February 14, 2020
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An Island Of Hope

In a sea of troubles, a group of tribals tided over the storm

An Island Of Hope

THESE are the ones who got away. While Cyclone Kakinada 0.7b delivered a knockout blow to the ricebowl of Andhra Pradesh, residents—all 312 of them—of a tiny island in the Bay of Bengal ducked just in time. And survived to tell the tale.

This is Hope Island, 5 km off India’s east coast and just 2m above sea level. For 100 years, members of the Jalari tribe, who inhabit it, have tided over gales, storms, cyclones and hurricanes. And November 6, 1996, was no different.

With the lone cyclone shelter having been turned into a school, the machikaras (fisherfolk) and their family members clung to each other arm in arm, and lay on the ground face down as one more crisis whizzed above, and past, them. "It’s nothing short of a miracle," exults A. Dakshinamurthy, a Kakinada bank officer, who was part of a team that did a socio-economic survey of the 16 km long, 1 km wide island last year. "Nothing else can explain how more secure people on shore perished, and how these survived." Luck, it seems, was also on their side.

Hope Islanders hadn’t ventured into the sea that fateful day following a feud with fishermen on the mainland the evening before. "We’d been fighting over where we could cast out nets and where they could. Since the row hadn’t been resolved, we stayed at home. That saved us," says P. Devaraju, 25. But the 220 kmph winds blew away their huts and damaged fishing equipment.

Hope Island is a headache for officials when there’s activity in the Bay. But its residents refuse to move to safer climes. They have cocooned themselves here from the rest of humanity. They speak a quaint Telugu and think N.T. Rama Rao is still chief minister. They come to town every week to sell fish. Since there’s no shop back home, they pick up provisions like oil and pulses and, since there’s no electricity, candles and matchsticks.

Formed due to the littoral drift at the junction of the Godavari emptying into the Bay, Hope Island has its uses. It safeguards the flat coastline and, according to Kakinada port Chief Engineer N.P. Ramakrishna Reddy, keeps water calm and steady making it easier for ships to berth.

But there’s a flip side. While protecting Kakinada, Hope Island is deviating nature’s fury to Uppada, a coastal village upstream, ravaging buildings. Also, given the rate at which Hope Island has spread over the past 50 years, port officials have been forced to build a sand pit to prevent further growth that could harm the soon-to-be-opened deep sea port. However, if you ask its inhabitants, there’s no cause for worry.

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