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In Aila-Struck Sundarbans

In late 2010 a group of professionals published a report of surveys conducted in the Sundarbans following the destruction caused by cyclone Aila in May 2009. This report shows how little we care to know about the people living in the delta. While the state government attempts to include it among the wonders of the world, the people living here are impoverished and vulnerable. The Sundarbans is a disasterprone region, but the government is yet to come up with a disaster management policy.

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In Aila-Struck Sundarbans

Amites Mukhopadhyay

In late 2010 a group of professionals published a report of surveys conducted in the Sundarbans following the destruction caused by cyclone Aila in May 2009. This report shows how little we care to know about the people living in the delta. While the state government attempts to include it among the wonders of the world, the people living here are impoverished and vulnerable. The Sundarbans is a disasterprone region, but the government is yet to come up with a disaster management policy.

Amites Mukhopadhyay (amites19@yahoo.com) teaches sociology at the University of Kalyani, West Bengal.

Economic & Political Weekly

EPW
october 1, 2011

I
n November 2010 a group of people consisting of doctors, scientists, social workers and teachers brought out a book on the post-Aila Sundarbans.1 How the People of the Sundarbans Are Doing: A Post Aila Survey (Kemon Ache Sundarbaner Manush: Aila Parabarti Ekti Sameeksha)2 is a result of their efforts to deal with the effect upon people’s life and livelihood by the cyclonic storm Aila in May 2009. The group prefers to call itself Sundarban Basir Sathe (literally meaning “with the people of the Sundarbans”). The book narrates the authors’ experiences with aid and relief after the cyclone and contains reports of a few micro-level surveys on soil and water salinity and on the people’s socio-economic lives. However, this article is not meant to be a book review. My objective here is twofold. First, to bring to the fore the efforts of those involved in the publication of the book. These individuals travelled across the length and breadth of the Aila-struck Sundarbans. They bore the expenditure of the field surveys as well as the publication of the report. Their efforts which need to be acknowledged were all the more significant because the report published in the vernacular came at a time when emergency relief and aid had stopped. However, my second objective is to reflect on the report’s portrayal of people’s life in the post-Aila Sundarbans and highlight the issues concerning the people’s marginalisation in the Sundarbans’ development.

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The book contains surveys carried out in three of the worst affected villages of Basanti, Kultali and Patharpratima blocks (the South 24 Parganas part of the Sundarbans). The picture that emerges is

quite deplorable. In a village of the Kultali block, out of 60 families interviewed, 36 families had their houses completely destroyed while 15 were partially damaged. Similarly, out of 310 houses in a village of the Patharpratima block, nearly 150 were completely destroyed (Nandi 2010:129). The villagers were forced to live in relief camps or makeshift tents. However, at the time of this survey none of the families had received any compensation from the government (Ghosh 2010:119). The cyclone had robbed people of their sources of livelihood – there was no fish in the ponds or rice in the fields and those surviving as wage labourers suddenly found that the sources of employment had dried up. It was as if the economy had come to a standstill in the villages in the Sundarbans. Before Aila the landless wage labourers’ earnings were in the range of Rs 100-150 per day, but Aila reduced this to a mere Rs 50-60 per day. As a result people left the Sundarbans in search of livelihood elsewhere in India. In a village of the Patharpratima block it was found that almost 80% of the male population had left their homes in search of jobs (Nandi 2010:129).

Since the villages were waterlogged for more than a month after the cyclone the saline water left the rice fields unsuitable for cultivation. The rice plants died before they could grow (Ghosh 2010:119). The rice fields needed rain in abundance to cleanse the soil of the salt content. However, there was not enough rain during the monsoons and even when it rained the

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fields continued to be saline waterlogged (Nandi 2010:129). The saline water contaminated individual ponds, which were the only sources of freshwater in the Sundarbans islands. There were attempts to desalinate the ponds soon after the broken and collapsed embankments were repaired but many villagers could not desalinate their ponds because they could not afford to do so (ibid:129). Fish did not grow in the ponds and the fisherfolk could not go fishing because the cyclone had damaged their fishing boats.

