New Delhi: Sundarbans is the largest, biologically richest, and most extensive mangrove forest in the world. It is the only mangrove swamps which have the iconic Royal Bengal Tiger at the top of its food chain. It is home to much of the country’s irreplaceable biodiversity and nursery ground for roughly 90 per cent of the aquatic species on the east coast of India, which supports the livelihoods of millions of fishermen. The biggest threat to the mangrove ecology comes from:
- Human-animal conflict
- Over-dependence of local communities on forest resources
- Climate change and its subsequent effects
The Sundarbans is famous for its crabs, fish, and honey. But with much of the forest area protected, the law allows the villagers to visit only permitted spaces for extracting honey, harvesting crab, and fishing. Poverty and at times greed render such laws ineffective, as many still enter the prohibited forest areas for a better catch.
Human-wildlife conflict is a predominant feature of Indian Sundarbans. Joint forest management is key to improve the existing balance so that the environment can exist sustainably in peace and harmony. In an attempt to mitigate the tiger-human conflict, tiger conservationist Joydip Kundu and his wife Suchandra who are dedicated conservationists founded SHER (Society for Heritage and Ecological Researchers) along with the Forest Department to try to provide solutions. One such solution being the distribution of LPG cylinders to the fishermen.
Sundarbans’ wild fisheries are the second biggest employment source within the mangrove ecosystem. The fish workers in Sundarbans are afflicted by three things: growing level of water salinity due to climate change, reduced flow of sweet water from upper catchment areas; global warming, which hinders the growth of fishes in the area; and frequent tiger attacks. The major stakeholders of tiger conservation in the Sundarbans Tiger Reserve are the fishing community, who directly share space with these predators, and are also the most vulnerable to man-animal conflict.
Joydip Kundu, General Secretary, SHER explains,
When fishermen live on boats for days, they often get off the boat and come on the land to collect firewood and that is when tiger attacks happen. This is the point when tigers and human come in close contact and the conflicts happen and sometimes even tigers get injured. We thought of distributing LPG cylinders to licensed fishermen so that they don’t have to get down to collect firewood.
Krishnabada Mandal is one of the 300 beneficiaries who has received the cylinder. He says,
This gas cylinder has helped us and brought many benefits besides providing a safer environment for us. My eyes don’t burn, and I need not go to the forest to collect firewood any longer.
As populations expand, communities are keen to exploit the forests to make a living. But involving communities in the conservation and management of forests brings in a sense of belonging.
Tapas Das, Chief Conservator of Forests and Field Director, Sundarbans Tiger Reserve told team Banega Swasth India how they protect and manage the forest of the tiger reserve with the help of the people. He said,
To look after the 4,000 square kilometers of tiger reserve we need people from the community, so these people are our eyes, and we protect them. We have a concept of joint forest management, a committee made of the people who stay on the fringe of the forests.
The distribution of portable LPG cylinders will help the fishermen to cook inside their boats instead of stepping down on forest land which will mitigate human-tiger conflict. Mr Das said,
The cylinder which we distributed with the SHER foundation will help mitigate the tiger and human conflict as the people won’t have to step on the ground to collect firewood.
Besides human-animal conflict, this unique ecosystem is under threat from population pressures and climate change. Cyclones have become more frequent and severe. Recently three high-category cyclones (Bulbul, Amphan and Yaas) lashed Sundarbans. Though during Cyclone Yaas there was no gale wind the cyclone’s landfall coincided with high tide and the water surge broke most of the embankments, flooding the villages and making farm fields sterile. Fringe-dwelling communities of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, being devoid of farming due to these climate hazards increases their dependence on forest resulting in more fatalities in human-tiger conflicts. Millions of people in the Sundarbans have been rendered homeless and are unable to meet their basic requirements of food and water. SHER has worked on the ground to provide relief supplies to various villages in the Basirhat Range and Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary range, situated on the fringes of the reserve during natural calamities.
Suchandra Kundu, Founder Member, SHER said,
SHER believes that winning over the fringe population of the Tiger Reserve area is the key to the conservation of such a unique and vulnerable area. Accordingly, SHER is constantly making people aware of the need to conserve this coastal bionetwork through different modules of awareness generation campaigns, imparting nature education and promoting alternate livelihood options in coordination with Sundarbans Tiger Reserve (STR).
SHER is working towards the conservation of the mangrove ecosystem in and around Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve and Sundarbans Tiger Reserve for a decade. The Kundu couple has been fighting many odds to save the state’s rich wildlife biodiversity and also organising innovative awareness campaigns to promote tiger conservation in the country.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via the Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, which is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.