Mainstream, VOL LIV No 15 New Delhi April 2, 2016
The Sinking Sundarbans: But How Will the Government Correct Its Own Folly?
Monday 4 April 2016
by Sanhita Mukherjee
Recently there was a frightening report in a mass circulated vernacular daily of Kolkata. The report indicated that the Ghoramara island of the Sundarbans, situated just three miles away from the Bay of Bengal, is now on its way to obliteration as the advancing river is certain to gobble it up in the near future. Only 3000 bighas of land now remain out of the 29,000 bighas which constituted the island previously.1
The report should raise consternation as in the event of the destruction of the Sundarbans, the existence of Kolkata will also be threatened. Already there are reports that the city of Kolkata is also sinking. It is unfortunate that the Sundarbans, which could have been a treasure for the country in the age of global warming, have in fact been devastated by the myopic policies followed by the governments at the Centre as well as in the State of West Bengal since independence.
Obviously all talk of conservation and protection of environment does not hold any meaning for the Sundarbans as reckless immigration, which had started during the time of the colonial British rulers, is still continuing. Ghoramara was in fact one of those first group of islands that had served as British outposts in the Sundarbans. Here was situated the Sundarbans’ first post and telegraph office and police station.2 The location of the island—just on the confluence of the Bay of Bengal and the Hooghly river—establishes that by going so deep into the Sundarbans’ pristine forest the British had set in motion the process of destruction.
But very few people in the corridors of power are taking note. As early as in 2007, the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University (SOSJU) had noted that Ghoramara had shrank in size by 41 per cent since 1969.3 Their prediction that the reduced and famished stretch of land might no more last beyond 2020 now stares upon the faces of the two governments at Kolkata and New Delhi. But more threatening is the SOSJU’s assessment that by 2022 a dozen more islands in the Sundarbans will go under the sea.4
But another figure given by the SOSJU is more revealing and point to the real reason behind the present horrific plight of the Sundarbans. As per the report, the existing 3 km by 3 km land in the Ghoramara island now supports some 5400 marginal farmers, fishermen and daily labourers.5 This refers to a large pattern now prevalent in various other islands of the Sundarbans—increasing density of population per square kilometre. But the delta is completely unsuitable for human habitation and should have been left alone. The following portions of the article will prove that this could not have been possible without either the governments’ initiatives or apathy.
Has the Central Government or the Govern-ment of West Bengal chalked out any strategy to fight the coming environmental disaster? Apprehensions have been expressed in certain quarters that much of the city of Kolkata will be under water in the next 50 years and this means submergence of the Sundarbans first.6 Ghoramara, along with two other already submerged islands, namely, Lohachara and Suparibhanga, has given the forewarning.
It has been observed that the rate of warming of temperatures in the rivers, creeks and at the confluence of the sea in the Sundarbans is much more than the average rate of global warming—a rise of 0.5 degree Celsius in every 12 years. It has been estimated that from 1980 to 2016 there will be a 1.5 degree Celsius rise in the water regime of the Sundarbans.7
It is really inexplicable why successive governments in independent India did not put a stop to the process of bringing people from outside and then settling them in different islands of the Sundarbans, a practice first started by the colonial British administration to ensure supply of food and cereals for the burgeoning European population of Calcutta. The British had an insufficient knowledge of the local geology and geo-morphology. So they cleared dense forests and settled cultivators in a region which is not meant for human population. The British wanted to put the clock back and make the Sundarbans prosperous again.
However, since the end of the medieval period the lower Gangetic basin has slowly changed its alignment from the west to the east.8 Thus the local rivers, the lifelines of the region, had become mere brackish waters of the sea and their connections with the Ganges, which itself had lost much of its water supply to the Padma, were severed. From this time onwards the flora and fauna in that part of the Sundarbans, which now falls within the present-day Bangladesh, became healthier due to the increased supply of sweet waters.
Very soon not only West Bengal, but some other parts of India as well may face a peculiar phenomenon called ‘environmental refugees’ as the Sundarbans are now experiencing intra-regional as well as inter-regional migrations. Already a good number of such people have settled in the fringe areas of Delhi and Mumbai. Kolkata too is experiencing a steady trickle of people from the Sundarbans. This may become a major social problem of West Bengal in the days to come.
