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Sundarbans in the eye of a storm

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Small waves of the Matla river lapping the tiled embankment in the deep interiors of Kultali thana in the Sundarbans, boats waiting on the banks of Naipukur river, a tributary of Matla, close to Kantamari bazaar, strips of red cloth draping the age old banyan tree symbolic of a seat of worship—vignettes from an archaeological fieldtrip in 2017 flashed across my mind
when cyclone Amphan razed villages, mauled lives and wreaked havoc in coastal Bengal, including the city of Kolkata. The treacherously playful waves of the Matla conceal a ferocity known only by the local residents, whose lives are entwined with the river and the ecology of the
region, now trapped in a tangled web of misery, loss and destruction.
As I write, Kolkata has bounced back to its familiar rhythm. Power connections snapped during the storm were restored within a week’s time. Telecom services and internet connectivity took a little longer. The dismembered, uprooted trees were chopped up and moved to the pavements to make way for vehicles. However, in the Sundarbans trees have largely been wiped out, those that remain are bent and stooping across a barren rust-tainted landscape.

Recently at least 10,000 people of two gram panchayat areas were rendered homeless after a 50-metre stretch of a thatched dam on river Goureshwar was breached by a fresh tidal wave in Hingalganj of Hansnabad block of North 24-Parganas. Images of a less publicized reality continue to haunt me, those WhatsApped to me by students from villages in Kakdwip, who are trying to clamber back to a semblance of ‘normalcy’ amidst ravaged houses, submerged fields, rotting Boro yield and betel leaves and salinity infested ponds.

A treasure trove of folklore, performing arts and religious
festivities which is any anthropologist’s dream, the region also has a richly layered archaeological past of almost 3000 years.

Their lives and ours are entangled. The sufferings of Kakdwip and other coastal zones no longer seem distant. Climatologists predict if immediate steps are not adopted to save the Sundarbans within the next 50 years or so, Kolkata will become extremely vulnerable to the ravages of cyclonic storms.
Meteorologists consider the Bay of Bengal to be the worst place for storm surges. When the water in this shallow and concave area is pushed by the strong winds of a tropical cyclone, it gets funnelled as the storm moves up the bay. The increasing trend in the frequency of cyclones in May over the past 122 years has been +0.36. These are known facts. Trudging along precariously narrow brick-laid paths spiralling through the remote villages on the banks of the Matla, I had encountered a little known and
messy terrain, emmeshed in rapacity and relentless corruption.

Accompanied by Sanjoy Ghosh from Joynagar-Majilpur and Debishankar Midya from Kashinagar, I was making one of my first trips on a sultry March afternoon to assess how best the cultural heritage of Sundarbans could be studied. A treasure trove of folklore, performing arts and religious
festivities which is any anthropologist’s dream, the region also has a richly layered archaeological past of almost 3000 years.

The delta is one of the richest and most varied in the world in terms of natural resources. It has a uniquely fragile ecosystem with a mangrove vegetation that acts as a natural buffer against coastal erosion and seawater ingress into a densely populated region. Climatological studies point to the annual count of summer days increasing. Rising trends in upward scaling
of temperature have been directly linked to storm surges, and changes in precipitation to rising sea levels. This has an effect on tidal flow during high tides. The level of water gutting the coastline increases, further inundating the interior lands. Known as the backwater effect, this has a serious impact on the normal flood regime. The carrying capacity of rivers like Matla has also been reduced by an increase in silt load, triggering frequent flooding.
Local factors exacerbate the situation. Motor-fitted vans running on cheap diesel, locally called kata tel, are the only means of transport for thousands living in the remotest parts. The fuel, when emptied into the river further raises the surface temperature.

