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Updated: June 8, 2011 12:11 IST

Post-Aila salinity defeats Sunderbans farmers

PTI
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Saltwater ingress after the 2008 cyclone Aila has rendered agricultural fields barren leading to largescale migration from the coastal Gosaba area in the Sunderbans.
Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury
Saltwater ingress after the 2008 cyclone Aila has rendered agricultural fields barren leading to largescale migration from the coastal Gosaba area in the Sunderbans.

The soil usually turns more fertile after a flood but the stagnant waters have spelt disaster and increased salinity of the soil, so much so that paddy could not be grown for the past two years.

For thousands of farmers at Gosaba in the Sundarbans the coming monsoon does not hold out any hope as they continue to battle the extreme salinity of the soil caused by cyclone Aila two years ago.

Adding to their agony is the lack of manpower as the area has experienced large scale migration since the natural calamity.

The island-dotted tidal region, which falls in the world’s largest delta, has no industry and the people largely depend on agriculture, salt water pisci-culture and collection of forest produce as their livelihood given the area’s unique topography of tropical rain forests and innumerable rivers.

A visit to Chhoto Mollahkahli and Kumirmari panchayat areas in coastal Gosaba block, which forms the southernmost tip of the Sundarbans, reveals the plight of people faced with the environmental wreck caused by the devastating cyclone in May, 2009.

The area had experienced devastating floods as the ill-maintained mud embankments gave way allowing saline water of Vidyadhari river to gush in for miles and remain stagnant for over a month. The saline water also flooded the sweet water ponds killing a large variety of fish thereby affecting the livelihood of a large number of people of the riverine area.

The soil usually turns more fertile after a flood but the stagnant waters have spelt disaster and increased salinity of the soil, so much so that paddy could not be grown for the past two years, inhabitants of the area said. Paddy is grown twice a year in Sundarbans but the rabi crop this year was a failure as the yield was extremely low.

Efforts to control the salinity had been made by both government and civil society but the problem is still huge. South 24 Parganas District Magistrate Narayan Swarup Nigam said the problem of salinity was being sought to be tackled by promoting fresh water conservation. Small ponds to store rain water have been dug in villages of Basanti and Gosaba blocks.

“There have been efforts to restore the environment by the Sundarbans Development Board but in Gosaba coastal area the problem of salinity exists,” he said.

“Soil tests funded by European Commission Humanitarian Aid (ECHO) had found that the salinity had reached a depth of about five feet in most areas. This has hit paddy cultivation in the Rabi season this year too,” says Mr Subroto Biswas of Bagmari Mother and Child Development Mission (BMCDM).

The organic and chemical anti-salinity treatment had, however, helped in a fair yield of winter vegetables this year for which BMCDM provided seeds and pesticides. “This was because roots of winter vegetables do not penetrate beyond two feet but paddy cultivation needs stagnant water and this causes the salinity to resurface,” says Mr Biswas.

The area presents a curious picture of flourishing trees which grow in tidal areas and totally dry and bleached mango, jackfruit and other trees, which died after the waters receded.

The situation can improve if there is heavy rain this year. But even if there are heavy rains, paddy cultivation would be difficult as majority of the men of the area have migrated to far off cities like Bangalore, Delhi, Mumbai and even the Andaman Islands to work as daily labourers, say the villagers.

“I wish to cultivate paddy in the field adjacent to my house but I cannot find anybody to till the land. It has become impossible to cut down a tree, prepare the ground for vegetables or repair a roof as there are simply no men to do it,” says Sumitra Mondal, a housewife of a former zamindar family at Chhoto Mollahkhali.

The women who are left behind face tremendous hardship. The situation is pathetic at Kumirmari, where many of them still live under temporary shelters made of HDPE polythene sheets as the government grants to rebuild their houses are still to reach them.

The displacement and hardship has also led to trafficking of young women, though most of the villagers are not willing to speak openly about it. Mr Biswas, who has been working in the area since a week after the cyclone and is one of the most recognised faces, recounts that he had personally helped in rescuing four local girls from brothels in Pune, Bangalore, Pune and Patna with the help of police.

“At least 20 girls were trafficked from the coastal Gosaba area which comprise 23 villages,” he says.

Development projects which could have helped the people have been few and far between, says Shamsul Alam Khan, BMCDM secretary.

Mr Biswas blames the lack of technical knowhow and the laid back attitude of the panchayat heads at Gosaba for the situation. “In some areas there has been remarkable change but in the majority, the panchayats have simply failed to take any initiative to get MGNREGA projects sanctioned.”

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