Photo essay: A disappearing island in the world’s largest mangrove forest

The remaining voters on Ghoramara in West Bengal had one thing on their minds in India's election

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The largest mangrove forest in the world is in trouble. The Sundarbans, which sit in the delta on India’s east and the south-west of Bangladesh, are an exceptional ecosystem, formed by the confluence of three great rivers. These mangroves have increasingly borne the brunt of cyclones, rising sea levels and warmer temperatures.

In 2021, the erosion was so severe that a school in a village in one of the many low-lying islands was washed away. The steady depletion of the environment, especially in the past decade, has drastically affected the existence of people who live among these forests, on small islands such as Ghoramara, which is about five square kilometres.

Agricultural conditions have also been devastated, with the soil turning barren from water that is too saline to farm either rice or beetle leaves that were once predominant crops. Hundreds of families have had to move away from this gradually sinking island 90km south of Kolkata, the capital of the Indian state of West Bengal. It is natural, then, that the daily concerns of the approximately 4,000 people for whom the island is still home are vastly different from those of urban dwellers in mainland West Bengal.

In India’s recently concluded elections, the voters in Ghoramara were distressed about their literal survival more than any other concern. “For us, the protection of the island is the main issue in this election,” said Patra, one of the 3,700 registered voters in Ghoramara. The inhabitants of the island are fighting to save their homes. Even as parts of the Sundarbans carry the tag of Unesco World Heritage Sites, parts of these expansive forests are also endangered.

The state government, that is the Trinamool Congress, led by trusted matriarch Mamata Banerjee – who again won a resounding victory on June 4 – had announced a project, supported by the World Bank, to strengthen the embankments, and seeking Dutch expertise to do so, given that one thirds of the Netherlands lies below seawater. Ms Banerjee’s continued tenure could ensure that these plans stay on track to prevent further degradation of the mangroves.

For the people of Ghoramara, however, troubled by the evident erosion, distant political developments don’t assuage the very real fears of their home being swallowed by the sea.

Updated: June 07, 2024, 6:01 PM