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TAKING OVER TIDE COUNTRY
- 1,500 tourists to be ferried daily on four-day package
JUNGLE JAMBOREE Sahara's Subrata Roy (above) has bought 836.24 acres of land in the Sundarbans, more than 10 Salt Lake Stadium complexes (76.4 acres) put together

As the day wore on, waves of rumours came sweeping down our rivers; it was said that dozens of police boats had encircled the island, tear gas and rubber bullets had been used, the settlers had been forcibly prevented from bringing rice or water to Morichjhapi, boats had been sunk, people had been killed. The rumours grew more and more disturbing as the day passed: it was as if war had broken out in the quiet recess of the tide country.'

Amitav Ghosh says it all. This is how The Hungry Tide, his latest novel, based on the Sundarbans, captures the violence of a brutal attack on unarmed Bengali refugees.

Violence in the Sundarbans ' this time endangering the environment ' threatens to snowball into a major issue of confrontation in West Bengal once again. A project earmarked for the world heritage site is being bitterly opposed by environmentalists, who fear that it will harm the world's biggest mangrove forests.

Ghosh's reference is to a police attack on squatters ordered by the CPM-led government soon after it came to power in West Bengal in 1977. Ironically, the government's stated goal in seeking to seize control of Morichjhapi, an island in the Sundarbans, was protecting the verdant forests against encroachment.

Nearly three decades on, the CPM is still in power in Bengal. And the Left Front government is now promoting the controversial eco-tourism project in the Sundarbans, a biosphere reserve. The Lucknow-based Sahara group, in partnership with the state, is setting up the Rs 540-crore project, which experts warn would do the ecologically fragile region more harm than good.

An environment movement is slowly building up against the project. Ghosh himself is in touch with activists seeking to stop the venture from taking off. 'It's incomprehensible,' says the New York-based writer. 'You are talking about thousands of people killed in the name of environment. And today the Sahara group of companies is setting up an enormous eco-tourism complex at the mouth of the river, enabled by the same Left government. Where is the consistency'

The Sahara India Tourism Development Corporation, a joint venture with the West Bengal Tourism Development Corporation, proposes to set up four land-based and three floating facilities mainly to draw the high-end domestic and foreign tourists to the Sundarbans.

While the land-based complexes with air-conditioned cottages will come up on four islands ' Sagar, Frazerganj, -Plot and Kaikhali ' the five-star floating hotels will be berthed in three creeks, one of them near the confluence of the Muriganga and Hooghly rivers.

'It's absurd to have a project like this in the Sundarbans. The Sahara project will harm, not help West Bengal,' Bittu Sahgal, a well-known environmentalist and editor of Sanctuary Magazine, says.

The Sundarbans, straddling India and Bangladesh, is the world's largest mangrove forest. It supports the country's biggest tiger population, with some 600 Royal Bengal tigers padding through the 4260-square kilometre reserve forests.

The Sundarbans harbour several rare and threatened species such as estuarine crocodiles, fishing cats, dolphins, Olive Ridley turtles and the river terrapin, once believed extinct.

Environmentalists fear the mega project, involving floating hotels, will cause large-scale pollution in the rivers snaking through the Sundarbans and destroy the mangrove forests, which, besides hosting the tigers, protect the inland from the fury of cyclones. More than 3.5 million people live in 54 of the 108 islands the delta is dotted with.

The project has started to get environmentalists from the city ' and elsewhere ' moving. Pradip Chatterjee of the Calcutta-based environment group, DISHA, sits at a computer in his small office, trading e-mails with his counterparts from across the world. A mail pings in from Bangladesh. It is a message from Ashraf-ul-Alam Tutu of the Khulna-based Coastal Development Partnership, expressing solidarity with those fighting to save one of Bengal's heritage sites ' the Sundarbans.

'There's an outpouring of support from activists from different countries,' says Chatterjee.

Senior government functionaries admit that activists from different countries have already inundated the Union environment ministry with protest e-mails.

Even schoolchildren have joined the campaign. On reading a piece on the 'harmful effects' of the project in Sanctuary Magazine, Rukmini Das, a Class IX student at Modern High School, was so disturbed that she instantly zipped an e-mail to Bengal chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharya, urging him to scrap the project.

'Rather than help people, the project is likely to destroy the means of survival for millions of people dependent on fishing,' she says.

DISHA held a public convention in Calcutta last week to focus attention on the venture. Several speakers called for a public interest litigation on the issue. Efforts are also on to rope in leaders of the RSP and the Forward Bloc ' constituents of the Left Front government said to be unhappy with the project.

