What the Sundarban tells us

What the Sundarban tells us

Interview with Megnaa Mehtta on the Sundarban after Cyclone Amphan.

Often described as the 'first wall of defence' against extreme weather events, the Sundarban is a complex and fragile ecosystem straddling the India-Bangladesh border which was badly impacted by Cyclone Amphan. The spread of COVID-19 has made government assistance to the region more complicated.

In this episode of Himal Podcasts, environmental anthropologist Megnaa Mehtta explains how the state response to these intersecting crises are symptomatic of a broader cyclical pattern, dating back to colonial times.


This is an unedited transcription from the podcast. Please listen to the corresponding audio before quoting from it.

Raisa Wickrematunge : Hi everyone, and welcome to Himal podcast. I'm Raisa Wickrematunge and today we are speaking with Megnaa Mehtta. Megnaa is an environmental anthropologist whose research focuses on the Sundarban. Today we're going to chat with her about how this complex and fragile ecosystem has been impacted by crises like Cyclone Amphan, the coronavirus as well as whether the state response in terms of assistance to this region is part of a broader cyclical pattern. Welcome to Himal podcast Megnaa.

Megnaa Mehtta: Thank you Raisa. Thank you for having me.

RW: Could you tell us a little bit about the current situation in the Sundarban, after Cyclone Amphan made landfall?

MM: Sure, so the super cyclone Amphan hit Sundarban on the night of the 20th of May and it is the first wall of defence for the cyclones that form in the Bay of Bengal delta. We had social media flooded with images from Kolkata. Even the Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose Airport in Kolkata was flooded, you had trees uprooted, but there was very little coverage and knowledge of the rural Bengal hinterlands.

The Sundarban delta is located on the borders of India and Bangladesh. However, on the Indian side, the Sundarban is both a region and forest. So it's a forested landscape, it's a mangrove ecology. However, it also has 54 inhabited islands and is very densely populated. So while we were hearing about the havoc and the devastation it caused to Kolkata, we had no idea in the first few days of how this had affected the Sundarban islands. People's homes were broken, embankments were breached which allowed the ingress of salt water, this really damaged property, fields and homes for people who live in the Sundarban.

So there's just been colossal damage and as we know this cyclone came after two months of the lockdown imposed because of COVID-19 so it's an intersecting series of crises that have hit the Sundarban.

RW: You mentioned COVID-19. How has the spread of COVID-19 affected those who have already been impacted by the cyclone? Has there been any Government assistance?

MM: It's been quite varied. Sundarban is a really large area, and it is very hard in some ways to cover these inhabited islands. So relief was, firstly, very very slow. This was in large part due to the lack of connectivity where some of these relief organisations are based, which is Kolkata, which was also hit by the cyclone. But in terms of the Sundarban, it's now as we speak, several weeks after the cyclone has hit. It is still very patchy. There are voluntary organisations, smaller grassroots organisations that have been involved and are trying to provide systematic relief, but it's a very large area with a population of 5 million people and growing. So government relief has been extremely slow in arriving and there are some just absolutely basic necessities like drinking water which in several blocs of the Sundarban is still unavailable.

And yes, this kind of goes back to a much longer history, where people residing in the Sundarban have been ignored and the politics of care – who cares for the Sundarban and which forms of government and which bodies of governance will come in at a moment like this – is actually something which is not just of this particular moment. In the past also, the residents have been ignored for a very different kind of politics of life, one which values certain lives over others.

RW: So I know you've been studying the Sundarban for some time, and I've been reading about how it's an area of constantly shifting and rising tides. So could you tell us a little bit about why this area is so important ecologically?

MM: So yes, it's a mangrove forest. Actually internationally the Sundarban is famous because it's a habitat for the Royal Bengal tiger. What it's lesser known for is that it's also home to 5 million people. But the fact that it is a landscape – the only mangrove landscape in the world, actually – which is home to the tiger, makes it a global conservation hotspot. So the international attention the Sundarban gets in terms of biodiversity and conservation has been in large part due to its very unique ecosystem and its flora and fauna which has been kind of constantly written about even in colonial times, much before people entered into the picture in terms of what and how the Sundarban is depicted and portrayed and the imagery of the Sundarbans.

