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No man’s land

While political parties have divided locals, influential aquaculturists, brick-kiln owners and hungry businessmen from the city eying the abandoned lakes in the villages are making the most of the situation. The Sunderbans are staring at eight more spring tides (bhora kotal) this year, and nobody has any clue to how the government would tackle the situation. It seems Sunderbans is not for its people anymore.
In the past two years alone, there had been four cyclones ~ Sidr, Nargis, Bijli and Aila ~ which caused major land erosion on both the Indian and Bangladesh sides of the Sundarbans. And experts say there has also been a perceptible change, almost 26 percent over past 120 years, in the frequency of these cyclonic storms in this part of the Bay of Bengal. This may increase further with the intensifying of El Nino in the coming years.
A visit to Konkondighi, Raidhighi, Patharpratima, Bali Islands and Jharkhali shocks anyone, who has been bombarded with news of development and relief and promises of embankment repair projects, out of their wits. Only Kultali seemed to be getting its bit and why not, environment minister’s visit there recently was enough to accelerate work. In Konkondighi we found large stretched of breached embankment. Locals claim that all that the government is doing is setting up ring embankments which are far from being of any use. “We told the engineers to set up porcupines but they won’t listen. The river this side is highly silted. It will take just 3 months for the silt to be deposited,” said Nimai Halder, owner of a shop, just a few meters away from the river.
However, Mr Sugata Hazra, head of the oceanography department of Jadavpur University, said everything has been tried and nothing has been successful so far. “Beguakhali in Sagar Islands bears testimony to various ways of embankment repair and its failure. Mud embankments, brick embankments, ring embankments, Porcupine, Garbiel, concrete embankment, mud embankment, name it and you will find it tried in there, broken down by the unfathomable sea and tidal surges,” he said.
The extent of divide amongst the locals is so much that it is hard to believe them. Poverty and insecurity has made them clamber for various lobbies existing in the region.
“There is a divided opinion over embankment construction in such regions. There is a brick-kiln lobby in Sunderbans that consists of manufacturers of saline bricks which don’t have many buyers. And so, they would push for brick embankments. The villagers know what works and what don’t. But they will not acknowledge it and speak on the party lines and to take as much money as they could,” said Mr Hazra.
Mr Hazra also talks about the aquaculturist lobby. “From 1950 onwards, there has been an aquaculture lobby in Sunderbans. Women and girls collect tiger prawn seeds and get them to the prawn cultivation farms. Saline water is needed for prawn cultivation so what they will do is cut a portion of the embankment to let the saline water in. Later they would fix it. The area remains weak and during cyclones they give away. If there are 2 aquaculturists in a village there are 60 people working for them and thus they have a lobby stronger than the ordinary cultivators,” added Mr Hazra.
“You need political clout to control fishing lakes. If you could get local political leaders to back you, you could make a killing,” said a businessman in Kolkata, who did not want to be identified because he is closing in on at least two large fishing lakes.
“Before Aila we identified 420 Km embankment which was weak due to this and would give away. But nobody listened to us,” Mr Hazra said.
The Sundarbans delta has forest tracts that reach 130 km inland from the coastline. It forms the most effective barrier against tidal surges and tsunami waves known on earth. The flip side is that the area itself is on the frontline of natural disasters. Locals have been motivated to replant mangroves and there have been many such drives to promote this. But Mr Hazra stresses: “Mangrove re-plantation is not the ultimate solution. People are so divided over the political lines that even if they agree on re-plantation, they will plant according to the area politically divided. There have been instances that they have taken the logs of woods to their house when the embankment was washed away. I had requested them to dump 1 gunny-bag mud at the embankment everyday to save their own houses but to do that they want 100 days of money (NREGA). They want to be recruited by the panchayat. They won’t take initiation on their own.”
But how can locals be blamed when its hand to mouth situation for them? In Sunderbans, almost 250,000 people have lost their livelihood because the cyclone destroyed fishing lakes and agricultural land has turned saline.
It was after Cyclone Aila had devastated the Sunderbans that the state government took the decision of building 778 km of concrete embankments along the rivers in the Sunderbans and the centre had promised Rs 6,000 crore for the project. But till now, only Rs 167 crore has tricked into Sunderban’s kitty.
Not only this, Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, while addressing an international workshop on climate threat to the Sundarbans had said the cabinet has already approved the ‘Integrated Coastal Zone Management Project’ (ICZMP), under which West Bengal will get Rs.300 crore and the Sundarbans will get the bulk of the project over a period of next five years. According to the 13th Finance Commission recommendations, the central government has also decided to give a special grant of Rs.450 crore to be spent over the next five years for strengthening and armouring the embankments of Sundarbans islands.
Mr Ramesh had also said the government had appointed an expert team ~ Indian Network for Comprehensive Climate Change Assessment (INCCCA) ~ comprising 128 research institutes, which is doing extensive assessment on critically vulnerable coastal areas across India, of which the Sundarbans is one of the most important regions.
Promises are plenty but fund flow thin. Experts say the huge displacement caused by the cyclone Aila that hit parts of Sundarbans May 25 this year may also force many of the estimated 400,000 people who live among the mangrove forests, the narrow creeks and the wide rivers to enter protected forests in search of livelihood, thereby seriously threatening one of the richest but most fragile ecosystems on earth.
Mr Sugata Hazra said: “Embankment should ideally have 20-25 degree slope. Sundarbans is macro-tidal estuary. Toeline protection is needed. Tides that rise daily hit the bottom of the embankment hence make it vertical that is why we see large vertical sections of land falling into water.”
Chandan Roy, former chief engineer of the state’s irrigation department said that due to lack of availability of land, the embankments had to be made steeper. Waves hit such embankments with greater force. The tide cycle makes construction of an embankment difficult. One has to stop every 12 hours when there is a tide, he added. “Strong winds and siltation in the rivers make it difficult to carry construction material to some of the sites,” he said.
Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert, thinks permanent embankments are not the solution. He suggested creating a constantly updated databank about the movement of every river in the Sunderbans and constructing temporary embankments to protect people there. “Eighty per cent of the breaches in the Sunderbans take place due to currents in the river. These currents change in their natural course. Sometimes one current becomes active and then it slows down. There is no way one can keep an active current in a river at bay. Not even with concrete embankments. So if a current in a river becomes active at some point, the embankment will have to be demolished with prior warning,” he said.
Mr Sugata Hazra is thinking of a technique where the slush could be trapped. The river water would enter the embankment freely during high tide but would be allowed to seep through an outlet during low tide. Later the slush will solidify leaving the embankment intact. This will also help preserving the enrichment of the soil and the much-needed bio-shield is needed. Shield-trap is his concept.
While scientists and experts ponder ways to save Sunderbans and government wakes up to notice of that, fate of innumerable people of Sunderbans hangs in balance.