The project aims to acquire a total of 836 acres of land to set up its tourism complexes in the four islands and use 250 square kilometres of the total 490 square kilometres of water surface under the Sundarbans biosphere reserve.

Besides rooms, the 'floating cities' will have restaurants, swimming pools, clubhouses, helipads and recreation, shopping and business centres. The project also envisages 12 landing platforms, six high-speed catamarans, six luxury launches, 45 glass-bottomed boats, two cargo vessels, eight self-propelled boats, four security boats, one hovercraft and an unspecified number of helicopters.

The company plans to take 1,500 tourists a day by catamaran to the Sundarbans on a four-day package from Prinsep Ghat in Calcutta. Seventy-five per cent of them will stay at the floatels and the rest in air-conditioned cottages on the islands.

'It will be the death of the Sundarbans,' says Subrata Sinha, former deputy director general of the Geological Survey of India. The region, beset with numerous problems, is already 'gasping for breath'.

The project itself is still mired in secrecy ' one of the reasons why local people are suspicious of its intent. Even the public representatives from the Sundarbans were not taken into confidence by the state government before it announced the project.

Bankim Chandra Hazra, the Trinamul MLA from Sagar, first learnt of it from newspapers. It was later that local officials told him the government was handing over some 366 acres to Sahara in the Sagar island. 'We oppose the project as it is not going to benefit us,' says Hazra.

Tushar Kanjilal, secretary of the Tagore Society for Rural Development and a member of the Sundarbans Development Board, says he failed to get any information on the project despite trying for months.

Even the Environment Impact Assessment (EIA) report ' a mandatory document ' is not readily available in Bengali, says Bonani Kakkar of PUBLIC, a Calcutta-based environment group. At a public hearing on the project in Parthorprotima in January ' where she says there were more project officials than villagers ' there were not enough copies of the report in Bengali for villagers.

Worse, says Kakkar, the EIA was prepared by Modular Consultants Pvt. Ltd, an agency appointed by Sahara. 'There's a conflict of interest there. An independent agency should have done the EIA,' she says. 'It was a complete farce,' Kakkar adds.

As the opposition to the project mounts, Sahara denies the charges levelled against the company. 'Those making the allegations are not fully aware of the project. Our objective is to improve the quality of lives of the local inhabitants through sustainable development,' says Romi Datta, head of the project.

The company promises to spend four to five per cent of its revenue from the project on social development of the region every year. 'No company has done this before,' says Datta.

Sahara is not only 'following all the environmental and coastal regulations,' but is also trying to 'enhance' the flora and fauna of the region, being 'a responsible corporate house,' Datta says.

Not everybody, however, is convinced that the project will, as Sahara claims, actually end up enriching the environment.

The delta is the gateway to the Hooghly-Brahmaputra basin. 'Any major human interference like the floating facilities would affect not only the tidal and salinity balance, but the hydrology of the entire basin,' Sinha says.

This means more silt and less flow in the Hooghly, clogging Calcutta's drainage system further. 'Getting fish like hilsa would be a problem if the flow of water in the Hooghly reduces further,' Sinha says.

But while more and more people are asking questions about the project, the Left Front government itself is evasive. Tourism minister Dinesh Dakua will not say anything about the project, and Mihir Kiran Sengupta, director of tourism, is not forthcoming either. 'We are waiting for the environment clearance from the Centre,' says Sengupta.

At the block office in the centre of the Sagar island, Milan Porua, a CPM zilla parishad member, holds forth about the necessity of community participation in development. But he himself has no idea what the Sahara project is all about.

And clearly, he is not having much success in persuading the villagers about the benefits of the project. 'We need to debate what sort of development we want and for whom,' says Porua, a headmaster of a local high school. 'Would it be for locals or for big companies out to make money from the Sundarbans,' he says with a note of anger in his voice.

The murmurs of protests, meanwhile, are fast reaching a crescendo, as activists gear up for their campaign.

A new forum ' called the Citizens' Concern for Sundarbans ' is ready take the government on. The forum, with former GSI boss Sinha as one of its convenors, was set up at the convention last week.

A total of 19 small organisations working in the Sundarbans have also joined the campaign, floating a group called the Sundarban Chetna. 'We have already ripped out the wooden poles erected by the administration to mark the land to be acquired for the project in Kaikhali,' Dinesh Das, co-ordinator of the Sundarban Chetna, says. The group plans to stage sit-ins and skits at all 18 blocks in the Sundarbans. 'We will continue with the agitation till the government abandons the project,' Das says.

The battle has just begun.

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