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People pushed out of homes along east coast, leaving behind ‘ghost villages’

Several houses along the eastern Indian coast have been impacted by exposure to constant sea erosion, cyclones and other environmental factors. Those living there have abandoned the houses that now lie dilapidated. Some living in these vulnerable areas, close to the Bay of Bengal, voluntarily moved location as the tidal waves hit their homes, while others were resettled by the government. Inter-state migration from such coastal hotspots is also seen in Odisha, Andhra Pradesh and other states. Experts claim that a lack of a concrete resettlement policy for such internally displaced population, are making things worse for these communities. MANISH KUMAR reports

A resettled villager from Ramayapatnam shows the house the government gave for the villagers, equipped with power and water supply. Photos: Manish Kumar/ Mongabay

Uppada is a coastal village in the East Godavari District, around 18 km north of the Kakinada Port in Andhra Pradesh. The village has faced ingress of seawater over the past few years. Half of the shoreline of the village has hardly any sandy beach left. High tidal surges hit against the partially damaged houses at the edge of the village coast as the basement of these houses are slowly getting eroded into the sea. Villagers claim that there are more than 100 such ‘ghost’ houses here, which were earlier inhabited but are now abandoned because of the damages.

“Now, around 100 such houses lie in compromised situations and can break away into the sea any day. In the past two decades, hundreds of houses including a village market, school, temple and a bus stand have gone into the sea due to cyclones and sea erosion,” said 40-year-old S. Prasad, a resident of Uppada where, he said, the total population is around 20000.

N. Kishore, another resident of the village, claimed that a large population of the village has resettled in other areas like Naikar Colony, P. Lakshmi Colony, Vengageta Colony. Extreme weather conditions, impacted livelihoods and triggered the displacement of people in the Uppada Village where the majority of the households were engaged in the fishing trade.

“The whole village has suffered huge losses. Anyone can still see how several houses are almost set to go into the sea any day in the village,” said Kishore. He explained that the government in the past few years has added geo-tubes to reduce the damage to the village due to sea erosion which helped in checking the damages to the village lying along the coastal periphery to some extent. Geo-tubes are artificial structures  packed together and placed on the coast to prevent sea ingress into the land.

Geographically, Uppada lies to the north of Kakinada port and in close vicinity of rivers like Pedda and Upputeru which drain into the Bay of Bengal. Experts have often linked presence of ports and sea mouths as triggering factors for increased sea erosion. Uppada is not alone in Andhra Pradesh when it comes to sea erosion. Around 237 km away towards the north in the Srikakulam District, Kalingapatam is known for harnessing a British era port and known for its tourist potential. The damage from sea erosion is quite evident here too.

“Kalingapatnam was earlier 500 metres away from the sea but now it comes just before the coast and started eroding our roads, beaches and its nearby structures. There was a road here which used to extend up to 500 metres away from the beach. Not half of it has been destroyed by the ingress of seawater into the village,” Kal Ishwar, a fisherman from Kalingapatnam told Mongabay-India.

Vaspalli Suresh, another 62-year-old villager from Kalingapatnam said, “The area is now flooded. Our temple and crematorium have been engulfed by the sea. Several such structures went inside whereas such activities also hit the livelihood options for the local fisherman and also reduced the tourism potential of the site.”

In Andhra Pradesh, out of its 974 kilometre-long coastal stretch, regions such as Eastern and Western Godavari, Krishna and Guntur, Visakhapatnam are prone to erosion whereas the region between Kakinada to Uppada has seen severe damages due to coastal erosion. According to the estimates by Chennai-based National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR), an autonomous institute of the Union government, 30 per cent of the coast in Andhra Pradesh is prone to sea erosion which includes around 290 kms of the coast of the state.

Extreme weather triggered displacement

Several pockets of areas along the coastal districts of Odisha are witness to years of suffering of the coastal communities who were forced to migrate sometimes even overnight. In Satabhaya in Kendrapara District, seven villages slowly got into the sea and later the communities were resettled in Bagapatia.

