Settler communities face difficulties primarily because they are always treated as poor, in continuous states of servitude, and called into the arena of wage labour, because of the needs of the State. The first impression we get off the islands, is that of an austerity, calm, and of an inviolable beauty. The Disaster Management team from Centre for Law and Governance, JNU, had a minimalist agenda, which was to discover whether the communities who live on those islands have benefitted from the Relief Programmes of the Government. When cyclone Aliya, (or Ayla, as the people call it,) arrived, the people were completely unprepared. The Government officials told us in Calcutta, that they could not give 48 hours warning because the storm suddenly turned it’s path, and hit the Sundarbans. The odd thing about this conclusion is, that the local people communicated that the weather forecasting satellites work better for Bangladesh, as they have quicker responses to the disaster, and evacuation is speedier. For themselves, they moved to higher land, and waded out with their children, when the water had reached chest deep. They had no idea that the storm would strike so murderously, as they are used to storms, and live with them. The officials say that the lack of preparedness made them create certain resources, including a disaster shelter which includes 1000 to 2000 people. There are 4700 families on the island of Bali. The shelter, as we saw it, however, was not at all well maintained, and actually was used for storing some metal water pipes, and also doubled as a barat ghar, or community hall used for marriages. The problem with its non maintained aspect, is that in the tropical climate, it can rot, if left in the condition it is now.
Subsistence societies are essentially existentialist. The Panchayat members are very clear that the money reached them, and they used it to good effect. Their rice storage and hay stacks have been lifted by four inches for instance, clay and sludge brought in by the 2009 storm has been used for creating embankments, by the simple principle of filling the sacks with this mix, and then parking it on the earlier embankments. It dries and becomes a type of local cement. The assumption is that these simple measures will keep the water out. In truth, the people live simple lives working very hard to sustain their rural economy by farming, fishing, and keeping of cattle. The children are educated in a voluntary school run by an NGO which also has a guest house for their officials. There is an internet college run by Prasanjeeth Mandal, who is a lawyer trained in Calcutta, with a B.A in English Literature, and also has Panchayat responsibilities. He returned to Bali to look after his parents, as they are now old. His Panchayat membership allows him to play an active role in local politics, and to mediate with visitors. His father’s farm, which he manages, grows the things his family needs. Rice, vegetables, like cauliflower and beans, fruit like guavas and bannanas, and the new cash crop, green chillies. He also grows flowers for the market. Part of the problem that they have encountered is still experiential, terrifying, and much of how they think of the past and future, both of which are still represented as coterminous, is coloured by these memories. Fear is something they live with. Several people in the islands work as manual labour in Kerala and Tamil Nadu. Some of the elderly men on the island, have travelled to Kerala to see their sons at their workplace. One man stood proudly against the electric pole, a cement pillar, and said “By this pole I can talk to my son.” His deep belief in the magic of the mobile was to assert it’s efficacy. They do not feel that they are isolated, because they are connected.
Farming is sufficient to give them a good life. It is interesting that organic farming is seen as a way by which vegetables can reach Malancha, a nearby town, which is three hours by ferry and two hours by bus, away. The hybrid tomatoes and the large sized vegetables were a testimony to the farmer, stating that he only used “waste” from his fields to cultivate. Other farmers, like Prasanjeeth Mandal, use urea as well. The basic assumption is that “if they work very hard, they can eat”, an aphorism that I have heard from farmers elsewhere. The organic farmer thus believes that this ability to work hard is his characteristic, to feed the family, to be able to hold the property together. Unfortunately, the BPL card is only available to farmers with certified landholdings. The organic farmer whom our team spoke to, has land which belonged to a man from Midnapore, who after Ayla does not want to utilize his property, so now it is in the hands of the workers. They own it, but though it is a gift, it is worthless, because they cannot prove that they own it. Bureaucracy being what it is, the complexity of paper work is difficult for these previously landless farmers to handle.
At night there is no electricity, there is fear of the Royal Bengal Tiger, who does not discriminate between deer and humans. The waters connecting the islands are crocodile infested. The boat only comes during fixed hours. There is no hospital or police station. Trafficking and alcohol abuse are known crimes, and in case of rape, the immediate punishment is to kill the rapist, using the common sickle to severe the neck, according to an informant.
The sense that here are people left to themselves to live or die, is mitigated by the self assurance that they communicate, which is of the essence of being human. They are connected to one another, they have all the values of being alert to one another. The sense of love for the land, and the beauty of the landscape is immediate. It is possible only because the inhabitants feels responsible for what they have. We must remember that only 200 families left Bali for good, after Ayla. They believed that they could continue to live on the island, inspite of the terrible environmental disturbance.