It's a brackish water delta, so it's where the sea meets rivers and freshwater meets salt-water. It's a place where these islands are low-lying, so the inhabited islands depend on embankments, because during a high tide (so there's a twice daily tide in the Sundarbans, and there's the low tide and high tide) these islands would be submerged if it weren't for these embankments, and that form of submergence is really lethal because it's saltwater, a brackish water delta, and so salt water destroys any of the sort of paddy agriculture – people's gardens with vegetables, their homes.

And so in some ways it's a very unique ecology it's a shifting landscape, it's got mangroves, creeks, and several different species of mangrove trees and of course while it's famous for the tiger, the rivers of the Sundarban have crocodiles, sharks, snakes, several species of birds and there's a kind of, there's humans and non- human populations, animal population which live in this delta, which makes the region really, really unique. However, I think internationally often what is forgotten is that it's just not a conservation hotspot which is home to the tiger. It's also home to 5 million people, many of whom are already ecological and political refugees. And we can talk about the histories of the people further as we go along.

RW: Many people have been raising concerns with the concrete embankments which were erected to protect local communities in the Sundarban. Those projects were taken on at considerable cost. Why are these embankments not the best solution in your view?

MM: Right, thank you that's a really, really important question. This is a really relevant question for how the Sundarban reconstruction work will go along and I think government and non-government policy makers really need to rethink how designs are implemented in the Sundarban. So just briefly, I mean, embankments are as I mentioned essential to Sundarban inhabitants because there's an ideology that these embankments are lifelines and this has been written about by different scholars of the Sundarban. They are lifelines because they prevent salt water from coming in and this allows for agriculture to flourish.

However, these concrete embankments, which were built in the Sundarban after Cyclone Aila which happened in 2009 are made out of cinder and cement and these are very high and wide embankments and a huge amount of money was allocated to rebuild these embankments, and this money came from the World Bank Group towards the Sundarban embankment reconstruction project and there has been a sense, at least, with local government in the Sundarban, the village official, the pradhaan, the panchayat as well as contractors that these are stronger embankments; that these embankments will resist cyclones, tides, storms, tidal surges.

However as cyclone Amphan has proved, and actually even in Aila we knew this, they've all cracked, and several of these so called modern embankments have broken, they've breached. They are absolutely not strong enough to withstand the forces of these cyclonic winds. Cyclone Amphan had about 170 kilometres per hour and over winds and basically the cracking of these cement and cinder block embankments have meant that with their breakage, they've also broken the river bed and in several instances, in several different blocs of the Sundarban, entire river beds have gone under with these very heavy materials. So this is deeply problematic and actually points to a problem in design and in the way in which development is done in places like the Sundarban which is completely not in tune with the particular ecology.

So it's not in tune with what I've described to you in terms of the shifting landscape, the shifting tidal kind of ecology of the region and designs have to basically be much more cognisant of a particular ecology. Actually I was present in the Sundarban, when some of these so called modern embankments were built and when I spoke to the contractors that were assigned to build these, these are contractors who have gotten a bid to build these and they do not know the Sundarban. They do not know the landscape in which they are doing these construction projects. So in the Southasian subcontinent as we know, both in Bangladesh and in India a lot of the development work is contracted out. And contractors are infamous for this sort of local nexus of corruption. So poor materials were used, but also they were just poorly designed. So this is deeply problematic.

We've seen how Cyclone Amphan has cracked these embankments and actually one of the lessons that we need to now, going forward in Sundarban is think about better designs which is better tuned to the ecology, and there's a lot of research which has happened on these places. There are a lot of historians, anthropologists, sociologists, landscape architects, who have been working on this. So it's not as if we don't have the insights, we just need to be able to incorporate these insights into policy.

