By Soudhriti Bhabani
Kolkata, July 8 (IANS) One and a half month after cyclone Amphan-ravaged a large parts of the world’s largest mangrove swamp Sunderbans in West Bengal, thousands of people continued to live in the hellhole of the district battling out with poverty, scarcity of food and more importantly, a sustainable livelihood.
Experts fear that the aftermath of devastating Amphan on the deltaic region could cause lasting ecological damage like large-scale displacements, lack of agriculture and fragile embankments which will increase the vulnerability of residents in monsoon.
Cyclone Amphan has inundated the entire Sundarbans region and displaced thousands of residents in the islands. They have lost everything in the natural calamity and are now living under the open sky with their families and children.
The agricultural lands and all water bodies are now filled with saline water. People who get their livelihood through vegetation, fisheries and cattle farming have landed in deep trouble. Everything has been washed away by the cyclone and the rural economy has also virtually collapsed.
“Protection from natural disasters should always be participatory. But that is not happening in Sunderbans region. There are about 3,000 villages in the deltaic belt spanning across South 24-Parganas and North 24-Parganas district. Most of these villages are located along the embankments. It is always easier for the rural folks to identify if there is any crack on the embankments. If the government can involve people through a participatory movement the disaster can easily be tackled there,” veteran environmentalist and West Bengal’s ex-chief conservator of forest Pranabesh Sanyal told IANS.
Sanyal said only three villages took up the participatory management initiative with the help of the local panchayat and got remarkable results during Amphan. Those villages were Chargheri near Sajnekhali, in Basanti and the third one near Sagar Island.
“Unfortunately, the local government is not really interested in implementing the management at the grassroots as the funds required for such an initiative is very less. It does not require huge monetary allocations. Local panchayats can play a vital role in that area as they lack the right intent,” he said.
West Bengal forest minister Rajib Banerjee, however, said that it is not possible to protect the Sunderbans Islands through participatory management mechanism. “What I understood is it is only possible if we can build concrete structures which can protect the human habitations in the Sunderbans region – the world’s largest mangrove forest. And it requires huge funds to reconstruct all the damaged embankments in the region,” the minister told IANS.
The alluvial archipelago called the Sundarbans, formed by 56 riverine islands, has been declared a World Heritage site by UNESCO for its rich biodiversity and is home to the famous Royal Bengal Tiger. Located in South 24-Parganas and North 24-Parganas district of West Bengal, it is a vast area covering 4,262 sq km, including a mangrove cover of 2,125 sq-km in India alone, and a larger portion in Bangladesh.
Considered to be one of the richest but most fragile ecosystems on earth, the Sundarbans delta, formed by the myriad branches of the Ganga, 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.
Meanwhile, many environmentalists suggest the state government should promote participator embankment repairing work and saline paddy cultivation in that salt-water belt as a sustainable alternative for the locals.
“Those who will work in the project can easily be incorporated in the 100-days of wage employment,” said Sanyal.
He said that a similar model was introduced in Arabari forest range of West Midnapore district in 1972 by an Indian Forest Service (IFS) officer Ajit Kumar Banerjee for carrying out conservation efforts in an area of 1,272 ha by involving local people living around the forest boundary through a voluntary participation process. The model turned out to be a big success. Later it was taken up by various state governments in different parts of the country.
“It will serve both the purposes – providing livelihood to local villagers and on the other, repairing damaged embankments,” he added.
The devastation caused by Cyclone Amphan will force marooned residents to depend more on forest products like honey and timber. This apart, people will also go for crab catching, fishing in the creeks and enter the restricted areas. Lack of livelihood resources could also increase incidents of poaching in Sundarbans as people will be left with few options.
Participatory management is the key to repair damaged embankments in Sunderbans post Cyclone Amphan, in a bid to ensure protection from natural disasters.
Advantages: Low cost process. Panchayats and other rural bodies can play proactive roles.
Number of villages that may come under the programme: About 3,000 villages in Sunderbans.