The team which carried out the post-Aila surveys in the villages was also instrumental in collecting water and soil samples to test the salinity levels. These samples were collected from the villages of Basanti, Gosaba (blocks of South 24 Parganas), Sandeshkhali and Hingalganj (blocks of North 24 Parganas). They were tested at the Chemical Techno logy laboratory of the University of Calcutta and the results showed a strong presence of salt which made the soil and water unsuitable for cultivation (Sarkar 2010: 110). However, these test reports could have been a lot more effective had there been comparable pre-Aila soil and water salinity data available in the village, block or district level government offices in the Sundarbans. In this regard the survey team’s repeated visits to these public offices in search of data proved futile (ibid:110).

Survey’s Relevance

The above surveys, though conducted on a small scale with limited resources, tell us a great deal about people’s hardship in the post-Aila Sundarbans. Though the report was published more than a year after the cyclone, the account remains true for the Sundarbans islanders even now. There has been no substantial change in the people’s quality of life. Islanders who lost their houses to Aila continue to live in makeshift huts with polythene sheets serving as rooftops. Immediately after the cyclone the government declared Rs 2,500 and Rs 10,000 as compensation for partially and fully damaged mud houses respectively (Ghosh 2010:119). Many have not got this money. Money did reach a few of the affected people, but because of bureaucratic bottlenecks it reached them long after the immediacy of the crisis had passed. In other words, people did not get compensation when they needed it most. Agriculture still looks bleak in the Sundarbans. Rice cultivation failed immediately after Aila, but even after two years the situation has not improved. Considering salinity in the soil, people tried high yielding variety seed (Pankaj) in 2010, but lands which were waterlogged for more than a month failed to produce any rice. And even in lands where rice grew the yield was abysmally poor. The question of a second winter crop does not arise because of the absence of freshwater in the region. People with one bigha3 of land could produce about 60-70 kgs of rice, whereas the pre-Aila yield was about 600 kgs. According to the farmers the present yield is unsustainable considering the investment they have made. For a bigha of land the farmers need to buy 15 kgs of rice which costs about Rs 150. To plough the land they had to hire a power tiller (diesel driven tiller) which costs Rs 380 per hour. In addition to these, the farmers needed to employ labourers at the time of sowing and harvesting at the rate of Rs 120 per labourer per day. A recent report on the Aila victims in Sandeshkhali block is demonstrative of people’s plight in the Sundarbans:

Seventy-year old Sreedam Das and his wife Subhadra live in the Dakshin Akhratala village of Sandeshkhali block. During Aila the fury of the Ichamati river robbed Sreedam of his house and belongings. Sreedam did not get post-Aila compensation from the

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government. The house he has managed to build has only mud walls (one to two feet high from the ground) and a polythene sheet to cover his head. Sreedam’s wife manages to earn some living by working as a wage labourer in a brick field. Sreedam does not remember when he ate rice last. Their staple diet is boiled flour made into a thick paste which they sometimes have with boiled potatoes only if his wife earns enough to buy them at the market. …In the neighbouring village of Uttar Akhratala about 85 families did not get any compensation after Aila. Because of saline ingress agriculture has ceased to be a stable source of income. People have left their villages in search of work elsewhere in India. Villages look completely deserted (Anandabazar Patrika 2011:7; translation mine).

Immediately after Aila the embankments were repaired and rebuilt temporarily on a war footing to prevent the islands from being submerged. The panchayats were particularly instrumental in getting villagers to repair their own bunds. There were assurances from the government that efforts would be made to rebuild and protect the Sundarbans embankments. It seems the West Bengal government had prepared a compensation package against further acquisition of people’s lands for the purposes of rebuilding embankments (The Telegraph 2009:7). However, apart from emergency repair, no significant effort has been undertaken to rebuild or overhaul broken or damaged embankments. In October 2009, a few months after Aila when people were still

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recovering from its devastation, the West Bengal ministers met in Jharkhali in Basanti block of the Sundarbans to inaugurate and celebrate Wildlife Week. The forest minister informed the people of the region that collaboration and efforts were already underway to include the Sundarbans in the list of the world’s seven wonders (Times of India 2009:5). While efforts are on to include the Sundarbans in the list of the world’s seven wonders, settlers of this wondrous land continue to live an impoverished and vulnerable life.

