JHARKHALI, 24 MAY: Eight-month-old Madhu cries incessantly in her grandmother’s lap for her mother, who has to go to the city early in the morning and comes back late at night to earn money for her daughter’s milk and her old in-laws’ meal. She takes care of them all by herself after her husband left for Tamil Nadu in search of a job.
After Aila, Sunderbans has seen its women opening doors to tourists seeking ‘fun’ or working in city brothels and its men leaving the land to travel hundreds of kilometers away to work as daily labourers. The market in Jharkhali Islands no longer buzzes with people. A few from each family in the village have gone out to search for a place to live in the city.
“Farming has become impossible after Aila since most of the land has turned saline. We don’t even have enough fodder for our cattle. There is no option other than moving to a better place,” says Manju Mondol, whose house is in the interiors of the island. Three members of Manju’s family have gone to Kolkata. She stays with her old mother-in-law and says she too will leave for the city soon.
“Trafficking rate has always been high in South 24-Parganas, but after Aila there has been a rise in the number of cases since people in Sunderbans have become much more vulnerable after the cyclone. Every day a special train carrying domestic help leaves the station at 4 a.m. Some women work as maids while others head towards red-light areas or bars. Home-based prostitution has also gone up considerably,”said Mr Bhim Das, secretary of an NGO working on human trafficking in Sunderbans.
Mr Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert, said women from these areas are taken to states such as Punjab and Haryana, where there is a disproportionate sex ratio. Women are also taken to New Delhi as governesses but are later sent to red light areas.
Near the shore were hamlets and makeshift tents ~ some occupied, some broken and deserted. People had their brick or mud houses just a couple of metres away ~ the place which is now completely submerged in water.
Children do not go to school any more as they have lost all their books and have only tatters to wear. Even mid-day meals cannot lure them.
Vast stretches of salt-crusted barren land greet visitors to these islands.
A Jadavpur University study in 2003 had predicted exodus from the Sunderbans. “We found that with the rising sea level and frequent cyclones there would be more vicious tidal surges and destruction. By 2020 about 70,000 would become climate refugees and overall 23 lakh would be affected. Many of them would go towards Kolkata,” said Prof Sugato Hazra, head of oceanographic department in Jadavpur University.
The settlers prefer Garia, Sonarpur, Patuli and Baruipur as these places are the closest they could get to the city by train. Those who have been brave enough have landed in the slums of Ultadanga, Khiddirpore and Park Circus. Some can also be spotted in makeshift tents under flyovers in the city.
Near Ultadanga, there is a colony called Basanti, named so by people who had come from Sunderbans. Mr Kanjilal said that people started moving out of the Sunderbans after a destructive cyclone in 1988, which had made the islands’ inhabitants insecure. Aila has reaffirmed their fear.