Embankment being repaired in Kultali.
Damaged embankment in Konkondighi.
Damaged embankment in Konkondighi.
Damaged embankment in Konkondighi from where saline water enters fields.
Agricultural land flooded by saline water.
Agricultural land flooded by saline water.
Salt crusted land.
All given away to the sea.
Soma Basu


  1. Suman Ghosh Suman Ghosh April 18, 2010

    Mostly i have commented on many of yours blogs, primarily on the seriousness of the issues brought by you…in this post you have again highlighted another matter which is ar factor governing the destruction of the asia’s most biggest and wonderful delta…Sundarban…i particularly want to say that i liked the pictures that u have posted (almost in all of your post). All of them have so far indicated validity of your research and will help people to realize the beauty of the place and how fast its vanishing beneath the sea level before our eyes.

  2. Rajive Dhavan Rajive Dhavan April 19, 2010

    Hey Soma, I think the post is great… Really liked the visuals as well.. Personally, I also found it informative.. And as you know that am not into reading at all, I just found it pretty long.. But yeah.. all in all a great post ya.. Keep rocking.. Ciao.. 🙂

  3. Avishek Bhattacharya Avishek Bhattacharya April 19, 2010

    Great post Soma.

    For the people who know nothing or very little about the sunderbans, your blog will surely raise concern. This blog and the posts should be an eyeopener.
    Sunderban has a great contribution in maintaining the geographical balance of our country yet, it is neglected and its resources misused. A constant and regular help from the government would mean a lot in the development of the beautiful place. So many people becoming homeless would be saved.
    Its high time, the government should act.

    I hope your posts are reaching the right people. Keep writing.

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