On the shifting banks of the Ganga in West Bengal

Massive erosion along the banks of the river has left hundreds of people homeless in West Bengal. Shiv Sahay Singh reports from Murshidabad and Malda districts on the changing topography and challenges it poses

January 21, 2023 03:30 am | Updated 11:54 am IST

Erosion by river Ganga in Pratapganj and Mahestola areas of Dhuliyan in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district.

Erosion by river Ganga in Pratapganj and Mahestola areas of Dhuliyan in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

A few weeks after several structures, including houses and a crematorium with a Kali temple, were washed away by the river Ganga, villagers at Pratapganj and Mahestolain Murshidabad’s Shamsherganj block organised an elaborate puja but to a deity they had never seen or worshipped in the past — a goddess dressed in all-white, seated on a gharial and fish.

“This is Goddess Ganga. The people here are desperate and are trying everything to stop the erosion,” says Satyam Sarkar, a member of Bogdadnagar panchayat samiti.   

Several houses have been reduced to rubble, and many others are poised precariously on the eroding banks of the vast flowing river along this stretch bordering Dhuliyan municipality.

The extent of erosion is such that thousands of people from nearby and far-off areas started coming here every day, Sarkar, a local Trinamool Congress leader, says. “It was like a mela (fair), they were coming to see the erosion. We had to put up barricades to prevent people from coming.”  

Four months after the massive erosion in September 2022 left hundreds of people homeless, Pratapganj and Mahestola are pictures of devastation. Elaborately built two-storied houses on the edge of the river lie vacant. A part of a road running parallel to the river has caved in, and thousands of sand bags have been placed along the river to prevent further erosion. Now, in the winter, the river flows calmly with several small fishing boats flying Indian flags out in the water.

Delawar Hossain, a friend of Sarkar, says that only a few hundred metres downstream, a burial ground at Sadikpara was swept away this monsoon. “At Kamalpur, my village, which is about 3 km downstream, a masjid, a health centre and a primary school are hanging on the edge and can fall into the river any day,” he says. 

A primary school and an anganwadi centre at Pratapganj tell the story of sufferings. One room at the anganwadi now serves as home to four families. On a Sunday afternoon, Menaka Ravidas is busy cooking lunch for her family as she narrates how her home was washed away: “It was at about 9 a.m. on September 6, the river was in full spate and in minutes took away our house. Since it was morning and not night, we could somehow escape.”

Outside the anganwadi centre, there are few cabins made of jute sticks where families displaced by the Ganga have found shelter. Several families are taking shelter at Pratapganj Primary School after their homes were washed away. Five-six families are huddled in every classroom. Clothes are left to dry across the school compound and children play in the classrooms. For more than two dozen families, there are only two toilets and two bathrooms.

“How can we live like this and for how long?” Jyotsana Sarkar, a woman in her forties, asks. Satyam Sarkar says that he has prepared a list of 140 families who have been displaced, but admits that there is not enough land where they can be accommodated. “We, five brothers, live together,” Sarkar says, pointing at their houses and then expressing his greatest fear in a whisper: “The river is only a hundred metres away.”   

In the ‘meander belt’

Kalyan Rudra, Chairman of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board and author of Rivers of the Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna Delta, describes the erosion of the Ganga both upstream and downstream of the Farakka Barrage as “anthropogenically-induced erosion”. He explains that the rivers of Ganga-Brahmaputra-Meghna (GBM) delta have a tendency to oscillate and erode in an area which is called the meander belt. 

“Normal oscillation of the river was interrupted after the construction of the Farakka Barrage. It reduced the cross-sectional area of the river, it reduced the water holding capacity and compelled the river to change its course,” Rudra contends. The primary objective of the Farakka Barrage Project was to divert an adequate quantity of Ganga waters to the Bhagirathi-Hooghly river system through a 38.38-km-long feeder canal for preservation and maintenance of Kolkata Port by improving navigability. 

Rudra points out that the barrage has converted the river into a stagnant pool holding 87,000 million cubic metres of water and the river has deposited sediment upstream in Malda, particularly between Farakka and Manikchak. Citing several publications, he says that the sediment load carried annually by the Ganga has been estimated to be around 736-800 million tonnes. 

This sediment deposition is leading to the emergence of chars (river islands) in Malda. Here, according to Rudra, the river is eroding on the left bank, and the relatively sediment-free water downstream Farakka is eroding the right bank in Murshidabad; in both these cases, West Bengal is losing land. 

“If we look at the map of Malda, we see that the river has formed a mighty bend between Manikchak and Farakka Barrage and more than 200 sq. km have been eroded along the left bank of the river,” says the river expert. He argues that an urgent exercise is needed to designate the boundary between West Bengal and Jharkhand and identify the chars in the river as West Bengal territory. 

It is difficult to locate these bends along the bank of the river in Malda, where the river appears to be several kilometres wide. Despite the calm, uprooted trees, huts razed to ground and large areas on the river bank covered with sand from the river are pointers to how the river impacts the region. In the Hukmatola area of Gopalpur gram panchayat of Malda’s Manikchak block, the river bank looks like it has been hit by a tropical storm. Everything seems to be broken, houses, cattle sheds, even trees. A little girl tries to find something from the rubble of what appears to be her house. 

On November 21, 2022, the villagers facing recurrent erosion held demonstrations outside the office of the District Magistrate, Malda. They now point at a char that has formed between two banks of the river, exacerbating the erosion on the left bank, something Rudra had referred to. Like in Pratapganj in Murshidabad, Gopalpur gram panchayat’s Md Mustafa Sheikh faces a similar situation — there is not enough land to settle the people displaced by erosion.   

