Jangipur, West Bengal: Manoara Begum could’ve died last week. The 23-year-old lives with her family on Nirmal char on the Padma river in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal but when she was bitten by a snake her husband rushed her to a private hospital in the nearest town, which is in Bangladesh. Had Wajed Ali Mondol decided to take his wife for her anti-venom shot to a hospital in Akheriganj in mainland India, Manoara probably wouldn’t have survived. A country boat with a diesel generator doubling up as the engine would have taken a couple of hours to traverse the Padma river swollen by the monsoon rains.
The chars, as they are called by locals are sand and mud banks formed by the meandering river, now split between India and Bangladesh. The largest, Nirmal char, like scores of other such sand and mud banks, is in Indian territory, but is ignored by the country. It is spread across 50 sq. km and has a population of 20,000.
The chars are formed by sand and silt deposited by the river and could be in the middle of a river or attached to a bank. Kalyan Rudra, reader in the department of geography at Habra SC College, who has authored papers on the formation of chars, says the Padma meanders as it flows between India and Bangladesh. This swaying action erodes one bank heavily, while the other bank gets built by the suspended load of the river.
“In case of the Padma, it has eaten away huge chunks of land in these two districts. Hundreds of villages have simply disappeared. The town of Dhulian was engulfed four times,” says Rudra. So, while the near bank is eroded, on the far bank new sand and mud deposits are being formed.
“These deposits of sand, followed by silt, gradually become chars,” says Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network for Rivers, Dams and People. Every time a new char emerges on the other side of the river, it sets off a mad scramble among those who lost their possessions by erosion to lay claim to a piece of the char. Manoara’s family was displaced five times by the raging Padma before they shifted to Nirmal char.
The attraction of land
In 1948, a commission decided that even if the river changed its course, the international boundary between India and Bangladesh would remain the same. Thus the boundary now runs through many of the shared chars. And with it emerges the constant battle for survival for the thousands of people who inhabit the chars in the Malda and Murshidabad districts. Inhabitants, mostly Muslims, who’ve lost their land on the mainland due to erosion, are forever on the lookout for new stretches of land to restart their lives on.
“We are farmers. We will go wherever there is land,” says Mortaza Sheikh, who lives on Narukhagi char. “The other option is to either work as domestic help or construction labourers in big cities,” says Ain-ul Haq, his neighbour.
Their fertile lands, though sandy, draw farmers to the chars. The river adds fertile alluvium after every flood, making it prime land for pulses and watermelon. “We can get a good crop using little or no fertilizers,” says Haq.
The surrounding waters also make for excellent fishing grounds. Many of the inhabitants also dabble in sand mining. The locational advantage of these chars—closer to Bangladesh despite being Indian territory—makes marketing of the produce easy.
On the border
Proximity to Bangladesh comes with its own set of problems. “Criminals from Bangladesh often raid the chars and take away harvested crops and cattle,” says Somnath Singha Roy, sabhapati, or general secretary of the Raghunathganj-II panchayat samiti, or congregation of panchayats. “There are also clashes among the settlers for cornering the maximum amount of land as there is a free-for-all,” he adds. The chars are convenient bases for smugglers and traffickers, too. “While cattle is the most common item smuggled out of India through these chars, electronic goods and synthetic textiles come into India,” he says.
With no police, it is left to the Border Security Force to ensure peace is maintained. “Though our job is to maintain the sanctity of the international border, we also help keep things under control on the chars,” says a company commander of the BSF battalion in charge of the area, who requested anonymity because he is not authorized to speak to the press. “Apart from routine foot patrols we also have floating border outposts,” he adds.
The BSF also uses tractors to traverse the chars. However, crime on the chars has taken a more sinister turn.
“There have been steadily increasing reports of the chars being used to infiltrate anti-national elements into India,” says Rudra. “Once they hop across to the chars, they are on Indian territory. They merge with the local populace and then take a boat to the Indian mainland,” he adds.
The chars are also being used by traffickers to bring in young women into India en route to brothels in big cities. “With work on fencing the Indo-Bangla border progressing fast, the traffickers are concentrating on the char lands where terrain is on their side,” says Rudra. Local-level BSF commanders admit that despite their best efforts, “the porous nature of the border enables them to slip in at times.”
The forbidding nature of the terrain can be gauged by the fact that pillars marking the border are often swallowed by the river. “This leads to problems between the people and disputes between the two countries,” says Thakkar.
None of the chars has electricity or metalled roads. Educational and medical facilities are practically non-existent. A few chars, such as Nirmal, Ferozepur and Narukhagi, among others, do have primary health centres and elementary schools, which also double up as flood shelters, but even these don’t function properly.
“We do have a primary health centre on Ferozepur char but the lady who operates it visits it only once a week. The river-crossing is dangerous and the atmosphere on the chars is generally one of insecurity,” says Anirban Kolay, the block development officer of Raghunathganj-II block, under whose jurisdiction there are three chars—Ferozepur, Wajidpur and Narukhagi. Moreover, the settlers do not get title over the land they till, as, according to Kolay: “The newly emerged land is vested in the state government.”
Says Mondol: “We have to be ready to move at short notice” as refugees of nature. “These structures, at the end of the day, are ephemeral. Nirmal char may have been around for 20 years, but there is no guarantee that it will not be washed away next year,” Rudra adds.