The state government has identified a virgin beach in Sitarampur and Gobardhanpur, two connected islands at the south-western tip of the Sunderbans, as Bengal’s answer to Goa.
With residents in this remote corner of the state rallying around the government bid to turn it into a tourist destination, files have started moving in Writers’ Buildings.
At the inauguration of Bengal Builds a month back, chief minister Mamata Banerjee had said about the place: “My officers have told me that a beautiful new beach has been spotted near the Sagar Islands, which, once developed, can be like Goa. We are working on that, as tourism is an important sector for our government.”
Her government has engaged SREI International Finance to draw up a detailed roadmap for turning the two nondescript villages, about 120km from the heart of Calcutta, into tourist destinations.
Metro did a recce to identify the strengths and weaknesses of the beach resort in the making.
Natural beauty: The main attraction is the 3.5km-long beach bordering the delta islands, which are about 18km from the mainland, joined by a char. Blue waves with white crests lash the white sands here. The beach is free of trash left behind by tourists at popular sea resorts.
Small red crabs scurry about dodging the shells washed ashore by the sea. Bordering the wide beach are rows of jhau, beyond which lie the villages.
“The place has everything a beach destination should have. It is better than most sea resorts in the state as the waters of the Bay of Bengal are choppy here and the quality of the sand is also superior,” said a senior government official.
Residents’ interest: About 50 families, who depend on fishing for livelihood, live in the two villages. According to the local administration, the residents are eager to turn the area into a tourist destination. “Relocating the families, if we need to, won’t be a problem,” said a tourism department official, ruling out land-related protests.
“When we speak of the Sunderbans, we immediately think of jungles. But our village has such a beautiful beach. If the place becomes a tourist spot, so many people will get jobs in hotels. During the Left regime, we had approached the local MLA with the plea to develop tourism in the area but not much was done. Let’s see what happens now. If the government really wants to develop the place, we will co-operate fully,” said Bimal Das, a resident of Gobardhanpur.
Historical attractions: Close to the beach is the house of Bimal Sahu, who likes to collect interesting things that the waves wash in. Over the years, he has found on the beach and collected terracotta trays, vases and utensils, and scrolls.
“We have visited the place once. There are several mounds there. I believe excavation of the area will reveal important relics from the past,” said Rupendra Kumar Chatterjee, the head of the archaeology department at Calcutta University.
The government plans to build a museum in the area and has asked the university department to examine the artefacts.
Difficult journey: The journey from Calcutta to Gobardhanpur is the Achilles heel of the proposed state project.
The smooth ride along NH117 till Kulpi turns bumpy as the car turns left from the bazaar and hits the state highway 3. The real ordeal begins at Ramganga in the Patharpratima block, the final stop on the mainland. The ferry service from Ramganga to Gobardhanpur is the first stumbling block. Only one ferry travels the entire stretch in a day.
Those who reach Ramganga after 10am, when the ferry leaves, have to wait till 1.30pm. The launch then goes only to Chandmari, which is 12km away. The journey via Mridanga Bhanga river and Curzon’s Creek takes about an hour and a quarter.
More punishment for missing the direct ferry follow in the form an 18km ride along a dirt road on a cycle-van fitted with a motor, the only mode of public transport on the islands. The bumpy ride, stretching over an hour, might leave tourists sore for the rest of their holiday.
Absence of infrastructure: Power is a problem on the islands. Currently, the islands are illuminated with supply from solar projects of the state-run power utility.
“All the Sunderbans islands are supposed to get electricity under the Rajiv Gandhi Grameen Vidyutikaran Yojana within the next two financial years,” said a senior power department official.
But an even bigger problem is lack of places to eat and stay. There is no proper eatery between Diamond Harbour and Sitarampur-Gobardhanpur.
On the islands, there is no place for tourists to put up. The government plans to build guest houses and invite private players to set up hotels, beach facilities and eateries.
But government officials agree that not many companies will invest until basic infrastructure, like roads and transport options, is in place.
“Sitarampur and Gobardhanpur are virgin spots, so we will have to build everything there. The basic infrastructure needs to be developed. We will seek central assistance for the purpose,” said state tourism secretary Vikram Sen.
The government plans to build a bridge from Patharpratima to the islands and start a ferry service, for which too it will seek central aid.