“Here, in the Sundarbans, danger lurks everywhere,” says 28-year-old Anita Barman of Hogol Duri village. “On land there are tigers. In the water, crocodiles. And in the air, cyclones. But we have learnt to live with these.”
Sundarbans is the world’s largest delta where the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers discharge into the Bay of Bengal. It is the home of the Royal Bengal Tiger. Here, landfalls of storms, cyclones and super-cyclones are an annual recurrence and the islanders have learnt to cope with them.
This year was more unfortunate, as right in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, which has already put a huge economic strain on these people of the Sundarbans, the super-cyclone Amphan has caused havoc.
Amphan ripped through the region, tearing down houses, destroying crops and flooding fertile fields with saline water rendering them useless for cultivation.
“When Amphan made landfall, the wind speed clocked at nearly 175 kilometers per hour,” says Ambarish Nag Biswas, Head of a Disaster Management team in the Sundarbans during the super-cyclone. “To save lives, the people of the islands had been evacuated by the state government to safety shelters. But when they eventually went back to their dwellings, many found that their homes, which are mostly mud huts with thatched roofs, had been washed away,” he adds.
They lost cattle, and their crops were destroyed. But they took it in their stride and reorganised their lives.
How villagers are saving the Sundarbans
Islanders of Sundarbans are rebuilding lives and homes, piece by piece.
Ajibun Mollah, 58, a local farmer, says, “Giving up is not an option. We have to conquer fear. We have to fight. We have to move forward.” After “Aila”, the super-cyclone which tore through the region in 2009, claimed his farmlands, inundating his paddy crops with salt and saline water, he decided to turn to cultivation of fish.
According to the West Bengal government, the state sustained damages of one trillion rupees at least, with 86 lives lost. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee described the human and economic cost of the Amphan as more devastating than even that of the Covid-19 pandemic thus far.
The state is now supporting a new initiative of afforestation employing the local women. They are planting thousands of mangrove saplings to save the swamps.
This project is now counted as an integral part of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) . In their spare time, taking breaks from household chores, these women plant the saplings, first in freshwater nurseries, such as ponds and lakes and after a month or two replant them in salt water river banks when they are sturdy enough to withstand the salinity. They are finally transported for plantation in the coastal areas.
A number of NGOs working in the Sundarbans have undertaken programmes to help these women in the afforestation drive.
Another successful initiative is the adoption of a new farming method to overcome the salinity in their paddy fields by cultivating new strains of salt-resistant rice. This has helped farmers grow more than one crop a year.
What makes Sundarbans so cyclone-prone?
Villagers are always on the alert. Even children have accepted the reality. “It can come any time,” says Salim, an eleven-year-old boy from Basanti village, who was born on the day Aila struck.
“The combination of heat, air and water pressure which forms and sustains cyclones is a frequently occurring phenomenon in the Bay of Bengal,” explains an IMD official. It is also low-lying, causing frequent flooding.
According to environmentalists, the Sundarbans, before mass deforestation, was naturally suited to rebuff sea storms, absorbing much of the impact.
The history of human settlements in this region dates back to British times. Thousands of acres of mangroves, previously considered too hostile for habitation, were cleared to promote agriculture. Today it has a population of five million.
The Royal Bengal Tiger adapted to this unusual habitat, attracting global attention. However, hunting was rampant during the British times, driving it to near extinction, and this majestic big cat still remains an endangered species long after they left.
It was only after strong efforts by global wildlife conservationists and the Wild Life Protection Act, 1972, forbidding the hunting or poaching of tigers that the damage was somewhat contained. Though surreptitious poaching still continues to take place, the legal ban and recent efforts at conservation has seen a marginal growth in tiger population. According to the latest statistics of the West Bengal Forest Department, the Royal Bengal Tiger count for the years 2019-2020 went up to 96, from 88 in the years 2018-2019.
A man vs. beast quandary
For the people living in close proximity to the deep mangrove forests, the risk posed by tiger attacks, is a stark reality.
Stories of fisher folk getting dragged out of canoes, which often get stuck in the mud of narrow, shallow canals inside jungles are common. As are tales of wood and honey collectors in search of forest produce, being mauled to death by tigers. The shrinking habitats are only making these more frequent.
Sign posts of treatments for “tiger or crocodile attack,” are commonly seen on the village roads of the Sundarbans. In several villages a tradition is followed where women dress up in the white widows’ attire when their husbands venture out, to ward off evil until their return. “If they came back, they would start to wear their normal clothes again. But often it was taken for granted that they would not return,” says a woman from Gosaba village.
“When they go out for work, they take days, often weeks. It is a time of extreme anxiety for us.” Temples of the village deity and protector, Bon bibi (Forest Goddess), dot the alleys and village roads.
Forest officials claim that the villagers often venture into the restricted areas without permits. They feel that the number of deaths and injuries could be minimised if these illegal practices stopped and they stuck to the safer zones.
However, islanders, weathered by years of living on the edge, admit they sometimes have to take a risk. “If we play too safe, we may not do enough business or worse, starve,” says a fisherman. But flouting of government guidelines is discouraged by local administrators.
The current mood here is how to bounce back from Amphan. “After Amphan, direct cash transfers were made into the accounts of the affected people on the orders of the CM to help them tide over the crisis,” says a ruling party core committee member. However, the weak public distribution system and corruption means a lot of this doesn’t even reach them.
The unpredictable ecology of the Sundarbans poses a constant tug of war between humans and nature. Mangrove conservation, protecting the endangered tigers and efforts to build sustainable livelihoods is a constant and precarious balancing act. More initiatives to ensure resilient livelihoods will not only reduce the economic pressure, but also preserve this unique ecosystem.
(Dola Mitra is a Kolkata-based journalist and author of ‘Decoding Didi’. She is the Editor of digital news portal Cuckoo News)