Refugees have traditionally been associated with political upheavals. We have had Jews seeking refuge from Nazi Germany, dissidents seeking refuge from Russia, China and other totalitarian communist nations and closer home we have had Bengalis seeking refuge from the murderous regime in erstwhile East Pakistan. Then we had economic refugees who sought to flee their homeland not because of political persecution but because of economic need. One cannot argue with an empty stomach and their are parts of the world where an empty stomach is rule rather than an exception. This explains the exodus from South and Central America towards the land of milk and honey to the North. So is the case of economic refugees fleeing Africa for Europe and closer home we once again have had people from Bangladesh coming across the border into India and West Bengal.
But political refugees and economic refugees are now old news … The latest development in field of human misery and migration is that of the environmental refugee — that is those who have to leave home and hearth becaus home and hearth is not habitable anymore.
In the past we have had many environmental disasters and some of them have been pretty gruesome : Bhopal Gas Tragedy, Chernobyl, Exxon Valdex and what not, but these were “incidents” or “accidents” that affected a large number of people over a period of time. What is now looming over the horizon is a more systematic attack on a way of life and the culprit is “mother nature” itself … in the form of global warming.
We have all heard of global warming .. how the glaciers are melting, how the arctic ice cap is shrinking and how the sea water is rising but Cyclone Aila — that struck the Sunderbans in June — has made it so very real for us in Calcutta.
How and why ?
Because we now see more and people leaving the Sunderbans to come and start camping in our southern suburbs like Sonarpur and Gosaba. These are people who are realising that there is no future left in the Sunderbans. The embankments are being washed away, fresh water wells are being submerged in brine and paddy fields are turing salty … and what is worse is that the process is irreversible. With each passing day, the water will rise higher .. more embankments will be washed away, fewer and fewer sources of fresh water will be available and cultivable land will diminish.
So why stay anymore ? It is not as if these people are leaving because of political or economic pressures but because the land is becoming inhospitable.
These are the refugees of the 21st century, the environmental refugees.