AID Volunteers write after a visit to Giridharipur, a village on Nirmal Chawr, an embankment on the Ganga-Padma.
There are several low lying islands in Bhagawangola-II block which are submerged under water every year for four months during monsoons. There are five villages with total population of approx. 12,000. We visit one such village of Giridharipur. The island was part of main land but got separated as a result of river activities.
What has the government done for them? Mostly organizing elections. There are about 7000 voters on the island and the elections are held efficiently. The government effectively sets up 3 polling booths but is completely ignorant of their presence at other times. Uzufa Bewa, a resident of the char, said that she had been assigned 6 days of work under MNREGA and even for those days she hasn’t yet been paid. She has to walk every day to the closest mainland, Benipur, for her daily requirements. There are no male members of the family as most of them work as migratory laborers in the cities. Another woman said that there were many poor who were without BPL cards. The workers of SKMUK conveyed that on raising this issue with an earlier BDO (Block Development Officer) he directly confirmed that he does not bother to think about the people on the island and it’s better that the NGO also stops thinking about them. The people of this island are thus marginalized in all senses. They lie on the margins of this nation and also in the view of the state.
River Ganga (river Padma in Bangladesh) swells during monsoon as it drains the rain water from whole of north India. Every year during monsoon as the river level rises, the islands are submerged under 6-10 feet of water for 4 months starting from August to November. This is an annual phenomenon and is not related to excessive rains in that area. The people are extremely reluctant to leave their houses even during floods. Initially they climb on roof of their houses, people and animals together and when that water level rises even further they shift to the embankment on the mainland. There is no government help and the only help they get is some relief supplies distributed by SKMUK.
There are no schools on the island. Even SKMUK does not run any pre-school since the islands are inhabitable for only 8 months of a year and it is difficult to have regular staff for that. Children who attend schools in the mainland are forced to stay home for 4 months. Mothers tie their toddlers to poles to prevent them from getting washed away during floods.
The people are extremely poor and there are very few opportunities. Moreover their meagre wealth is completely wiped out every year due to floods. Many have migrated to the mainland or to the cities in search of livelihood. Those who cling to the island are mostly into farming of jute and lentils. Although the land is fertile, the short window of 8 months does not allow them to cultivate any other crop. Also they are unable to harvest the jute crop if the flooding happens earlier than normal.
Every year during floods there are deaths due to various diseases and snake bite. SKMUK is fighting to overcome government apathy to help these island people without any success. There was an embankment when the islands were part of main land but those are destroyed long back and there has been to efforts to rebuild them.
We discussed the problem with local people and staff of SKMUK. Some of the long term solutions we discussed are given below.
(i) Embankments – Construct embankments on the island to resist flooding. This is the best solution. AID can take up the issue with government departments.
(ii) Raised houses – Construct raised platform for each house on which the people take shelter during flooding. From the discussions we found that people are extremely reluctant to leave their houses during flooding and cling to it even knowing that it is extremely risky. Some feasibility study was made some years back for this option and it was found to be very costly.
(iii) Flood center – Construct flood center where all people and domestic animals can move during the floods. A land was identified for this purpose but later it was found that there are multiple owners of this land and project was put on hold. SKMUK is trying to find if state owned land (Khas jomi) is available nearby for construction of flood center but till now results are negative.
For options (ii) and (iii) we also need to check the feasibility of constructing permanent structures on the islands considering soil strength etc.
The local people prayed to us to do something for them as they stare at another flooding in two months’ time.