Sambhu was repairing his broken boat at the bank of the river, when the water receded due to low tides after 12 PM. Haren was also present there, helping him in this work. Both of them were discussing the scary fight they had with the demonic waves just two days ago, on a full-moon night. Munni too was there with her father, to accompany him in his strenuous work. She asked her father, “Father, is there any way we can escape from this island?”
Her father gave a sorrowful look at Haren and smiled back at Munni. She is just a small child, “We shouldn’t kill her hope,” both of them murmured.
Sambhu told Munni, “My daughter, even if your mother scolds you, could you leave her for a day?”
Munni replied to her father, “No father, I would not leave my mother in any condition.” Sambhu smiled and said, “This is why we also wouldn’t leave our mother’s land, my daughter. Maybe, Mother Nature is not happy with us, so she is testing our patience with all the trials and tribulations. Still, God will keep us safe, you don’t have to worry.” Munni was satisfied with her father’s reply, so she left and went to catch prawn seedlings with her mother.
Purnima was catching prawn seedlings. She would sell them to the big market. This was the only means left for them right now to make a living. She struggled a lot with other women to catch prawn seedlings. They made a deck using any heavy floating materials available, and sailed through the waves with their small nets. Most of the times the rising waves broke their fragile self-made decks, and they fell into the river. Then, it would be a strenuous activity of the other villagers to save the drowning women from those fatal waves.
Purnima’s face was looking dark, dull, gloomy and full of confusion. She was not in her mind when she was asked how their life was.
She replied, “We are just surviving. We don’t know whether our island would survive, we are only 5800 people left here in this island right now,” she continued with her words, “Do you know, this island was a big one! 30000 people lived here once, we celebrated every day of our life, never ever interfered with each other’s life. We were so happy. But, suddenly, for last few years, after the big ships started crossing the sides of our island, we believe because of that, waves became fatal to us.”
Just a few years back, there was one more island nearby their island, named Lohachara. They had many relatives there, who are not traceable to them now. They have heard some were working as labourers in Kerala, some were in Dubai and Tamil Nadu, they left their wives at home.
The sun was setting, so all of them started to return to their houses.
Haren warned Purnima, “Careful, there are snakes roaming everywhere.”
Mishti had lost her life due to a snake bite. Everyone was at work and she was playing with her brother in her room when the venomous snake crawled over their food storage and bitten her to death.
Purnima replied to Haren, "If you people would have some brains, the child could be saved, but no, you took her to the exorcist, instead of doctors,” and then, she left with her daughter.
Sambhu and Haren are jobless right now. The weather conditions are getting worst, so, they would have to wait till November to sail to the deep sea to catch fish. “Due to the changed patterns of waves, and dangers associated with the weather, we can catch fish only for 6 months,” they mumbled.
Sambhu asked Haren, “Have you ever experienced this kind of fatalities before due to high tides?”
They had not experienced these kinds of events before. They were trying to adapt to the new weather patterns. Some of them put hundreds and hundreds of cement bags at the base of their houses so that they wouldn’t be pulled away by water, some covered their mud walls with plastics, and attached big bricks over them.
Just a few months ago, in one incident, a whole village lost the husbands and the women become widows. Purnima told Sambhu from the kitchen, “Do you people know that all of the boats which were sailing into the deep sea, got drowned, for some unknown reason. No one has any idea what happened to them.”
Purnima also knew that, whatever had happened with those women, could be due to the anger of the river goddesses. There should be some reason, maybe their husbands did something wrong with the river. After one day only, the villagers made a big temple of river goddess at the bank of the river and the whole village worshipped.
Purnima’s cousin sister Nandrani was at their place, she came here to help Purnima in her household chores, both of them were sharing their encounters with high tides. Purnima was remembering how the whole village would stand together to save them from flooding.
Purnima asked Nandrani, “Do you remember those small boys, putting in hard efforts with their parents, to protect our land from flooding? All of them were standing on the embankment putting their heart and soul into the work of protecting the embankment. I wonder how it would feel to stand in cold water two consecutive nights.”
“Sashi had collapsed, Mani told me. He had to be hospitalised to gain consciousness, he fell ill at the embankment itself, due to excessive cold. Mohan also had leg fractures, as when they couldn’t stand the excessive pressure of the waves, one of his legs got stuck in the mud and he got hit by floating logs.” Nandrani agreed.
