Contested terrain

  • 14/01/2007

The business of settling new-formed land, rehabilitation of environmental refugees and building and maintaining embankments is subject to much political manoeuvring. Anthropologist Amites Mukhopadhyay of Kalyani University, West Bengal, who's researched these machinations extensively, calls it " char politics'. Chars are new sandbanks the rivers throw up, which go on to form new stretches of land through siltation.

When new land emerges in the Sunderbans, it automatically becomes government land. It can't be accessed, bought or settled by any private party. Only the state can lease it out. But, says Mukhopadhyay, on the ground, political parties settle new land and fight over it. They encourage squatters, more often than not, undocumented cross-border immigrants in order to increase their vote bank. Sagar panchayat chairman Sheikh Ismael's willingness to accommodate refugees from Ghoramara on recently formed land, too, could have a hint of such politics.

The political contestation is intense, especially because more land is lost than formed. Total land accretion in the Sunderbans between 1969 and 2001 was 82.5 sq km, while total erosion during the same period was 162.88 sq km.

When people lose land they can approach the land acquisition and land reforms department for compensation. The land assessment collectorate (and sometimes block land reforms officer) are supposed to check claims and arrange for compensation. The process involves middlemen who charge simply to get things moving though things basically go nowhere. Years go by and often it becomes difficult to locate where a house or field was earlier. So the process reaches a dead end. None of the villagers DTE spoke with at Ghoramara and the resettlement camps at Sagar had received monetary compensation for land acquired by the state. "I've talked to irrigation department officials about this and they say they normally try to bypass compensation issues as far as possible,' says Mukhopadhyay.

Embankments involve yet another level of politicking between contractors, middlemen, and state and village officials. The matter boils down to who gets the contract to build and repair the embankments and who gets how much in kickbacks. "The story here is one of unilateral acquisition by the state irrigation department,' says Mukhopadhyay. Suppose an embankment collapses, the only solution lies in building a ring embankment behind the old one (even though this may be a temporary solution). To build new embankments, the irrigation department has to acquire land from those living along the shores. However, in most cases, acquisition isn't followed by compensation.

And then, among the islanders, there's the politics of location. People who live inland and don't face any immediate threat of losing land feel more land should be left outside embankments and planted with mangroves. They try to influence the administration to acquire more land for the purpose. On the other hand, those living on perimeters of islands, who stand to lose their land and homes with little hope of adequate compensation, oppose the idea.

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