In the Indian border district of Murshidabad, there are at least half a million "erosion refugees" who have lost their houses, lands and livelihood to the Ganges.
Ganges eats away at land and livelihoods
MURSHIDABAD, INDIA // After surveying erosion around the banks of the Ganges river - a ritual he performs several times a day - Niyamat Shaikh wiped beads of sweat from his forehead with a cotton towel and slumped before his one-room, bamboo-walled hut, which he built a year ago. Anxiety and despondence etched on his face, Mr Shaikh, 68, now living in the village of Bamnabad in West Bengal's Murshidabad district, stared at the river and at the other side, where he once lived in a brick-walled house and owned farmland in a prosperous village, before it was devastated by the river. "The mad river has been swallowing villages one by one. All the sandbags heaped on the bank three days ago [to resist erosion] have been washed away," said Mr Shaikh, who has lost six houses to the river in the past 10 years and now catches fish for a living. "The river has pushed us five miles away from the border. My house is now just 40 yards from the river's edge and there are new cracks in the soil, which means I will have to move to a new house soon." In the Indian border district of Murshidabad, Mr Shaikh is one of at least half a million "erosion refugees" who have lost their houses, lands and livelihood to the Ganges. As the eroding Ganges eats its way into villages, environmentalists and geologists warn of more devastation unless action is taken to save the "dying delta", which stretches across eastern India and Bangladesh. "In a natural phenomenon, which has been happening for centuries, the course of Ganges oscillates within a stretch of 10 kilometres, eroding on both sides at an interval of some two to three decades. For the past decade, in its present turn, it has been shifting in a south-west direction," said Kalyan Rudra, a river dynamics expert. Mr Rudra said the erosion was exacerbated by man-made factors. "Erection of the Farakka Barrage upstream has worsened the erosion situation. The barrage has changed the gradient of the Ganges. Now the river is thrusting more forcefully on its right and eroding faster into densely populated Murshidabad villages," he said. "Indiscriminate exploitation of groundwater, depletion of forest cover and unplanned human settlements in the region have increased the gravity of the situation." River erosion afflicts the entire Ganges delta, which stretches across West Bengal and Bangladesh, where most rivers oscillate along their course, causing severe erosion. But the Ganges and its tributaries, such as Jalangi and Churni in India, cause more extensive damage because they flow through softer alluvial lands and their catchments are densely populated, mostly with poor migrants from Bangladesh. Police sources said poverty in erosion-affected areas of Murshidabad has led to an "unusually high" rate of migration and human trafficking to other parts of the country recently. "After losing their agricultural lands, these former farmers are now landless. Most of these victims, who are Muslims, traditionally ignored formal education, which has further weakened them in seeking new employment," said Utpal Das, a local police officer. "In search of jobs, desperate men and women are now migrating to big cities like Kolkata, Delhi or Mumbai. "While the men are in menial jobs like pulling rickshaws in cities, the women are working as housemaids and prostitutes - all just to fend off starvation back at home." Meghnad De, a local administrative official, said erosion has already displaced about one million people and every year about 100,000 are being added to the list of affected. "The barrage authority [under federal government] is supposed to take care of the erosion, but they aren't. We are just providing some relief materials to affected people," Mr De said. In Murshidabad, where the Ganges is shifting towards the right, wide areas on its left flank - where Mr Shaikh and other erosion refugees once lived - are now covered with thick layers of sand and are no longer arable. "Officers [river experts] say, after some years my land in my native village will be arable again and I could return to my village. But for the past 10 years I have been living a life worse off than a beggar. The land will be arable after my death," Mr Shaikh said. Experts suggest land on the path of oscillating rivers of the delta should be left uninhabited. "The land should be used only for agriculture, where possible, and, if needed, for some temporary business activities," Mr Rudra said. But most refugees, living far below the poverty line, said they cannot move away from the river. "It is impossible for us to afford to build houses in a safer land away from the river, simply because we don't have the money," said Golam Kibria, another erosion refugee, who lost nine houses and shops to erosion in the past 10 years and whose wife migrated to Mumbai to work as a prostitute to support the family. But Mr Rudra said: "Ganga provides a lifeline to these people. For them it is difficult to live away from this river which has become intricately entwined with their life and culture for generations, even though it brings occasional devastations." * The National