Calcutta, Oct. 30: The government today announced Bengal’s biggest joint-venture tourism project, to be implemented in the Sundarbans. But there is a catch: its implementation is subject to approval from the Union forest and environment ministry.
After the signing of the memorandum of understanding between the tourism department and the Sahara India Pariwar, chief minister Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee said the government will provide 750 acres in the Sunderbans for the Rs 700-crore eco-tourism project. Sahara will implement the project across Sagar Island, Fraserganj, L-Plot, Kaikhali, Jharkhali and other islands.
“We will have to be extremely cautious so as not to adversely affect the forest, environment and wildlife. The Unesco has declared the Sunderbans a heritage site. There are very few places on earth where there is such an abundance of mangrove forests. So, it is not possible for the government alone to maintain it,” said Bhattacharjee.
He said the state government will liaison and coordinate with different authorities for assistance to obtain the statutory clearances.
A Cabinet sub-committee headed by Bhattacharjee will be the apex body to supervise the overall implementation of the project and provide guidelines. A high-level committee of senior officers headed by chief secretary S.N. Roy will monitor the project.
The Sunderbans is not only a biosphere reserve but, more important, falls in the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) category I, where promotion of tourism is not permitted even in areas not ecologically sensitive within it. The regulations clearly state that in category I, constructions required for the exclusive utility of the traditional inhabitants of the Sunderbans biosphere reserve can only be permitted.
Senior environment department officials said the state government will have to lobby hard to get the project cleared by Delhi. “Till now, the Centre has been very strict about CRZ I and it will take a lot of convincing to push the project through,” one official said. The government is yet to approach the environment department for advice, he added.
The MoU will be valid for a year. By March next year, the government is expected to hand over the land to Sahara, which will complete work by 2005. The partners are hopeful that work will commence soon and that the Sunderbans will emerge as a modern tourist destination.
Tourists will be able to choose between land-based accommodation on the islands or “floatels” — accommodation on vessels. Excursions into the depths of the Sundarbans via the creeks and channels will be organised in modern motor boats. Eco-tourism enthusiasts can take a river cruise down the Hooghly from Calcutta to the Sundarbans.
Inspired by the chief minister’s “support and drive”, Sahara chief Subrata Roy said: “I had heard that in Bengal, work progresses sluggishly. Now I think differently. The Sunderbans eco-tourism project will help develop the surrounding areas and provide a few thousand jobs to locals, besides better medical and security services,” he added.