On November 9, 2019, when the very severe cyclone Bulbul made landfall at Sagar island in the Indian Sunderbans, a group of tourists found themselves stranded near the Kalash island in the violently inclement weather. They got out of their boat and took shelter in mangrove creeks, and escaped unhurt. The cyclone was so powerful that it overturned a large fishing trawler near Sagar; people in that vessel are still missing.
‘Could be disastrous’
From environmental experts to the State’s Chief Minister, everyone has said that the mangroves had saved the Sunderbans from the gusty winds blowing at between 110 kmph to 135 kmph. “It would have been a disaster if the mangroves had not been there,” said Kalyan Rudra, chairperson of the West Bengal Pollution Control Board and a river expert. In fact, CM Mamata Banerjee, while touring the affected regions of the State, noted that the State will plant more mangroves.
Despite this, scientists and wildlife experts and local NGOs have been highlighting the constant degradation of the mangrove forest in the Sunderbans, particularly in areas that are inhabited. The Indian Sunderbans, considered to be an area south of the Dampier Hodges line, is spread over 9,630 sq. km., of which the mangrove forests are spread over 4,263 sq. km.
The latest example of an assault on mangrove forests came to light in an order of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) dated September 23, when it directed a committee to inspect allegations levelled by environmental activist Subhas Datta that the State had allocated houses under the ‘Banglar Abas’ scheme by clearing acres of mangrove forest on Sagar island.
“The committee inspected and found the allegations to be true. For years, the State government has been felling mangrove trees in the name of development,” Mr. Datta said, highlighting how Ms. Banerjee invited industrialists to the Sunderbans a few years ago and urged them to invest in eco-tourism.
When Mr. Datta moved the NGT in 2014, a satellite image from the Indian Space Research Organisation pointed to a loss of 3.71% mangrove and non-mangrove forest cover along with massive erosion of the archipelago’s landmass. The analysis, based on satellite data of February 2003 and February 2014, shows that while a 9,990-hectare landmass has been eroded, there has been an accretion (addition) of 216-hectare landmass in the Sunderbans during the period.
Tuhin Ghosh, Professor, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, said that mangroves have been cut not only for aquaculture, but also for building embankments and for human settlements.
He explained that because of dense foliage and the close proximity of trees, the roots hold soil and mangrove vegetation becomes shields from cyclones.
Pranabesh Maity, a resident of Sagar who has planted over 30,000 mangrove saplings this year, agreed that there have been numerous instances in which mangroves are being cut for making roads, building embankments, and for fisheries.