Sagar Deep is a remote delta island where the river Ganges flows into the Bay of Bengal. What do people here do during a health crisis?
The storm struck on a moonless midnight in May 2021. Winds whipped up the deep dark waters of the river Muri Ganga which stretches for four kilometres from the delta island of Sagar Deep (which means “sea island” in Bengali) to the first port on the mainland, called Lot Number 8.
The southern tip of Sagar Deep is situated at the point where the Ganges finally flows into the Bay of Bengal after having travelling for hundreds of kilometres south from its source in the Himalayan peaks. The northern part of the delta island, surrounded by tributaries of the Ganges, is inhabited by villagers who live in pale yellow mud huts with bright yellow thatched roofs and who farm or fish for a living.
“Though people of Sagar Deep do not have much money, the literacy rate here is as high as 90 percent,” says Dibos Mondal, an islander and school teacher who lives and works in the village of Kochuberia in northern Sagar Deep. “Education is given a lot of importance even in low-income households.”
This keenness for knowledge can be attributed to the islanders’ exposure to outsiders and the ensuing exchange of thoughts and ideas. While other islands of the delta remained relatively isolated, for centuries pilgrims descended at the confluence, where the Ganges meets the Bay of Bengal to take dips in the water, considered holy by Hindus.
The sage Kapil Muni is said to have lived and attained enlightenment in this location during the Vedic Age, around the 6th century BCE. A temple dedicated to him and other saints stands at the point of the confluence. The original temple is supposed to have disappeared into the encroaching sea. Says Dibos, “The temple had to be shifted, that is reconstructed three times, and the present one is the fourth one.”
Sagar Deep has schools, colleges and other educational centres. “Its people love to study and are always eager to learn new skills” says Ambarish Nag Biswas, president of the West Bengal Amateur Radio Club (HAM Radio), who has started training groups of people in the radio technology.
However, according to its residents, Sagar Deep is in dire need of additional healthcare facilities than the limited, existing ones.
“The closest hospital is in Kakdwip, off Lot Number 8,” says Dibos. “There are three primary healthcare clinics and nursing homes but for emergencies we are often referred to the hospitals in the districts and cities.”
For the residents of Sagar Deep and other islands, a water or boat ambulance plies during the day. This service is shut during the night as it is considered unsafe to travel over the vast stretch of the river and sea in the dark. If boats capsize, rescue becomes difficult. “When evening falls, if one falls ill, there is nothing one can do but wait for the morning and the ambulance or other boats,” says Dibos. “Emergencies like sudden chest pain do not just occur during the day. It can happen anytime in the night too. But we feel helpless.” He says that there are often other emergencies too. “With the increase in the number of drivers these days, there are often road accidents and the injured require immediate blood transfusion or other treatment for trauma,” he says. Snake bites are quite common in these parts of the delta islands too.
The Covid-19 pandemic has been a time of particular distress for the islanders of the Bay of Bengal. “People experiencing difficulty breathing or those whose oxygen levels had dropped suddenly would panic,” Dibos says.
In the middle of the health crisis, Sagar Deep was at the centre of two super storms – the cyclones Amphan and Yaas – which ripped through the coast of Bay of Bengal, back to back as it were. In 2020 and 2021 consecutively. Both in the month of May. This further exacerbated the health crisis. We had been evacuated by the state government to safe shelters,” says Dibos. “However, the close contact in cramped interiors did not do any good as far as ‘social distancing’ was concerned.”
To make matters worse, the natural calamity had plunged the island into darkness with electric lines snapping and other communications like Internet and cell phone connections failing. Falling ill during this time was a nightmare for the inhabitants of the delta islands.
Dibos lost his uncle to Covid-19 on a stormy night. Wild winds swept through the sleeping trees and hissed like snakes through the grass below. Roofs blew away. Doors and windows shook violently and flew out. But the 56-year-old man was gasping for air. Dibos regrets that they could not save him. “Perhaps if we didn’t have to go so far to get him admitted to a hospital, we could have,” he sighs.
The state and central government are in talks about constructing a bridge over the four kilometre stretch of the Muri Ganga river. The delta islanders of Sagar Deep await it.
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