The Government response was immediate. The IAS officer in charge of relief operations was told that rice should be immediately provided to all families, and no one should go hungry. What is missing however is the training for immediate response, should another storm arise. The people have not developed their ‘best practice’ for this event. There is no leader, or community management for drill for evacuation.
The resources for survival and sustenance remain simple and private. The rich alluvial silt the storm left behind has made the fields more fertile. Dr Sajjal Baruah, a veterinary doctor who has decided to settle in Bali came in as a wildlife photographer. He then bought land, has set up four rooms, two for himself and his wife, and his mother, and two for guests. He believes eco tourism is viable in Bali, and that people will come to this remote island for the pleasure of living in pristine and primeval conditions. Dr Sajjal tells our team that when he came as a photographer, to the specific place he now farms, he set up a tent, and slept there, and at night the tiger came and prowled around, had never seen a tent, and lay down beside him. As legends go, it would seem that those who truly respect the wild, have no enemies among the animals. As an organic farmer he has already established the vegetable gardens he will need for his commercial venture. When we think of tourism, there are many questions that we have to be attuned to. One is the problem of regulation of numbers. The second is the question of disposal of garbage. The third refers to how natural resources may be used in a habitation by people who bring with them their specific needs for food, toilets, and luxury goods. All three are related.
Organic farming is essentially tuned to family needs, and has been a parallel ecological practice for decades. Once it becomes commericialised a fresh set of problematics remain, which have been successfully handled by Kerala government. These include training of housewives, children and retired people, to practice farming as a vocation rather than being dependent on the market. In Bali this will be easy to do, as there are key agents, such a “labour class” (as they proudly refer to themselves,) who have returned to Bali, and who will have already had an experience of the successful Kerala experiment. It involves agricultural scientists providing Bali residents with seeds generated as natural, or hybrid, (but not gmt seeds), and then proliferating the gardens with local horticulturally managed produce for the family and tourists. Those farmers who are able to have greater success than others should receive state recognition. There should be outlets where the vegetables and fruits grown by organic farmers can be sold to other residents and tourists, in such a way that there is mutual benefit. The simplicity of the exercise lies in the dependence of state and people to each other. The poverty of the migrant to Kerala, who live in terrible circumstances all over Kerala, and are socially reviled for being lower class, is actually contrasted to the very good living conditions in an unpolluted environment.
Sundarbans is the delta which has been for four thousand years known for it’s fertility, constantly in the making. Tribal people from Chota Nagpur were settled here, for clearing of the mangroves by the colonial state, and by wealthy Bengali landlords in the 1920s and 1930s. Now, densely populated as it is, the primary need is for replanting the mangroves, so that the land is anchored, and the significant ways by which the State can better the life of these frugal horticulturists and fishers. Every house has a tank outside it. The cleanness of these tanks says a lot about how people who live here, respect the water. Alsa alsa, a fern like moss, grows on many of them, providing resource for fish farmers, and prawn cultivators. The spawn for fish farms is made easily available by local co-operatives, in fact showing inter state collaboration, and is an important source for fish for the Calcutta restaurants. However, the encroachment into the mangroves remains a serious problem. As often as the mangroves are depleted, the higher the statistic for cyclone and storms which can kill people and dissolve the land. The water, according to Panchayat members is two feet higher than it was previously at the embankments. The rise of the sea, due to global warming, is because of climate change. In so many terrains with seismic zone warnings, such as New Delhi, for instance, people know that they live with risk, but do not leave, because their families and their livelihood is present. It is the same with horticulturists in Ladakh who grow fruit and vegetables, they do not expect to die because of natural calamity. That is the optimism of human life, people just do not expect terrible things to happen them. Disaster preparedness is thus the paramount need, and the training for survival has to start very early, with schooling itself. The Japanese case of rigour and calm is the best aspect of preparedness. As one Japanese delegate at the Napsig conference, in JNU in 2015 said to me, “We are trained very early to know that there may be earthquakes.” At the same conference, a Japanese psychiatrist and his team, showed a film which showed how they had trained a team of visually challenged, orthopedically challenged, and mentally challenged patients in a hospice to climb a mountain at a very fast pace, over four years, not anticipating an earthquake, but preparing for one. When the earthquake did strike, it was these challenged patients who led the entire village to safety.