Take the example of faster erosion in Udayakani in the Puri District of Odisha. The village during 1999 saw sudden tidal surge leading to large scale inundation of their areas, forcing them to migrate. Similar is the tale of nearby Chhenua Village which was resettled twice. Rabindra Nath Pradhan, resident of the village, around two km away from the sea coast now, told Mongabay-India that it was their own agricultural land once bought by their forefathers which helped them to resettle here as they did not get any land-related aid from the government.

“We came here in 2000. Around 40 households were there in the village.  All the houses got smashed in 1999 due to the severe cyclonic storm. All of them moved into the land. All were able to survive as the cyclone came during the day, otherwise, we might not have come out safely,” Pradhan said.

Pradhan and other villages claimed that villagers of Chhenua and Udayakani had to take shelter temporarily close to the green belt along the coast with some help from the government before resettling to other areas after the construction of a few swelling units on their farmlands close to the beach. Villagers of Udayakani and Chhenua claimed the Odisha Government gave around Rs 22000 to each of the affected families then but no land as compensation.

Gobind Pradhan, 85, a resident of Udayakani told Mongabay-India that the cyclones hitting their areas, sea erosion and floods have often taken a toll on their farming activities too besides impacting the overall health of the affected villages. “Due to extreme weather, the green belt between sea and the land has been destroyed. Many casuarina and mangrove forests are damaged and dried now. Due to regular flooding, we cannot grow many crops here while the salinity of water in our areas has increased leading to problems in drinking water availability,” Pradhan said.

Resettlement woes

However, despite government assistance, resettlement of coastal areas, especially among fishermen communities, have been a Herculean task for the government too. In the southern Odisha District of Ganjam, close to the Odisha-Andhra border, Ramayapatnam has faced the worst wrath of sea erosion. Here, around 10 villages are in dilapidated condition and look vulnerable in any extreme weather condition. The government has constructed around 400 new houses in a nearby resettled colony for their safety but hardly five families have moved to those concrete houses provided with electricity, water and good roads.

Mohini is a resident of Ramayapatnam and often helps his family in the fishing trade. Most other women in the village do the same work. She told Mongabay-India, “Very few of us moved to the resettled colony as most of the villagers here are involved in fishing and hardly anyone wants to go there as it will distance themselves from the seashore where they get easy access to the sea despite understanding the associated risks.”

Experts claim that several of the resettlements in Odisha and many other coastal states suffer due to a lack of vision and policy documents. Ranjan Panda, Water and Climate Change expert from Odisha told Mongabay-India, “Majority of coastal states of India lack a clear cut policy for resettlement. This comes when the people who get displaced under such conditions are often poor and marginalised. This is because when the sea takes away your land, there is hardly any provision on paper to compensate it with land and money unlike, other cases where if a company or mining company takes your land you are compensated properly and this is happening when 40 percent of Odisha coast is prone to sea erosion.” He advocated for an assessment of the land available near coasts where resettlement could be done, assessment of coastal displacement hotspots to ensure better planning for resettlement and climate mitigation adaptation plans.

Migration and extreme weather

Experts have also linked intrastate and interstate migration of people from the coastal regions of the country due to extreme weather. Bhubaneswar-based Umi Daniel, head of the migration unit of Aide et Action, an NGO claims that coastal populations are skill-based communities and often migrate to other states for better revenues. “In several coastal regions of Odisha people are seen migrating. In the coastal district of Ganjam in Odisha, about 700,000 migrants are working in Surat. This is a huge number. It has a long history in migration. If you start from Balasore, Bhadrak, Jagatsinghpur to Puri, you will see migration is prominent,” he said.