The region also suffers from a lack of adequate housing and embankments. Even scholars and officials of the colonial period had observed that each village requires a flood shelter, a raised embankment around each small pond to act as a protective shield against the incursion of salinity, and a specific distance between human settlement and the river. Yet, suitable housing for a cyclone-prone region has not been built in all these years. Aila had caused a large-scale collapse of embankments. It was reported that reconstruction and repair had taken place since then, but the recent disaster raises serious doubts. The Irrigation department claims that breaching of dykes/embankments is still limited as compared to the impact of Aila, yet can we console ourselves by this when 160 km of
embankments have been breached, causing overflow of 25 rivers, leaving 200 villages gutted in Kakdwip, Gosaba, Patharpratima and Canning in South 24 Parganas, Basirhat and Hingulganj in North 24 Parganas?

Shortly after the cyclone, video clips emerged, showing the local populace of Hingulgunj engaging in the construction of mud dykes on their own without waiting for official support. It speaks volumes of their resilience and lack of faith in government initiatives. The experts’ suggestion of a pattern of ring embankments for the Sundarbans has gone
unheeded. Despite repeated warnings from environmentalists, settlements have not been relocated at an elevation of at least 16-17 feet above the ground level and at a secure distance away from the embankments.
Midya and other local individuals working at the grassroots are also worried that the soft alluvium of the deltaic zone cannot withstand huge developmental projects like the Matla bridge (linking Canning and Basanti) that was inaugurated in 2011. While this is supposed to have spelt enormous benefits for communication, the gigantic pillars of the bridge are seen as arresting the natural flow of the rivers, already burdened with heavy silt deposits.

Additionally, the heavy discharge of silt load of rivers from the north into the Bay of Bengal raises the sea level. The cumulative effect can be seen during cyclones in the severe flooding of the rivers unable to contain the increased flow. The mangroves bore the brunt of the storm surge this time, like they always do. Yet they stand imperiled by livelihood pressures. Spawn (meen in local parlance) collecting from the river banks is a thriving occupation for thousands living below the poverty line, who feed the sprawling prawn fisheries mushrooming throughout the region. Such indiscriminate collection damages the sand bars, interfering with mangrove growth. In a sea of uncertainty, the poorest of the poor are unable to eke out any alternative modes of subsistence.

The salinity ingress post-Aila had affected the agricultural yield of Kantamari village for a stretch of 7-8 years. Add to this the indiscriminate use of plastic, disruptions caused in the ground water levels, rising intrusions of arsenic in the water and wide spread investments in
pisciculture that throw all caution to the winds. When will we realize that rampant interference with the coastal environment is not only
putting life along the coastline at peril, but is also endangering the metropolis? While cyclones have become an inevitable part of one’s life in the Sundarbans, Amphan has managed to shatter our urban complacence, reminding us that Kolkata is far from invincible and its existence is inextricably linked with that of the Sundarbans. The remote mangroves
are a natural buffer for both the rural hinterland and the cityscape and need to be protected to contain the severity and intensity of these recurrent cyclonic storms.

Rapid and short-sighted industrialization needs to be checked. Adequate housing and embankments have to be built. The Sundarban eco system has to be protected. Environmentalists have long been harping on these burning issues. Perhaps the devastation caused by the cyclone will finally make us heed them. As Amitav Ghosh recently said in a webinar: “Don’t mess with the Sundarbans, it is our first line of defence. Don’t try and
create tourist facilities and industrial facilities. Learn to leave that zone alone.”
Can we?

I remain indebted to Manishita Dass for inspiring and helping me to write this piece.

Dr. Bishnupriya Basak is Associate Professor in the Department of Archaeology, Calcutta University. She received post-doctoral Visiting Fellowship in the UK, awarded by the Nehru Trust for Indian Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum (2001), a short-term award from the Maison de l’Orient Mediterranean Jean Pouilloux, Lyon, France, the UK Travel Award from the Nehru Trust for the Indian Collections at the Victoria and Albert Museum and a short-term grant from Foundation maison des sciences de l’ homme (FMSH), Paris and a research grant from Society of Antiquaries of London. She specialises in Bengal prehistory but she also researches extensively on Archaeological theory, history of Indian archaeology and Heritage studies.

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