Climate Change

Environment in elections: Sea erosion is key election issue in Odisha’s Satabhaya

Villagers, opposition criticise state government’s failure to address erosion issues in this Kendrapara village

By Ashis Senapati
Published: Monday 22 April 2024
A woman collecting groundwater from the sea erosion hit Satabhaya village in Odisha. File photo: Ashis Senapati

As the electoral campaign intensifies in Odisha’s Kendrapara district, the looming threat of sea erosion has emerged as a pivotal issue. The coastal district is increasingly concerned about rising sea levels and their impact on local communities.

Residents of Kendrapara’s coastal villages like Satabhaya have long faced the devastating effects of sea erosion. Many people in these sea erosion-prone areas have suffered significant losses of farmland and houses along the coast. These villagers are determined to send a strong message to the ruling party for failing to resolve their issues.

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Dhrub Charan Sahoo, a Biju Janata Dal (BJD) candidate from Rajnagar Assembly, won the constituency in 2019 and is campaigning again this year. But the ruling BJD candidates may struggle to gain support in villages affected by sea erosion, as leaders from the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Indian National Congress (INC) criticise the state government’s failure to address sea erosion issues in the Satabhaya Gram Panchayat within the Rajanagar Assembly seat in Kendrapara.

“Our coast has been experiencing severe sea erosion for over three decades. Displacement and loss of livelihoods, combined with the state government’s slipshod attitude towards effectively addressing the issue, are likely to dominate voters’ minds in these areas during polling,” said Amarbar Biswal, a social worker in Kendrapara.

In 2018, the district administration relocated 571 families from Satabhaya Gram Panchayat to a rehabilitation colony at Bagapatia, 12 kilometres from the sea. At present, 17,049 people from displaced families reside in the rehabilitation colony.

Large areas of Satabhaya have been swallowed by rising sea levels. Once a cluster of seven villages, Satabhaya now only has a small portion remaining, teetering on the brink of extinction. The Bay of Bengal has claimed the other six villages: Gobindapur, Mohanpur, Chintamanipur, Badagahiramatha, Kanhupur, and Kharikula.

But many families are still in Satabhaya as the sea inches closer. “The officials have yet to relocate us. We are dangerously close to the encroaching sea,” said 62-year-old Maheswar Behera.

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Swadhin Mallick just went through one of the toughest years he has ever faced. The 64-year-old fisherman from Satabhaya, is one of the people who have not relocated yet and was forced to relocate after the encroaching waves swallowed his ten-year-old thatched house three months ago. 

Ranjit Mallick, also 64, has long witnessed the effects of sea erosion. Five years ago, for the third time, he, like many others, moved his home from Satabhaya to Magarkandha to escape the relentless sea.

Manasi Behera, a 48-year-old resident of Satabhaya village, is also increasingly anxious as the sea inches menacingly closer to her three-room thatched house. She relies on a single, half-buried tube well in Satabhaya for drinking water. In recent times, the encroaching sea has swallowed about 10 tube wells.

Unfortunately, the hardships experienced by Swadhin, Manasi, Ranjit and Maheswar are far from isolated cases. Like them, approximately 235 families in the Satabhaya and Magarkandha areas have been spending sleepless nights as the sea continues to threaten their homes. This situation is exacerbated by the government’s sluggish progress in relocating them to the Bagapatia rehabilitation site.

“The state government is playing with our lives by not relocating us to Bagapatia,” said Prasana Kumar Parida, the Sarpanch (village head) of Satabhaya Gram Panchayat.

“Three decades ago, the sea was far away. Now it’s just a few yards away, and we fear for our children’s safety. We’ve lost our farmland, and over a thousand people have already lost their homes to the rising sea in the past 30 years. We all want to leave, but where can we go? We don’t have the money to move,” said Malay Mallick (56) from Satabhaya village.

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But troubles for those who were relocated have not ended either. Villagers who were shifted to Bagapatia reported a lack of livelihood options.

“We used to catch fish and crab in the rivers and creeks and collect honey from the mangrove forest in Satabhaya. But when the government relocated us to Bagapatia, we lost our livelihoods,” said Sudarshan Rout.

Displacement caused by sea erosion is forcing hundreds of people to migrate to places like Gujarat, Kerala, Mumbai, Delhi, and other major cities in search of work, said Bijaya Behera (34) from Satabhaya. “We’ve pleaded with the government multiple times to provide us with agricultural land in Bagapatia, but the authorities have ignored our appeals. That’s why we won’t vote for the ruling party, BJD, in the upcoming elections,” the villager said. 

However, some villagers are hopeful that their situation will turn around soon. “Last year, the government allocated Rs 22 crore for our rehabilitation, so we hope the district administration will soon provide us with land and assistance to build houses in Bagapatia,” said Fakir Behera (54) of Satabhaya. 

But most villagers don’t share Behera’s optimism.

“We have repeatedly demanded that the district administration rehabilitate all the remaining villagers from Satabhaya. However, the officials have only paid lip service,” said Dharanidhar Rout, the convener of the Satabhaya Citizen Forum.

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There is significant corruption and mismanagement at the top levels when it comes to selecting families for rehabilitation, resulting in some people getting multiple houses in the names of their family members, while many families were left out, Rout further alleged.

Sahoo, the member of the legislative assembly for Rajnagar, said he was confident of people’s support for BJD. “The government has provided displaced people with houses under the Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana, and built a high school and a nodal upper primary school in Bagapatia rehabilitation colony. The district administration has also constructed 19 roads, a multipurpose cyclone centre, four Anganwadi centres, and a market complex with 14 shops. They have dug 32 tube wells and built two cremation grounds, a community centre, a village library and a Mission Shakti building,” he said. 

In 2023, the state government granted Rs 22 crore for the development of Bagapatia and the rehabilitation of villagers. All remaining villagers from Satabhaya will be relocated within this year, and that’s why people will vote for BJD, claimed Sahoo.

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