French consul general in Kolkata, Didier Talpain, recently toured parts of the Sunderbans that have been battered by climate change to understand the vulnerability of the region and what mitigation programmes France can support.
While the entire Sunderbans is a hotbed of climate change, the area that Talpain visited over two days — Sagar, Ghoramara and western Sunderbans — is literally on the lap of Bay of Bengal and especially vulnerable.
Didier Talpain on his way to the Sunderbans on a boatMy Kolkata
This part of the Sunderbans has borne the brunt of at least four cyclones in the past two and a half years — cyclones often cause floods, as Yaas did — apart from continuous erosion due to sea-level rise that is the highest in the country.
Many families in Sagar, which has a population of about two lakhs and is the biggest island in the Sunderbans, have been forced out of their homes multiple times by the rising seawater. Ghoramara, once important enough to have the second-biggest post office in the state after Kolkata, has lost almost two-third of its land to the sea in the recent decades.
“It has been my wish to come here ever since I took charge in Kolkata. Climate change and environment are priorities for the French government. The COP21 conference held in Paris in November-December 2015 had raised the level of public awareness globally,” Talpain told this correspondent who accompanied him on the trip.
The French consul general interacts with the students of Dhablat Lakkhan Parbesh High School on Sagar islandMy Kolkata
“I decided to visit the Sunderbans as it is a globally known hotbed for climate change impact and to understand what kind of programmes we might support in the region,” added Talpain, who is also an acclaimed musician.
Schools as shelter
During the two-day official trip, the consul general visited disaster-prone areas of Sagar, including the site of the seaside devastation caused by Yaas in front of the Kapil Muni Ashram and the highly affected Dhablat-Sibpur area, and interacted with local residents.
Also on the consul general’s itinerary were two local schools — Dhablat Lakkhan Parbesh High School and Prasadpur Atal Vidyabhaban — both quite close to the sea and interacted with the teachers and students to assess whether the premises can be turned into strengthened temporary disaster shelters.
The schools are already being used as temporary shelters during cyclones and floods, but they lack the infrastructure to adequately cater to the needs of those affected by disasters, especially the elderly, the ailing, pregnant women and new mothers. The picture is the same in the rest of the Sunderbans.
Maina, the toto driver, who accompanied the consul general on Ghoramara island. Talpain took this photograph and later sent it to MainaDidier Talpain
“I told the consul-general that the disasters have been happening with increasing frequency in our area,” said Malabika Ghosh, a Class XII student of Dhablat Lakkhan Parbesh High School. Basanti Singha, a year junior to her and a resident of a highly disaster-prone area, described to Talpain the ordeal of the residents when they are crammed into her school every time there is a disaster.
“My school, which is quite close to the Bay of Bengal, has to house more than 3,000 people from the neighbourhood during disasters. