Lives eroded by sea, islanders get by finding odd jobs at Gangasagar Mela

The impact of extreme weather events is felt even at Sagar, location of the annual fair and the largest island, to which villagers left homeless elsewhere have retreated

Updated - January 15, 2023 11:15 am IST

Published - January 14, 2023 10:30 am IST - Sagar

A priest with a calf on the bank of Sagar Island. Calves rented by local villagers are used for religious rituals during Gangasagar mela.

A priest with a calf on the bank of Sagar Island. Calves rented by local villagers are used for religious rituals during Gangasagar mela. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Only a few kilometres away from the beaches of Sagar island where lakhs of pilgrims have descended for a holy dip on the festival of Makar Sankranti, Mir Abbas and Mir Zelal had gathered about 20 calves on a desolate beach. The elderly men in their sixties are residents of the Dhablat Shibpur area of Sagar located on the southernmost tip of the island facing the Bay of Bengal.

Both men claimed that their land and houses had been lost to sea erosion and they were now reduced to doing odd jobs in the fields or on fishing trawlers. They explained that gathering calves from nearby households is also work they take up during the Gangasagar mela(fair).

“We will take the calves to the beach where pilgrims are arriving. The calves will be given on rent to priests who will perform rituals involving these animals,” Mr. Zelal said. Usually, a calf is rented to priests who come from different States for ₹1,500 for two to three days. The owners of the cattle, as well as Mr. Zelal and Mr. Abbas who fix the deal, get their share once the festival concludes and the animals are returned.

Mir Abbas herding his cattle to the Gangasagar mela where these animals will be used for religious rituals.

Mir Abbas herding his cattle to the Gangasagar mela where these animals will be used for religious rituals. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

On the eve of Makar Sankranti, as dense smog engulfs the entire Gangasagar mela, Vivek Pande, a priest from Bihar, is waiting patiently on a cot with a rented calf tied to it. “I spent ₹3,000 on rent for the calf and a cot. I hope and pray to recover it,” he said, explaining the ritual performed with the calf and why it’s a big attraction for the pilgrims.

Signs of erosion are not only visible at the Dhablat Shibpur beach but in several areas around the island, including the very beach where it’s believed that the river Ganga meets the sea in front of the Kapil Muni temple. Since there is no sand and the beach is covered with mud, pilgrims are not allowed to take bath at this beach.

Geotextiles have been placed along the beach to prevent erosion after the cyclone Yaas of May 2021, when it suffered major structural change. The district administration has elaborate plans involving several crores of rupees for sea walling project to save the Kapil Muni temple, which stands only a few hundred metres away from the coastline.

Sagar island, the largest island in the Sundarban archipelago, is not only eroding but has also become home for many people rendered homeless by sea erosion on other, smaller islands. Not far from the road on which the pilgrims are arriving incessantly is Chemaguri creek, where several families who have turned climate change refugees in the past few decades have taken shelter.

Mir Zelal carries calves to Gangasagar mela where these animals will be used for religious rituals. Mir Abbas is resident of Dhablat Shibpur which has been eroded by sea erosion.

Mir Zelal carries calves to Gangasagar mela where these animals will be used for religious rituals. Mir Abbas is resident of Dhablat Shibpur which has been eroded by sea erosion. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Zahera Bibi and Shamshul Nehar Bibi have both come from Ghoramara island, after their land and houses were swept away by the sea. These families took shelter on Sagar island about five years ago.

Sheikh Kajhar Sikri, who has also migrated to Sagar from Ghoramara, complained that during the cyclone Yaas, sea water inundated his pond killing all fish. “Our parents had come to Ghoramara from Lohachara island [which disappeared in 2006]. Even after migrating from Ghoramara and coming to Sagar, we are battling storms every year,” Mr. Sikri said.

There are several colonies on Sagar island where people rendered homeless on other islands have taken shelter, but parts of the biggest island are also fast eroding.

Experts like Tuhin Ghosh from the Department of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, explain that since there is insufficient deposition of sediments in the river estuary, coastal erosion is inevitable in the Indian Sundarbans.

On the erosion of the beach in front of the temple, Professor Ghosh said that there were a number of natural barriers, including undulating sand dunes and natural vegetation, which have been done away for beautification works. “As erosion will eat out the land of the island, the people of Sagar will be more dependent on tourism, particularly the Gangasagar mela,” he said, commenting on the odd jobs such as cattle renting that islanders take up during the fair.

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