of soil before execution of work, hasty execution of work, appointment of large number of small contractors and work during full monsoon in unfavorable weather condition resulted in frequent and repeated failure of the work leading to wasteful and unfruitful expenditure”.
There is thus consensus among the locals, and the experts, and the oversight authority, and even the Supreme Court. It is only the government that fails – or refuses – to see what is obvious.
As I walk through these villages and talk to these people, my notebooks overflow with tales of frustration, the litany of despair.
Haque knows the ground realities. He knows the genesis of this systematic destruction, and has witnessed its repeated occurrences. He understands the dynamics of apathy and its bedfellow, corruption. He explains it all to me like the teacher he is, a gentle smile on his face as he talks.
I interrupt. Are you not angry, I ask.
He laughs. He wipes his face with his hand. He picks up a plate.
“How much can this plate hold?” he asks. “You can fill it only so much. After that, there’s nowhere to go. My anger is like that. I could hold only so much. It overflowed, and then it disappeared. I am pushing sixty. After seven losses, I still have a roof over my head.
“I don’t know how much longer it will last – the river keeps pushing closer. But for now I have a roof, and I am grateful.”