Thousands of acres of agricultural land in India’s Tripura state are being used for brick kilns as the fear of river erosion is driving farmers to a selling spree
“There, that was our home once,” says Vibhas Dey, pointing to a swirling mass of muddy water. Once the owner of a three-acre farm and now homeless, the 37-year-old farmer like many others in India’s northeastern Tripura state lives in fear of river erosion, unsure of where the waters will turn and when.
The former paddy grower from Chhantail village in Tripura’s Unokoti district remembers how the waters of the river Manu destroyed half his village in just three years. “It started in 2005. By 2008, much of our village was gone,” says Dey, who now lives in a relative’s house.
Dey is just one of the many victims of river erosion in the state where swathes of agricultural land are being used for brick kilns as farmers sell their land in panic.
There were only 170 brick kilns in all of Tripura nine years ago, according to a 2004 report by the State Pollution Control Board. Today, there are at there are at least 400 across the eight districts of the state.
Baharul Islam Majumdar, joint director in the department of agriculture, recently told the media that over 5,000 acres of farmland had been converted into brick kilns in the past decade. Locals say much of this was land was sold by panic-stricken farmers dreading river erosion.
Sometimes the fears are realised, sometimes not. And as the river waters threaten to erode valuable farmland and an environmental crisis looms large, a human tragedy is also unfolding.
Subrata Abul, a farmer from Dey’s neighbouring village of Teghori, for instance, sold his 2.5 acre farm for Rs. 40,000 (US$630) to a brick manufacturer in the summer of 2006. He did the deal, only to see the river moving away from his village and eroding the other bank. Realising that that he had sold the farm for no reason and for an amount that was one-third the market price, Abul went into shock and one day disappeared from the village.
His relatives say they haven’t heard from him since.
Despite Abul’s misfortune, at least nine other farmers in his neighbourhood sold their land between 2008 and 2010. Sudhir Ghosh, one of the farmers who now works as a mason, admits they panicked but says that they had no other alternative.
“Nobody could say for sure which way the river would turn next monsoon. And the brick kiln owner was the only man willing to buy our land. We could either accept his offer or risk losing everything one day,” he says with a wry smile.
Chhaintail, Teghori, Krishnanagar, Laldahar, Jarultali, Gandachada, Damchara, Tillabazar, Kafrenga… the list of villages where farmers like Ghosh and Abul have sold their farmland is getting disturbingly long. And brick kilns are mushrooming everywhere, especially along the 10 rivers that flow through the state.
Before the mid-1980s, rivers in Tripura would get flooded every monsoon. The biggest reason cited then was jhum, a ‘slash and burn’ cultivation method practised by local indigenous communities. This forced the rainwater to flow down faster and fiercer, causing both floods and erosion. Then, the government started building high embankments and also banned jhum cultivation. Farmers were provided land to grow rubber, a cash crop.
The flood control measures worked well but observers say rivers downstream began to change course, drastically so in some areas.
“The landscape is constantly changing as the rivers are changing their course. In Manu valley alone, over a dozen villages have completely disappeared in the past 10 years,” says Binod Behari Bhattacharya, who worked as a land surveyor with the state government for over 40 years.
“In my own village Sonamara, the river first started to move inward after the embankments were built. Then, during 2003-2004, it moved over a kilometre away, leaving a huge stretch of sandy land. It is difficult to record such rapid changes.”
Bhattacharya has led dozens of surveys, mapping the landscape in the three river valleys of Deo, Manu, and Dhalai. According to him, the maps that his team prepared as recently as the late 1980s are now seriously altered with the rivers changing their courses.
It is this unpredictability that is feeding the fear of local farmers like Abul, forcing them to resort to panic selling. But government officials say there is little scope to act.
“There is a law that prohibits using cultivable land for industrial purposes. But few are aware of that. Also, the land that lies on the outside the embankment isn’t entered in the government records. So legally, we can’t have much say on the transfer of that land. The buyers know of this and cash in on it,” says Rashendra Sen, a senior government official with the district revenue department.
However, brick kiln owners deny the land grab accusations.
According to Gokul Chandra, a resident of Kumarghat who owns two brick kilns, the prices of the plots are decided according to the risk associated with it. “Look, river erosion is a real problem here. We take a risk by buying the land that is close to the river. Tomorrow, I could lose my entire business as well. So, when I am buying the land, this factor has to be considered,” he says.
The solution, feels rights activist Meena Debbarma, lies in the government getting proactive about checking erosion.
“Despite the ban, jhum cultivation is still happening. The (state) minister of agriculture Aghor Debbarma himself says that over 40,000 acres of land is being cultivated this way. This has to stop. Also, there has to be a way to save farmland. For example, the government can buy the land from the riverbed farmers, so they will not be tricked by the brick kiln owners,” says Debbarma.
“Something ought to be done before all of our paddy fields turn into sulphur-spewing brick factories,” she says.