The Future of the Sundarbans

Posted by: Bittu Sahgal on

There is precious little real on-the-ground cooperation between India and Bangladesh on the issue of climate change and the management of the largest mangrove forest in the world -- the Sundarbans.

 We know, of course, that the Indian Sundarbans has better WILDLIFE management and enforcement than the Bangladesh side. And that Bangladesh however has more professional and transparent field biology research being conducted. This is based on the research papers published and the protection policies in place (no open fishing, honey collection, firewood collection or domicile in the Indian 1,330 sq. km. tiger reserve core).

This said, the mistake good people make is to presume that only the 'poor' are responsible for deforestation. In truth it is the illegitimate development ambitions of India's urban and rural rich, plus the economists and developers we appoint to powerful positions, who should be held accountable. And it is to feed OUR insatiable urban demand for power that dams, coal-fired thermal plants are planned and (heaven save us!) even a nuclear reactor just upstream of the Sundarbans. Our demand for steel and alluminiium prompts Dr. Manmohan Singh and Dr. Montek Singh Ahluwalia to insist that iron ore and bauxite be mined from fragile forests.

As for the brave and proud people of the Sundarbans, they are being lulled into a false sense of security by urban human rights groups, social activists and scientists who are brimming with new ideas but have little ground experience. Positing anthropomorphism as science they opine: "Let the poor stay on in the Sundarbans. Their traditions will deliver sustenance tomorrow, just as they did for centuries."

Such well-meaning people may need to re-evaluate the lethal threat that the dynamic Sundarbans ecosystem (always a product of powerful tides and shifting mud) now poses. This 10,000 sq. km. mangrove forest is undergoing a period of dramatic metamorphosis that no humans have ever before witnessed. Extreme climatic events such as cyclonic winds in excess of 200 kms, coupled with sea surges exceeding 15-20 metres could, for instance, turn dwellings into matchwood within an hour, leaving fresh water sources and fields salinised for years.

The people of the Sundarbans ARE in harm's way. Anyone who argues otherwise is playing with their lives. In as orderly a fashion as possible, therefore, people will need to be enabled to move northwards over the next decade or so. Where? No one can say until dedicated teams of experts are mandated to find out. At whose cost? Yours and mine... provided we actually do care for the least empowered in our midst.

This has NOTHING to do with tigers. NOTHING AT ALL. Sundarbans' tigers are, in fact, even more threatened by climate change than its human communities. Panthera tigris actually has no escape. Its in an ecological cul de sac and no science or hand-wringing will save them if and when climate change moves into higher gear.

We have a new government in West Bengal today. I personally hope that its thinkers and advisors will find the courage and wisdom to escape the clutches of ideology and ego. After a professional risk analysis is done for the Sundarbans and IF it emerges that the Sundarbans ecosystem may well be a sinking Titanic, then the issue before us would be whether rich and poor should be evacuated in an orderly fashion, over the next decade... or within weeks and months under the terrible weight of death, destruction, panic and social unrest.