The Indian villagers who lost their homes to the sea

The Indian villagers who lost their homes to the sea

The gentle roar of the ocean lulled Indian mother-of-two Banita Behra to sleep each night, until one day the encroaching tide reached her doorstep.

Behra is among hundreds of people from the disappearing and largely abandoned coastal village of Satabhaya, whose displaced former residents have been officially recognized by the government as climate migrants.

Satabhaya is the hardest-hit of several rural idylls along the seafront in eastern Odisha, a state that has also been battered in recent decades by tropical cyclones and floods of increasing ferocity.

Behra’s home is now underwater, 400 meters (1,300 feet) out to sea, while a few of her neighbors who refused to move live in makeshift thatched huts by the new shoreline.

Last year the Odisha government announced funds for a resettlement colony in Bagapatia, 12 kilometers (7.5 miles) inland from their village, giving each family a small plot of land and $1,800 to build a new house.

But life in Bagapatia has been tough for the new arrivals: without seas to fish and farmland to cultivate, many are depressed by having lost their self-reliance and way of life.

In order to survive, most of the community’s men have had to take jobs to work as laborers out of state.

Behra’s husband is now away 10 months of the year, working on the opposite side of the country and sending money home to provide for their two young children.

Odisha, where millions of people live in coastal settlements along the Bay of Bengal, is particularly vulnerable to the encroaching waters.

Satabhaya sits at the mouth of the mighty Mahanadi River Delta and its coasts were once replenished by earth carried by the currents from inland.

But an upriver dam-building spree in the decades since India’s independence from Britain in 1947 drastically cut the amount of sediment deposited where the waterways met the sea.

That left Odisha’s coasts vulnerable to erosion and lacking a critical defence against rising sea levels.

Across the state, sea levels increased by an average of 19 centimeters (7.5 inches) in the five decades to 2015, according to a 2022 paper coauthored by researchers from the state’s Berhampur University.