RW: Again I know this has been a focal point in your research, how does the local community see their home and what solutions do they think will help mitigate the impact of extreme weather events like Cyclone Amphan?

MM: Right, and I think there are many contrasting perceptions on this and one of the things that is important to point out here is that within the Sundarban, within one particular island, in the Sundarban even, there's a particular geography of inequality. So the people who are the poorest and are often landless live on the river's edge. And these are people who live right next to these embankments and are the first to be hit when there's an embankment breach and a flood and then there are people who live in the centre of the island who are shopkeepers, school teachers, politicians and they are often slightly more landed and slightly better off than those who live on the edge. So even within a particular island there are very different perceptions of how these development projects are viewed. And the local sort of populations in the Sundarban have certain ideas of what might improve, what might strengthen and how to sort of safeguard themselves.

Some of them are very small in terms of just the kinds of materials one uses for construction, whether it's their homes; whether homes should be on higher grounds or slightly raised platforms to prevent flooding, or the kinds of materials that some of the government policies have for converting one's mud home into a brick home. Tin roofs or corrugated roofs are terrible. They often fly off during these cyclonic winds. So these are really minute details of the kinds of materials used, the kinds of ways in which reconstruction could be ecologically sensitive and people who live in the Sundarban are very aware of what would be better and what would not.

But there isn't in that sense a consultative process, there isn't conversation taking place between government officials and Sundarban residents, or government officials and people who have done research with Sundarban residents extensively over years, whether it's historians or social scientists from other disciplinary backgrounds. So there really is a mismatch in both the combination of what people think and what research insights have given us already.

RW: And why do you think this consultation process hasn't happened, either with the local community or with experts in different subject areas?

MM: Yes, this goes back to older histories of what this region has been famously known for and it goes back to how I sort of introduced this region which is what it is internationally famous as the home to the Royal Bengal tiger and so other academics Dr. Amites Mukhopadhyay from Jadavpur University and Professor Annu Jalais who has written a book called Forest of Tigers have argued this, which is that the politics in the Sundarban has been tilted towards development meaning, let's keep it underdeveloped and so there is a sense, where the Sundarban is the sole province of the tiger and it's not for the people and that people are encroaching on tiger territory.

And in some ways, this is really deeply problematic, because some of these narratives even come from people who are residing in urban centres like Kolkata and it completely obliterates older histories for example in Kolkata itself, there was a marsh. And so when it comes to who has encroached what, where have human settlements been where they shouldn't be, it's always the accusation and the blame is on these communities who are low-caste communities, and are marginalised and as I said they are refugees of ecological and political upheavals from the past who have made these regions their home. So yes there is this idea where these are trespassing communities, they are not supposed to be there, they are interlopers that this is a forest full of tigers. And that has been a large part of why this region has ignored and at several different points, the people who live there.

RW: You actually touched on a point that I wanted to bring up, which is that there's been some writers and scholars who've highlighted that dating back to even the colonial era, the government has historically offered little help to victims of natural disasters. For example, take the 1876 Bengal cyclone, and they've, you know, left them vulnerable to famine, and even to the cholera epidemic, with the government at the time trusting in the forces of demand and supply. Do you see any parallels between the situation then and now?

MM: Yeah, thank you for asking that question. I mean, I think that the governance of this region has not changed drastically. I mean, you bring up the colonial era. The colonial history of the Sundarban is extremely important and relevant even for today, because the Sundarban was seen and written about by several global administrators and gazetteers of the region as a sodden wasteland and it had a kind of inscrutable geography and there was basically a region of a kind of pathology, wandering gangs of woodcutters and basically the tiger was at the time a menace and the intention of British administration was to clear the forests. It was only when they discovered the revenue generating capacities of this region, both to put it under cultivation and for timber logging, and so the entire region.

The entire history in a large part of the Bengal delta has been one of extraction and the people have not been in that sense relevant. But, I think over the years, even post-colonial history and post-independence, the politics of life that you mention and the kinds of ways in which people have just not been cared for has not transformed. And I think some of the examples which highlight this are just really fundamental examples where, for example the island where I conducted long-term field work in the Sundarban, an island with 40,000 inhabitants and it did not have a single primary health care government clinic. So there's not a single hospital in the Sundarban for its residents.

