For islanders, India’s election is about climate change, survival

By Thomson Reuters May 30, 2024 | 5:06 AM

By Avijit Ghosh

GHORAMARA, India (Reuters) – As voters across India cast their ballots in the general election on issues ranging from the cost of living to jobs and religion, the residents of a tiny, ecologically sensitive island have only one concern – survival.

The residents of Ghoramara in the Sundarbans delta on the Bay of Bengal are fighting to save their homes from disappearing into the sea in the face of rising sea levels and increasingly fierce storms, putting climate change front and centre for politicians trying to win their vote.

Home to more than 4.5 million people, the Sundarbans is the largest mangrove forest in the world and regarded as a climate-change hotspot as the planet gets warmer. The region is shared by India and Bangladesh.

“For us, the protection of the island is the main issue in this election,” said Bimal Patra, 60, one of just over 3,700 registered voters in Ghoramara, an island in the delta.

India is holding a massive general election over seven weeks. The people of Ghoramara go to the polls on Saturday, the final day of voting, as part of the Mathurapur constituency.

The plight of the island’s inhabitants highlights the broader concerns about the impact of climate change on the environment and the urgency for solutions.

Situated 150 kilometres (94 miles) south of Kolkata, media has dubbed Ghoramara the ‘sinking island’. It has lost nearly half of its area to soil erosion in the last two decades and could completely disappear within a few decades if a solution is not found. In the decade to 2020, the population has fallen to around 4,000 from 7,000.

“We want the banks reinforced with stone boulders or rehabilitation in other places. Probably rehabilitation is the only answer,” said Patra, who once had acres of land that have now been lost to the sea.

Patra said his house was once a kilometre from the river’s edge but now stands just 150 metres away.


Researchers say as climate change has forced a rise in sea surface temperatures, seasonal, cyclonic storms barrelling in from the Bay of Bengal have become more fierce and frequent, particularly in the last decade.

The island’s inhabitants were once predominantly dependent on agriculture, with most families farming rice and betel leaves. But cyclones in 2020 and 2021 flooded the fields with water high in saline, leaving the soil barren.

As people have migrated away from the island, especially youths, transport links with the mainland have fallen to just five ferries a day.

Patra lives alone. His wife works as a nursemaid in Kolkata, his two daughters, who are married, and his teacher son live on the mainland.

“It’s encouraging to see people in this rural area prioritising this issue (environment). It’s unfortunate that no one is listening to them,” said Sugata Hazra, the former head of the school of oceanographic studies at Jadavpur University in Kolkata.

“Cities across India are already facing drinking water scarcity. They (urban dwellers) should be more conscious of (the) environment and make it a primary issue alongside the economy and jobs.”

Some Ghoramara residents have planted mangrove saplings to try to reduce waterfront erosion, while the local administration displays notices across the island banning single-use plastic and polystyrene. A solid waste management system has been put in place.

Candidates from both Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Trinamool Congress party (TMC), which won the 2019 polls for Mathurapur, visited the island recently.

“I am aware of their main issue, which is erosion,” said BJP candidate Ashok Purkait, promising to find a permanent fix.

The TMC-run state government recently announced a project, supported by the World Bank, to strengthen the embankments of the islands in Sundarbans.

“Our priority is rehabilitation. People cannot survive an entire lifetime fighting natural disasters,” said Bankim Hazra, the state’s minister for the Sundarbans.

Many villagers are sceptical the promises will turn into action, but Patra hopes for the best.

“Elections may not be a celebration for us, but it still brings hope and everyone here actively participates in the voting process,” he said.

(For a picture essay, please click here )

(Writing by Sudipto Ganguly; editing by Neil Fullick)