“Do you know Ajit Mondal? He had one small portion of land for cultivation at the river bank, which got drowned recently. The conditions of our villagers are becoming scary,” Purnima said. Ajit had invested five thousand rupees two months ago for cultivation of potatoes, tomatoes, all of his hard work was destroyed by the fierce waves at the time of high tides during full moon. He has taken up a different way of survival since, he was now selling soybean packets for 10 rupees in front of his house.
“But sister, how can we survive like this in the next full moon?” Purnima asked Nandrani. Most of the marriages ceremonies got cancelled, due to fund scarcity. If people would think of communal contribution for marriage, it would fail also, because the conditions are the same everywhere. We have cancelled all the religious festivals this year, as if, we are just dead, but pretending to be alive,” Purnima rued.
“What could be the reason for this increased severity?” Nandrani asked with confusion.
“No, we are suffering because of the excess greed of some human beings. Have you noticed the colour of water releasing into the river from the new factory?” Purnima asked. “Have you seen the small size of boulders dropped at the east bank of our island? Just after that, the whole portion of that island got drowned in water. I don’t understand why we are failing in saving our mother land,” she told her sister with agony.
“Last year also, we lost Samsul. Do you remember that incident? Just in a fraction of seconds, a whole piece of land broke into the deep sea with a big tree, and poor Samsul, we couldn’t save him at all,” Purnima told her sister. She was sobbing, her face got dark.
She continued to share her grief to her sister, “Maybe, one day, all of us will drown like this. Here on this island, no one will help us to survive, as we are also poor, we don’t have money to buy lands in other places to shift from here. My husband doesn’t know other languages like the young people in our villages, so he would not prefer going for labour jobs under contractors”, Purnima told Nandrani.
"Is there any way we could stop these?” Nandrani was thinking aloud. “If Ghoramara got drowned, all of the islands across the Bay of Bengal would be drowned too.”
Nandrani remembered the escape of her parents to Sagar Island. One fine morning, all the villagers were busy with household work. Suddenly, some people from authorities rushed to them, and told them to leave their houses immediately, without any delay. They got confused, and ran to collect their belongings. Unfortunately, their houses got washed away with high tides, all of their lands and houses drowned. “The day was the most unfortunate day of our lives. Some people didn’t agree to leave the place. Few of them got drowned with all of their belongings. I was sleeping with Mother at 6 AM,” Nandrani told Purnima. Suddenly, our mother started to pack some documents, dry foods hurriedly. We were four brothers and sisters, she took us with her. Our father was working at the embankment with other people.”
Her father used to cut cubicles, and took that soil to the embankments to make it stronger. This work was very strenuous, hundreds of men and women of their villages took part in it, whenever there was a threat to life due to high tides. Her mother rushed to the nearby flood center with them, and kept them there with a known person. She rushed back to the village again, to bring their cows with her. She came back with the cows in 15 minutes, and they were all safe at the flood center. Just when the storms started, gigantic, fatal waves broke into their territory.
“I was so shocked, being a child, experiencing all this. I was like Munni. All the children around me got scared, as they were observing the demonic effects of waves on their surroundings. It was not for the fainthearted, who can never think of submerging their half bodies into water when people and animals around them are running for life. One boy was saved with his cow, but when he was rushing to the flood center, he got trapped.” Recalled Purnima.
The demonic flood broke them mentally, physically, economically, and socially, it took their everything away. They became HOMELESS, they had nothing to rebuild their life again.
Some kind people took the initiative to feed them for a few days. There were rich people also with lots of agricultural lands. The rest were sitting hopelessly at the flood center hoping the water would recede so they would get back what they had. That actually never happened, because all their lands along with three to four villages were eroded into the sea, after flooding.
Nandrani remembered how all the people of those villages were silent, their faces full of tears, their words stuck in the pain of losing their houses forever. Nandrani’s mother was settled at that place for years, it was like taking away a part of them from themselves.
Finally, the government promised the villagers to provide 1.5 acres land per head at another island, which was stable at that time, and promised them to give livelihood options, so they could rebuild their lives again. All of the villagers were evacuated by the authorities to the nearby island with their remaining belongings, some lost their identity cards or land records, some lost their relatives. It was all strange and new for the people to move outside their island after the tragedy. They did not migrate due to hatred or conflict, but the rising level of tides and erosion.
