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Trouble in tide country

In The Hungry Tide, Amitav Ghosh’s novel based on the Sunderbans, Kusum is astonished to find out that Kanai doesn’t know of “Bon Bibi”. Incredulously, she asks: “Then whom do you call when you’re afraid?” Just like it was for Kusum and Horen, for the people of the Sunderbans, Banbibi is not just a god but a guardian.

Banbibi or Bandevi is known by many names and believed to have many forms. She is the byaghro devi or the tiger deity, a mother goddess who protects her people from diseases and wild animals, as well as a personification of the forest itself. Her primarily Hindu form, called Bandurga or Bandevi, is seen as wearing a crown and garland, carrying a club and trishul, and riding a tiger. Her Muslim roop or form is described as one with braided hair, wearing a cap with a tikli, in a ghagra and pajama (instead of a sari) and with shoes on. She is seen riding a tiger or a hen and has a baby in her lap.

But the Banbibi Utsav that was held from February 2 to February 4 on the Harindanga sports complex grounds on the Sagar island was not about Banbibi and the lore that surrounds her.

Says Subrata Das Gupta, a member of the Sunderban Development Board, which organised the festival: “People wouldn’t be attracted to a three-day mass awareness programme on Sunderban. We chose to call it the Banbibi Utsav so that the locals could relate to the programme and would become aware of the various problems ailing the Sunderban biosphere.”

Which is why “Niyontron koro bishwa ushnayan, raksha koro Sunderban (Control global warming, save Sunderban)” was the slogan for this year’s (the sixth) Banbibi Utsav. The festival is held every year from 2002 and has had themes ranging from global warming and eco-tourism development to rainwater harvesting and conserving nature.

It was time once again to highlight Sunderban’s problems. Sunderban was declared a World Heritage Site in 1987 and a Biosphere Reserve in 1989. Thirteen of its densely populated riverine blocks are nearly always under threat from Nor’westers, bay cyclones, tidal surges and change in courses of numerous distributaries.

“In two to three years Ghoramara island will not be habitable, as it will be under the sea. After 10-12 years some 10 per cent of the land will be under water. Lakhs will be rendered homeless. They will become environmental refugees,” thundered Tushar Kanjilal, the founder of Tagore Society for Rural Development and a member of the development board, in his speech on the inaugural day of the festival.

A recent study by Sugata Hazra, an oceanographer at Jadavpur University, found that in the last 30 years, about 31 sq miles of the Sunderbans has vanished entirely.

And though 85 per cent of the Sunderban population is dependent on agriculture, 50 per cent of people making their living from agriculture are landless labourers. This, according to the website that was inaugurated at the Utsav, and is maintained by the department of Sunderban affairs (www.sadepartmentwb.org), substantiates the poverty in the region.

The inaugural day saw a series of promises being made by the ministers to the people of the Sunderbans. Kanti Ganguly, the minister of Sunderban affairs department and the chairman of the Sunderban Development Board, promised to link all the islands with bridges, like “garlands”, to solve the communication problem that plagues the delta.

Chief minister Buddhdeb Bhattacharjee promised that “50,000 ponds will be dug up to help farmers grow a second crop”.

But though the 12th Finance Commission has recommended a sum of Rs 100 crore as grant-in-aid for state-specific needs for the development of the Sunderbans during 2006-07 to 2009-10, it isn’t enough, feels Das Gupta.

“The development board looks after the 3,500 km of river embankments to protect the Sunderban region. Why haven’t we been allotted anything under the Union ministry of science technology and ocean development’s coastal area fund? Are we not a coastal area?” he asks.

An Oxfam report says that G8 countries owe around 80 per cent of the $50 billion needed annually by developing countries to adjust to the consequences of climate change.

Das Gupta echoes the report: “Maximum carbon emissions and pollutants released into the atmosphere come from the G8 countries. They should provide the remedy as well.”

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