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India's climate refugees forced to fight - here and now (With Image)

National, Sun, 05 Apr 2009 IANS

Baliwara (West Bengal), April 5 (IANS) The rising sea has drowned two of Jalaluddin Saha's small homes and threatens a third. Last monsoon surging water ruined his crops and he and his family ran for their lives. His livestock drank the brine and died.


In eastern India, this 62-year-old retired schoolteacher is experiencing climate change first hand. So are the other 8,000-odd residents of Baliwara and other villages in the little island called Mousuni, facing the Bay of Bengal at one of the numerous mouths of the Ganga river that Indians consider sacred.



With their backs to the Sundarbans - the world's largest mangrove forest - and one-third of their 10-km by two-km island engulfed by the rising sea in the last 10 years, climate change is no theoretical threat to the thousands who live in the 12 sea-facing islands of South 24 Parganas district.



The next island, Gorumara, has already been abandoned to the waves. The residents have scattered.



'You see these fertile rice fields, these coconut groves, these ponds we have dug with our own hands and which are teeming with fish. We don't know if they'll last beyond the month of Bhadra (August-September),' Saha told a visiting IANS correspondent.



'We're not imagining a disaster. It has happened to us, again and again, especially in the last few years. We can see how the sea is rising. Do you see the waves playing with the stump of that dead coconut tree? My second house was beyond that, just eight years ago. Today you can't see a single sign of it.'



He has invested in his third home, even spending Rs.20,000 on two solar power panels.



'I'll fight as long as I can. But I know my children cannot. As the world gets hotter, the sea is rising all the time. So I've made sure my children can earn a living in Kolkata (80 km away). One is a computer mechanic, another is finishing his MCA (Master in Computer Applications) degree.'



There are other climate refugees.



Marjina Bibi, who lost her husband to cancer, cannot plan as far ahead as Saha. The eldest of her three sons is in Class 7. She has no land, no home except a makeshift hovel she put up on the edge of a canal. She used to have two cows and three goats. They died last monsoon, crazed by thirst and drinking the brine that had got in everywhere.



She spends much of the day in the brackish waters of the estuary, diving again and again to peer through the silt in search for juvenile prawns that are then sold to prawn farms near Kolkata at Rs.10 for 100 juveniles. Her sons - the youngest is five - join her after school. The family makes Rs.20 on a good day. All suffer from salt sores.



'I'm getting very little work as a farm labourer or a domestic maid now,' Marjina told IANS. 'Everybody is losing land. No one has the money to hire others. Do you know anyone in Kolkata who wants a maid?'



World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) has started an information centre here to warn residents of impending high tides, storms and other disasters. It is trying out a salt-resistant variety of rice that has worked well in the first season. It is teaching people how to live with a rising sea.



'In the long run, people won't be able to live here,' said A. Anurag Danda, senior programme coordinator of WWF-India's Sundarbans Programme. 'What will they do? It takes just one extra high tide to ruin the crop for which people have toiled for months.



'It's clear that raising the embankments is not keeping the sea out. Look at them lying broken all around you. For the time being, we're helping the people cope with sea level rise. But there's obviously a limit to which they can do this. After that, they'll join the list of climate refugees, unless investments in the younger lot within the community are made now, investments that will expand their world view and capacity to work elsewhere.'



(Joydeep Gupta can be contacted at


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