With the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) making a landslide victory in the 2019 general elections of India, one cannot relegate apprehensions about the ways in which current environmental crises would be tackled by the newly elected government. Harini Nagendra appropriately draws attention towards this issue in a very recent article, illustrating the long drawn challenges faced by Indian governments in balancing ecological concerns and development imperatives. At a deeper end, one also ponders about the fate of the ‘ecosystem people’, inhabiting many of the ecological landscapes, like forests. Subsisting mostly on natural resources, they significantly bear the brunt of the ecological crisis.
Sundarbans, shared between India and Bangladesh, is the largest stretch of estuarine mangrove forests in the world and the last and only vestige of the Bengal tiger. The Indian part of Sundarbans, commonly known as the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR), consists of inhabited and forested islands. The inhabited islands are distributed within 19 blocks of the North and South 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal, each block being administratively divided into a cluster of gram panchayats (village councils). Being situated at the frontiers of the mainland and subjected to lack of economic, institutional and infrastructural developments, the 4.5 million inhabitants of the SBR are marginalised in terms of access and entitlement to resources and opportunities. Few of the blocks like Gosaba, Kultali, Basanti and Patharpratima, situated at the active delta along the forest fringes, are further confronted by the effects of the climate crisis and rapid land erosion. A significant section of the inhabitants of these islands subsists on forest-based livelihoods like fishing and honey collection.
Sundarbans is a fragile and vulnerable ecosystem, prone to intense and incessant threats. In recent years, the threat has escalated due to the devastating effects of climate change. Rise in the sea level accompanied by stronger tidal waves have inundated and eroded away chunks of landmass, along with depletion of mangroves. The saline water is increasingly gulping the inhabited land and forcing people to resign to a future of submergence.
Local political leaders, despite making claims about combating climate change, have not only performed abysmally little, but have contrarily utilised the inhabitants as mere vote-banks. Despite BJP making significant inroads into the state in the general elections of 2019, three of the 42 parliamentary constituencies, which also fall under the SBR area in West Bengal (Basirhat, Jaynagar and Mathurapur), remained under the control of All India Trinamool Congress (TMC), the present ruling party in the state. Majority of the gram panchayats in the SBR region are presently under the control of TMC. Fishers and honey collectors, who enter the forests to earn a livelihood risking lives, are now in a state of despair due to the fake assertions of development, made by rival party leaders. Despite repeated assurances by the government, to provide costly fish seeds to practice inland aquaculture, for refraining poor fishers from entering forests for fishing, the reality indicates benefits being appropriated by the local party leaders and distributed among the patrons. The atmosphere of terror, violence and homicides that had beset election rallies of the BJP and the TMC, the two parties presently at loggerheads in the area, has only intimidated inhabitants to safeguard zones of political influence.The case of climate refugees in the southern islands of the Sundarbans
Environmental crises of several islands far south like Ghoramara, which are now on the verge of submergence due to rapid land erosion, have failed to find a place within the projected commitments of the dominant political groups in the region. Ghoramara is a rapidly eroding landscape. The island, which was earlier 26 square kilometres, has now shrunk to 6.7 square kilometres, with people abandoning the island as ecological refugees and population going down to 5,193 from 40,000, according to the 2011 census. It is a part of the Sagar block of the South 24 Parganas district, located in Mathurapur constituency and was dominated by the Left front government till 2009, following which TMC came to power.
A recent article points out that while the Left had declared the island as a ‘no man’s land’ during their rule, TMC likewise largely sidelined Ghoramara from its investment zones, since the island had nothing of tourist interest. Rehabilitation plans for the inhabitants of the island are even derisory, with the amount of lands offered and size of the allotments shrinking over the years.
Mudflats in Sundarbans during low tide. Photo by Amrita Sen.
With contestants pitted against each other in the constituencies of Mathurapur and Jaynagar, the BJP and TMC didn’t hold back from tall promises of making a separate ministry for the fisheries and providing fishing cards to avoid detention of fishers by Bangladesh authorities, while venturing into deep sea. But surprisingly, election campaigns from both BJP and TMC were rather negligible in the Ghoramara island.
Forest Rights Act 2006, a legislation which recognises individual and community rights to forests, remains unimplemented in the Sundarbans, due to the strategic scheming of different political parties and local elites. False promises and patron-clientelism across decades of political rule by different parties have made the inhabitants indifferent to the cause of elections and the party manifestos.
Sundarbans is an ecologically endangered landscape. Despite environmental regulations in place for conserving the forests of Sundarbans, the ecological crisis which manifests in the form of shrinking mangroves, remains unattended and has always taken a backseat in the agenda of the political parties. Mangroves are one of the most dynamic ecosystems, which provisions a range of functions like flood control, protection of coastlines and carbon storage and are home to a variety of marine and biotic resources.
The new government at the Centre thus should urgently attend to the ecological as well as human survival crises in the region, through possible ways that can balance the two imperatives of conservation and development. That will indicate the government’s seriousness in dealing with the ecological and human survival crises in the Sundarbans.
[Amrita Sen is a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Urban Sustainability in India, Azim Premji University].
(This story was first published on Mongabay)