Rich Site, Impoverished Lives

This leads us to the question: why are people living in a resource rich heritage site leading such an impoverished life? To find an answer one needs to look at the broad imperative underlying the Sundarbans’ development. The Sundarbans presents us with a grand vision of conservation whose centre stage is occupied by wildlife, particularly the Bengal tiger. And people are the obvious obstacles to this process of conservation. Not only do people live physically on the margins, but they are marginalised because the State’s approach to the Sundarbans’ development has a sense of injustice built into it (Mukhopadhyay 2009:121). The conservation drive is based upon an implicit assumption that the Sundarbans can grow as a natural habitat of non-humans like tigers, crocodiles, monkeys, deer, etc, only if humans are kept at bay. In other words, the image of the Sundarbans as a natural wilderness is based upon the recognition of the tiger as the legitimate claimant to the land and the people as intruders or mere “tiger food” (Jalais 2010:11).

In a land where agriculture is uncertain and other sources of livelihood virtually non-existent, it is obvious that people would be drawn to the forest and the river. However, the islanders’ access to the forest resources is restricted. Those who enter the forests in search of fish, crab or honey are often killed by tigers and the death of the breadwinner leaves the family mired in poverty. Islanders resort to the catching of tiger prawns or shrimps (Penaeus Monodon) in search of some quick money. Women and children are found dragging nets along the banks of the rivers to catch tiger prawn seeds. However, this is viewed as

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october 1, 2011

being responsible for biodiversity loss and erosion of the mangrove cover. The state forest department in its reports describes the catching of tiger prawns as a threat to the Sundarbans’ ecosystem (Directorate of Forests nd:4; Directorate of Forests 2004:15). Therefore, Herring rightly reminds us that the central dilemma in the Sundarbans development is that, unlike the tribal forests elsewhere in south Asia, where the conflict is between the utilisation of an existing habitat cum common property resource and a historically novel statist claims to management, the shrinking mangrove forests have become an object of conflict between social forces seeking a livelihood and a state that seeks to limit that process (Herring 1987:9).

The Sundarbans islands are inhabited mostly by Bangladeshi refugees. Inhabited islands are encircled by bunds or embankments (mud walls) to protect the islands against daily inundation during high tides. Land erosion is a recurrent phenomenon in the Sundarbans. The course of the river and saline water cause the land to erode at the bed of the river leading to frequent bund or embankment collapse. Embankment collapse and the subsequent flooding of islands can turn a villager into a pauper overnight. A broken or collapsed embankment leaves the villagers marooned for days (depending on the remoteness of the island) until the irrigation department intervenes for the repair or rebuilding of the damaged bund. However, this process of rebuilding involves acquisition of land which contributes to further displacement of the islanders. And rarely, if ever, are people compensated against their lost land. Thus, people’s vulnerability to disaster continues unabated (Oliver-Smith 1996:315) even when the disaster is formally over. There is no denying the fact that like many cyclones in the past, Aila has brought misery to the Sundarbans islanders. But it is equally important to know how these people live between cyclones since they are at the mercy of governmental inaction.

It is in this sense that the post-Aila report is a reminder about how little we care to know about the lives of people in the delta. While the heritage site draws global attention, people living here remain marginalised due to the low priority assigned

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to their problems. The Sundarbans is a disaster prone region, but the government is yet to come up with a disaster management policy. A comprehensive development policy involves efforts on the part of the concerned government departments to establish an information pool on the frequency of disaster, river currents and erosion. A pro-people development policy involves efforts to prevent islanders’ actual or potential displacement. Land acquisition for the purpose of rebuilding embankments can be justified only when it is accompanied by a definite policy of relocation with compensation. A relocation package, to be effective, should reach different sections of the populace.

