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The give and take of the Ganges

April 11, 2009

At first, it is not clear what the brownish-pink humps are that appear and reappear in the river ahead. Then, in a joyous leap, a Gangetic dolphin (or perhaps an Irawaddy dolphin) arches clear out of the water just in front of our boat. And more come, leaping and bumping the surface – we count five in all!

The Ganges here is a very different river to the holy, dark conduit of death that we visited in Varanasi. Here the water is vast, a gazeful of river that merges at the peripheries with lands so flat that they seem merely a solid incarnation of the Ganges. We’re in West Bengal, a Hooghly’s river length north of Kolkata and an afterthought west of the Bangladesh border. The district of Malda is one of two predominantly Muslim districts (the other is Murshidabad) in the mainly Hindu state of West Bengal. At Partition in 1947, the two districts were initially given to East Pakistan (now Bangladesh), but there was a last minute tradeoff, whereby India got the two districts in return for Khulna. Bangladeshi Hindus illegally migrating across the border for a better life are upsetting the status quo here in an interesting reversal of the Assam situation – where Bangladeshi Muslim refugees are changing the demographic of that northeastern state with often violent results.

So why did India want Malda so badly? Because of Calcutta and the precious Hooghly river that flushes its port. But the Hooghly has been sick for some years now, and even before Partition the British planned an extravagant barrage development at its root with the Ganges. Faced with an increasingly silted-up harbour in Calcutta, the Indian government enacted the Farakka barrage plan in the late-1960s, hoping to divert precious Ganges water that was being “wasted” to Bangladesh to the Hooghly, and to irrigate Indian fields.

It proved a devastating move for the people living near the eastern bank of the Ganges. The river has shifted 14 kilometres east in the past 40 years, eroding 850 square kilometres of land. While poor river management and badly planned engineering works have contributed to the erosion, the situation is also the result of climate change and will only get worse – until it gets better. The Gangotri glacier in the Himalayas that feeds the Ganges is melting three times as fast as a century ago, swelling the river. Eventually it will disappear and the Ganges will become a trickle during dry periods. A dubious “better”.

We set off from the tiny village of Panchanandapur, 25 kilometres east of Malda Town, in a wooden boat with a single bamboo plank on which to perch. Our thoughtful guides have brought umbrellas which they hold armachingly above us for the two-hour journey to the nearest large char. Chars are temporary islands, formed by the river as it erodes chunks off the mainland and deposits the mud and sand elsewhere. Chars that remain high enough above the water for a long enough time – perhaps two or three years – are occupied by the desperate. These people build homes, raise crops and rear livestock on highly fertile soils that may persist for 15 years, or may be washed away come the June monsoon.

It is an incredibly dangerous existence and not only because of the river. The West Bengal government does not recognise these people, in as much as it doesn’t provide them with voters registration identity cards, immunisation, health care and so on (13% of women on the char I visited die in childbirth, only one child I met had attended school, none could read or write, a ten-year-old boy I asked thought it was 2006, none of the adults or children knew their exact ages or had birth certificates) – it does, however, accept taxes from these communities.

One reason for the officials’ reluctance to give the people their i.d. cards is that it is tricky to know whether a Bengali speaker is from West Bengal or Bangladesh – a char a few kilometres away is populated with 20,000 Bngladeshi refugees, for example. And people need this i.d. to prove they are Indian in order to get work when they move to India’s economic capital Bombay at the age of 14.

The char-dwellers we meet are wonderfully hospitable families, welcoming us into their homes and sharing what little they have with us. Now is the dry period when Mother Ganga is calm. In a month or so, the river will be swollen and the entire island inundated for three months. The char emerged 5 years ago, nobody knows for how long it will remain.

We leave the char, and as we approach Panchanandapur, our guide Khidir Box points at the river some 150 metres from the shore: “That is where my house was,” he says. The others join him. “Here was my house.” “There was the mango orchard.” “This is where the primary school was.” “And the three-storey government building was here.” They are pointing at nothing – nothing but the Ganges.

Panchanandapur used to be a thriving market town with a relatively wealthy landowning population, but the river has taken from them over the years – some have lost their homes, their land and everything they possess as many as 16 times. When I visit I see shrunken, thin people living in thatched grass huts. malnutrition is high, the school teacher is too weak with dysentry to talk for more than a few minutes. In 2003 there was a particularly devastating erosion episode from which the village has never recovered. In one night, 100 primary scools and 15 secondary schools collapsed into the river, along with hundreds of houses, the entire marketplace, parks, municipal buildings, shops and cafes. 40,000 people were effected, many going from rich to poor overnight – this is a country where people keep their wealth not in banks but in land.

A few kilometres down the road we meet some of the erosion victims.

Archana Chawdhury used to own a fine house and fertile plot of land. We find her rolling bidis (hand-rolled cigarettes) for Rps.10 per day (£0.15) on which she supports her four children. Around her are others who have similarly lost land to erosion or survived their char being swallowed. Khidir’s committee helps victims of erosion find shelter, and they have moved now from their tarpaulin home to a grass-thatched one on land they squat on.

The vast majority of the victims haven’t received a rupee of assistance from the government – the Indian constitution recognises victims of natural disasters including earthquakes, cyclones and floods, but not erosion, and so no compensation is forthcoming. The West Bengal government promised Rps.5,000 to each victim some years back, but less than one-third of the money was distributed and “the matter is now closed”.

Tomorrow we head over the border into Bangladesh.

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