Rising Tides Force Thousands To Leave Islands Of Eastern India

May 20, 2016
Originally published on May 20, 2016 7:55 pm
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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

People in India know the Sundarbans as a beautiful and dangerous patchwork of mangrove islands. Now this watery landscape is getting international attention for a different reason. Some of these islands are disappearing, swallowed up by rising tides. Tens of thousands of people who live in the Sunderbans have lost their homes. For our last story in this series on development and climate change in India, I went to meet some of those people.

We're walking down this little road to the boat launch, and people are selling fish that they've just pulled out of the river, sweets that they've just fried up or vegetables that they've grown in their own gardens. Little kids are dropping baited hooks over the side of the jetty. There are people bathing in the water and people digging in the mud, maybe for fish or crabs or something.

This is an estuary where salt water from the Bay of Bengal mixes with fresh water from three of India's major rivers. The tides in the Sunderbans are so dramatic that about a third of the land disappears and reappears every day. That's been happening for centuries, but just in the last few decades, the changes have become more extreme. In this delta, water levels are rising more dramatically than in other parts of the world, especially on the island we're heading to now, a place called Ghoramara.

We're getting close to Ghoromara island, and from here, it looks like a piece of cheese where a mouse has been nibbling around the edges. There are trees in the center. There are mud flats on the perimeter. But between those two, it's like little gouges, chunks that have been removed from the landscape.

To set foot on the island, we literally have to walk a plank. They've stretched a board across the edge of the boat to the mud bank that has been heavily eroded by rising seas. All right, here goes. This may be the last you hear from me.

This island used to be home to 40,000 people. Today just over 3,000 people live here. The first one we meet is 45-year-old Rubil Saha. He lives in a mud hut with his two children. Only a crumbling dirt embankment separates his house from the water.

RUBIL SAHA: (Through interpreter) Every year my house gets inundated when water from the river comes in. And it breaks the house. I rebuild it, and it's again destroyed.

SHAPIRO: He shows us where the walls of his house are cracked and eroded.

SAHA: (Through interpreter) This entire wall was broken, and I built it again.

SHAPIRO: Back when Saha was born on this island, the land was twice as big as it is now, according to researchers from Jadavpur University in Kolkata. Saha's parents and relatives have all left, but he can't bring himself to let go.

SAHA: (Through interpreter) This is my motherland, so I can't abandon it. And the pull of the motherland roots me here. I'm drowning in the river water, but I can't leave.

SHAPIRO: Down the path, a boy named Sheikh Firoz comes out of his hut to greet us. He says he's 15 but looks younger. He has a cocky swagger and a matter-of-fact attitude about life here.

SHEIKE FIROZ: (Through interpreter) Last time the flood came, I was asleep. My parents woke me up, and we ran to the government school to take shelter. When we came back, the house was washed away.

SHAPIRO: What did you think when you came back and saw there was no house?

SHEIKE: We just built this new house.

SHAPIRO: It's midday, sweltering, and at the center of the village, children are splashing at a pond while women pump water out of a nearby well. Among all these mud huts there is one proud concrete home two stories tall. This is where the village leader lives - Arun Pramanik.

ARUN PRAMANIK: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "I know I have a beautiful home," he says, "but ultimately it will go into the womb of the river. All we can do is try to delay the process." Pramanik used to think he would have another 20 or 30 years here, but he says the floods have been coming so much more frequently, now he thinks it might not be long at all until everything is washed away.

PRAMANIK: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "We'll never have the same kind of community, the same kind of bonding we have here," he says. "Everybody will separate to new homes, new communities, new places."

One of those new places is nearby Sagar Island. It's much bigger - a Hindu pilgrimage site with power lines and paved roads. You can drive an hour and still not reach the opposite side.

This village has only existed for about 20 years since people started being forced to leave the island of Ghoramara, and this is where the government resettled them.

The first man we meet is Ratan Maity. He moved here 15 years ago with his two kids.

RATAN MAITY: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "I had no other option," he says. "The river was taking away our homes." He pieces together work pulling a cart and doing other odd jobs. He's never heard of melting polar ice caps or climate change. He's unaware that sea levels are rising around the world. All he knows is that his river here in eastern corner of India started devouring houses.

MAITY: (Foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "The river was angry," he says. "It took away so many things. It took people's lives. Children were swallowed. My home was gone. That's why I had to leave. We were scared." His new home is far inland. He can't go fishing anymore, but he feels safer than he used to. I asked Ratan Maity if he is angry at the river.

MAITY: (Laughter, foreign language spoken).

SHAPIRO: "Sure I'm angry," he says. "But what's the point? You can't defeat the water." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.