In an interesting preliminary discussion with the conference team, Anurag Danda of the WWF said that he had worked as a team leader for his organization in Sundarbans for seventeen years. He said,
“Community resilience is a challenge. Basanti has a density of 18,000 people per square kilometres. It has no forest dwellers, no one lives inside the forests. The settlements we see today, are thought to be from 1905. The delta was still building, when in the 1700s there was an earthquake, which shifted the mass, which tilted eastwards. Settlement was being encouraged by the British, and the result was Henkelganj, where people began to grow rice. In the 1830s, Zamindars were encroaching, and Dampier Hodges line was established. Refugees from East Bengal were asked to settle, but then they had to clear out because of the Royal Bengal Tiger. None of the settlers are indigenous. Indigenous populations tend to have an understanding of the place they inhabit. The stable population, as it exists now, is from the 1970s. They don’t have the benefit of Forest Rights Act. The tribals are from Chotta Nagpur, Santhals and Orans who were called in to clear forests and build embankments in Sanjakhali and Bali, both of which are Tiger conservation sites, with their lodgings for government officials and tourists.
At the moment, electricity and communications don’t exist in Bali. So some options are not available to them. As they are migrants, they brought with them their traditional practices. Rainfed agriculture means that they only have one crop, rice, at the mercy of the season. If the embankment is breached then the saline water rushes in. If there is a depression, then the standing crop falls. These people are trying to do agriculture when the land is not fit for agriculture, given the variability of the seasons, and the possibility of flooding. It is highly risky. Their literacy rates are high, and there is therefore, the possibility that skill development may lead to higher employability. Can we think of bringing land in cultivation for a second crop? Cyclone Ayla is a marker. However, November, December, January are not cyclone months. Cyclone Ayla coincided with high tide. By itself, it was not a very dangerous weather event. Agriculture must be related to Energy production and utilization, and to sustainable development. Twenty percent of Sunderbans is devoted to agriculture, and consists of 2.9 lakh hectare. Loss of 25,000 hectares occurred through submersion, or erosion. Forested islands have become half of what it was. It is locking down people in places. Mohsin has 30,000 sq kms, and it has a population of 29,000 people per square km. People can’t go away, and they can’t sell it, because the land value is lower than the price fixed by the government as the buying price. Land acquisition, therefore, is possible. Sunderbans is a remittance economy. Conspicuous goods, like mobile phones, maybe seen routinely now. Little children, old people, and women are left behind. The women are expected to cope.
In Kosaba, there is one police station, one Co-0perative, (the first in the country) one college. Tagore visited Kosaba in 1901. Saagar and Kosaba are not connected by bridges. It has a micro-grid. It’s lines are 11 kilo watts. Its saw mills, zerox shop and ice factory are dependent on generators. From 25th December to 1st of January, the number of picnickers are higher than Corbett. There is no access to the forest. Bali has included a village as part of its tourism project. There are 46 revenue villages in the forest, out of 1,100 villages. South of Bali a new island has come out, but it cannot be occupied.
While it could be presumed that those who have lived in forests for 75 years can benefit from Forest Act, Sundarbans is an exception. In 1865, it was declared reserved, when it was not inhabited. Human habitation in the marshes has meant that the people are drinking ground water. In Kosaba, it is pumped up from 1800 feet, or 2200 feet. It is pumped for people twice a day, and networked, and is uncontaminated water, free from arsenic.”
Prasanjeet Mandal is a Panchayat Member in Bali. He has a B.A in English, and an LLB from Calcutta University. He said,
“When the flood came, no one knew. After 10 pm, everyone left their home, and went to the school. They freed their animals. Out of 4025 houses, 3000 houses were flooded. All the animals died. Now, there is some advance warning. The whole day, when Ayla struck we went hungry. The Left Front and Buddhadev Bhattacharya were in power. Bhattacharya said, “There would be no shortage of cereal,” but water was not available, it came from outside. There were many NGOs that came from outside. All the ponds were flooded with salt water. People returned to their homes, after the storm. But there were no houses. The Government supplied tarpaulin. Chief Minister Bhattacharya came by boat and reassured us. But while ration was made available, the extra that was required was not available. And there was no facility for cooking. Community kitchen was started by the local MLA, who was an opposition party member. It was started ten days later. They received roasted rice and biscuits, and jaggery. The children got Amul powder. “
Prasanjeet grows vegetables and flowers for the market. There are no hospitals and medical treatment, and people depend on local remedies and quacks. On 20.1.16 a ten bed hospital was promised by the MLA. Prasenjeeth said in a meeting initiated at Bali’s panchayat office, by Prof Amita Singh,
“Water flowed backwards after the Ayla. It took a month for things to normalize, as saline water flooded the land. People migrated to Tamil Nadu and Kerala, and Andhra. The women stayed, often with their parents. Diarrhea prevailed, and people suffered snakebites as well. Saline water was washed away with the monsoon. The seed crops were lost in the monsoon, but the Government helped in providing new seed beds. The composition of the families in terms of caste is 400 families in the general category, 500 are OBC, 2000 are SC, 500 are ST, and 400 are minority.”
