Sundarbans: Dark Clouds & A Silver Lining

Sundarbans in West Bengal and Bangladesh is surely famous for its majestic Royal Bengal Tiger, an endangered species. Ecologically a global hot spot and a UNESCO heritage zone, both its ecology and its human habitation are now in serious danger and on the verge of a precipice after the fierce Cyclone Amphan hit it recently washing away thousands of homes, destroying livelihood, agriculture, fisheries and the vast mangroves, turning fresh water rivers into salt lakes or saline water bodies.

Sundarbans is the only wildlife zone in India which also allows man-eaters to roam free and they are not shot or imprisoned in cages of a zoo. It is also legendary for its huge delta and mangrove forests, an abundance of wildlife, crocodiles, birds, river and sea fish, insects and flora and fauna, and a kaleidoscope of bio-diversity including perhaps the finest honey found in South Asia.

The reserve is inhabited by around 4 million people, many of them refugees from the mainland or from across the border, who have migrated in different phases before and after the Partition. These millions who live in the buffer zone with great danger of both animals and natural catastrophes, surrounded by wetlands, water bodies, fresh water and saline water rivers, and the sea nearby, are situated perhaps in one of the most dangerous, fragile, sensitive and shifting demographic zone of land, river and forests.

The difficult and impossible terrain in the core area is not easy to access, hence, it is still not clear as to what has happened to the majestic tiger population or marine life in the region. 

Indeed, a cyclone or storm at high speed which ravages homes and the habitat begins to form naturally as a routine in the Bay of Bengal, as and when the high surface temperature leads to a cyclonic turbulence. Before Cyclone Amphan, Cyclone Aila had also wrecked massive destruction in the Sundarbans, destroying mangroves, fisheries, agricultural fields, fishermen’s boats and homes, and water bodies. 

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As after Cyclone Amphan, it is also Sundarbans which blocks or absorbs the ferocity of the storm and helps maintain some kind of ecological balance, thereby stopping the storm’s speed to hit the mainland and the plains with the same ferocity, though the cyclone did damage and destroy Kolkata’s basic infrastructure, like telephone and electricity lines in the first instance, flooding the entire city. It goes to the credit of the West Bengal government that they were quick to restore a semblance of normalcy, especially electricity lines in large parts of the ‘Mahanagar’ soon after the cyclone.

Over the decades, Sundarbans has faced invasion of human population due to acute poverty, homelessness, conflicts and violence, and economic migration from across West and East Bengal. The population pressure has not been allowed to reach the core areas, but a huge area of the buffer zone is literally spilling over into the core areas in both India and Bangladesh. Plus the ravages of construction activity, real estate and tourist sharks, and industry, especially in Bangladesh.

For instance, under construction in recent times has been a coal-fired power station at Rampal in the Bagerhat sub-division of Khulna. This might decisively alter for years to come the delicate ecological balance of this precious heritage site, according to environmentalists in Bangladesh. A joint venture between India’s National Thermal Power Corporation (NTPC) and Bangladesh Power Development Board (BPDP), the venture has been announced as the Bangladesh India Friendship Power Company, signaling a sign of friendship between the two neighbouring countries.

The coal-based venture is slated to generate 1,320MW of power, stretched across over 1,834 acres of this pristine zone, and is just about 14 km north of the world’s largest mangrove forest, Sundarbans, near the sublime saline estuary Poshur. This reporter ventured near the project in the summer of 2018 where journalists are not allowed to enter, and no peaceful protests are allowed, not even writing on the wall.

According to experts, Bangladesh has gas and power, it lacks coal. And India wants to dump its huge quantity of coal through this river project, thereby threatening the vulnerable ecological dynamics of this sensitive organic natural landscape. If the project starts operating, and by all indication it will, birds, marine life and wildlife will certainly move to a different terrain, including crocodiles and the tiger, the water quality will change including its temperature, the daily tidal waves will be impacted, and the thousands of sq km of the deeper core of the mangrove forests will not be the same anymore.

Besides, where will they dump the huge amount of fly-ash, waste products, garbage, industrial waste, etc?  Into the waters and the estuaries?

In the Indian side there is a serious effort to preserve its ecology, due to civil society consciousness. There is still a debate ranging on the coal-based plant in Bangladesh, including among its intelligentsia and students in prestigious universities like in Khulna and Dhaka. Almost all the Left parties told this reporter in Khulna that they are just not allowed to peacefully protest.

