Sunday, April 22, 2012

In the Fields of Stewart Gunj


In the Fields of Stewart Gunj

By Debkumar Bhadra

Being born and brought up in rural South Andaman, passing alongside the fields of Stewart Gunj had been a regular feature during my first eight years of schooling at Govt Middle School Kanyapuram. The fields, apart from being the rice bowl of the area, its stunning greenery on both sides of the stretch of road passing through the fields of Stewart Gunj (kheti raasta) used to be a visual treat. The 2004 Great Sumatra-Andaman Earthquake and the resultant tsunami however changed the landscape of the entire area forever. Sea water intruded from the defunct sluice gate at Kadakachang and flooded the fields rendering it unfit for cultivation. The present article traces this transformation of the erstwhile fields of Stewart Gunj into its present water logged avatar.
Andaman and Nicobar Islands is considered an ecological paradise, endowed with lush green Tropical Evergreen Rainforest Ecosystem, Mangrove Ecosystem and biologically diverse Coral Reef Ecosystem. After the December 2004 massive earthquake/tsunami, Wetland Ecosystem has been added to the ecology of our islands.
According to an article, jointly authored by Mr P Rajan a PhD Scholar and Dr P Pramod, both from SACON, the boxing day tsunami inundation of low lying agricultural fields caused creation of wetlands at Hutbay, Ograbraj, Sippighat and Stewart Gunj in the Andaman group of Islands. Among these four tsunami induced wetlands, Hutbay and Stewart Gunj are freshwater wetland whereas the other two are tidal mud flats (ENVIS Newsletter - Sarovar Saurabh, Vol.6,2010. ISSN:0972-3153).
Since the area surrounding Stewart Gunj, Kadakachang and Wimberly Gunj suffered subsidence; the massive earthquake triggered tsunami brought the sea into the low lying fields. Even the road connecting Stewart Gunj with Wimberly Gunj (Kheti rasta) came under the occupation of the sea. The road was eventually raised about a meter which blocked surface runoff from the surrounding areas thus resulted in creation of a freshwater wetland on the side adjoining Bangla Pahad. Whereas the side of the kheti rasta adjoining Kadakachang creek, a tidal mudflat came into existence.
The changed ecology brought with it a variety of fishes, birds, reptiles and other visitors including raptors and hunters into the area. Most prominent and talked about being the winged visitors. A comprehensive survey of the Stewart Gunj wetland we could recorded presence of more than 30 bird species including Lesser Whistling Duck, Common Moorhen, Andaman Teal, White-breasted Waterhen, Purple Swamphen, Egret, Pond Heron, White-bellied Sea-Eagle and many more (see box for the full list).
These winged visitors are now part of the changed landscape of the area, attracting the attention of those passing through the casuarinas lined stretch of the road. Though there is a sign which warns presence of Crocodile in the submerged fields, yet one can find fisher folks scouring the waters with nets and lines, bagging the fresh stock of fish brought in by the tides. Those with an appetite for nature could be seen capturing the winged visitors in their splendor.
The most surprising found however was few grooves of juvenile Mangroove species taking roots along the periphery of the elevated kheti rasta. There were mangrove ferns and other associated mangroves spread here and there indicating the sea is here to stay in the submerged fields of Stewart Gunj. The area as a whole resembles an island microcosm, buzzing with life in every form, shape, size and colour, all engaged in their ultimate quest for survival.
But for those few farmer families whose land is it under the occupation of sea and thronged by all kinds of opportunistic creatures, it is an agonizing affair; the fields which used to nourish their family not only had gone arid, it reminds them of the torment they are made to face from day one the tragedy struck. Non payment of compensation is adding insult to the injury inflicted by the disaster.
The latest press release (The Daily Telegrams dated 29th March, 2012) which says “In order to give monetary compensation for the submerged land to tsunami victims, the Lt Governor of A&N Islands will meet the top functionaries of Home Ministry during his visit to Delhi on 30 March (2012)” speaks volumes about the way things are being dealt. What could be more painful than the fact that even after celebration of 7th Anniversary of the epic disaster, payment of compensation to a handful of those whose land got submerged not only remains unpaid, but remains undecided as on date.
The 11th April earthquake off the west coast of Northern Sumatra refreshed the horrors of the 2004 event. However the promptness with which the A&N Administration responded to the current event indicates the authorities did learn quite a few lessons. But foot dragging in the matter relating to payment of compensation to those farmers affected by 2004 event is discounting the Administration’s effort besides casting serious doubts over its intent!

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