The Panchayat office is well organized, and names of the members and their telephone numbers are visibly displayed. The files are maintained on the net, and all information can be received easily.
Panchayat member Pranoy Janak said, “When the NGOs would come to the jetty, all the people would reach the jetty. Later the Government came, and gave 10,000 per month to the family, and 16 kgs of rice at the rate of RS 2 per family, which continues even today. First the water was continually pushing the bank. When the Ayla came, it burst the banks and the tanks were overfilled. The huge field was filled, but as the tanks were empty at that time the water went there. Poisonous snakes went away at that time, so the people were saved. Two deer cubs were recovered and returned to the forest.”
Prasenjeet said that when the flood happened, his mother was not at home, and he and his father were eating at their neighbour’s house. The flood came in two or three minutes. They escaped to higher land, and he left his father there, and returned to save his neighbours. By Indira Avaz, all houses are now built on higher land. But it is the Sundarbans, and the waters can come flooding their homes anytime. On anti pollution, there are government instructions. They cleaned the water with bleaching powder, and with hydrogen tablets for drinking purposes. In this area, they have faced many hurricanes, but Ayla took them by surprise. They are building houses at a height, trying to be better prepared. People help each other, regardless of caste, religious affiliation and even political affiliation. The human recognition is higher than other places. There was no known case of a person left abandoned. They were re-established in kin groups. Two hundred families who left Bali went to Calcutta, Azamgarh and Siliguri. One man from Poona married a woman from Bali and set up a goatery.
The embankments have become weakened. After Ayla, when the embankments were low, the repairs could not keep up with the rise in water. Since 1991, the water has risen by two feet. The people are using NREGA to raise the embankment. Fishing and cultivation were the basic occupation. There was no television, and no mobiles previously. With the low wattage, they could not hope to have TV. There are 100 self help groups.
After the Ayla in 2009, there have been some achievements. Embankments, mangroves, ponds and the primary health centre have been developed or promised. Roads have been uplifted. River Embankment has been the greatest investment at 2.5 crores. Since it can flood the population if neglected, the Embankments are of the utmost importance. The water that comes from Nepal, and floods Bihar is sweet. But the water that floods the Sundarbans is salty and the fish also get killed. As for counseling, they are at the mercy of Nature, since the storm was headed to Orissa, but it diverted to Sundarbans in the last forty eight hours. People know that they live near the sea, and they annually expect the flood, but the Ayla has provided them with new levels of anticipation, of preparedness. Disaster Management funding has focused mainly on Plantations, embankments and drainage. However Emergency Plan is a necessity. There should be a classification of responsibilities with a committee. Who will save women and children? Who will bring supplies? Is there training as to how to proceed, if disaster strikes?
The Governments programmes must each have a disaster rehabilitation component. The Deputy Magistrate is on 54 committees, and the Chief Magistrate, Deputy Magistrate and Prime Minister are on every committee and have no idea what it actually constitutes.
The Centre for Law and Governance team headed by Prof Amita Singh were very clear in their response to the representatives of the West Bengal representatives that the committees must act according to the Disaster Management Act. The Response Fund must be given to the Panchayat for immediate use, and the Mitigation Fund to be delivered accordingly. Sundarbans has ten government employees, but none are trained. In Bali there is no Air Dropping Funds that have been identified.
