A little over an hour’s drive from the heart of the capital city of Kolkata in the Indian state of West Bengal will bring you to the vast wetlands of Bortir Bil. The last 20-minute stretch involves a bumpy ride over open dirt roads, but don’t let that deter you. When you reach Bortir Bil, the views will be nothing short of spectacular – from the open skies to vast stretches of water blanketed by green patches of water-lily leaves.
“Just being in the middle of this makes us feel good. We come here to experience nature,” Raj Roy, who made the trip to this idyllic-looking place with his college gang last month, told VICE.
Over the last two years or so, thanks to the influx of visitors to the village of Beraberia that lies between the cities of Barasat and Barrackpore in the North 24 Parganas district, farmers in the area have found an alternate source of income by offering boat rides for as little as Rs 100 ($1.25).
“Initially, we had no clue why so many people were suddenly coming here. We [later] found out that someone had posted videos of the place on YouTube. Bortir Bil has become famous since then,” said Sanjay Ray, a 52-year-old farmer. “Now I can earn at least Rs 200 to Rs 400 ($2.5 to $4) a day.”
For photographers, the post-monsoon wetlands of Bortir Bil are a find. Social media is filled with photos of boatmen gliding over the wetlands, couples posing against a backdrop of water lilies, and glorious sunsets.
“This place [is sought out by] every photographer due to its clean and green environment. We get a mix of aesthetics and culture of rural Bengal here. The natural vividness of this place with its boats and jute cultivation gives a great vibe,” said Prakash Acharya, a photographer who was at Bortir Bil to conduct a recce for an upcoming shoot, when VICE visited it.
It would not be a stretch to say Bortir Bil might have beaten out a few of Kolkata’s most Instagrammable spots including Maidan, Victoria Memorial, Princep Ghat, and tram depots to emerge as a favourite destination for pre-wedding shoots. Syomak Dutta, who was in Bortir Bil with his partner Shreya Dutta for their pre-wedding shoot, said, “The most important reason for our coming here is because it is free of cost. The natural environment that we get here is also a plus. What else does one need for a pre-wedding shoot? It’s a great place to spend a day.”
Bortir Bil has turned out to be a favourite among bikers as well due to its remote location, especially on weekends. Also, since there’s no direct bus or train to reach the spot, two-wheelers become more of a necessity.
A large section of the local population has engaged in forms of non-farming activities that were inconceivable in the region a few years ago. Their income, which was heavily dependent on agriculture and was declining, is now stable, thanks to the people flocking there.
“People should put up more videos and photos on Facebook and YouTube. It will help bring in more tourists,” said Manoranjan.
Farmers, however, are keen for the government to repair the roads and install street lights. Photographer Acharya agreed. “After the sun sets, it becomes very hard to navigate here. Many people [turn back] from the highway after seeing the condition of the road.”
Syomak and Shreya feel Bortir Bil should remain as it is and feared that the influx of more tourists could kill the natural vibe and ecology of the place. “They will start artificial beautification in the name of maintenance,” said Syomak, expressing his fears about it becoming a tourist spot and the administration getting involved. “I don’t think I will like this place anymore then.”
Coping with climate change
The fallouts of climate change include the catastrophic impact on people’s livelihoods and communities – and against Bortir Bil’s scenic canvas of blues and greens, it’s easy to forget both the physical and economic devastation that it lies over.
In the monsoon that typically runs from July to September, rainwater floods the “canal,” known as “bil” in Bangla, the Bengali language. Until 2020, farmers in the area would have to rely on aquaculture (breeding, raising, and harvesting fish, shellfish, and aquatic plants), selling “sapla” or water lilies, and their savings to tide them over in the monsoon and the few months that followed. The MNREGA (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2005) is an Indian labour law and social security measure that would also help with temporary employment.
However, in recent years, the weather has grown increasingly unpredictable, including the phenomenon of tropical cyclones and unseasonal rainfall, resulting in lands staying flooded for longer periods, which adversely impacts crop yields. “Even in summers, our farmlands remain wet. The canal that is supposed to store excess water is also in bad shape.” said Manoranjan Biswas, a 74-year-old farmer who lives in the region.
“The rainwater is supposed to dry up by Poush, but now stays till Falgun,” said Biswas. Poush is the ninth month of the Bengali calendar and marks the beginning of winter, typically falling between mid-December and mid-January, while Falgun heralds spring and usually falls between mid-February and mid-March.
