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The mean seas

By Rina Mukherji

The Centre for Science and Environment’s documentary, Mean Sea Level, looks at the human tragedy behind the statistics of internal displacement due to rising sea levels and erosion in the Sunderbans. But, says the reviewer, for such an important and topical subject, the film could have explored other angles and presented a more holistic picture

Centre for Science and Environment’s documentary, Mean Sea Level

As massive industrialisation and globalisation set India on the path of becoming an economic superpower, the remote islands in the Sunderbans are becoming the unfortunate victims of global warming and rising sea levels. People living on these islands, devoid of basic infrastructural benefits and connected to the mainland by just three rickety ferries a day, are losing their homes and hearths as the swirling waters of the Bay of Bengal swallow up entire islands, leaving them stranded. 

The Centre for Science and Environment’s (CSE’s) documentary, Mean Sea Level, looks at the human tragedy behind the statistics of internal displacement in the Sunderbans. The film, which recently had its global premiere at Ghoramara, uses footage from the besieged islands of Ghoramara and Sagar to explain how Lohacchara went under water 18 years ago. It uses the narrative of affected individuals to explain the trauma of being reduced from once-prosperous rural folk to environmental refugees.  

The increase in sea level in the Sunderbans, incidentally, is 3.14 mm per year, unlike the 2 mm seen in other areas. Part of the problem lies with the heavy burden of silt carried by the Ganga in the last leg of its journey as it meets the sea at Sagar. Unable to accommodate the silt within, the river widens here, causing massive submergence of the land. The problem has been further exacerbated in recent years with the building of guide walls to channelise water to Haldia port, 12 km north of Ghoramara. The port authorities intended building a total of seven walls, but the exercise was abandoned after just three were completed.  

The sea walls have caused an imbalance in the flow of water, with increased flow in one direction affecting Sagar and Ghoramara adversely, causing heavy erosion. Consequently, Ghoramara has been reduced to 4.7 km, that is, half of its original size of 9 km; meanwhile, Sagar continues to lose up to 100 bighas every year.  

More than 7,000 people have left Ghoramara over the past 30 years. Another 5,000 continue to live a precarious existence on the island. 

Lohacchara, which was north of Ghoramara, has already gone under. So has Suparibhanaga. Those rendered homeless from Lohachhara and the fast-disappearing Ghoramara have been rehabilitated in Sagar, which is the largest of the islands in the Sunderbans. But with Sagar too losing vast chunks annually, the fate of both new and old inhabitants is in question. 

Filmmaker Pradip Saha offers us a glimpse of the history of the Sunderbans and how the British and the zamindars of Midnapore cleared forests to bring in the first human settlements to Sagar and other islands in the region. The mythological background of Sagar and Kapil Muni’s ashram, around which the Ganga Sagar Mela is held every year, is also explained. The ashram had to be relocated thrice to its present position owing to rising sea levels and massive erosion that destroyed the earlier structures.  

But, while the film mentions the dynamic nature of the Gangetic delta in these parts, it does not attempt to relate the phenomenon with the clearing of mangroves and forests, both by the British and the Indians, since the last century. We are also not acquainted with the background of the first settlers here, and the problems faced by other islands in the Patharpratima and Gosaba blocks, the southernmost parts of which have lost over three-fourths of their land to the sea. 

Despite the film’s strong and topical subject, certain production and cinematic qualities are uneven. The music is haunting, the cinematography efficient, and the editing slick. But the theme is introduced in a somewhat confusing manner. One leaves the theatre wishing that the filmmaker had explored other possibilities too, and come up with a more holistic film.

(Rina Mukherji is a Kolkata-based journalist) 

InfoChange News & Features, March 2009