The Changing Footprint in Indian Bengal Delta (IBD) (Sundarban)

By Subhas C Acharyya, Sumana Banerjee, and Dr Tuhin Ghosh.

“It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives. It is the one that is most adaptable to change.”

The Darwin Correspondence Project of University of Cambridge has revealed that this quote is wrongly attributed to Charles Darwin as it has evolved out of a paraphrase of Darwin in writings of Leon C. Megginson, Professor of Management and Marketing at Louisiana State University at Baton Rouge (1). Whether paraphrased or not, the essence of the quote highlights that the survival of species is dependent on its ability to adapt to change. The land use changes that the Indian Bengal Delta has been undergoing shall be documented in this post and it shall be explored whether the landscape is adapting to change and surviving or failing to adapt but trying hard to keep pace with the changes.

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Sundarbans Land TransformationThis land’s journey through changes shall be narrated in sections and we begin with the formation of the land. More than 70 million years ago when silt carried down by the Ganges and Brahmaputra River systems deposited continuously in areas of Bangladesh and India, it formed the Sundarban delta region which now lies on either side of an international boundary. This act of deposition was assisted by the back feeding of tidal actions from the sea face. Both fluvial and marine land building processes have simultaneously been at work with cyclical advancement and retreat of sea during past geological ages. The sea face gradually retreated southwards and sedimentation continued to build new land on the continental shelf. Our focus will be on the Sundarban deltaic region in India which is a part of the Indian Bengal Delta. The Indian part of Sundarbans measures a total area of 9630 sq. km which lies between 21 32’ and 22 40’ north latitude and between 88 05’ and 89 00’ east longitude. The region is bounded by the river Hooghly on the west, Bay of Bengal on the south, Ichhamati- Kalindi-Raimongal on the east and the Dampier-Hodges Line on the north. When Nature embarks on a building process, she does not leave things incomplete. After building a piece of land, Nature went on to build mangroves who she appointed as gatekeepers of her first creation. Mangroves are multifarious as they can derive their nourishment from both oceanic and terrestrial water as well as from the saline soils and can also regenerate naturally. The Indian part of Sundarbans had 102 isolated islands mostly covered with mangrove forests. The Sundarban mangrove eco-system is unique in the world because of its diversity of habits.

From Forest to Agriculture

Nature is a hard worker and continues to work hard but mankind is not so kind after all and manages to interfere with Nature’s processes. During the late 1700s, this deltaic region being a part of the undivided India was under the rule of the British East India Company who undertook plans for reclamation of these mangrove forest lands and to transfer these lands under cultivation. These low-lying tracts were occupied, where the delta building processes had not been over and circuit embankments were constructed to grab the forest land. The process of clearing the forests continued till 1878 and the remaining forest was declared “Reserved” or “Protected”. In the mid-1900s, large scale land reclamation occurred owing to the incidence of Partition in 1947, where this region experienced a huge influx of refugees from the newly created East Pakistan to West Bengal. Subsequently 54 islands out of 102 had been reclaimed mainly for human settlements and agricultural operations. While this human intervention was on, Nature did not throw a tantrum for toying with her plans but did her best to provide support. By virtue of the monsoon rain, these saline soils became cultivable with rice. The lands were protected by embankments where the accumulating rain water helped to dissolve the nutrients in the soil and made the rice farming sustainable. This could have been an end of land transformation and thereby the happily-ever-after but life in the delta is a bit more challenging which will lead us to the next step of land transformation.

From Agriculture to Fisheries

The Sundarbans region of the Indian Bengal Delta saw a growth of population which could not sustain itself on the mono-cropped rice based agrarian economy. Low per capita land and poor cropping intensity worsened the situation. The poverty level started becoming very high. Under these pressures, the farming communities started exploring avenues to shift livelihoods through harnessing natural resources namely forest resources and aquatic & marine resources. The situation may be defined as – land surplus to land scarcity and labour scarcity to labour surplus. Brackish water fisheries (Bheries) with monoculture of tiger prawn (Peneaous monodon) emerged as a lucrative option for the people. Large tracts of agricultural lands were transformed to brackish water fisheries in north and central blocks of the Sundarban region by breaching embankments and letting the saline water into the cultivable lands. The prospect of exporting these cultivated prawns attracted money and muscle power in this transformation process. The agriculture-based landscape in seven blocks had been changed to brackish water fish farms which altered the socio-economic set up of the area. Yet again, this could have been an end of the land transformation process but the challenge faced from this transformation was the harbinger of the next transformation.

From Aquaculture to Brick Kiln

While the commercial aquaculture farming was emerging successful, the area saw an out flux of people as the agricultural labour went out of jobs as the labour requirement for fishery operaion was lesser than that of crop husbandry. The happy state of affairs of the export-oriented commercial aquaculture farming in Sundarbans began to decline in course of time for the various reasons like decreasing productivity, disease infestation in fish stock, non-availability of quality brood stock, increasing cost factors, failure to export, etc. The fishery operators now changed gear and focused on the thriving brick manufacturing industry with political patronage. The brick field owners used the opportunity & cooked the land owners to give away their lands on higher lease rents for operating brick kilns in the aquaculture farms. The intending operators procured permission from local self-governments to start brick kilns. Over the past few years, hundreds of such brick kilns have rapidly cropped up in these areas and is gradually becoming a feature of the Sundarban landscape. The conical chimneys standing around 100’ tall with thick black smoke billowing out of them is polluting the air in adjacent areas. Having traced a trajectory till the present time, the story of transformation of this landscape will pause here.

Going back to the quote with which we began this post, it brings two contrasting thoughts to mind. The land of the Sundarban delta having undergone changes, from the green verge of deep mangrove forests to rice fields to supporting brackish aquaculture farms and finally giving way to brick kilns, is proof that it has survived. But the costs for this survival should be examined. When a lot of costs are involved, it makes us think if this survival is at all adapting to change or whether it is a frantic scratching the walls of the well before getting lost in the bottomless pit. The Sundarban region of the Indian Bengal Delta emerges as an adult who in spite of being shattered from within puts up a brave front in times of loss.

We hope for a change in this landscape where we put efforts to make a sustainable living and give something back to Nature who can rebuild this landscape the way she envisaged hundreds of years ago. Before the future landscape comprises only of ruins of brick kiln structures with heaps of burnt soil alongside huge unproductive water bodies, we need to think of corrective measures. We still have the luxury to imagine lush green forests with a range of flora and fauna when we hear Sundarbans. It will be a pity if our future generations use only the black, brown, and grey crayons to colour a Sundarban of their times.

Bibliography

1. The evolution of a misquotation [Internet]. Darwin Correspondence Project. 2017 [cited 24 March 2017]. Available from: https://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/people/about-darwin/six-things-darwin-never-said/evolution-misquotation.

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