Home » News » India » Sinking Ship: How Cyclones, Sea Erosion Changed the Fortune of Coastal Villages in Odisha

Sinking Ship: How Cyclones, Sea Erosion Changed the Fortune of Coastal Villages in Odisha

Representative image (Image: PTI)

Representative image (Image: PTI)

The National Center for Coastal Research (NCCR) reports an erosion of 34 percent in the country’s coastal lines in the 26 years. Environmentalists blame global warming and developmental work around coastal lines for it.

Kendrapara, Odisha: Disasters come and go, but not without leaving their footprints in time. Sometimes they alter the course of an entire settlement. This is what happened to Satabhaya, a coastal village in the Kendrapara district of Odisha. The village ceased to exist, after it was completely submerged in the sea, leaving behind a trail of villagers who have been shifting homes for generations.

"This was not the case some decades ago", recalls Sushmita Das, the former Panchayat head of the village. “We grew rice, quality of which matched Basmati. Every villager possessed land to cultivate rice, vegetation, and/or fish ponds, and reared cattle to sell milk.”

The National Center for Coastal Research (NCCR) reports an erosion of 34 percent in the country’s coastal lines in 26 years – highest in West Bengal (63 percent) followed by Puducherry (57 percent), Kerala (45 percent) and Tamil Nadu (41 percent). At Paradip, a port located at about 90 km from erstwhile Satabhaya, the erosion is taking place at the rate of 1.03 mm per year. Environmentalists blame global warming and developmental work around coastal lines for the sea erosion.

News18 creative showing the marching sea with the help of Google Earth Engine Timelapse that has satellite images since 1984

The residents say that Satabhaya – which means ‘seven brothers’ in Odia – was named after seven coastline villages that were steadily eroded from the 1960s. Satabhaya was one of the five villages that was formed out of the earlier seven villages. Others being: Kanhupur, Barahipur, Rabindrapalli and Magarkanda. Three decades later, Satabhaya, too, met the same fate as the brother villages. Satabhaya's end began with the Super Cyclone in Bay of Bengal of 1999, which swallowed a considerable portion of the settlement, including little tenets of history such as a local school that stood erect since 1875.

In face of the incoming disaster, several fishermen and farmers voluntarily moved to nearby villages of Barahipur, Magarkanda, Ishwarpur. However, they kept returning – crossing a crocodile infested Baunshagada creek – for their land and cattle that fed their families.

35-year-old Rajinikanth Behra was one of the many who shifted to Ishwarpur. He was also a part of protests carried out by villagers in front of the collector’s office back in 2013. “It was then that Revenue Secretary Tara Dutt announced to rehabilitate us,” Behra says.

Bagapatia village/ Swati Dey

The state government then announced to relocate 571 families with a relief package. The families were granted Rs 1.5 lakh per household under the Biju Patnaik Pakka Ghar Yojana, along with ten decimal land (0.1 acre) in Bagapatia in the Rajnagar block of Kendrapara, nine kilometers from Satabhaya.

The remaining 148 families, including Behra’s, wait for their turn. Those who shifted from the sinking village maintain that the grant barely compensates for their loss.

“We had our house, space to keep our cattle, land to graze them and fishing and farming options in Satabhaya. Here, we are expected to get squeezed in a decimal land with our cattle, without any land to cultivate,” says Sudarshan Rout, who is Das’ husband.

“Since Bagapatia is a low-lying swampy land, we had to spend all the given money in ground levelling,” says another resident who refused to be introduced fearing administrative retaliation.

A document dated December 6, 2016 accessed by News18 from the Rajnagar tehsil office, shows that the authority is aware about these issues and that under road rehabilitation, an estimate of Rs 3.1 lakh for “earth filling” was submitted by the RD (Rural Development) department.

With no options to livelihood, Behra and others have opted to be labourers and carpenters in Kerala. There are many still, who continue to risk their lives by going back to Satabhaya to cultivate from the left overs – battling restrictions imposed by the forest department – on their way.

“Other than the plea to rehabilitate the remaining 148 families, we seek for the transfer of land records on our names and increase the allotted land to an acre at least,” Behra says.

Rajnikanth Behra/ Swati Dey

According to the state government’s plan, apart from these 571 families, additional 247 households will be rehabilitated at Bagapatia. This will include 71 families from Charigharia, a village encroached within the Sunei Rupei Forest Block of Bhitarkarnika National Park.

The blueprint for the village, as accessed by News18, proposes several community-based utilities such as government offices, educational institutes, and even a cyclone shelter. Apart from this, bus stands, burial grounds and even a land reserved for a temple has been allotted.

