Raw deal to climate refugees

After losing acres of agricultural land, the residents of sea-ravaged Satabhaya panchayat got just 10 decimals of land at their rehabilitation colony in Bagapatia. Adding further woes, the menfolk, in the absence of steady sources of income, migrated to other states in search of greener pasture leaving the women to fend for them

Written by: Pragati Prava

Uprootment from the land of ancestors is always painful even if it is an outcome of long-term changes to the local environment. But the people of sea-ravaged Satabhaya panchayat of Rajnagar block in Kendrapara district tried to forget the distressing memories after the administration’s claim to better their lives once the process of relocation is over. Little did they know that they would be left with almost no access to livelihood opportunities in the rehabilitation colony at Bagapatia, about 12 km from their birthplace.

Rehabilitation eyewash

Houses, school and a primary healthcare centre in the 5km distance are okay but what about the income which has taken a nosedive since their relocation to the colony, asks Sujata Dalai, 35, a former resident of Satabhaya. Every day, she travels 12 km from Bagapatia to Satabhaya on foot for fishing, her only source of livelihood, and returns. She gets up in wee hours and leaves with her fishing gear after doing her daily chores. She carries watered rice, mashed potato and sometimes a piece of dry fish in the name of lunch that keeps her working for the day. Her daily grind continues until she feels the catch is adequate enough to get square meals for a family of six including husband and four children. Though her husband works as a daily wager, his earning is not sufficient to meet the need of the family. Before returning home, an undernourished Sujata has to sell her catch in a market, to supplement her hubby’s income.

The tale of 40-year-old Rusia Behera is no different. She walks daily to the creeks of Satabhaya for fishing to keep the hearth fire burning. Her husband and son are migrant labourers working in Kerala, while she looks for a groom for her grown-up daughter. “I can’t afford to relax for even a day as savings are important for my daughter’s marriage. The threat in Satabhaya was different. We were living under constant fear of being washed away by tidal waves. But here we are left to negotiate the livelihood challenges. Walking miles and crossing the waters of crocodile-infested river Baunshagada to reach the creeks of Satabhaya for fishing is part of our daily life. Fishing is now our source of sustenance as the farmlands have already become part of the sea.”

Satabhaya
A tube well in Satabhaya

“It is not only exhausting to cover such a long distance every day by foot, but it is also scary to walk in darkness,” adds Rusia. Most women of the rehabilitation colony had a similar experience to share.

Once a prosperous panchayat comprising seven villages, Satabhaya, seven brothers in Odia, has been the worst-hit region of sea incursion. These natural and anthropogenic phenomena have imperiled the lives and livelihoods of the villagers.

The 12 km-long beaches of Satabhaya panchayat is said to be the fastest-eroding beach of the state. “This is the first place in Odisha coasts that showed signs of sea ingression as we found out from locals when we visited this place about two and half decades ago. We have been constantly monitoring this area and other erosion-prone areas of the coasts and Satabhaya certainly faces the fastest rate of erosion leading to several socio-economic and ecological challenges,” says Ranjan Panda, a known water and climate change expert.

The furious sea, in the last couple of decades, has already gobbled up over 600 houses and hundreds of acres of agricultural land. The cluster of seven villages has now come down to only two – Satabhaya and Kanhupur. Five other villages – Gobindapur, Mohanpur, Chintamanipur, Badagahiramatha, and Kharikula – have gone under the water.

According to Sukadeva Behera, 82, an elderly person, “The seawater has crept three kilometers into Satabhaya over the last three decades. Nearly 700 people of the panchayat perished in a cyclone that hit the coast in 1971. Since then, the sea is inching towards the human habitation.

Ashish Senapati, who has been tracking the coastal erosion said, “Most of the people here were farmers. But they had to switch to fishing for a living after their farmlands submerged under water. A large tract of land lost fertility due to soil salinisation. Collection of honey was one of the regular sources of livelihood for the Satabhaya people, but the loss of mangroves due to anthropogenic pressure and other factors deprived them of this option too.”

Satabhaya
Rehabilitation colony at Bagapatia

Dairy farming was also one of the major sources of livelihood, but nature’s fury has exhausted that source. “The sea has claimed over 15 acres of pasture land in last 10 years. A few years back, the inhabitants used to sell the milk at the milk processing plant in Gupti. The monthly earning of each family was estimated to be around Rs 20,000. However, large scale soil-salinisation due to seawater incursion led to the vanishing of meadows in the region. Dearth of fodder for the cattle forced farmers to sell off their farm animals.”

Many villagers are now left to work as daily wagers. Shrinking income sources has also resulted in mass exodus of the villagers from the panchayat. While men have migrated to other states to work as bonded labourers, women either work as housemaids or go for fishing (both saltwater and freshwater) to support the family, Senapati added.

