Sunderbans inhabitants seek livelihood elsewhere

Cyclone Aila resulted in failed crops and dwindling fish catches; honey-collectors forced to enter deep forests

GOSABA (SUNDERBANS): In the year that has gone by since cyclone Aila devastated the Sunderbans, livelihood opportunities have dried up for the inhabitants of the region.

A better tomorrow?: Murari Mohan Mandal (below) and his family are struggling to meet the ends as they are yet to get any government support. — Photos: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The situation has arisen from a failed crops, dwindling fish catches and absence of enterprise and resulted in large scale emigration from the islands.

Daily-wagers, who depended on finding work as agricultural labour, are the worst hit. Vast stretches of croplands have been rendered infertile after they remained inundated in saline water for months. Optimistic tillers had planted a few rice saplings during the previous monsoon but were rewarded with nothing more than stunted plants that bore no yields.

Meagre earnings

Swapan Mondal could find work in intermittent periods totalling to only about two months in the entire year. His family of six has had to fend on the Rs.8,000 he could manage as other options of earning a living have depleted in the aftermath of the cyclone.

Under ordinary circumstances, Mondal would find work on other people’s lands during the sowing and harvest seasons, but this year the only work available for those like him is shovelling the earth for repairing breached embankments and digging irrigation canals.

On the other hand, fishermen and honey-collectors have been forced to enter the deeper recesses of the restricted forest areas, braving the threat from man-eaters. There were three instances of tiger attacks just last week, including one in which a honey-collector died. Despite braving the odds, their desserts have been measly.

“The honey-gatherers brought back only about 6,000 litres instead of the usual 10,000 litres in their first outing this season,” said a forest official. The fish catch and harvest of prawn larvae have similarly declined.

residents of Pakhirala struggle to re-construct the embankment that was washed away a year ago by the devastating Aila. The work on the embankment is the only opportunity for the islanders to earn some money. — Photos: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

Money not coming

Raju Mondal had never left the Sunderbans to lease out his services as contract labour, but this year the family had no option. He has been gone for two months, but has not been able to send a money-order yet.

“While the locals desperately latch onto any assignments that come their way, there just isn’t enough work to go around. While seasonal migration to Kolkata and even far-flung destinations, including the Andamans, Tamil Nadu and Kerala is not unusual, the numbers leaving the villages have increased threefold after Aila,” said Nikhil Sardar, a contractor.

Health, economy hit

Nishikanta Paik had gone to Kerala for four months, but fell ill as a result of the gruelling schedule and ended up spending more on his treatment than what he earned.

The droves of men leaving as contract labour and women offering themselves as domestic helps in cities have had repercussions on the local economy.

While Tapan Mondal pedals harder to navigate his modified bicycle over the patchy embankment surface, the number of passengers who availed his services has dropped sharply. Boatmen also have fewer people who want to be ferried across the archipelago.

By Ananya Dutta – From THE HINDU

A year after Aila, people in the Sunderbans living on the edge

GOSABA (SUNDERBANS): Houses patched up with tarpaulin, palm leaves, bundled hay, tin and mud; embankments repaired from fresh mud barely withstanding the onslaught of tides and heavy rains; homes rebuilt, only to be washed away in tidal surges, increasing incidents of tiger attacks – a year after cyclone Aila ravaged the region, the inhabitants of the estuarine islands here are still living on the edge.

Aila and aftermath: No respite for the residents of Pakhirala in the Sundarbans.

Madhumita Paik holds out a “zero point book” – the name in local parlance for the passbooks of bank accounts that were opened to provide compensation promised by the government. Since her house was razed to the ground, she was eligible for the full compensation of Rs.10,000 – but other than her blank passbook, there was no sign of the money.

Nearly three lakh families were affected in South 24 Parganas district in the wake of Aila. District authorities said only about half the claimants have received the compensation amount so far.

Haripada Sil was among the luckier ones who did receive the promised compensation. He is a resident of Lahiripur gram panchayat where the percentage of beneficiaries is even less – barely a third of the total.

After spending a monsoon, autumn and winter under a tarpaulin sheet perched on an embankment, Haripada Sil had rebuilt his home on the edge of the island once the money had come through. But his newly built home was again washed away in a tidal surge last week.

His fate is shared by about 40 families in Pakhirala village who are living in temporary shelters on the banks of public ponds.

They are no longer eligible for compensation under Aila funds and panchayat officials have already informed them that they cannot permanently set up homes beside these ponds.

