Kolkata Dialogues: Sundarbans, the Climate Canary

Nirajana Chakraborty reports on the third edition of Alliance francaise du Bengale’s Kolkata Dialogues, focusing on the environmental importance of the Sundarbans, its history, geographies and policy impacts.

Alliance Francaise du Bengale in association with Centre for Contemporary Communication Kolkata (CCCT) presented Episode 3 of Kolkata Dialogues – a discussion titled ‘Sundarbans, the Climate Canary’ on 3rd July 2020. Welcoming the viewers Shubhi Mallik, Head of Culture, Media partnerships, mentioned that this particular webinar was supported also by the Alliance Francaise Foundation. Co-curator of Kolkata Dialogues, Mallika Jalan, executive editor at CCCT mentioned that these sessions are intended to create conversation about factors influencing life in the city of Kolkata, and issues concerning the city in various ways.

The previous episode also drew on environmental aspects, discussing Air Pollution in the city and methods of its management, while this episode attempted a coherent examination of the past, present and speculate the future possibilities of the Sundarbans. The panel had four distinguished speakers, environmental anthropologist Prof. Annu Jalais; Sankhanilay Roychowdhury, a reputed polymer scientist based in the Netherlands; economist Subhash Chandra Acharya and Bappaditya Mukhopadhyay, researcher and Professor.

The discussion attempted to present an overview of the Sundarbans, in light of global warming catalyzed sea-level rise, climate change and methods of sustainable conservation possible to preserve this natural heritage. The perspective of state administration towards this ecological area was also examined thoroughly.

The moderator for the session was Anamitra Anurag Danda, a social anthropologist with a keen interest and considerable experience in sustainable development. He emphasized on the ancient relationship between the city and the Sundarbans through the persistence of certain place names like Gariahat, Baghmari, Ental (derived from a mangrove species called Hental) and Kewratala (Kewra being the only mangrove species with edible fruits). This deltaic region formed by silt depositions from rivers Ganga , Brahmaputra and Meghna is only 3000-5000 years old and continues to be the only mangrove tiger-habitat of the world. Danda drew our attention to the primary beneficiary service these forests offer to the city; they attenuate cyclonic storms to lessen the destructive impact, acting as a buffer zone as witnessed during Aila (2009), Bulbul (2019) and the very recent Amphan (May 2020). But the increased frequency of these storms in the recent century is hindering the recovery period to be effective, in both the inhabited and afforested areas. With most of Hooghly’s tributaries being discontinuous or drying up, and multiple damns being built, the supply of silt has considerably decreased.

Sankhanilay Roychowdhury, the first speaker from the panel, drew on the history of Sunderbans before the British took charge, when the Dutch process of claiming lands as pirates was common to these areas, he also presented a comparative understanding of how Netherlands deals with their dykes as opposed to India’s dealing with embankments in the Sundarbans. Being born in the Hooghly district and now residing in the Rhine delta, Dr. Roychowdhury remarked how the physical and human history of inhabited deltaic lands extensively co-evolve. The North-West Bengal ( Raarh area), situated on the west banks of river Hooghly was always ruled by powerful but small kingdoms, that following Bakhtiyar Khilji’s invasion witnessed a dynamic period of change. After the Turkish invaded and moved east, people were lured by the potential fertility of these delta basins to double the crop-produce in Bengal. It was then that the Muslim peer (or prophet) Khanjahar developed the southern part of Khulna with his influence, as the people worked overtime under him, the number of local converts into Islam rose while huge tracts of land was also converted into cultivable plots. Roychowdhury locates the Battle of Plassey as the historical starting point of working the Sundarbans. Though the developmental approach of the British was discriminatory and opportunistic, due to the lack of revenues, certain posts including that of the Sundarban Commissioner were set up by these colonizers.

A screenshot from Jalais’s talk.

Prof. Annu Jalais, author of Forest of Tigers: People, Politics and the Environment in the Sundarbans (2009), briefly explained the human-nature interaction in these areas; she recounted the Sunderbans of her first visit, in the late 80s. During a school trip she first encountered this unique ecosystem. During this period scientists were attempting to discover ways to remedy the ‘man-eating’ nature of the Bengal tigers. With electrified dummies and leaving sugar molasses near fresh-water ponds, artificially dug up, they attempted to change the inherent nature of tigers to safeguard the inhabitants. The popular use of masks by the locals was almost a superstitious safeguard while venturing into the core areas and Prof Jalais recalled how she and her friend were refused masks because of the stringent belief that only locals were to use those. The question that made her base her doctoral research on the Sunderbans as she articulated was “What does science mean when it is applicable to some and not others?” On one hand as this question remains pertinent to date, she also pointed to the indigenous goddess Bonobibi whose worship reflected a ritualistic simplicity, portraying how the rural rhetoric of greed being evil almost integrated into itself concepts like the tragedy of the commons. She elaborated on the function of this indigenous myth of the Sundarbans-where a mutually peaceful relationship between the shape-shifter Dokhin Rai and Dukkhe, a small boy, both sons of Bonobibi- resonates with the idea of a sustainable relationship between the human and tigers, nature and man. She highlighted the historical syncretism in the nature of this goddess, sent by the compassionate Allah as a protector of the inhabitants now being morphed into Bonodurga or Bonochondi (categorically Hindu goddess forms) under the current political climate. The locals of these islands, she notes, especially in the Sunderbans of Bangladesh, call it veneration in remembrance of Sufi saints, not a form of worship. Thus popular modes of understanding religion do not define Sundarbans’ culture, one that puts the greater pursuit of survival over ethnic, racial hierarchical differences. Although Adivasis, workers, farmers, and people from the higher-class were brought in to develop these areas in the late 1880s, the fact that they had to self-sustain to a great extent, brought them together birthing very indigenous culture.