Meanwhile, the state government dealt a major blow to their livelihood by imposing ban on marine fishing for seven months in a year to save Olive Ridley sea turtles.  It was clamped under several sections of the Orissa Marine Fishing Regulation Act-1982 and provisions of the Wildlife Protection Act -1972 after Satabhaya came under Gahirmatha Marine Sanctuary. Fishing near the shoreline along mangrove forest was also banned after Bhitarkanika was accorded the status of a wildlife sanctuary and national park, said Narayan Chandra Haldar, president of the Odisha Matsyajibi Forum.

Niranjan Swain (63), a native of Satabhaya who lives in Cuttack for the last three years after sea devoured his land, said, “Around 60 per cent people of Satabhaya were in possession of land ranging between five and ten acres. But in the rehabilitation colony at Bagapatia we were handed with only 10 decimals of land for each family to construct houses under Biju Pucca Ghar Yojana. The government is also not bothered about our source of earning.”

Swain, a witness to the devastating cyclones of 1967 and 1971 that flattened hundreds of houses of the panchayat, regularly visits Satabhaya and the rehabilitation colony to provide healthcare service to the distressed people.

Though Satabhaya is the only sea-erosion prone region of the country where the rehabilitation process was undertaken in a systematic manner, the procedure was plagued by various irregularities. People resent the apathy of the administration towards the livelihood problems. Women here are a distressed lot as the men of most of the households have migrated outside, said Bijay Prasad Pati, who works for the restoration of mangrove ecosystems in the coasts.

Satabhaya
A herd of buffaloes in Satabhaya

“It is better late than never,” said Dharanidhar Rout, a retired Odia reader, who stays in Bagapatia resettlement colony, pointing out to the rehabilitation initiative of the government which was materialised after over five decades of struggle and running from pillar to posts by the villagers. The government should take steps to form self help groups and set up small scale industries to provide livelihood opportunities to the people, added Rout.

While the rehabilitated families struggle to meet ends, nearly a hundred families who are yet to be relocated from Satabhaya spend sleepless nights under the threat of being swept away by tides.

Prabhabati Behera (55), who stays in Satabhaya with her teen-aged children said, “Our home is just 100 metre from the sea and water often reaches our door steps. Every day, we go to bed praying to survive the night from the clutches of the sea and thank god after getting up in the morning for being alive.”

“We face acute water crisis as about 10 tube-wells of the area have gone under the seawater in last two decades. A tube-well with its handle fixed at a height of six metre inside the sea bears the testimony of the rate at which sea is advancing into the human settlement. The villagers have tied a rope to its handle to pump out water,” she added.

It is very difficult to collect water from that height. But, they have no option but to draw water from this lone source of drinking water to meet all their needs, added Prabhabati.

The tube well on the beach is the last source of water for the villagers, said Sudarshan Rout, a social worker.

Rout, who stays in the rehabilitation colony recalled, “The tube well was drilled at the centre of the village about 18 years back. A dense casuarinas forest and a long stretch of sandy patch existed on the outskirt of this village. But rapid incursion of seawater has eaten out half of the village making the tube-well appear on the beach.”

The erosion has been very fast in the last three years. No one knows when the remaining part of the village would go inside the sea. The administration should take immediate measures to relocate the left out families to safer places, he added.

He further said, “The residents of the rehabilitation colony in Bagapatia also battle infrastructure woes. The government should provide at least two acres of agricultural land to each family. There is unused land near the colony which should be allocated to the inhabitants. The government should promote poultry and dairy farming and pisciculture to offer better livelihood options to the villagers,” Rout maintained.

The colony residents are yet to get their Record of Rights (RoR) to the lands they were given to construct their houses. They fear that the administration may ask them to vacate the land at any time as they are not yet the legal owners of their lands.

Legal confusion

Shivendra Narayan Bhanjadeo, the present scion of Kanika royal family, said the government has committed a lot of mistakes in selecting site to set up the rehabilitation colony. He also pointed out that the colony lacks basic facilities for a standard living. The family had lost its winter palace to the sea in 1970s.

Dr Ananta Kumar Sahoo, a senior ecologist of World Bank sponsored Integrated Coastal Zone Management (ICZM) Project in the state said, “The rising sea level coupled with the change of the wind pattern causes high waves. This has led to the disappearance of Satabhaya beach and caused massive damage to the habitat and livelihood of people. Satabhaya is not protected by embankments that can check the sea wave. The fishing communities are the worst-affected due to shrinking boundaries of the villages. In case of Satabhaya, as the sea has devoured their houses and agricultural land, and the government has rehabilitated the villagers at Bagapatia, it is the responsibility of the government to offer livelihood options to the inhabitants. In addition to lands which are suitable for farming, the occupants should be given financial assistance to seek alternative sources of earning.”

Ranjan Panda says, “Our governments are yet to gear up in a systematic manner to deal with internally displaced people due to climate change. It is estimated that about 1.5 million people in India face such displacements due reasons mostly linked to climate change. There is neither a law to define them properly, nor a rehabilitation policy that can take care of their plight in different ways than the existing laws deal.  We need new thinking and better strategy to deal with them with utmost urgency.”

The author is a climate and human interest storyteller.

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