Sunday, September 20, 1998

Chinagollapalem: Island goes into slow dissolve

September 20, 1998
The Indian Express
By Syed Akbar
Nature's laws affirm instead of prohibit. If you violate her laws, you are your own prosecuting attorney, judge, jury and hangman. This prophetic warning by eminent ecologist Eugene P. Odum appears to have become a reality in Chinagollapalem, a picturesque island in Andhra Pradesh's Krishna district.
The 6,000-acre island with 7,000 inhabitants is on the verge of extinction. Already 20 per cent of it has practically disintegrated into the Bay of Bengal. Every day, seawaters lash it brutally, wave after wave. Environmentalists warn that if no immediate steps are taken to prevent sea erosion, the island could disappear from the Indian map over the next 20 years.
Denudation of mangrove forests in the vicinity, the unchecked pollution in the Kolleru lake that straddles it and the construction of an artificial outlet for the Upputeru rivulet have all taken their toll on Chinagollapalem.In fact, the case of Chinagollapalem is nothing short of what could be termed ``environmental retaliation''. K.Satyanarayana is a victim of this ``retaliation''. A decade ago, he was a rich landlord owning 40 acres of lush green coconut orchards and causurina gardens. Today, he has been reduced to penury, and survives on the largesse of village elders.
The single cause for this unfortunate transformation in Satyanarayana's life is sea erosion. The sea has ``eaten'' as much as 1,000 acres in the last 15 years, making many a landlord join the swelling ranks of the landless poor. In a pathetic incident that occurred some years ago, a woman called Padma committed suicide, unable to bear her husband's impoverishment after the land given to him as part of her dowry was completely eroded.
With the state Government preferring to turn a blind eye to this serious environmental tragedy unfolding before its very eyes, it looks like many more are destined to go the way of Satyanarayana and others like him. Ministers and senior officials have visited the island a number of times.
But ironically, the government machinery isyet to act. Says Uday Kumar, a senior agriculturist who has been living on this island for five decades, ``The state Government gives an ex-gratia payment of Rs 1 lakh each to the kin of victims who die in natural calamities. We are 7,000 people. How will ex-gratia amounts help us? Will the Chief Minister think of remedial steps only after we are washed away by the sea?''
Soil erosion has assumed such alarming proportions in Chinagollapalem island that in the past six months alone, the sea has progressed about three metres landward. And the pace gets accelerated during full moon and new moon days when the waves are high. Five kilometres of the eight-kilometre-long island are facing erosion. Huge causurina and coconut trees fall down almost every day along the coast as the soil that had once held them is carried away by the waters. At places, one can discern the process taking place with the naked eye, as small clumps of sand and mud get carried away by sea waters with every wave.
Chinagollapalem islocated amidst striking natural beauty, with the Bay of Bengal on one side and the Upputeru rivulet on the other three. The island is highly fertile and luxuriant, with thousands of coconut and causurina trees. There are also large mango, sapota and cashewnut orchards dotting the island. Incidentally, it is also the home of some rare mangrove species. The main income for the inhabitants is through agriculture, though some of them live on fishing.
There are a few government schools but no hospitals or roads. At times villagers die before medical attention reaches them. The nearest full-fledged hospital for the islanders is 20 km away at Bhimavaram, in West Godavari district, or 50 km at Gudiwada, in Krishna district. What makes handling medical emergencies even more difficult is the serious lack of transportation facilities to the mainland and from there to the nearby towns.
The problem of sea erosion for the islanders is not new. It started 15 years ago, but at a much slower pace. The phenomenon continueduntil 1994, when it suddenly stopped, much to the relief of the inhabitants. But the problem resurfaced in September 1997 and has become even more pronounced since March this year.
Soil erosion here can be termed as ``land drifting'', since the soil from the Chinagollapalem island is carried away and deposited about two km away, seawards. Thanks to this process, a new 300-acre island was formed a few years ago. It served a useful function since it used to protect the old island from being directly attacked by the sea. But since last September, the new island as well as the old island started getting eroded. Now a third island is getting formed right in the middle of the sea, about a kilometre from the second island. Environmentalists are at a loss to explain the phenomenon, while the villagers blame it on the ``lopsided'' policy of the state Government.
Panchayat president K. Hanumanth Rao clarified that the erosion started only after the Government dug up a channel to the Upputeru rivulet in order todivert the excess water from its natural course. Says Rao: ``Our woes started with the new channel. We are cut off from the mainland and the sea started eating away our lands.'' ``The sea has encroached upon my fields up to a metre since August 12. Twenty high-yielding coconut trees were washed away in just one month,'' says 35-year-old Tamba Satyanarayana, pointing to his six-acre orchard, which is now reduced by half. To supplement the lost income, he and his wife have been catching prawn seedlings. ``I will be on streets if something is not done to stop the erosion,'' he says.
But even as the islanders curse their fate, officials plead helplessness. ``It's a natural phenomenon and no one can do anything to stop it,'' says a senior official who does not want to be quoted. But when confronted with the villagers' argument that it is not a natural occurrence but a ``government-made'' one, the official has no answer.