For many, the compensation is needed, not to rebuild their homes – but to buy provisions. With a failed crop, there are no stores of foodgrains and the money will help tide over the crisis. Avenues of livelihood have dried up with no demand for agricultural labour and a drastic reduction in the fish catch.

While schools have become operational, the mid-day meal scheme, intermittent before the cyclone, has been scrapped.

But the gravest apprehensions are about the embankments. Breaches in dykes were plugged with fresh soil – which tends to be weaker than the parts of the earthen embankments that have hardened with successive seasons under the sun.

By Ananya Dutta – From THE HINDU

Sunderbans loses Tanti, the ‘keeper’ of its tigers

KOLKATA: He dared to look the tiger in the eye in the treacherous Sunderbans terrain, often without a gun. He would crouch in the bushes for hours, swim across the Matla or camp outside a village hut to help capture a straying tiger.

In an illustrious career that lasted 33 adventurous years, Gopal Tanti is believed to have tranquillized 84 tigers, a dozen elephants and several rhinos.

The ace shooter, who worked as a research assistant with the Sunderban Tiger Reserve (STR), passed away on Tuesday morning after a protracted illness that had severely restricted his mobility. He was 56.

He is survived by his wife and daughter.

Tanti is credited with having revolutionised the method of capturing straying animals, especially tigers, and sending them back into the forest. Having joined the STR as a strapping 24-year-old in 1977, Tanti quickly established himself as the leader of the tranquillizing team. The process of capturing straying tigers was yet to be well-developed then. Various methods were being tried out and the success rate was fairly low.

Tanti, with his raw courage and love for the tiger, developed his own style, throwing caution to the winds. He learnt his ropes under veteran shooter Shankar Ghosh but didn’t care too much for methods. He would walk straight into the tiger’s den and shoot a dart from very close range. Initially, it was dubbed too dangerous by both forest guards and his superiors who refused to accompany him during tranquillizing expeditions.

Undeterred, Tanti often went ahead alone. Once, he surprised everyone by tranquillizing a Bengal tiger in the dark, shooting the animal in the dim light of a torch that he carried. He went in with a torch in one hand and a dart gun in the other. Creeping through dense undergrowth, when he came face to face with the burning eyes of the big cat, his nerves did not flinch. Neither did his aim.

On another occasion, he kept floating in a village pond — alongside a drowsy tiger he had tranquillized. Tanti knew the tiger was about to fall unconscious and he did not want it to drown.

His methods were unconventional but they worked. Since the mid-Eighties he was given a free hand. “He had an uncanny ability to sniff out a straying tiger. He would look at the animal and prescribe the exact dosage of the tranquillizer. And then follow it up by deftly shooting the dart. Tanti was not only an expert shooter but a great conservationist. It was he who helped fine-tune the tranquilizing system in Sunderbans,” said Pranabesh Sanyal, former director, STR.

From TOI

Sunderbans villages to get grid-connected solar power

The West Bengal Green Energy Development Corporation (WBGEDC), the state government’s nodal agency for alternative sources of energy, is set to provide grid-connected electricity in the far flung island villages of Sunderbans.

The corporation has planned to supply power to as many as 40 villages in the Sunderbans, covering a population of about two lakh.

The villages identified under this initiative are located in three blocks namely Gosaba, Namkhana and Parthapratima of the Sunderban Delta.

The project will be undertaken under the Rajiv Gandhi Gramin Vidyutikaran Yojna and is likely to cost Rs 130 crore. “We are starting with 10 per cent of the villages. It will be supplied on a built operate transfer (BOT) model where private companies will distribute power much like it is in the case of CESC for Kolkata,” said S P Gon Chaudhuri, Managing Director, WBGEDC.

According to him, a number of companies have shown interest in the project.

The Sunderbans villages got electricity from solar power for the first time in the late nineties when solar panels that provided power to a couple of lamps were installed there. But due to several disadvantages of those panels — many electrical equipment couldn’t be powered by them — they were finally discarded. It is also difficult to supply power to these 1,064 villages through electric poles because of large stretch of water between them.

This time, the technology will be a combination of solar photo voltaic cell and bio diesel. “This hybrid technology will have an intelligent controller, which can switch to use solar photo voltaic power during the day and power generated from bio fuel in the night. Thus the system can provide power round the clock to the villages,” said Gon Chaudhuri.

The project is in its final stages and work on it will start from July this year, he added.

