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A Study on the change in livelihood options in Indian part of the Sundarbans Delta

The Indian Sundarban region consisting of 4,200 square kilometres (sq km) of reserved forests along with 5,400 sq km of non-forest area (a total of 9,600 sq km) lies in the districts of South and North 24 Parganas in the Indian state of West Bengal. The entire area is a conglomeration of river channels, creeks and about 102 islands. Only 54 of these islands are inhabited and the rest 48 islands are forested (Directorate of Forests Govt. of West Bengal, 2021). Ramsar Convention, the only global treaty focusing specifically on the conservation of wetlands, lists the Sundarban National Park (core zone of the reserved forests) as a wetland of international importance (Suman, 2019).

 The rich biodiversity of the Sundarban nurtures more than 350 species of vascular plants (including mangrove associates), 250 species of fishes and 300 species of birds, besides numerous species of phytoplankton, fungi, bacteria, zooplankton, benthic invertebrates, molluscs, reptiles, amphibians and mammals. Amongst the insects, honey bees occupy an important position in the local economy; contributing honey and beeswax in large quantities. Sundarbans is characterized by a rich estuarine and coastal marine ecosystem leading to a rich harvest of crabs, shrimps, prawns and lobsters. The conversion of large tracts of mangroves into paddy fields and shrimp farms along with reclamation of lands for unsustainable practices have affected the natural habitats of a significant number of species. The International Union for Conservation of Nature states that the present state of the Sundarbans is threatening the only species of tiger found in a mangrove forest, Panthera Tigris (Royal Bengal Tiger) along with 20 other faunal species and 17 floral species (Gopal et al., 2006).

Shah Suja, the Governor of Bengal under the Mughal empire, was one of the first administrators to treat Sundarbans as a source of revenue. The reclamation of mangrove tracts for settlement and agricultural practices gained ground in 1737 under the administration of Lord Clive, the first British Governor of Bengal Presidency. In 1879, the British empire in India declared a part of Sundarbans as protected forests which laid the foundation of the establishment of a forest administration with its then headquarters at Khulna (In present-day Bangladesh) in undivided Bengal. After independence, the Govt. of India carved out the Sundarban Tiger Reserve with an area of 4,262 sq km in the year 1973. (Directorate of Forests Govt. of West Bengal, 2021).      

 In the present times, the Sundarbans has been administratively spread over 19 blocks (13 in South 24 Parganas and 6 in North 24 Parganas) in two districts of Southern West Bengal. The block administrations come under 5 subdivisions (4 in South 24 Parganas and 1 in North 24 Parganas) headed by the respective Sub Divisional Officer. The Department of Forests is in charge of the Sundarban National Park and controls the activities inside the buffer zone. The Sundarban Affairs Department coordinates the state-led development projects between the line departments of the Govt. of West Bengal and the Department of Irrigation, Govt. of West Bengal oversees the maintenance and construction of embankments. The Sundarban Affairs Department was created to address the relative backwardness of the region inhabited by a comparatively large Scheduled Tribe and Scheduled Caste population with poor communication infrastructure (Department of Sundarban Affairs, Govt. of West Bengal, 2020).

The 2011 census reported a total population of 44,26,259 across the 19 blocks of Sundarbans with 22,64,133 and 21,62,126 as the male and female populations, respectively. The percentage of Scheduled Caste population was reported to be 35.76% and that of the Scheduled Tribe to be 5.56%. Agriculture and daily wage labour happen to be the main occupations of the residents in the Sundarbans. Agriculture includes allied sectors like fisheries, livestock and horticulture which sustains the rural households. Forest dependent livelihood options are also pursued along with reliance on tourism-related projects around the buffer zones of the reserved forests. A significant portion of the population has turned into migrant labourers and seek work outside the state of West Bengal. Monthly earnings have reportedly tripled on migrating outside the state to work primarily in the construction and service sectors. Hence, migration has seen a rise amongst the people and now it figures prominently as a livelihood option in the region. One of the chief reasons for such a trend has been the direct fallout of repeated onslaughts of super cyclones in the region, which have had severely affected the lives and livelihood of the vulnerable sections of the population. Economic losses have mounted after such natural disasters and combined with climate-induced changes, agriculture and its allied sectors have suffered from diminishing returns. The rising seawater levels and the constant threat of bank erosion have turned residents into climate refugees which are also fuelling distress migration (The Hindu, 2020).

Climate change is a real threat to the settlements in Sundarbans. Along with the rise in seawater levels, the phenomenon has led to the loss of land including mangrove forests. Mangrove Forest Cover Changes in Indian Sundarban (1986-2012) Using Remote Sensing and GIS, a publication by the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, reveals a loss of more than 124 sq km of mangrove forest cover from 1986 to 2012. Studies conducted with the help of remote sensing techniques had identified 2,246.839 sq km under forests which had decreased to 2,122.421 by the year 2012 (Samanta et al., 2017). Authors Sugata Hazra and Kaberi Samanta said, “The continuation of this process in response to climate change and seawater level rise poses a serious threat to the carbon sequestration potential and other ecosystem services of this mangrove forest in future”. A report presented by the Indian Space Research Organization (ISRO) before the Eastern Circuit bench of the National Green Tribunal in 2015 revealed a loss of 9,900 hectares of landmass to erosion in one decade (The Hindu, 2017).

 The study will be placed in such a context to explore the livelihood patterns of the people in Sundarbans as they have evolved over the years.


Read and download the resource here: The Uncertain Future of Sundarbans A study on the change in livelihood options in Indian part of the Sundarbans Delta

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