ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Can Sundarbans Be Saved?

The Sundarbans has lost much at the hands of the colonial rulers, the erstwhile zamindars and the latterday fishery mafias. But there is much that can and must be saved. Civil society's strong and determined intervention to save the Chilka Lake has shown the way. Environmentalists and social activists must join hands to mobilise public opinion to save the Sundarbans and its 3.5 million small farmers, fishermen, woodcutters, honey collectors, boatmen and the like.

My fory into this ecology-environ-mental issue was entirely fortuitous. It did not follow the path of natural sciences. It was through the track of land reforms that I was exposed to some of the live issues of the area. A couple of evening meetings had to be held in some Sundarban islands as a prelude to Operation Barga in the late seventies. Selection of convenient sites was a problem. Someone suggested that I might consult Tushar Kanjilal, headmaster of the Rangabelia High School, about it. He not only offered his school compound as the venue of the meeting, he invited me and my team mates to stay there overnight by converting two classrooms into guest rooms simply by joining a few low benches to make camp cots. He also volunteered to show a bit of his Rangabelia Project where he was trying to make almost destitute families self-reliant both economically and socially by instilling a sense of dignity along with some self-employment skills. That was my entry into the Sundarbans. A word more on Kanjilal. One day a young student of the school fainted. Everyone thought it was a case of epilepsy. When the boy regained consciousness he wanted to eat something. It was then revealed that the boy hadn’t had anything to eat for last three days. He had fainted out of weakness and exhaustion. That was a rude eye-opener and set Kanjilal thinking. He found that without slightly better living conditions for his students, much of his efforts to educate them would go waste. Out of this was born the Rangabelia Project of economic and social development of the poorest families. What Tushar Kanjilal and his team of volunteers have done, has been the subject matter of a number of national and international evaluations and critical studies which show that an alternative development model exists where the subjugated and subdued humanity, for a change, have a say in their destiny, where small innovations give enormous social and even economic benefit, where slight changes with traditional modes of living make life worth living, where widows of men eaten by tigers are not being thrown out of the family as ill-starred outcasts but made useful members of the community by making them skilled income-earning workpersons. But that is another story.

It was in his efforts to bring about little changes in the lives of the simple folk like fishermen, woodcutters, honey collectors, small farmers, boatmen and the like that Kanjilal realised much more was at stake than the poverty of these people in these isolated islands of the Sundarbans. Frequent breaches in the embankments inundating agricultural lands with saline waters rendering them unfit for cultivation for years, numerous storms, gales and cyclones devastating all human creation of years in a matter of hours, assault of big money for slaughter extraction of local resources by promoting unregulated prawn fishery and organised smuggling of timber and other forest produce including occasional poaching of protected wild game, were contributing to faster destruction of the already fragile eco-system in the largest mangrove forest of India which was made already vulnerable due to untimely human penetration.

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