Sunderbans literally means “beautiful forests”, and the word evokes the images of Royal Bengal Tigers, cobras and pythons and dense mangrove forests, criss-crossed by the “mouths of the Ganges”, as the island strewn delta of this mighty river is called. I had long been wanting to visit Shri Tushaar Kanjilal, the famous rural development worker of the Tagore Society for Rural Development, Rangabelia, in the Sunderbans. As it happened, though I could not meet Tushaar da, I did go to the Gosaba block.
My kind host and guide was Saikat Pal, formerly of PRADAN and now running an NGO called Prasari. He is post graduate in Civil Engineering from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur.
Saikat Pal of Prasari
Accompanying me were Siddharth Sanyal, a development worker who runs an NGO called Dakshinayan ( www.dakshinayan.org ), educating trial children in the Sathal Parganas of Jharkhand; .Ashok Singha, the CEO of CTRAN ( www.ctranconsulting.com ), and Naveen my assistant from Hyderabad, who was with me since Raipur.
Arriving in Howrah station, Kolkata, by overnight train from Bhubaneswar, Pradip, Ashok, Naveen and I got ready in one room of the Yatri Niwas, had breakfast and rushed by taxi to Sealdah station. We took a local train from the crowded Sealdah station up to Canning station, and then a three wheeler “motor van” till the river-crossing to Shamhunagar.
Siddhartha Sanyal and I, riding a three wheeler motor van
Crossing the Vidyadhari river at Shambunagar was one’s introduction to this unique ecology – small islands surrounded by mangrove forests, cut off from each other by the numerous rivers, known as the mouths of the the Ganges. Though the river was as broad as a quarter kilometre, the crossing took only a few minutes.
Crossing the Vidyadhari river to Sunderbans
The first person we met was Gautam da, the field coordinator of Prasari and he took us to the tea shop of Paresh Das, a marginal farmer who was one of the first people to promote the “system of rice intensification ” SRI, a technique popularised by Prof Norman Upoff of the Cornell university, USA, which more than doubles paddy yield while reducing seed, fertiliser and water consumption.
We saw Paresh’s paddy field. He told use his yield uded to be 6 bags per bigha and has gone up to 9-12 bags per bigha. (A bag is 60 kg, and a bigha is 0.134 hectare) So the yield went up from 2.7 tons /ha to 4.05 to 5.4 tons/ha,
A paddy field with system of rice intensification (SRI) technique
Later we saw the paddy field of a woman farmer nearby. She has a pedal operated pump, which she demonstrated for us.
Namita Mondal, a woman SRI paddy farmer using pedal pump to irrigate her field
Gautam got the farmers to demonstrae the weeding machine in the SRI paddy fields. The reason it could operate so effortlessly was becasue the paddy was transplanted in neat rows.
We then visited Yakub Miyan, who is locally known as “vegetable doctor” as he is adept at growing veegtables. He showed us the vegetables he was rowing and told us that at the end of the year he will make about Rs 60,000 net profit. He also shlowed us the RP-9 variety of mustard, a crop which was tried for the first time in Sunderbans. RP-9 was a variety found in the forest of Jharkhand by a PRADAN colleague, Rajendra, who named it.
A field full of robust RP-9 mustard plants
We had a most wonderful lunch with Yakub Miyan
Later, Chandna Mandal, the wife of Naveen Mandal, one of the field workers of Prasari recited the entire long Bengali poem Prabasi by Raindranath Tagore. See video ink below
(Must click on this to listen to this wonderful recitation of Tagore’s Prabasi by village woman Chandna Mandal)
Publisher’s Note No: 14. Utsarga (1914). This translation by Gurudev is an interesting illustration of how the Poet faced the almost impossible task of giving a full and faithful rendering of some of his original composition. The first sentence is a translation of only the last two lines of the third stanza of the original; next four sentences are rendering of the fourth stanza; the sixth sentence of the first two lines of the eighth stanza; the seventh and eighth sentences of the first four lines of the ninth stanza and the last two sentences are of the last four lines of the tenth stanza.
The dumb earth looks into my face, and
Spreads the arms about me,
At night, the fingers of the stars touch my dream
They know my former name.
Their whispers remind me of the music
Of a long silent lullaby;
They bring to my mind, the smile of a face
Seen in the gleam of the first day break
There is a love in each speck of Earth, and
Joy in the spread of the sky
I care not if I become dust, for the dust
Is touched by his feet
I care not if I become a flower, for the flower
He takes up in his hand.
He is in the sea, on the shore; he is with
Ship that carries all.
Whatever I am I am blessed, and blessed
Is this earth of dear dust.
We then crossed over to the next island,Kochukhali which was inhabited largely by Oraon tribals, and the houses there were mostly mud walls and thatch roofs. The people said they had no land as whatever they cultivated was destroyed by the sea water incursion that happened due to a Cyclone Aila in 2009. It not only took over 100 lives in this area and the neighbouring Bangladesh, but also led to the death of at least 12 Bengal Tigers. See coverage in
The devastating effect of climate on livelihoods was evident everywhere. As agriculture was no longer feasible, Prasari has introduced other activities like piggery, duckery and fishery.
** Ashok, as discussed during our trip and later while inaugurating the CTRAN office in Kolkata, I hope CTRAN will adopt the Sunderbans as its “karma bhoomi” for studying the impact of climate change on livelihoods and experimenting with mitigation and adaptation measures.
Talked to women SHG members and found they had not got any bank loans so far. Health care is an important unmet need,
Met a bunch of youngsters and found that most of the males migrate for six to nine months, to places as far as Kerala for work. Mostly as construction workers.
** Sushil, this can be a good place to provide vocational training. Saikat will be happy to work with B-ABLE to set up an employability training centre here.
Migrant workers who had come back home for a visit
As we were leaving, the villagers offered to demonstrate fish catching from the pond. See below
Ducks swimming in village fish pond
On the way back, I thought of the work of the British anthropologist, Evans-Pritchard, who studied the Nuer people in the Sudan and developed a theory of the impact of the environment on culture. In the Sunderbans, one could see a stark example of that theory.
Finally, we rode back on the three wheel motor van back to the river crossing and took the last boat back, just as the moon was beginning to rise.