West Bengal has just had its assembly elections and there has been a mandate in favour of a new government. The question that seems pertinent at this juncture is whether this political change would bring about new hope for the Sundarbans islanders who live under the threat of yet another Aila.

notes

1 The Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove delta, forms the southern part of the Gangetic delta between the rivers Hooghly in the west of West Bengal and Meghna in the east, now in Bangladesh. It encompasses an area of over 25,500 square kilometres, two-thirds of which lie in Bangladesh and one-third in India. The Indian part of the Sundarbans is located at the southern tip of West Bengal and spread across districts of North and South 24 Parganas. The Sundarbans is a World Heritage Site for its unique ecological properties and wildlife reserve particularly the Bengal tiger. In this article I use the word Sundarbans, generally referred to in the plural, to denote the region composed of forested islands, inhabited mainland and inhabited islands and water bodies.

2 Sundarban Basir Sathe (With the people of the Sundarbans) (2010): How the People of the Sundarbans Are Doing: A Post Aila Survey (Kemon Ache Sundarbaner Manush: Aila Parabarti Ekti Sameeksha) (Kolkata: Manthan Samayiki). Sundarban Basir Sathe refers to those who visited and carried out surveys in the post-Aila Sundrbans and contributed to the making of this book.

3 Bigha denotes local unit of measurement which is roughly equal to a third of an acre.

References

Anandabazar Patrika (2011): “Vote-e Aastha Atut Aila Durgato-der” (Aila Strickens’ Faith in Vote Intact) in Anandabazar Patrika (Kolkata), 28 April.

Directorate of Forests (2004): Indian Sundarbans: An Overview, Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal).

– (nd): Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve (Calcutta: Government of West Bengal).

Ghosh, Sanjay (2010): “Kultali Block-er Deulbari Jogneswarpada-i Aila Bishoy-e Prasnabali Bhitwik Sameeksha” (A Questionnaire based Field Survey on Aila at Deulbari Jogneswarpada of Kultali

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Block) in Sundarban Basir Sathe (With the people of the Sundarbans), Kemon Ache Sundarbaner Manush: Aila Parabarti Ekti Sameeksha (How the People of the Sundarbans Are Doing: A Post-Aila Survey) (Kolkata: Manthan Samayiki).

Herring, Ronald (1987): “The Commons and Its ‘Tragedy’ as Analytical Framework: Understanding Environmental Degradation in South Asia”, paper presented at the workshop programme on “The Commons in South Asia: Societal Pressures and the Environmental Integrity in the Sundarbans”, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, 20-21 November.

Jalais, Annu (2010): Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and Environment in the Sundarbans (New Delhi: Routledge).

Mukhopadhyay, Amites (2009): “On the Wrong Side of the Fence: Embankment, People and Social Justice in the Sundarbans” in Pradip Kumar Bose and Samir Kumar Das (ed.), Social Justice and Enlightenment: West Bengal (New Delhi: Sage).

Nandi, Jiten (2010): “Khestra Sameeksha: Paschim Dwarikapur” (Field Survey: West Dwarikapur) in Sundarban Basir Sathe (With the people of the Sundarbans), Kemon Ache Sundarbaner Manush: Aila Parabarti Ekti Sameeksha (How the People of the Sundarbans Are Doing: A Post Aila Survey) (Kolkata: Manthan Samayiki).

Oliver-Smith, Anthony (1996): “Anthropological Research on Hazards and Disasters”, Annual Review of Anthropology, 25: 303-28.

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Sarkar, Samik (2010): “Aila Bidhwasta Sundarbaner Dwipguli-te Aila-r Teen Mas Pare Mati o Pukur-er Jal-e Nun-er Pariman Pariksha” (Test of Salt Content in Soil and Pond Water in Aila Devastated Islands of the Sundarbans after Three Months of Aila) in Sundarban Basir Sathe (With the people of the Sundarbans), Kemon Ache Sundarbaner Manush: Aila Parabarti Ekti Sameeksha (How the People of the Sundarbans Are Doing: A Post Aila Survey) (Kolkata: Manthan Samayiki).

The Telegraph (2009): “Acquisition for Aila Dykes” in The Telegraph (Kolkata), 5 November.

Times of India (2009): “Sunderbans Celebrates Wildlife Week” in Times of India (Kolkata), 22 October.

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