The Sundarbans cover around 2.05 million hectates of area out of which the major portion lies within Bangladesh. The Indian portion—falling within the districts of 24-Parganas (South) and 24-Parganas (North), West Bengal—comprises 0.79 million hectares. This largest delta in the world consists, in its Indian portion, of 102 low lying swampy islands formed by the principal tributaries of the Ganges, their numerous water channels and backwater creeks from the Bay of Bengal. The Indian Sundarbans are spread over 19 blocks from the two 24-Parganas. Out of the above mentioned 102 islands, 54 are inhabited.
But successive governments in India have allowed more than 40 lakh people to settle in 54 islands while the land available for cultivation is only 7,41,944 acres, mostly mono-crop areas, as the land suffers from salinity due to proximity to the sea. Not much attempt has been made to make the land fit for multi-crop cultivation and a second crop has been possible in only about 10-15 per cent of the cultivable area.9
But the most alarming aspect is the fact that migrants are being allowed to set up their habitations quite close to the Bay of Bengal—in areas which are completely at the mercy of nature. The Ghoramara island is situated in such a location. An inevitable result has been destruction of pristine forests, particularly mangroves, which act as the first solid buffer against severe cyclonic storms from the Bay of Bengal. It is noteworthy in this connection that cyclonic storms in the city of Kolkata are gradually gaining in intensity. Moreover destruction of mangrove forests—either for setting up of squatters’ colonies or for prawn farming—leads to continuous erosion of land thus facilitating the process of churning out hordes of ‘environmental refugees’.
Population analyses reveal that the villages in the core areas of the Sundarbans have greater area sizes, greater human numbers but lower densities.10 It means that large areas are being allowed to be gobbled up for setting up a single village resulting in more destruction of forests. This is a continuous process and is going on for decades. In 1895 the Sundarbans had 20,000 square kilometres of forest cover.11 But in 1947 this had dwindled to 10,000 square kilometres of which only 4264 square kilometres devolved to West Bengal.12
Time has already passed for ringing the alarm-bell. The danger is quite close at hand. Surface-level temperatures of the seas surrounding the Indian subcontinent are expected to rise by about 1.5 to 2 degree Celsius by the middle of this century and by about 2.5 to 3.5 degree Celsius at the end of it.13 This is quite a staggering figure. But the rate of rise is much more on the Sundarbans’ shore.
Various studies are going on in regard to the rise in sea levels and its temperatures. Some have predicted even grimmer pictures. Mean-while there has been more than 234 per cent increase of population in the Sundarbans. This cannot be possible unless large-scale immigrations from Bangladesh and other areas of India have been allowed. It has been estimated that the total population of the Sundarbans may reach the frightening level of five million by 2020.14
Governments in the State and at the Centre have tried some cosmetic measures only. In 1973 the Government of India declared 2585 sq km of forests in the delta as a tiger reserve. Then again 9360 sq km of the Sundarbans area was declared a bio-sphere reserve in 1989. But as later developments prove, these steps are hopelessly inadequate to address the not-too-distant environmental catastrophe.
1. Ananda Bazar Patrika, January 10, 2016.
2. Maureen Nandini Mitra, ‘Vanishing Islands’, Down to Earth, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2007, p. 26.
3. School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, quoted in Maureen Nandini Mitra, ‘Vanishing Islands’, Down to Earth, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2007, p. 26.
6. ‘Kolkata Under Sea in 50 Years’, The Statesman, March 26, 2009.
7. Ananda Bazar Patrika, January 1, 2010.
8. Sukumar Singh, Sundarbaner Itikatha O Asarkari Unnayan Sanstha (in Bengali), Kolkata, 2001, p. 10.
9. Barun De, West Bengal District Gazetteers, 24-Parganas, Kolkata, 1994, p. 715.
10. Anuradha Banerjee, Environment, Population and Human Settlements of Sundarban Delta, New Delhi, 1998, p. 293.
11. Barun De, West Bengal District Gazetteers, 24-Parganas, Kolkata, 1994, p. 715.
13. Ritu Gupta, ‘Global Warming and Sea Level Rise’, Down to Earth, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2007, p. 27.
14. Maureen Nandini Mitra, ‘Vanishing Islands’, Down to Earth, Centre for Science and Environment, New Delhi, 2007, pp 28, 29.
The author is an Associate Professor of History, Rishi Bankim Chandra College, Naihati, West Bengal.