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However, amidst the destruction, the human will to survive and reach out, preserved its sanctity.  The civil society collectives in Bengal, especially the voluntary sector and students, pulled in all their efforts for immediate relief in the Sundarbans and 24 Parganas. The Bengal Relieve Collective, along with Prameya and Elsa, and other groups moved in almost on day one, taking the help of fishermen and boat people to provide relief in the remote and marooned villages surrounded by water. 

In the second phase of their relief now, they are primarily focusing on mangrove reconstruction and conservation, ecological preservation, community and women’s health and education in the second phase of the relief operations. In the first phase was home reconstruction, food, tarpaulins, torches, medicine and drinking water etc. They have apparently reached almost 2500 families, that is, around 10,000 people in 15 areas, contributing relief material worth Rs 15 lakh.

The Bangla Sanskriti Mancha, based in Kolkata and in remote districts, comprising youngsters, students and others, too moved in decisively. They entered not only Sundarbans but also nearby areas of 24 Parganas; currently they are helping out in Birbhum, among other places, posting their daily activities in the social media in Bangla.

Recently they held a rock concert called ‘Bottle Rockets India lighting up lives in Sundarbans’ in which filmmaker Anurag Kashyap helped wholeheartedly. In a post they said: “Thank you Anurag Kashyap for your love and support to Bangla Sanskriti Manch.”

In this online concert called ‘Assam sings for Bengal’, in trying to also bind each other  with friendly ties considering even Assam suffers devastating annual floods due to the ferocity of river Brahmaputra, their poster said, seeking donations: “We are hosting via MovieSaints a fundraiser eConcert . The group is quirkily called We Care… It is for Amphan relief in the Sundarbans. Do join in if you can please! And share ahead! Music with a heart and a purpose! Join the Assam Heartthrob band Bottle Rockets India tonight, #July1, 8pm IST as they perform for #Lighting Up Lives in the Sundarbans! Heartthrob #Sumon aka Arghadeep Barua is their vocals!

Besides, the National Hawker Federation and the Hawker Sangram Samiti went on boats to remote areas in the Sundarbans to distribute food packets. They, like the Jadavpur Commune comprising students, researchers and former students of Jadavpur University in Kolkata, who run a community kitchen in the campus, reached out with food and other essentials in Sundarbans. They also have been active since the pandemic and the lockdown, distributing food and sanitisers across the city, especially to vendors, slum dwellers, homeless people and cops, among others.

What has indeed been a silver lining amidst the despair is that after the initial hiccups when the local administration and the political apparatus of the ruling regime in Bengal did not come up to the expectations, Mamata Banerjee’s government has quickly moved in with free ration across the hinterland of the Sundarbans. This has been a big relief for the 4 million people in this difficult and fragile landscape. Indeed, the West Bengal government has promised free food to the poor till June 2021.

‘Corona Unsettled Us, Cyclone Added To The Misery’

Rashmi Singh, a 37-year-old banker in Kolkata, says going to work, household chores and distancing had begun to tell on her family when Cyclone Amphan added to their woes

I got transferred to Kolkata in July and from then on it has been a series of one readjustment after another. Just as my family of four (with two kids aged 5 and 8) was settling down to Kolkata’s slow and languid pace after Bengaluru’s fast- paced life that Coronavirus struck.

Being a banker, my work comes under essential services and there was no way work from home was an option for me. So every day during the lockdown I had to go to work. With no access to maids during the lockdown, it meant I had to do all the household chores and cooking before leaving for work.

Thankfully my husband has proved to be of tremendous support and also had the option to work from home, so he would (and always does) help in the household chores as much as he could and take care of the kids while I was at work. Commuting to office during lockdown was very difficult as one had very little access to cabs. Driving to work also wasn’t an option. One didn’t know what one was exposed to while at work.

And just when we thought we had got the lockdown figured out that Cyclone Amphan, one of the deadliest cyclones that India has ever seen, struck.

Thankfully due to technology we were informed beforehand of the havoc Amphan could wreak. The timing of the landfall had been predicted around 2.30 pm on Wednesday, May 20. And we were at work till 12 pm that day. Then we hurried back home as soon as we could. Thankfully the roads were empty because of both lockdown and Amphan. But around an hour after I reached home that mayhem started.