Nandrani took the first vessel with her mother, to another island and waited there for everyone, till the government allotted lands to them. It was not so easy as the words were spreading, the villagers were given land to RESETTLE. It was in a forest area, which the villagers cleaned together and they were also working the whole day with others to make the barren land, their new home. Nandrani’s parents and others created a good irrigation system and channels of roads throughout the settlement, everyone got one pond and some livestock from the government. Everything was so fulfilling after the devastating time, people also had nightmares that continued even after it was all over.
All the things changed forever for everyone who came from one place to settle here due to environmental stress. Nandrani remembered her father, who committed suicide in trauma of losing everything.
Some villagers had other cruel memories of abduction of their girls. Multiple kinds of thugs were encroaching territories as they came to one new place with full of strangers. Nandrani remembered the unity and cohesion they had as one community, when they were living in Ghoramara island. They were together in protecting their women. Later, they started to adopt a new rule for their safety. They forced their girls to marry after fifteen years of age only within the community. They also started to realise that, they are losing their island unity every day, no one would stand by each-other, all the social stability of their life got destroyed with Displacement.
Purnima asked Nandrani, “Have you got your land back?”
Nandarani shook her head with one gloomy face. “Till you get all the papers and signatures needed for the application, you would get old, there is no fate for us. If our land vanished into the sea, that means, we have lost everything, no one will give it back to us.”
Purnima said, “If someday suddenly, high tides broke into our territory, it will take everything away, nothing will be spared, including the life of people and animals.”
Nandrani left the place to give lunch to Sambhu. Her parents were falling ill due to increased salinity of water, the crops were not harvesting fully, fish were dying inside the pond. Her mother tried her best to recover and protect their resources, but all got destroyed by one Cyclonic storm, just one year back.
They had not yet recovered from that incident, Nandrani knew, they had become ‘refugees’ but without recognition and protection. It was now certain that they’d have to live in this situation of nothingness. If someday, the government instructed them to move into one other place, they’d have to move.
The situations were getting worse for the people, Nandrani cried, “So, now we are just a burden to everyone, as we have lost everything due to nature, we have no one to blame, there is no right for us to claim protection and benefits.”
Nandrani’s marriage got postponed as no one agreed to give loan to them in their new place, her mother didn't have money to pay one more loan, as she is already paying for the loan for some livestock she brought for business last year.
“Is there any end to this suffering?” She asked. Both of them were thinking of their relatives left in the island, as they knew the people’s lives were in great risk. They believed it was their fate, as there were no policies or schemes from the government to resettle them.
Suddenly, there was an announcement by authorities to evacuate urgently. The villagers rushed to the flood center again, by packing some of their important documents, livestock and dry food. They tried hard to bring all their animals to a safe zone. It was an alarm for one big cyclonic storm approaching their territory with highest of waves. Women and children left their houses. Purnima picked Nandrani and both of them ran towards the flood center. Sambhu and Haren were also present there.
The men and some women started to take part in the embankment making team and left for the river bank. Purnima told Nandrani to take care of their children, if anything bad happened to the couple. Soon, Nandrani experienced the most demonic waves demolishing everything in front of her eyes. She couldn't remember the time when nature got calm. She was shivering, hopeless, and worried about Purnima and her husband. Some people died, some were missing. She was checking everywhere to find Purnima, she got worried and started asking for help from the authorities, but no one could trace them. She found both of them finally, resting on a table at the flood center, there was mud all over their face and body. She cried loudly on the shoulder of Purnima to find her alive, Sambhu was pleading to everyone from media to the authorities.
“We don’t want anything, not even food. Give us stronger embankments made of concrete to restrict water from coming into our villages. Save us from the increasing floods.”
They’d have to stay in the flood center for weeks without any belongings, nothing to do but sleep and food would be made available for them. Only hope was that, they were alive and had the privilege of gulping small portions of meals every day, till the next full moon warning...
Author: Madhurima Chatterjee
Madhurima chatterjee, 26, was born and raised in Kolkata. She is a Research scholar in Anthropology from University of Delhi, with specialization on climate change and she had worked with multiple tribal communities and served anthropological survey of India, Nagpur as Project fellow in one NITI AAYOG project. She is the founder of the group India's youth voices for climate resilience and sustainable living, where she is working with other young people to spread awareness about the issues of Climate change in India and the globe, specifically for coastal Bengal. Till now she had two small relief work done on Amphan and Yass cyclone affected areas. Also she is involved with multiple projects on animals, like sterilization, vaccination, conservation movements, feeding drives throughout lockdown etc. She is currently researching on 'climate migrants' in India, and published her preliminary report on World focus journal.