CARIAA Program Leader Dr Bernard Cantin visited the Indian Sundarbans last month. As a part of the CARIAA family and DECCMA, we were lucky to host him on a trip to our study area.
On Friday the 20th of November, we set out early in the morning by road. After a round of self-introduction within the group, the areas we were passing by were introduced. Maps made their advent and the physical features of the areas were discussed. The journey by road was through the district of South 24 Parganas, a part of our study area of the Indian Bengal Delta (IBD). The demographic situation of the district as emerging from our DECCMA research was shared. Being a peri-urban area of the megacity Kolkata, those areas were the receiving areas of migrants as observed from secondary data analysis. We shared our learning from the DECCMA stakeholder workshops and focus group discussions about the employment opportunities in and around the area which lure in migrants from the islands of IBD. While sharing the findings we were rediscovering the nuances of the features of our study area. It was interesting for me as I was participating in an inter-active session and not trying to merely absorb from reports laden with graphs and tables. This rekindled in me the importance of the Research into Use component as the way knowledge is tailored and presented to the audience determines how the knowledge is accepted and finally put to use.
Amidst discussions, we reached Canning which presently houses the headquarters of the two community development blocks (sub-districts) of Canning I and II. Named after the erstwhile Governor General and Viceroy of India, Lord Canning, Canning now houses an abandoned port. Canning has its fate in the flow of the Matla River on whose bank it is situated. Due to siltation in the river, the port had to be abandoned and the last ship to have left Port Canning dates back to 1872. A local artist, Mr Kshitish Bishal, was kind enough to host us at his studio which houses his collection of historical artefacts obtained from the Sundarbans. Bricks from the different eras of the Indian history, the Holy Bible written in Bangla, little clay figurines was on display. We saw the skull of a water-buffalo, intact with its majestic curved horns, once a resident of Sundarbans but are now believed to be extinct. A collection of artefacts from Sundarbans could never be complete without something to do with a tiger. A plaster cast from a prominent pugmark holds a special place in the collection and it kindled the hope of sighting a tiger the next day when we venture into the forest. After enjoying tea here, we resumed our journey by road.
We reached Godkhali by noon and our boat plied through the Bidyadhari River. During our journey, we finished our lunch and went to the Sajnekhali Sundarban Tiger Reserve. We showed Dr Cantin the captive breeding of the highly endangered species of turtle, the Batagur Baska which was done successfully at this Interpretation Centre. Sunbathing Bengal Monitor Lizards, playful Spotted Deer and a shy crocodile let us glimpse at them. A tour around the Mangrove Interpretation Centre showcased the rich flora and fauna of the Indian Sundarbans, the different livelihoods that the residents of the islands undertake and the precarious situations that they brave every day to make both end meet.
Following this tour, we reached our hotel where we were greeted by the cordial staff. It was still some time till sundown and we made full use of the daylight by taking a walk down the temporary mud embankment and showing Dr Cantin the various features of the Jamespur Village of Satjelia Island. The use of solar energy in this island is a development option that many residents enjoy. We shared with Bernard the local belief in the goddess Bon Bibi (literally the lady of the forests) who is regarded as the spirit of the forests and is worshipped by Hindus and Muslims alike. Anyone venturing into the forests worships her to keep them safe from the dangers that lurk in there. The setting sun beyond the veil of mangroves and the waters guided us back to our hotel. In the evening, a local tribal dance troupe performed for us. Echoing the Brechtian notion of “breaking the fourth wall” the performers invited us to sing and dance with them and it was a fun moment for us all. After this, we sat together for informal discussions. I thought that when a Program Leader of a research project and professors and researchers unite over informal discussions, it would entail technical and scientific topics. How wrong I was! Our discussion was instead ruled by Philosophy, Spirituality, History, Ethnography, Politics, Religion, Art and Literature – the interactions of these across the two axes of Space and Time. While sharing our Indian history, it was a case of rediscovering the Self. I was learning a lot and felt enriched. After dinner, we retired for the day hoping to spot a tiger in the forests the next day!
Early morning we left for the forest in our boat. Bernard informed us that he went for a walk and also visited Bon Bibi’s temple since we were venturing into the forests! We were touched by this warm gesture. The clear blue sky, various species of Mangroves and the still waters were greeting us. The effect of erosion on the mangroves was prominent as many were succumbing to the tidal waters. I knew that many of these trees would not be around the next time I visit the area. A Lesser Adjutant Stork (locally called Madan Tak) spread it majestic wings right in front of our boat and perched on the top of a tree prompting the cameras to go into frenzy! Different species of Kingfishers, cranes, doves, kites were spotted during our journey. Crocodiles and Bengal Monitor lizards were also basking in the morning sun along the banks. Spotted deer with antlers were out in the forest munching on young leaves. A rare moment for all of us was when we spotted an alert fawn whose eyes spelt out the danger it was sensing. Soon the doe emerged from the shrubs and shielded its young. We were waiting with bated breath to see what the mother and the young were apprehensive of. The first thought was what if it was a tiger but what emerged from the shrubs was a Wild Boar! We finished our lunch and went to the Sudhanyakhali Reserve Forest. From atop the watch tower we spotted a number of errant monkeys, swimming Bengal Monitor lizard, deer and a Little Black Cormorant who was drying its wings on a branch. It was time for us to start our journey back to Godkhali where the car was waiting for us. Our tour guide said that we might not have seen a tiger but sighting so many animals and birds within a span of few hours is rare.
We reached Godkhali and began our journey by road to take Bernard to the airport for his flight back to Canada. I had read about the differences between a Boss and a Leader but this was my practical lesson as Bernard asked for my feedback on the last CARIAA reporting template and whether the KM Platform is found useful by my team members, discussed on how RiU can be made effective, how communications can be improved between the four consortia etc. He was impressed to learn that DECCMA has local coordinators in each country of research to better facilitate coordination between country teams and the lead team at University of Southampton.
We said our goodbyes once we reached Kolkata, thanked him for taking time out to visit the Sundarabans and invited him for a longer trip the next time so that we get to take him to the Mahanadi Delta as well. For all of us, it was a weekend well spent amidst nature and refreshing discussions away from our desktops and deadlines!
Prof. Sugata Hazra, Dr Tuhin Ghosh, Dr Somnath Hazra, Subhajit Ghosh and Sumana Banerjee were the DECCMA India members who hosted Dr. Bernard Cantin.