Civilisation at the edge of nature: Mousuni Island in The Sundarbans

Published on 16 June 2017

The Moushuni Islands of Sundarbans are the setting for the embankments that have been victim to the erosion of the recent rainy season. To get there, you have to take rickshaw through a fairly “established” landscape, with concrete shops, schools, open fields, clear cut boundaries of houses and fields. The embankment itself presents a stark different picture of climate change, with the survivors of the rainy season now camping under tarpaulin sheets and makeshift shelters.

One survivor, Palash, pointed towards the sea and showed me his birthplace. He was born on an island that is no longer there. He showed me the level on the embankment to which water had risen and come in and the surrounding paddy fields and coconut trees nearby that had been ruined due to salinity (pdf). His 12 bighas of land (172,800 square feet) lay barren now. He recounted how his father had reclaimed this portion of land from mangroves and made it habitable. Though hard to believe, there we were standing on a manmade embankment on reclaimed landscape with all the features of modern human life right at the edge of Bay of Bengal and all its fury.

Disasters and their consequent downward spiral

As we began to move towards another edge of the village and the island, we saw the perils of Kusumtala: flooding, erosion, salinity, water borne diseases, snake bites, dwindling agrarian produce, loss of subsistence, loss of income, migration, shortage of medicine supplies, starvation of hope, abundance of insecurity and uncertainty.

Their most urgent query for us was, ‘baandh ta kihobe eibar?’– will the embankment be rebuilt this time? Our team sat in the open courtyard of a house that was at the edge of the water separated by an even lower embankment. People mourned their loss, had utter contempt for government’s neglect. They told us how they were dragging their subsistence each day and asked us what we could do. We did not have much to assure. They informed us that there have been previous efforts at relief from abroad and governments but they were either short-lived or insufficient. They repeatedly warned us that without the embankment they were all destined to doom.

Expectations from state and politics around relief and rehabilitation

As we began to return, Ranudi, our guide, added some complexity to this scenario of distress and uncertainty. She explained that contrary to the testimony of the household we visited; there had been major relief work in the last season of flooding. Further, she also said that many of these families were supporters of the opposition party and hence exaggerated the shortfalls of the government. She stated that many families were hardly victim to the consequences of disasters as many of their family members have migrated and support them with their earnings in cities and elsewhere. Many such families have rejected offers of rehabilitation so that they can continue to receive relief from government.

We reached the ghat to board our steamer. Ranudis parting observation has stayed with me – she highlighted:

  1. A batch of bicycles had just arrived by another steamer boat. These were coming from the Government.
  2. A small advertisement poster about land sale and purchase was quite visibly put up on one of the shops near the ghat.

Climate change in its multiple incarnations

This visit revealed to us a glimpse of climate change and its many outcomes. One of the significant aspects that merits serious attention is that this change is something that is visible only through the veil of familiar forms of natural calamities and hence the outcry for familiar solutions. Absence of such known solutions only translates into disillusionment, anger and confusion for the residents.

Observations from respondents in these villages and corresponding data have revealed rise of sea level and increase in the ferocity of erosion. This in turn has led to the firm understanding within the scholarly and literary world that Sundarbans is a site where climate change is unfolding. However, such an understanding or such consciousness does not appear to have permeated to the resident population of this region. Even if such an understanding is there, it does not resolve their immediate predicament of escaping the results of this ecological conflict. The result is that they reside with disasters.

If we take the input of the survivor into consideration, perhaps there is another perspective to understand. While his father reclaimed land in Kusumtala to make it habitable, in his lifetime, the sea appears to be taking this territory back. The question that stands is whether there is a precedent to this moving shoreline and what does it signals a significant juncture in the era of climate change?

Subir Dey received his doctorate degree from Centre for Historical Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. He is currently works for Norwegian University of Life Sciences (NMBU) and the IDS project on Climate Change, Uncertainty and Transformation. His research concerns are climate history and resource politics of 20th century. 


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