From Yahoo

Wildlife: Climate change could drown out Sundarbans tigers

January 2010. One of the world’s largest tiger populations could disappear by the end of this century as rising sea levels caused by climate change destroy their habitat along the coast of Bangladesh in an area known as the Sundarbans, according to a new WWF-led study published in the journal Climatic Change.

A small rise in sea levels would drown the Sundarbans. Credit © Martin Harvey / WWF-Canon

Tigers are among the world’s most threatened species, with only an estimated 3,200 remaining in the wild. WWF officials said the threats facing these Royal Bengal tigers and other iconic species around the world highlight the need for urgent international action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Tigers are highly adaptable – They just need some space

“If we don’t take steps to address the impacts of climate change on the Sundarbans, the only way its tigers will survive this century is with scuba gear,” said Colby Loucks, WWF-US deputy director of conservation science and the lead author of the study Sea Level Rise and Tigers: Predicted Impacts to Bangladesh’s Sundarbans Mangroves. “Tigers are a highly adaptable species, thriving from the snowy forests of Russia to the tropical forests of Indonesia.
“The projected sea level rise in the Sundarbans will likely outpace the tiger’s ability to adapt.”

Just 28cm sea level rise will destroy 96% of the Sundarbans

An expected sea level rise of 28 cm above 2000 levels may cause the remaining tiger habitat in the Sundarbans to decline by 96 percent, pushing the total population to fewer than 20 breeding tigers, according to the study.

Mangrove trees in the Sundarbans National Park, Bangladesh. © David Woodfall / WWF-UK

Unless immediate action is taken, the Sundarbans, its wildlife and the natural resources that sustain millions of people may disappear within 50 to 90 years, the study states.

One of the world’s most threatened habitats

“The mangrove forest of the Bengal tiger now joins the sea-ice of the polar bear as one of the habitats most immediately threatened as global temperatures rise during the course of this century,” said Keya Chatterjee, acting director of the WWF-US climate change program. “To avert an ecological catastrophe on a much larger scale, we must sharply reduce greenhouse gas emissions and prepare for the impacts of climate change we failed to avoid.”

Ganges Estuary

The Sundarbans, a UNESCO World Heritage Site shared by India and Bangladesh at the mouth of the Ganges River, is the world’s largest single block of mangrove forest. Mangroves are found at the inter-tidal region between land and sea, and not only serve as breeding grounds for fish but help protect coastal regions from natural disasters such as cyclones, storm surges and wind damage.

Up to 400 tigers live here

Providing the habitat for between 250 and 400 tigers, the Sundarbans is also home to more than 50 reptile species, 120 commercial fish species, 300 bird species and 45 mammal species. While their exact numbers are unclear, the tigers living in the Sundarbans of India and Bangladesh may represent as many as 10 percent of all the remaining wild tigers worldwide.

Using the rates of sea level rise projected by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its Fourth Assessment Report (2007), the study’s authors wrote that a 28 cm sea level rise may be realized around 2070, at which point tigers will be unlikely to survive in the Sundarbans. However, recent research suggests that the seas may rise even more swiftly than what was predicted in the 2007 IPCC assessment.

Already under pressure from population growth

In addition to climate change, the Sundarbans tigers, like other tiger populations around the world already face tremendous threats from poaching and habitat loss. Tiger ranges have decreased by 40 percent over the past decade, and tigers today occupy less than seven percent of their original range. Scientists fear that accelerating deforestation and rampant poaching could push some tiger populations to the same fate as their now-extinct Javan and Balinese relatives in other parts of Asia.

Tigers are poached for their highly prized skins and body parts, which are used in traditional Chinese medicine. The 2010 Year of the Tiger will mark an important year for conservation efforts to save wild tigers, with WWF continuing to play a vital role in implementing bold new strategies to save this magnificent Asian big cat.

Recommendations in the study include:

Locally, governments and natural resource managers should take immediate steps to conserve and expand mangroves while preventing poaching and retaliatory killing of tigers.
Regionally, neighbouring countries should increase sediment delivery and freshwater flows to the coastal region to support agriculture and replenishment of the land;
Globally, governments should take stronger action to limit greenhouse gas emissions;
“It’s disheartening to imagine that the Sundarbans – which means ‘beautiful forest’ in Bengali – could be gone this century, along with its tigers,” Loucks said. “We very much hope that in this, the Year of the Tiger, the world will focus on curtailing the immediate threats to these magnificent creatures and preparing for the long-term impacts of climate change.”

From Wildlife Extra

WWF Video – INDIA – A bitter truth about Sundarbans