Subhash Chandra Acharya is himself an individual hailing from Sundarbans, now residing in Sonarpur. His talk centered on the dual functioning of state view and inhabitant’s view that shaped the recent developmental history of that isolated geography. Having served as an official of Sundarban Development Board for 34 years and studied at the school of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, Mr. Acharya observed that the short-term solution to shoreline destruction can be rebuilding the embankments to strength every few years, after the ones built after Aila (2009) seemed to withstand the heavy blows from the recent Amphan. He personally experienced the ravages of cyclonic storms on 14th August 1976, he had survived then for three days on the thatched roof of a hut with his family closely observing poverty, deaths and utter lack of healthcare or systematic governance. At or near the island of Pathar Pratima there were no hospitals built until 1975; only after the frustrating results from a Techno-Economic Survey did the money from IFAD (International Fund for Agricultural Development) allow them to work on infrastructural development for some years until 1989. The annual budget was lowered by the Indian government to less than 20 crores annually after 2001, forcing the members of development board to seek monetary help from the Planning and Finance Commissions. It is here that Mr. Acharya remarks how an “emphasis on inland infrastructure development took primacy” in an area which solicited higher environment-driven actions, human habitations started breaching into the core areas, spilling over the Dampier-Hodge’s line, rising the conflict between tigers and humans, with increased poaching, deforestation and consequent saline water incursions onto paddy fields. The 5000 crore relief fund for Aila, he pointed, was only used to build 100km of embankment. Islands of Hasnabad, Minnakha, Sandeshkhali I and II are among the most vulnerable, presently in dire need of material and technical support since Bulbul and Amphan. A population of roughly 2o lakh now resides on these fringes and transitional zones, caught between the state and central government’s question of responsibility.

The final speaker for this webinar, Bappaditya Mukhopadyay, an esteemed data-analyst introduced the role of satellite imagery examination for village-wise vulnerability mapping in the Sundarbans. An economist by training, Mukhopadyay listed the various institutional challenges on the face of climate change to deal with such a complex environmental crisis. Defining this case as a problem of ‘developmental economics’, he emphasized on the huge potential in bulk unstructured data to aid create systematically both a short-term and long-term plan and determine a suitable line of action, execution of strategies and ecological preservation. Unless retreats are managed and pre-calculated and people from the severely distressed geo-locations can be rehabilitated, says Mukhopadhyay, another wave of distressed migration might occur as it did in 2009 and result in enormous eco-trauma. That the consensus building body lacks pure intentions, biased by legislative benefits, is a major challenge; therefore the market-based solutions may fail to act for the true interest of people. Mukhopadyay suggests here a need for creating an enabling mechanism for people to relocate (specific to islands on way of being submerged) and equipping them with economic skills to survive in alternate forms of societies. Thus to repeat the main point of emphasis: a mapping according to degrees of vulnerability for disaster management and rehabilitation procedures is an urgent requirement. A study of peripheral villages with similar geo-climates conditions might be a step in this direct, for more acute predictions and management methods.

The discussion that followed chiefly focused on the question of embankments, whether they are the cause behind the problems or a possible solution. In this context Subhash Acharya told, as India lacks a structural integrated plan, or since a notion of ownership of embankments as an asset of the locals has never been cultivated, in the short-term only sturdier reconstruction of embankments seems like a feasible approach. Unlike the scenario in Netherlands where dykes were built and maintained by the simultaneous cooperation of people and the government since the formation of Project Delta following the 1953 flood, India’s government forces legislation and control on the inhabitants, resulting in the lack of a cooperative environment of mutual support. There are models of securing inland activities in the Netherlands which can be considered, noted Roychowdhury, like closing water inlets during flooding, installing water-pumping stations and building alternative sources of energy (windmills, in this case) to meet these regulatory power demands(solar as a potential in case of the Sundarbans). Accountability of the locals is integral to any effective reform or development, but as Prof. Jalais remarked, no inhabitant is made part of the decision making body. Out migration to Garia, Sonarpur, Baruipur is most common to all people who draw financially from the job opportunities located in the Sundarbans, she observed. Further the lack of storage facilities, training programs exclude the locals from minor trades like hive-collections, making all the investors of this area essentially ones who settle outside of it. If it is the perception of ecological threat, uncertain professional prospects or lack of basic education and healthcare, that subject people gaining ample resource into instantly becoming ‘willing migrants’ continues to remain a complex and necessary question.    

Nirajana Chakraborty studies English Literature at Jadavpur University. She can be reached at nirajanachakraborty@gmail.com

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