So we can talk about the crisis of Cyclone Amphan and we can talk about the crisis of COVID, but even before the current crisis in terms of what 2020 has brought, for the Sundarban but also the world over, before this the Sundarban still did not have basic access, Sundarban residents didn't have basic access to sanitation, to healthcare at the time that I was conducting field work, and this was just a few years ago, there was no electricity, so things haven't really changed, in that Sundarban residents have been both ignored and uncared for by government and by non-governmental organisations with the presence of non-governmental organisations being in large part for the conservation of the flora and the fauna and the Bengal tiger.

RW: So I guess from what you're saying, there hasn't really been much of a response to these issues over time. How has the nature of the Sundarban itself changed over time as a result of lack of consultation and lack of political will for a solution and how has that impacted the lives of the community?

MM: Yeah, I mean, I think what it has done is that it has created particular forms of infrastructures which have poised the Sundarban as a place that can be consumed by urban city dwellers, to enjoy the natural beauty of this landscape and the tiger. So what it's done is that there's really a lack of political will in terms of building a hospital. However there has been a lot of construction, new construction in the form of tourist lodges. So one of the things these islands have seen in the recent decade or the past 15 years has been "ecotourism". I wouldn't say that it's very eco. There is a luxury cruise ship that runs in the Sundarban. There are very fancy kinds of lodges. And the kind of hope, or the intention, at least on paper, for some of them is to generate alternative livelihoods.

However, actually, and this sort of brings me to the current crisis of Cyclone Amphan after COVID which is that a large part of people in the Sundarban either depend on the mangrove forests in front of their homes, some of them have small landholdings, but the majority of households have at least one or two members who migrate out for work. So you have people working in Bangalore, in different parts of Kerala, in Maharashtra, in Gujarat. Men go out to work in construction sites, and on factory shop floors, they send remittances back home and this is how they built their lives again after Cyclone Amphan, men migrated out, sent back money and homes were rebuilt. After Cyclone Aila, sorry, this was in 2009.

This time around, one of the things that have radically changed the situation is that people don't have the opportunities to migrate out to rebuild their lives, because of COVID, because of the lockdown and because of the completely changed landscape in India with the migrant crisis. So there is a lack of political will, there has been tourism that has kind of created very small amounts of employment, you know some of these lodges employ 10 to 15 different individuals. In an island as I mentioned of 40 000 people, that's just a drop in the ocean. But the argument of course, is that we are generating alternative livelihoods. Often this is sort of much more for urban dwellers to consume the Sundarban and the politics is very much to have a Sundarban which is not for the people who live alongside it but for outsiders to come and partake in its natural beauty.

RW: And what do you think all these developments portend for the wider region you know if it's continually ignored, as it has been in the Sundarbans?

MM: That's a really important question, and I just want to highlight that there's a real hypocrisy and a real contradiction when it comes to who the Sundarban wants to be or needs to be developed for. So in the Bangladesh side of the Sundarban, there have been protests and activists resisting this but, there's the construction of a coal power plant that's begun. It's called the Rampal plant.

And this is as I've mentioned, this is a fragile ecosystem, this is a unique ecosystem. Yet of course through actually Indian government's funding, a coal plant is commissioned in the Sundarban. There are ship vessels – the Sundarban is also a transport corridor for ships that carry things from the port of Kolkata to the port of Dhaka. So you have ship vessels often carrying toxic materials like fly ash from Kolkata to Dhaka. In the same landscape you have luxury cruises as I've mentioned and several fleets of tourist boats. In the same delta you have tourism allowed, the government isn't clamping down on tourism but simultaneously the area has been cordoned off from fishing communities.