Forest Officer and Disaster Management expert, Senthil Kumar, of IGNFA said about the significance of the mangroves in Sundarbans
“Sundari is the name of the tree that predominated in Sundarbans. It was forest before the settlement came into place. Freshwater and seawater meet in in the soil. The trees are like spiders looking for food. The roots are always submerged in the water. To breathe, they grow different appendages as roots. They procreate where mature boughs fall off and take root. It it’s high tide, they float off, and that’s where the forest office come in. Desalination has to take place. So they (the trees) have to have a salt factory, which is situated in the roots. There is always a fight between water and land. The mangroves act as buffers. Whatever the situation, the mangroves trap the silt, and create land. They are efficient in bio mass production. They also detox river water before it reaches the sea. So clean water goes to the sea. They are also safe fish nurseries. They are also a reservoir for blue carbon. Ecotoursim is flourishing because of the tigers, and it is the mangroves that protects the flora and fauna. The problem with tourism is that the allied occupations can be disease producing. Prawn production and shifting cultivation can foster diseases for the human population. Kiln industries such as brick making can contribute to illegal felling. Embankments can create problems for the forests, since the trees need normal sediments. The mix of sweet and salt water is essential. Degradation is caused by the loss of this water. Alternative livelihoods are fisheries, apiary and wood collection, all of which are dependent on the mangroves. The major problem is that the sea levels are on the rise. Mangroves are walking plants. They walk to the sea, or when the sea is aggressive, the mangroves walk to the land. If there are lots of developmental activities the mangroves are unable to walk towards land.
Eighty percent of the natural honey collection in India, comes from the mangroves. Honey collection, with the loss of mangroves will be depleted. The Sundarbans mangroves are beginning to lose their abilities, and when the forest zone starts disappearing, then the animals move toward the land. There are other difficulties too, as the saline tolerant wild rice has become virtually extinct. The Green Revolution reduced these forms of bio diversity. Like animals and humans, plants also become extinct. Some plants which survive are called prototypes. Identification of these plants is essential. Scientific community has to be alert to the decimation of mangroves. There has to be attention focused on State Level Climate Change Action Plan.”
Prof Bhandari from Jadavpur University says interdisciplinary studies are essential for understanding the Sundarbans forest, which was cultivated since the 18th century on its higher ground. According to him the damaged caused by Ayla in 2009 has shadowed the damages of the 2004 Sunami, After Ayla stuck, it was found that 40 percent of the embankments had not been repaired in 2015. NREGA has played a great role, but the problem of salinity of water continues. Mangrove and coconut plantations can help to solve the problem of land loss. Sundarbans has a total of 580 self help groups. Sundarbans Development Department has all the maps and figures dealing with Environmental changes, crop patterns and land use. During high tide sediment deposits accumulate on the island. Sweet water and salt water ratio is disturbed by the embankment. If we displace people we cannot give them the same employment.The total length of Sundarbans is 3250 kms of which 430 kms is very vulnerable. The local people do not cut the forest because it is their protection.
Suresh Kumar, a civil servant said,
“Mitigation Fund is to be set up by following the examples of Kerala and Bihar. The Pradhan is the representative for the SDMA. Trawlers go out for five days at a tme, when they see the cyclone, they cannot return in time. Early advance warning system is required for their survival. Relief camps, maintenance, logistics cost the government 400 crores annually. The government spent 900 crores post Ayla. Most of the money was spent on agricultural subsidies. Unseasonal rains and the floods are the greatest problem. 1000 crores have been spent on farmers to mitigate their distress.”
A.K Sinha reported that the Disaster Management department works on an approved plan, so innovation and mitigation cannot be clubbed in ledgers. Training, Mainstreaming and Mitigation must go together, where mitigation is proactive and research oriented. The team is anxious that having insights from people and administrators there should be a plan for all states put in place at the earliest, which can be oriented to socialization of children in schools, a disaster management plan for reporting and website access. And as P.K Joshi argues, the new discourse is about environmental justice. Changematters.com shows comparative data for degradation of ecosystems all over the universe. One has to be alert about how pollutants and heavymetals from factory waste enters into the Sundarbans delta.
The new practices of conservation which take deforestation and degradation into account have to be sensitive to community needs before it moves ahead with populist or tourist friendly practices. The only way to do this is to engage in continuous comparative research and to draw in grassroots intelligentsia. Nivedita P Haran suggests that there should be discussion of issues at state level in the presence of SDMA , members and West Bengal representatives. The enquiry committee needs to know the status of implementation of the DM Act in every State, and the federal relation with the Centre. Are the associations set up for disaster mitigation, are they functional, and what are the duties and responsibilities of each individual. Does the State/state have a map for risks and vulnerabilities. How is the fund utilized? SDA Funds are divided in the ratio of 75% for the Centre and 25% for the States. The Committee from JNU and interacting institutions were keen that the process of publicizing the work of disaster preparedness should be made available to lay people all over the country at the earliest.
Susan Visvanathan, CSSS/SSS JNU February 10th 2016