Then, there are times when it’s supposed to rain but it doesn’t. Like the ongoing monsoon season, which arrived over a month later in the region.
“We mostly cultivate jute, onion, and paddy,” said Biswas, “Jute cultivation has been very good this year. But because of low rainfall during the monsoon, [retting and] drying good quality jute has been a challenge.”
Retting refers to the process in which raw jute is soaked for days to encourage the growth of bacteria that makes the stalks rot. Retting allows for the jute fibres to be separated from the stem by beating. The fibres are then washed and left to dry. “[Due to sporadic rain] the quality of our produce, including paddy, deteriorates because we don’t get enough time [to cultivate them properly].” The late and low rainfall this year spells bad news for this essential step in growing and harvesting jute too. It also means the water stays accumulated on the land even in those months when the agriculture process requires it to be dried up.
According to a recent study published in Climate Resilience and Sustainability, the journal of the Royal Meteorological Society, headquartered in the UK, “Tropical cyclones pose the largest environmental risk to the countries bordering the Bay of Bengal” This includes India, and specifically the Indian states of West Bengal and Odisha.
In May 2020, Cyclone Amphan caused destruction on a large scale in West Bengal and Odisha, as well as the country of Bangladesh. The district of North 24 Parganas, where Beraberia is located, was among the coastal areas that were severely impacted, including the destruction of tons of crops. The COVID-19 pandemic further adversely impacted the livelihoods of farmers in the area, as well as other parts of West Bengal.
That climate change has adversely hit the fortunes of jute-cultivation in West Bengal is well documented. A 2019 study by the ICAR-CRIAJF (Indian Council of Agricultural Research – Central Research Institute for Jute and Allied Fibers) found that “the impact of climatic variability is causing significant fluctuations in jute production and is likely to affect its yields in the long-term.”
“Historical weather data of the last 100 years show a noticeable increase in ambient temperature and a large variation in monsoon rainfall in the lower Indo-Gangetic Plain (IGP) region where jute is grown,” the paper said.
Biswas said farming would receive a fresh blow this season, if farmlands remain submerged for a longer period. “I will sow onion next. But if this water stays [beyond winter], then we will have a problem.”
Fortune in tourism
While experts are suggesting more long-term solutions that include crop diversification, better irrigation facilities, and the development of infrastructure facilities as ways to tackle climate change and ensure growth in the agriculture sector, farmers in and around Beraberia are seeking more immediate “solutions” by turning to the tourism industry.
Monetary gains from tourism activities in the region have been so favourable that farmers now want their lands to be submerged for as long as possible, even though it isn’t beneficial for farming in the long term. Many claimed they would have no problem offering boat rides throughout the year. “The longer the water stays, the more we benefit now,” said Ray. “Earlier, we did odd jobs and could not earn enough.”
No more. Locals are learning the tricks of the trade. As providers and promoters of their service in the tourism sector, they are keen for local administration and tourists to help their cause.
The sense of community is apparent in the involvement and contribution of locals in the region’s growth. While boats built by the farmers themselves, who have had no formal training to do so, continue to be the main draw of the place, the economic benefits triggered by tourism are not limited to the boat rides. Locals have set up temporary tea stalls and started selling food on cycle carts, said Ray, pointing to two new eateries alongside the wetlands. Drivers can also make extra cash by ferrying passengers in their rickshaws or tuktuks from the Nilganj bus stand around 5 kilometres away from the wetlands.
However, uncontrolled conventional tourism can adversely impact the environment. According to Japan-based think tank GDRC (Global Development Research Centre), tourism “can put enormous pressure on an area and lead to impacts such as soil erosion, increased pollution, discharges into the sea, natural habitat loss, increased pressure on endangered species and heightened vulnerability to forest fires.”
Increasing air pollution could be another concern for Bortir Bill in the coming days due to the influx of motorbikes and cars in the region. “Tourism can cause the same forms of pollution as any other industry: air emissions, noise, solid waste and littering, releases of sewage, oil and chemicals, even architectural/visual pollution,” according to the GDRC.
Even though Bortir Bil operates as a perfect eco-tourism spot, the rise in the numbers of visitors each day, coupled with uncontrolled traffic and lack of waste management right next to the wetlands, might prove a menace for the local farming population in the coming days.
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