Aila prompts exodus

By J Basu
Published: Wednesday 15 July 2009

People from Sunderbans are left with no choice but to migrate to cities (Credit: J BASU) Sea levels rising between 3mm and 5mm a year; tidal surges will intensify say scientists

a steady stream of people can be seen making their way to the main jetty in Chotomollakhali island in the Sunderbans these days. On an average, about 200 of them leave for the mainland each day with their belongings and livestock.

The migration has increased threefold since Aila struck on May 25, said Gopal Mondal, primary school teacher on the island. "They leave behind elderly members so that they don't miss out on rehabilitation packages the government may give," he added. People have no choice but to leave as there is no place to stay; the land has become unfit for agriculture and the embankments are broken, said Santosh Mondal, another resident. "Any person who stays back will be just waiting for death," he added (see '@ 110 km/hr', Down To Earth, June 30, 2009).

People are leaving in droves from other islands of the Sunderbans too. They want to escape Aila-like cyclones in future. The climate refugees are fleeing to Kolkata, Delhi, Bengaluru and Andaman islands.

West Bengal's Sunderbans Affairs Minister Kanti Ganguly said nearly 15 to 20 per cent people have moved out of the Sundarbans islands. "Most of them are from Kumirbari, Amtali, Choto mollakhali, Patharpratima and Gosaba areas that were the worst-affected," he said. The minister claimed the rate of migration has slowed down and a few people are coming back to repair the embankments.

Most of the migrants from the Sunderbans isles in South 24 Parganas district are settling in Sonarpur in the southern fringe of Kolkata. The poor migrants have settled in the villages adjoining Sonarpur. The migrants from the islands in North 24 Parganas are opting for Dumdum, Ultadanga and Belgharia areas of Kolkata.

Chitta Ranjan Jotdar, a retired school teacher from Gosaba, said he left the Sunderbans for Sonarpur three days after Aila struck. "I have decided not to go back," he said while ruing he had always wanted to live in the Sunderbans. "I have decided to sell my land there. How many times can one fight nature?" he asked.

Non-profits working in the Sunderbans said the migration from the islands started in 1988 after a cyclone hit the area. The destruction caused by Aila has increased migration manifold because people living in the interiors who were affected the most, received little help from the government, said Anurag Danda of the World Wildlife Fund.

A member of the Sunderbans Development Board, M A Wohab, was critical of the government for not evolving a policy to rehabilitate the displaced people. Wohab is also the head of the non-profit, Southern Health Improve ment Samity. "The poor migrants are mostly working as daily wage labourers and rickshaw pullers. The women earn by working as domestic helps," said Tushar Kanjilal of the non-profit, Tagore Rural Society.

The migration will only increase in future. The oceanographic studies centre in Jadavpur University in Kolkata has predicted that tidal surges and destruction will become more intense by 2020. "About 70,000 people will become climate refugees and 230,000 people will be affected in all," said Sugato Hazra who works in the centre. He said the Sunderbans vulnerability study, carried out in 2003, found Sunderbans is extremely vulnerable as the annual sea level is rising by 3.14 mm in Sagar island and 5.22 mm in Diamond harbour, Kolkata.

A recent British High Commission funded study by The Energy Resources Institute said climate-induced migration would have serious security implications for the region. It said large-scale migration can be expected from the Sunderbans and Bangladesh.

The islanders in Chotomollakhali who are yet to decide whether they should migrate are now afraid of the full moon tides. The embankment wall is still broken and the high tide may bring another flood, they dread.

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