Unregulated inflow of relief to the Sunderbans has resulted in a new crisis in the cyclone-battered region: plastic waste. Several NGOs, experts, and even officials of the District Police and the Forest Department, have pointed out that the plastic accumulating in the isolated islands of the fragile ecosystem are cause for great concern.
Ecologist Diya Banerjee has been pointing out the issue from as early as June, days after cyclone Yaas inundated large parts of the Sunderbans in the last week of May 2021.
“What we are seeing is tonnes of plastic in the remote areas of the Sundarban, like Gosaba, Mousuni, Bali, Patharpratima and Kultali. People residing in these areas are not responsible in any way for the huge plastic waste; it is outsiders who are introducing and bringing a large number of plastics, completely oblivious and ignorant to its long-term impact on the region,” Ms. Banerjee said. She added that a local NGO Mahajibon had recovered about 300 kg of plastic waste from the Gosaba block days after cyclone Yaas.
While it is difficult to estimate the total amount of plastic waste that’s arriving in about 50 inhabited islands of the Sunderbans spread across thousands of square kilometres, Sourav Mukherjee of the Kolkata Society for Cultural Heritage has estimated about 56 tonnes of plastic in Gosaba block alone. “We have calculated the amount on the basis of how much packaged relief material were received by families, how many times, in the past few weeks,” Mr. Mukherjee said.
Not only conservationists, even police officers have raised concerns over the huge dumping of plastic waste. Arijit Basu, Additional Superintendent of Police, Baruipur Police District of South 24 Parganas, had put up a post on social media a few weeks ago, pointing out that relief workers brought plastic water bottles, which were being disposed everywhere. The police officer urged locals and NGOs to organise cleanliness drives to remove plastic from the Sunderbans.
Tuhin Ghosh, director of the School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, said that plastics would have a long-term ecological impact on the Sundarbans ecosystem.
“The presence of plastic in saline water will increase the toxicity of water gradually and also there will be eutrophication of water. Because of the presence of plastics in the water, there will be an increase in microplastics, which will slowly enter the food system,” Professor Ghosh said.
He said that the Sunderbans were connected to the sea and the increase of plastic in the region could lead to plastic water entering the ocean.
Experts also point out that the Sunderbans, which is home to a population of 5 million, is largely dependent on fisheries and aquaculture, and any change in the delicate ecosystem can spell doom not only for the ecology but also to livelihoods. Moreover, the Indian Sunderbans, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is home to about 2,626 fauna, including Royal Bengal Tigers, Gangetic Dolphins, saltwater crocodiles, and threatened species of freshwater turtles. It is also home to 428 bird species. The increase in plastic waste may pose a threat to the unique biodiversity of the region.
Ms. Banerjee said there is an urgent need to stop the influx of plastic in the region by maintaining a tight vigil on the entrances to the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve and the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve. She added that NGOs and locals should be encouraged to collect plastic waste, which should be recycled.
“We, along with NGOs like Mahajibon, have been encouraging people to exchange plastic for relief materials. The process of collecting plastic waste does not end our responsibility. It should be properly recycled so that the plastic collected here is not dumped somewhere else in the Sundarbans,” she cautioned.
The threat posed by plastic is so great for the Sundarbans because the region is witnessing frequent tropical storms, which lead to devastation, followed by the necessity for relief and rehabilitation of inhabitants. In May 2020, the region braved cyclone Amphan with the highest windspeed in the Sundarbans (100-150 kmph) in recent history. Prior to this, the region had witnessed cyclones Fani (May 2019) and Bulbul (November 2019).
Questions are also being raised over the unregulated inflow of relief coming in from individuals and voluntary organisations. It has been pointed out by experts that certain areas and populations are receiving huge amounts of relief while others are left out. The administration, including some Gram Panchayats, has emphasised that all relief should be distributed through official channels.