This article is a culmination of a rather minor notion—the notion of a land with all its exoticism. But as and when one started to read more about the place, the seed of interest constantly grew. Then came forth some of the aspects which gets conveniently bypassed in the larger picture.
As Amitav Ghosh said in his highly acclaimed novel, The Hungry Tide, “Between the sea and the plains of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Some are vast and some are no larger than sandbars; some have lasted through recorded history while others have just washed into being. These are the Sundarbans”. This isn’t the tale of the Royal Bengal Tigers or the estuarine crocodiles. This is a quest to personify the Sundarbans, accounting for its people, its water and its land. The Sundarbans is not just a territory in the face of Earth—it’s an Odyssey.
For understanding the working of these islands, I conducted a prolonged study in three blocks of the Sundarbans, namely—Sandeshkhali-II, Namkhana and Gosaba. What came to the fore was that when livelihoods are concerned, given the ecological composition of the place, fishing is the most preferred occupation. With almost 36 per cent people on an average from all three blocks of study engaged in fishing and allied activities, it emerged as the most viable option. This was followed by the services that the people were engaged in, which was 17 per cent taking all the three blocks into account. These services could include anything ranging from being a teacher in a school, engaged as cooks for primary schools or working as an NGO employee. Agriculture takes up an average of 12 per cent in the three blocks where the most cultivated crop is paddy amongst others. Coconut trees used to be found in abundance in the Sundarbans prior to the cyclone, as the localities told. Whatever produce comes now, is mostly for self-sustenance and seldom is it enough for sale.
Climate change is being experienced intensely in the mangrove dominated deltaic complex of Indian Sundarbans. The level of literacy and per capita income is far below the state average and most of the people fall below the poverty line. The communication and transport network is very poor and most of the areas are inaccessible. Agriculture is hard and difficult and there is no industrial infrastructure. Provision of health care is extremely poor and electricity is almost non-existent. Frequent climatic insult is a regular feature—cyclonic storm; inrush of tidal waves and flooding is the cause of recurrent damage of life, crops and property every year, as per studies from various sources.
On the face of such challenging conditions, what came to the fore was not just a tale of survival, but a deep rooted example of endurance through the perils of Nature.
Inasmuch is the temperance of nature, natural calamities are equally unpredictable. Sundarbans, the largest mangrove forest after Amazon, presently has a dwindling future but to restore it to its nascent state is a responsibility for all. Receding strength of the mangroves, rising water level, increased salinity of the water, environmental refugees—all these are issues that require urgent attention. To define environmental refugees, they are a new class of human migrants who are displaced due to environmental crisis. There are several small islands in the area which are on the verge of submersion. In a situation as such, are there provisions of resettlement of the inhabitants?
The 25th May of 2009 left a permanent mark in the lives of the people of Sundarbans. This day, as it is known now, was when cyclone Aila made the landfall. There were deaths in hundreds, chunks of population were rendered homeless and had to take shelter in tarpaulin tents for months to come. Hectares of agricultural lands were lost and there was a deluge of salt water intrusion in the fields and ponds. Many did not go back to fruits and vegetables cultivation after this and others did not receive the scope to recover due to financial incapability. In a study done later, it was stated that the Indian Sundarbans Delta was inundated with approximately 6 m of water. Out of the 3500 kms of embankments, an approximate figure of 778 kms has been washed away by the cyclone’s immense force.
Post the cyclone, not only was there widespread disorientation for a long time to come, the livelihood resources encountered a heavy blow. Salt intrusion into the fertile lands and ponds, made it extremely difficult for the people to farm and fish. There were many such families as well who did not receive the Aila compensation of rupees ten thousand.
Therefore in totality, when a disaster prone zone faces with such adversities, it becomes not a choice but a liability to recuperate from it. And when the means are limited, coping mechanisms such as migration is undertaken, which in this case, is a dominant trend to be traced.
Even though calamities have disrupted the lives of men, women and children over the years in Sundarbans, the tales of their endurance should be a motivation for developmental work in these parts of the tide country so that it could be transformed into a space worth living.
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