An iconic Durga temple of Satabhaya has been relocated to Bagapatia. Ironically, the temple was once infamous for animal sacrifices on Chaturtha Purnima (one of the full moon days) done to be saved from the wrath of sea.

The shifted Panchu Barahi temple at Bagapatia/ Swati Dey

On approaching the collector’s office to get the current status on these schemes, News18 learnt that the files have been lying unattended for years. There is no single officer in-charge and the transfer of land records will be decided by National Board of Wildlife (NBW).

The NBW on September 24, 2016 denied to provide the Record of Rights (RoR) for the land and advised the state to apply afresh. The Rajnagar Tehsil document states that the “preparation of ROR made by the settlement authority during 1970 and subsequently taken up during 2014 has not yet been completed due to want of clearance from Forest and Environment Department, NWB and Government of India.”

The file that discusses the question of their livelihood is held with the District Rural Development Office (DFDO), as per the official source in the collector’s office.

The Kendrapara district is not the only region bearing the brunt of sea erosion and the recent havoc wreaked by cyclone Fani in other districts has worsened matters. Water Initiatives Odisha (WIO) convener Ranjan Panda wrote to Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik on July 8, drawing his attention to the residents of Udayakani and Tandahara villages in Puri district, where Fani’s devastation was maximum.

As per the letter, the sea has marched 5 km inland in 50 years. “The invading sea has forced the villagers to relocate from the village thrice since 1999 when the entire village went into the sea forcing people to move to their farmlands. During Phailin in 2014, they had to shift inlands again after the village got sandcast. While they had been under tremendous stress after losing their homestead and farm lands, the recent cyclone Fani worsened their condition further by making their remaining land and water sources saline,” the letter stated.

Panda went on to highlight the faltering economic conditions of the villagers, with their source of livelihood dwindling, especially for farmers and fishermen.

“Due to severe salinity in the wind and water, the fruiting gets affected… those who used to get at least 50 coconuts per tree every year fail to get even a couple of it,” the letter said. Flagging the post disaster health hazards, he added, “Most villagers are affected by hypertension and skin diseases due to constant consumption and use of saline water.”

Through his letter, Panda also urged the government to “improve the rehabilitation package for Bagapatia inhabitants by speeding up the provision of basic amenities like water supply, toilets, good roads; providing them croplands and grazing lands; and, ensuring them access to local forests for their daily needs.”

These provisions, he said, will foster local forest protection and ensure that local youths don’t have to migrate in search of jobs.

No Policy for Rehabilitation

In 2016, responding to Kendrapara’s former MP and BJD-rebel Baijayant Jay Panda, the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change stated in Parliament that 8.19% of the Odisha coast is facing ‘high to low’ erosion. However, the NCCR assessment from 1990 to 2016 reports an erosion of about 154 km, which stands at 28 percent of the studied area.

In another response to the Parliament recently, the Union government stated ‘that the trends of sea level rise is estimated to be 1.3 mm per year along the Indian coasts during the last 40-50 years’ with trends higher in the coastline areas of West Bengal (3-5 mm per year).

The response also talked about some control measures like geo-tube embankments. However, these geo-tubes that have been installed along the beaches of Odisha are in bad shape, with the ropes tied to the rocks loosening.

Geotube at Pentha beach of Kendrapara/ Swati Dey

K Nageswara Rao, Professor (Emeritus) in Department of Geo-Engineering of the Andhra University, rejected the idea of geo-tubes as it blocks the natural process of deposition and erosion; and advocated for beach restoration.

Echoing the same, Panda said, “Geotubes alone can't provide solutions but facilitate the coastal erosion at the corner where the tube stretches. Instead, a green corridor of mangrove and casuarina is needed, both at the back, as well as in the coastlines adjacent to it where the energy of the sea will move after a wall is built.”

Environmentalist Norman Myers in ‘Climate Exodus’ (1995) identified 7.1 million coastal-dwellers living within 6,500 km of low-lying and subsidence-prone coastline of India at risk. He estimated the figure to swell to 20 million people in 2050. Yet, India lacks any national policy as a preventive measure to address the displacement of people due to coastal erosion. The two-time MP Jay Panda during his first term brought a private member Bill, The Citizens Affected by Cyclone, Super Cyclone or Tsunami in Coastal Areas (Compensation, Rehabilitation and Welfare) Bill in 2009. It talked about taking preventive measures for soil erosion and undertaking rehabilitation measures by a formation of ‘Coastal Areas Natural Calamity Assistance Fund’, jointly by the Centre and the respective states. However, the Bill never saw the light of the day.