“Coastal Odisha is having better education and also better skills. For instance, take the case of Pattamundai in the coastal district of Kendrapara. This is known in the country for harnessing highly skilled plumbers. You will find them across the country and they are very good at their work. They started moving out because of the skills they had. You will find people of coastal Odisha in Kerala, coastal Gujarat and other areas,” Daniel added.

A study by the Centre for Migration and Labour Solutions in Odisha also claimed that in coastal Odisha districts the household level-migration is more where mostly the male members migrate to other areas leaving behind their family members and women who are dependent on the money sent by them. Daniel, who was part of the study, also talked about the onus on women in such coastal areas especially in financial hard times like the COVID-19 pandemic who are left alone to fend for themselves and their kids. He, however, claimed that cyclones and sea erosion are not alone linked to extreme weather-related migration.

Other triggering environment factors

“Climate-induced weather is not linked to coastal areas. Areas in droughts, tribal areas also are affected due to migration. In Bolangir, there is 30 years of history of drought. Every second year you will see drought in the region. Here moisture reductions lead to crop failure. There are also triggering figures for migration and we see rampant migration from such areas too,” Daniel said.

The theory of migration due to extreme weather in addition to erosion was also validated by Pratap Mohanty, professor in the Department of Marine Sciences in Berhampur University in Ganjam District. Ganjam is said to be among the most migration-prone areas of Odisha. “Ganjam is a rain-shadow region so it shows less rain. Agriculture here is not productive. Even if they engage in it they do not see much production and revenue. This is one of the reasons for migration from here. Erosion is not the only thing that triggers migration there are other environmental factors too like rain. In Ganjam, migration is more from internal areas unlike coastal areas,” Mohanty told Mongabay-India.

According to a 2021 study by ActionAid and Climate Action Network South Asia, in India by the end of 2050, 45 million people will be forced to migrate to other areas due to extreme weather conditions. The study blamed the loss of farmlands of farmers, boats and other items during coastal Odisha as reasons for migration in this category while in Sunderbans in West Bengal collapse of traditional livelihoods, poverty, less infrastructure getting harmed by climatic factors were blamed behind climate-induced migration.

Is climate change a reason?

Mohanty has been researching coastal erosion along the Bay of Bengal for more than a decade and analysing the effect with the help of satellite images and regular ground observations along the Odisha coast. When asked which region along the Bay of Bengal is most prone to cyclones or sea erosion, he said it was Odisha because of its funnel type shape, presence of several river mouths, leading to higher sea surface temperature and shallowness of sea along the coast.

According to Mohanty, from 1891 to 2021, the coastal region in Odisha has seen 96 cyclones. The decade, in which it was highest, was between 1891 and 1900 when it witnessed a total of 20 cyclones. He claimed that data suggest that while the frequency of cyclones along the Odisha coast has decreased but their intensity has increased. Mohanty claimed that linking the increased intensity of cyclones with climate change directly would not be scientific.

Debedatta Swain, Assistant Professor at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Bhubaneswar told Mongabay-India that “it is tough to link climate change with cyclones and sea erosion directly but if the global temperature is rising and subsequent sea levels rise, the impact will be directly on the coastal sites of India which could see a devastation of its coastal inhabitations,”

According to a reply given by India’s federal government in the Indian Parliament, the National Centre for Coastal Research (NCCR) monitors the changes in the shoreline of the Indian coast. The data claimed that it has identified 98 hotspots of sea erosion across the country whereas 59 of them are along the eastern India coastal states of Tamil Nadu (28), West Bengal (16), Andhra Pradesh (7), Odisha (5) and Puducherry (3). The list as per field experience claims that the list has only selected areas where the devastations are well recorded and ignores new emerging areas.

Along to eastern Indian coast, several other regions such as Putturai, Muttam, Tiruchchendur, Kilathotam in Tamil Nadu, Sagar, Bagmara, Henry Island, Chaimari and others in West Bengal are also witnessing sea erosion and devastation due to extreme weather conditions.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)

October 2022