A large part of the Sundarban has been made to be cut off from fisherman who are crab collectors, honey collectors who go on their wooden boats because the area has become a sanctuary, so these are kind of classic debates on parks and protective areas and the conflicts of local people's livelihoods, but I guess I just want to really highlight that for the larger region, of you know the Sundarban in Bangladesh and in India, there really is a kind of lopsided politics of what is being allowed to develop. So big industry is flourishing in the region whether it's a coal plant or whether it's a luxury cruiser, but local inhabitants still don't have a hospital and aren't being allowed to pursue their livelihoods in this forest.

RW: The Sundarban straddles this border of India and Bangladesh. Has there been any similarities in the government response? How have the two countries responded to the current situation?

MM: Right I mean, there's a slight difference in what the Sundarban in the West Bengal side is, which comprises inhabited villages as well as the forest, whereas on the Bangladesh side, when one says the Sundarban they only mean the forest. But in terms of the issues I've highlighted, in terms of the kinds of embankments and the low lying delta, the southern delta of both India and Bangladesh, they face very similar challenges and government responses have been also similarly apathetic. It's very densely populated regions and relief has entered in both areas, through philanthropic organisations, smaller grassroots organisations, combinations of fishers' unions who have been working for a long time, and local NGOs. Government responses have been very, I mean there are certain examples of not just deep apathy, but I have friends in the Sundarban who went to their local the BDO office to try and seek assistance and help and were turned away, because the BDO was very busy in preparing for Modi's aerial visit in the area and couldn't really pay attention to people who come from the Sundarban.

And so there's a sort of real, kind of lack, there's a maze of governance which residents do not know how to operate in in both areas and that's because of what I have shared with you which is that this is a region where the Forest Department is quite active here, conservation NGOs are quite active here, the Irrigation Department is in charge of the embankments. There is something called the Sundarban Development Board, which is supposed to do the development affairs in the region, so a common man or woman that resides in the Sundarban does not know where to go to seek help in a moment of disaster and there's complete chaos in terms of the maze of governance and who is really accountable and responsible for providing care is unclear. And it's actually been made unclear on purpose, so that nobody actually holds responsibility for governance of this region and everybody can blame some other government ministry.

RW: What do you think needs to change in order for the situation in the Sundarban to change?

MM: I think one of the things that does really need to change is a kind of attunement to the specific ecology of the Sundarban. And also just a wider realisation and a particular politics which does prioritise residents of the Sundarban alongside all of the other inhabitants of this really incredible and very special delta. So there has to be a politics of governance where both the tiger populations and the crocodile population, the fish, the really incredible sort of fauna is conserved alongside people who live there, and who are really deeply intertwined and a part of this ecology.

And right now I think, that mindset of the Sundarbans people as not being sort of important citizens, because in some ways it's also a borderland, a lot of them have come from Bangladesh or currently Bangladesh at the time of India's Partition or in the sort of late 1960s and early 1970s during the creation of Bangladesh, and so there's a real narrative both whether it's to do with the politics of India right now and the Indian subcontinent of outsiders, migrants, immigrants, Muslims of Sundarban residents being second-class citizens and it's a kind of conjugated form of dispossession which is both at the level of citizenship but also at the level of being secondary to the Royal Bengal tiger in the region. And there shouldn't be, it needn't be one or the other. It can be a form of development that can take into consideration both these forms of lives, human and animal lives and this is, this might and should translate into really minute changes which are actually quite significant.

From the materials we use for embankments, the materials we use for the reconstruction of homes, taking into consideration the research that has been done in this region, taking into consideration the actual opinions and perceptions of the people who live there and organisations that have been working with communities in the Sundarban, and as you said you know, just a much more participatory, consultative process would allow for reconstruction at a local level not at a centralised level but a much more decentralised leve. This would allow for a path ahead for these citizens who've just been completely ignored, maybe now for an entire century, and would hopefully in the years ahead, as climate change gets worse and as cyclones get worse, be able to inhabit what is their home with dignity and a sense of broader well being.

RW: Thank you so much for joining us Megnaa.

MM: Thank you. Thank you for your questions.


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