Point of entry

In Malda, Ratua MLA Samar Mukherjee insists that one needs to see the point from where the Ganga enters West Bengal to understand the complex river morphology and “diagnose the disease” of erosion. He explains that the river enters his constituency at Mahanandatola, where sand is deposited for several hundred metres on the bank of the river. His ancestral house, where he lives alone with several dogs, is less than 500 m from the river. 

The mighty river enters the West Bengal plains from Rajmahal hills of Jharkhand’s Sahebganj district after a long journey of about 2,000 km from the Himalayas as it begins to break away into distributaries. The Ganga divides into two major distributaries, Padma and Bhagirathi-Hooghly, at Mithipur in Murshidabad district, which is located about 40 km downstream of Farakka. The Padma carries the bulk of the discharge, flows about 65 km along the India-Bangladesh border, and finally leaves Indian territory at Jalangi. The Bhagirathi-Hooghly branch, which is fed by waters from the feeder canal of the Farakka Barrage, flows southward from Mithipur for about 500 km before merging into the Bay of Bengal at Sagar Island.  

People take shelter in Paratapganj Primary School in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district after their house was swept away due to Ganga erosion in Dhuliyan area.

People take shelter in Paratapganj Primary School in West Bengal’s Murshidabad district after their house was swept away due to Ganga erosion in Dhuliyan area. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

In a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi on November 17, 2022, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee referred to the river erosion in Manikchak block: “In fact, the extent of erosion has been so severe that the distance between the two banks of rivers, the Ganga and the Fulhar, has come down to only 1.5 km at Billaimari village of Manikchak block in Malda district, from its earlier distance of 4 km in 2004, thus posing serious threats to the adjoining villages and even to the safety of the National Highway 131A.” She had also written a letter to the Prime Minister on February 21, 2022. 

A visit to Billaimari, just adjacent to Mahanandtola, shows that Banerjee’s concerns are not unjustified. While the Ganga is eroding on the left bank, the Fulhar is eroding on the right bank, with local residents sandwiched between the two rivers.   

The entire village of Billaimari seems to be taking shelter on the embankments. A few decades ago, when the Fulhar was overflowing, the villagers sought refuge on the banks of the Ganga; over the past few years, it is Ganga which is in spate. Along the bank of the Ganga, large agricultural fields have turned into desert, with sand deposited by the river. Roads have been swept away, and a remnant of an old bridge can be spotted. 

“We are facing erosion every year. This year again we lost a hundred houses,” says Abdur Rauf, an elderly villager of Naya Billaimari. Amidst the crowd of villagers is young Shamshul Johar, a daily-wage earner in Kashmir who explains how the changing course of the river changed the course of his life, compelling him to drop out of school. With every year, the river is eating into land, agriculture has suffered and young people like Shamshul have little option but to migrate out for work. They work as construction workers in the western and southern States; and with their savings they build the houses which are in turn swept away by the river.   

Villagers at Pratapganj in Murshidabad and Gopalpur and Billaimari in Malda say that boulder pitching along embankments is the only solution to their plight. “We cannot stop the river,” points out Rudra, adding that for the past three decades, embankments protection in the form of boulder pitching on the banks has not yielded the desired results. He argues that only engineering solutions will not work and calls for adopting the holistic science of river management as well as comprehensive land use plans for vulnerable areas. 

Emphasising that the GBM delta is one of the youngest deltas in the world where land is yet to solidify, Rudra says there is a need to generate awareness among the people: “People should understand that this is the land of the river and the river needs space to play.” 

The Chief Minister, in her communications, highlighted that the Farakka Barrage Project Authority should take up anti-erosion work both upstream and downstream in a more comprehensive manner — which Rudra endorses. He reckons that the number of people displaced by the river in the past few decades is not less than 2,00,000 in Malda and Murshidabad districts, and says the top priority should be rehabilitation of people displaced by the river erosion. He emphasises that people staying on the chars must have access to all civic and social infrastructure, like health and education.   

A recent publication, “Impact of floods and river-bank erosion on the riverine people in Manikchak Block of Malda District, West Bengal” by Rakhi Das and Gopa Samanta, details the socio-economic profile of people living in the chars and the riparian mainland: “Migration is a common phenomenon in the study area. People come from Jharkhand and other parts of Manikchak to live in the chars. They live in these temporary houses as they cannot afford to make permanent houses because of high land cost and… uncertainty of land, since it can be washed away by the river at any point of time.” 

Samanta, a professor at the University of Burdwan, says people living in areas prone to erosion continuously make micro-adjustments to survive, and the chars, where people displaced by the erosion have taken shelter, are largely “ungovernable spaces”. 

Awaiting solutions

At a meeting of the National Ganga Council in Kolkata on December 30, chaired by the Prime Minister virtually, the Chief Minister raised the issue of erosion in the entire Dhuliyan region (which includes Pratapganj) of Murshidabad district. She blamed the Farakka Barrage for the river erosion. 

While the river erodes and eats into the landmass, it has for centuries also remained a subject of awe and veneration. The river erosion is not only limited to Malda and Murshidabad, but is felt in Kolkata and up to the mouth of the river. Recently, parts of Acharya Jagadish Chandra Bose Indian Botanic Garden set up in 1787 on the western bank of the river in Howrah have also suffered erosion.

At the mouth of the river, where it meets the sea at Gangasagar, every year on the occasion of Makar Sankranti, lakhs of people descend on Sagar Island to take a dip. The beach in front of Kapil Muni temple where the river is believed to meet the sea is severely eroded and the pilgrims are turned away to other beaches.

Only a few metres from the eroded beach, the administration, with much pomp, organised an elaborate ‘Ganga Aarti’ similar to Varanasi’s. 

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