February 2010: What is it in our rootedness that virtually forces us to stay fixed to what has been ‘home’ long after the qualities that define home – comfort, safety, security – have vanished? Why do we persist in living in neighbourhoods or cities long after they have ceased to be friendly and nurturing?
Such were the thoughts that wafted in and out of my mind as I watched village after traumatised village slip by as our vessel made its slow, indolent way through the rivers and creeks of West Bengal’s Sundarbans. Cyclone Aila had visited its havoc on the area eight months earlier yet, despite valiant effort, breached mud bunds, damaged homes and villages devoid of livestock were still visible. Worse, people spoke of their water sources and soils having been salinised, some beyond redemption. Thousands were forced to flee northward to safety, some never to return. Plucky beyond description, those that chose to stay must deal with crippling poverty, made worse by repeated trauma at the hands of climate gone wrong. Dangerous politics and naked greed combine to aggravate the situation. On January 13, 2010, we heard that four members of a political party had been slaughtered by rivals. Whispers suggest the dispute was triggered by competition for contracts to build new mud bunds, which are repeatedly washed away.
It is in this arena of hardship and stress that we seek to protect tigers, including this one, which had to be rescued when it wandered into Kaltuli village. It was captured and released by forest officials, unharmed, in the uninhabited Chotta Hardi island where natural prey is abundant. The next incident might not have such a happy ending.
The Sundarbans is also at the front line of the global climate crisis because rising seas and floods – irrespective of what the growing tribe of climate skeptics would have us believe – threaten to make an impossibly poor people even poorer. Millions are likely to be displaced and in the process man-animal conflicts are destined to rise. In the process one of the world’s most unique populations of tigers across India and Bangladesh – which can go nowhere – could be lost forever.
Fortunately the people of the Sundarbans can escape such a fate. The most vulnerable can and must start moving to a safer sanctuary, to secure homes. If their leaders do not enable them to do this in time, wind and water will force such a shift… violently.
Bittu Sahgal, Editor, Sanctuary Asia, Vol XXX No. 1, February 2010