For an average tourist, Sundarbans is a great weekend retreat — a relief from pollution, a maze of intersecting rivers laced with dense forests, and islands that thrive on a rustic way of life. And if one is lucky enough, the sight of a tiger is the icing on the cake.
Beyond this, Sundarbans doesn’t figure anywhere in the everyday life of people living in Kolkata, the capital of West Bengal.
For me, as a journalist working in Kolkata, the impression of Sundarbans was not different from that of an average tourist. However, it all changed when in 2018, I got a grant from the Internews Earth Journalism Network to do a series of stories on the impact of sea-level rise on livelihoods in the Bay of Bengal region.
The Indian part of the Sundarbans is spread over nearly 4200 square km, covering 102 islands, of which 54 are inhabited. With such a vast geographic spread, that embodies diversity as well as commonalities, Sundarbans is complex terrain. Quite reasonably, planning a reporting trip was a task in itself.
I divided my trip into two parts. In the first part, I travelled across the fringes of the Sundarban reserve forests, some of the thickly populated towns and villages. In the second part, I ventured into far-off places, closer to the reserve forests.
My first story was about a fisherman named Biswajit Sahu, who had collected more than 10,000 artifacts while fishing around the edges of the mangrove forest in the Sundarbans. His collection, recognized by historians and archaeologists, included sculptures, stone tools, terracotta objects and pottery similar to that found in north India in the Gupta (320–540 AD) and post-Gupta periods. The vast collection of artifacts, kept at Sahu’s modest village home, was no less than a museum in itself, and a sight that fascinates me till today. The story exemplified how swelling seas can bury layers of history.
My other stories from the first part of the trip included one on the climate refugees of Sundarbans, as the sea erodes vast swathes of land. I was particularly moved by my visit to Ghoramara, one of the fastest sinking islands of the region. The erosion here is so steep, that every day almost a centimetre of land is wiped off by the water.
In the second part of the trip, I visited villages close to the reserve forest, the tiger habitations. Here, I came across some of the most hard-hitting issues of the Sundarbans — how human beings negotiate life and death as they live in spaces shared by humans and tigers.
In absence of jobs, the villagers in the forest fringe areas are forced to go to reserve forests in search of crabs, honey or other forest goods. Often, they fell prey to tigers. There are families where more than one person has been killed by tigers, yet other family members again venture into deep forests, as they have no other sources of livelihood.
It is a moral dilemma too. When tigers encroach into villages, the villagers take revenge by killing the tigers — a crime that can lead them to prison. This is a terrain where two ecosystems — of humans of beasts, intrude into each other, leading to conflict and chaos.
In 2021, I once again visited the region, and this time my story was on the growing cases of child marriages in the region. Covid had made life even more difficult for people in this hostile landscape. Some found it easy to sell or marry off young girls, rather than to educate them. They say, this way, at least their daughters can have two square meals a day.
I also revisited the sinking island of Ghoramara, a place that I had visited in 2018. I found, in three years, some of the homes on the shores, where I sat and had a chat with people three years ago, have been long wiped out. It was like witnessing the death of an island.
Sundarbans, a delta, and the gift of nature, unfortunately, is also the site of some of the most heartbreaking stories of survival. One of the biggest problems of Sundarbans is rising erosion and swelling sea levels. People lose their livelihoods, land, and houses, in a flick. The repeated onslaught of heavy storms over the years has added to their woes.
Despite much gloominess, there are specks of silver lining. I remember meeting a group of women, who have taken up planting mangroves to check erosion. Their efforts have led to a substantial reduction in erosion and land loss. These are the instances that inspire people to survive, even if forces of nature are against you.