Odisha’s climate refugees: Last man standing at Satabhaya

Prafulla Lenka, a 47-year-old resident of Odisha's Satabhaya village, is tenaciously holding on even as his village has almost disappeared into the sea before his eyes
The Satabhaya coastline, the now-abandoned Panchu Barahi Temple, whose resident deities have been shifted elsewhere and Lenka's house before dismantling, in one frame. Photo: Priya Ranjan Sahu
The Satabhaya coastline, the now-abandoned Panchu Barahi Temple, whose resident deities have been shifted elsewhere and Lenka's house before dismantling, in one frame. Photo: Priya Ranjan Sahu

After Cyclone Fani hit Odisha’s coast on May 3, 2019, Prafulla Lenka finally realised it was not safe for his family to stay in the three-room thatch-roofed hut near the picturesque beach anymore. The location of the dwelling: Satabhaya village at Rajnagar block in Odisha’s coastal Kendrapara district.

Though the cyclone unleashed its entire wrath on Puri district and left Kendrapara relatively unscathed, Lenka, 47, shifted to an abandoned concrete structure, which used to be the Satabhaya gram panchayat office, 150 metres away from his house. 

In June, he dismantled his hut: “There is no point in keeping it because it would have anyway been washed away by the sea. At least, I will be able to use materials like logs and planks in erecting the shed for my livestock.”

“We lived in the house for the past two decades and the coastline was around two km away when we set it up,”  Lenka told Down To Earth

Seven brothers

Lenka’s was the last house within the actual boundary of Satabhaya village, most of which is now submerged under the sea due to coastal erosion. At the time of its demolition, the cottage was just 20 feet away from the sea shore.

‘Sata-bhaya’ literally means seven brothers in Odia — a reference to seven villages that existed along this coast several decades ago, with agriculture and fishing as the mainstay of their robust economies.

As the villages went into the sea one by one due to coastal erosion before the 1960s, the villagers moved inland to create five new villages. One of them was called Satabhaya, named in the memory of the lost seven villages. It also became the gram panchayat headquarters of all the new villages.

But the sea continued encroaching into the villages and gobbling them one by one. In 2011, Kanhupur was the last village to disappear completely into the waves.

As the sea slowly took away a major portion of Satabhaya, villagers kept moving inland to Barahipur, which was a forest on higher ground, adjacent to Satabhaya and Magarakanda. It was tucked inside the mangroves of the Bhitarkanika National Park few kilometres away.

But two families including Lenka’s, stood their ground in the original area of Satabhaya not yet submerged in the sea, with just the abandoned Panchu Barahi Temple for company.

Around a year back, Lenka’s neighbour too left after his house was buried in a huge heap of sand created by tidal waves.  

The displaced people of Satabhaya are probably India’s first climate refugees.

The Odisha government woke up to Satabhaya’s sea erosion in 2001, after environmentalists talked about climate change’s role in it.

The government started the process of relocating the people of the Satabhaya gram panchayat area from 2008. It had shifted a total of 571 families, most of whom stayed in Barahipur and Magarakanda, to the resettlement colony at Bagapatia, around 12 kilometres away, by 2017.

The idols of the Panchu Barahi deities were shifted to a new temple in Bagapatia two years back.

The government is in the process of allocating houses to another 140 families of Satabhaya gram panchayat, several of whom are still living in Barahipur and Magarakanda while many have been forced to live with relatives at Bagapatia.

Lenka’s last stand

Like others, Lenka too has got a house under the Odisha government’s housing scheme in Bagapatia but he is still reluctant to leave Satabhaya. “Who will take care of my property?” he reasoned.

His ‘property’ comprises 25 buffaloes and 50 goats. Basically a dairy farmer, Lenka has got into goat-rearing only last year to augment his income as the paddy fields he cultivated are unproductive due to salinity.

“The government gave compensation for houses but offered no alternative livelihood in lieu of agricultural land submerged in sea. That is the reason most people who have been rehabilitated in Bagapatia keep coming back to Barahipur where they have kept their livestock and to catch fish to earn their living,” Lenka said.

Prafulla Lenka’s family comprises his wife Janaki, son Prasenjit and daughters Pragyanjali and Anita. Prasenjit is a student of Class XI at a college, while Pragyanjali is studying in Class VI at the high school in Bagapatia.

Lenka has three brothers, who have already moved to Bagapatia. Prasenjit and Pragyanjali stay with Lenka’s elder brother Shyam Sundar, who is a teacher in Bagapatia. They visit Satabhaya during weekends to help their parents in household chores and rearing the livestock.

Anita is just three-years-old and stays with her parents.

Lenka and his brothers jointly owned 25 acres of agricultural land in Satabhaya but all of them have been inundated with saline water and are of no use.

Lenka does not know how long he will keep sticking to Satabhaya. But he is worried about the availability of fodder for his livestock.

“There is vast grassland for the buffaloes to graze and till now, the buffaloes have no problem with the grass they are eating. But the grassland is shrinking and also getting destroyed due to salinity,” he said. “I am afraid it may soon be unfit for their consumption. At that time, I will have to think of some alternative livelihood,” he said.

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