Situated on the sensitive border between India and Bangladesh, is the most astounding and also the most endangered ecosystems in the world, the Sunderbans, covering approximately 10,000 sq. Km, of which 60% is in Bangladesh, with the remainder in India, with almost 13 million people living there, Sea levels in this region are rising twice as fast as the global average. The global rate of sea level is 2mm a year but in this region from the past 60 years, the sea level has been rising at the rate of 3mm a year due to rising temperatures, melting polar ice and expanding oceans. If this continues, we are going to witness the great human tragedy of homes and farmlands being washed away by rivers and creeks in the next 15-20 years which in turn would force a singularly massive exodus of millions of people living in the Sunderbans to migrate, creating enormous challenge and problem for both India and Bangladesh.
In the past 20 years the two smaller islands of the region Lohachara & Supuridanga have already sunk. Supuridanga was not inhabited, but the sinking of Lohachara displaced 6,000 people, mostly marginal farmers and fishermen. Ghodamara has been steadily sinking for the past 25 years, though local residents say the erosion has slowed down in the recent past. Fifteen to 20 years ago, the island had a population of about 20,000 people according to the 2001 Census, it has 5,236 people left.
People in the region are living each and every day of their life with the constant fear of losing everything one day, everything would be washed away by the sea and they would be left with nothing. Adding to their misery is the constant threat from roving tigers, crocodiles and poisonous snakes. To protect themselves and their crops, each year they try and build some mud embankments to keep saltwater and wild animals at bay but each year monsoon rains destroy these banks and mud-packed homes thus slinging them back into the sea. However, the danger is not limited to the moments of “Nature’s fury” alone. Erosion is nature’s constant, furtive way of getting back at humankind in these islands, which are still young and which were forced to support human habitation and agriculture before they could attain the necessary height through the natural process of siltation. The underwater currents in the rivers and creeks, which follow a tidal regime set by the sea, silently eat into the foundations of the embankments, making external repairs not only expensive but irrelevant in the long run. Siltation and erosion are twin processes that change the map of the Sundarbans almost daily.
The most disturbing part of this is that the government of the day is taking no step for protecting these islands. As for the sinking island, Kanti Ganguly, West Bengal’s Minister of State for Sundarbans Development, said “the State government’s efforts were directed at protecting lives and livelihoods on the islands that were not in immediate danger but the government has no plans, as of now, to save them because they were beyond redemption”.
These are the problems but what could be its best possible solutions of the sinking islands. How can we save the island and the lives of millions of people living in the region? Experts of the environment studies and research scholars agree that there are no permanent solutions to this great and massive problem but we just cannot sit back and see the lives and property of millions of people getting destroyed. Some of the short term solutions could be to use the right kind of mud to build the embankments, a database of information on tidal flows and current could be built through research and constant physical monitoring but for this the government has to provide adequate funds so that the stations could be set up. An awareness campaign regularly among the local residents of the region could help so that they can take keen interest in protecting their environment as their duty and responsibility.
Apart from this, efforts in India and Bangladesh must be directed towards making the international community aware of the perils faced by the Sunderbans. This includes promotion of scientific study, campaigns and eco-tourism trips in the region. Also, NGOs and other governmental bodies must join hands and undertake joint ventures like petitions and peace marches in order to spread awareness about the fragile condition of the Sunderbans, and also to secure effective change in local governmental policies that are found to be inconsistent with the goal of preserving the Sunderbans. Similarly, effective legislative measures should be undertaken both by India and Bangladesh in ensuring that there is no excessive populace residing in that region. At the global level, various measures can be undertaken to increase awareness regarding the issue. The Information Technology boon must be utilized to spread increased awareness regarding the issue. Online essay and brochure designing contests must be held so that children are exposed to the perils faced by the Sunderbans. This will inculcate in them a sense of environmental responsibility. With immediate collaboration and strict implementation of such recommendations, the further retreat of the Sundarbans can be halted.
All such solutions, if adopted, could help in avoiding the extant danger to some extent but would not solve the problem entirely as the magnitude of destruction executed by the human agency is colossal and such efforts would provide no guarantee against a fate that now looks unavoidable. In such a situation, resettlement of and compensation for the people living in the Sunderbans and the other sinking islands in the delta seem to be the best possible option and solution. Resettling, however, is not an easy option for people who have been living there for many years and have adapted to those conditions, but a comprehensive policy for resettling and compensating the people who are losing land and homes on the Sundarban delta is the only way to deal with this environmental tragedy.
 Frontlineline, volume 24 – Issue 01 , Jan. 13-26, 2007, Going under.
About the Author
Vartika Anand is a third year student pursuing her B.A. LL.B. (Hons) from Dr. Ram Manohar Lohiya National Law University, Lucknow. Being a law student, she is interested in working on human rights issues and enjoys researching and reading on the political history of India. Besides that, she is really passionate about sports, especially cricket, volleyball and badminton. Currently, she is interning with the Model Governance Foundation.