My kids, and to be honest, even I was terrified of the whooshing sound the storm was making. Our balcony had sliding windows, just like everyone else in our society. They made such rattling sounds as if they would fall off. One resident’s AC unit actually fell off on a car. We could see scooties falling down and cars colliding with one another as their owners hadn’t applied handbrakes after parking.

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I live in a society in Tangra (which is near China Town) and thankfully our society RWA (Residents’ Welfare Association) did a terrific job of handling both the lockdown as well as Amphan or the damages could have been much more.

We had one corona positive case in our society and the society president and his team did a wonderful job of streamlining everything. First of all it was ensured that there would be no discrimination against the person who tested positive and his family. Then a dedicated guard sat outside their house and would provide the family with everything they needed. Those of us who work in the essential services were also taken care of. Excel sheets were drawn up for the delivery of groceries to the whole society (around 1200 houses which means nearly 5,000 people). Each tower had 3-4 volunteers. Things were tough during lockdown but they could have been tougher if not for the RWA taking care of small things.

They did the same thing when Amphan struck. They drew a list of things that could be done to minimize damage. Everyone was asked to clear their balcony of potted plants or sharp objects. The water pump was switched on so that the basement parking wouldn’t be flooded (many nearby societies found their basements flooded because they hadn’t planned beforehand). Many more such steps were taken. Senior citizens and families with people with special needs were checked upon.

Work from home was impossible the next day as both the internet services as well as electricity supply had been affected. But while many areas of Kolkata are still suffering our LAN wire cables were repaired and the RWA had managed to supply electricity through generators. Sometimes I wonder if an RWA can be so efficient, why can’t our governments be as proactive and prepared? And not only should they be prepared, they should also let people know that they are well-prepared so that people don’t panic.

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Kolkata taught me that we can do wonders if we come together as human beings. I couldn’t have adjusted to so many quick and sudden changes without the help of our RWA. Amphan and coronavirus taught me that we should always be in tune with nature or nature will keep taking corrective measures like these. Time we understood we are a part of nature.

‘As If Virus Wasn’t Bad Enough, Down Came A Cyclone’

Sweata Jaiswal Singh, 37, says she hasn’t seen a bigger disaster than Amphan in her entire life in Kolkata. Singh says her three-year-old son is still not over the trauma

I have been born and brought up in Kolkata but never in the 37 years of my life have I witnessed the state of destruction as brought on by cyclone Amphan. I live in one of the busiest areas of Kolkata, i. e. Howrah and we suffered big time. There was water logging everywhere and our electricity supply got disrupted. The motor in our society malfunctioned and we had to use water drawn by boring pumps. But that was also difficult because of the erratic power supply. We had somewhat normal electricity and water supply only on the third day, i. e around May 22.

The past two months have proved to be quite difficult for us. I have a 7 year old daughter and a 3 year old son and both have been cooped up in our home for two months now due to coronavirus. Both my husband and I are in the banking sector and both don’t have the luxury of working from home and thus we have finally agreed upon a schedule where we go to our respective offices on alternate days.

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Most kids have both their parents at homes and my kids see both of us going to work. They have their online classes going on as well. We find it very difficult to adjust to so many changes all at one go, first we adjusted to the lockdown, then having to go to office during lockdown, then working from home on alternate days during lockdown, then having no access to household help and managing both home and work, as well as helping the kids adjust to these changes.

Would you believe it: my parents live in the nearby society, but it has been two months since I have seen them? My kids are so used to seeing their Nana-Nani regularly that they now wonder when they will be able to see their grandparents again.

My son is still scared from what he saw on Wednesday and asks me many times:  “Mumma, will the storm come again and again?” He was scared of both the sights and sounds during Amphan’s landfall. I don’t have an answer to his questions but bigger and bigger cyclones have been hitting India for the past few years.

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I got ready to go to office the next day after the cyclone, but since the roads were all blocked because of water logging and because trees had fallen, I had to come back to my home. Internet services are a lifeline in these times and they have been affected as well.

Thankfully our society had managed grocery and all beforehand so there is no shortage of food items. But 2020 has turned out to be such an uncertain year that one wonders what is going on. It feels as if no matter how prepared we are nature is proving to be smarter than us. Hope we learn from all this and also learn to respect nature.