Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 16 June 2019

India: residents vote for perhaps the last time before island sinks

Rising seas caused by climate change have already eroded half the island in the last three decades

Indian voters arrive by ferry to cast their vote in the Ghoramara Island. AFP
Indian voters arrive by ferry to cast their vote in the Ghoramara Island. AFP

Residents on Ghoramara fear that the votes they cast on Sunday in India's election may be the last before their island sinks into the Bay of Bengal – a victim of climate change's growing toll.

About 4,000 people, including poor fisherman Goranga Dolui, were on the electoral list for the island in the Sunderban delta.

"Those who could have left already. How will the poor like me leave? We hope the government will help us start a new life," he said.

Ghoramara is now about four square kilometres, having lost about half its size in the past three decades to rising seas.

Ghoramara's voters could still have a role in Prime Minister Narendra Modi's bid for a second term. His Bharatiya Janata Party has campaigned aggressively across West Bengal state and the result in the local constituency is on a knife edge.

Indian voters show their inked-marked fingers after casting their vote in the Ghoramara island around 110 km south of Kolkata on May 19, 2019, during the 7th and final phase of India's general election. Voting in one of India's most acrimonious elections in decades entered its final day on May 19 as Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrambled to hang on to his overall majority. / AFP / DIBYANGSHU SARKAR
Indian voters show their ink-marked fingers after casting their vote on Ghoramara Island. AFP

But Mr Dolui is pessimistic about his vote and the results to be announced on May 23 changing the future of the island, which is only connected to mainland India by a one-hour ferry ride.

"We will keeping living here until we can't any more," he said.

Ghoramara's election officer Swati Bandopadhyay said the island may be lost in two or three years as the rate of erosion accelerates with each monsoon season.

Indian election officials carry Electronic Voting Machine (EVM) and others materials on a tricycle to head to the polling station in Ghoramara island, about 110 km south of Kolkata on May 18, 2019, ahead of the 7th and final phase of India's general election. / AFP / DIBYANGSHU SARKAR
Indian election officials carry an electronic voting machine and others materials to the polling station on Ghoramara island. AFP

"People know this natural process is unstoppable and are gradually moving to the mainland," she said.

Thousands of Ghoramara residents have moved in recent years to Sagar, a bigger island in the delta, or Kakdwip on the mainland. But several surrounding islands are threatened.

Mr Modi held one of his election rallies on the West Bengal mainland last week where he talked about security. The environment, however, has not featured in the election battle between the prime minister and opposition leader Rahul Gandhi.

Party manifestos barely mention the melting Himalayan glaciers sending water pouring into the Bay of Bengal, or pollution caused by coal mining, or shrinking forests.

There was little talk of the notoriety of New Delhi and 13 other Indian cities being among the world's 15 cities with the most polluted air.

In this photo taken on May 18, 2019, Indian children play on the coast affected by erosion on the Ghoramara island around 110 km south of Kolkata, ahead of the 7th and final phase of India's general election. Thousands of former Ghoramara residents have already moved to Sagar, a bigger island in the delta, or moved to Kakdwip on the mainland in the last few years. Roughly half of the island has disappeared to rising water levels, erosion and changing weather patterns of the eco-sensitive delta zone in the last three decades. - To go with story 'INDIA-VOTING-ELECTION-ENVIRONMENT-CLIMATE' by Bhuvan Bagga / AFP / DIBYANGSHU SARKAR / To go with story 'INDIA-VOTING-ELECTION-ENVIRONMENT-CLIMATE' by Bhuvan Bagga
Indian children play on the coast affected by erosion on the Ghoramara Island. AFP

"Both major parties have sidelined discussion of the environment during the campaign," said Aarti Khosla, director of Climate Trends, a New Delhi initiative on climate change and clean energy.

"Whilst the public across the world is generating awareness on environmental issues, it is clearly missing in India."

Critics say the lack of debate on the environment has also clouded discussions of agriculture, jobs, water supplies and migration.

Retired schoolteacher Satish Chandra Jana, 75, has lived all his life on Ghoramara but is despondent.

"We are struggling to live here and have even constructed a home on Kakdwip," he said, sat on the deserted village square.

"I just don't feel like leaving this place. My heart and life story is connected to this island."

The younger generation cannot afford to be as nostalgic as Mr Jana.

Ghoramara is not connected to India's electricity grid and relies on unreliable solar energy. The disappearing farmland is taking jobs with it.

Tapas Kumar Sasmal, 50, a retired soldier who was born on Ghoramara and returned there to vote, said only about 10 per cent of the original inhabitants remain.

Many who lost their land are now labourers on the mainland. "Life is tough," he said.

"Some officials say the island will be gone by the next election. I feel it could happen tomorrow as we are at the mercy of natural disasters."

"Everyone wants a safe life," said Khushbano Bibi, 41, who was busy cleaning poultry feed outside her small cottage. "We worry all the time that the sea may come."

"If the government helps, we will move."

Updated: May 19, 2019 02:25 PM

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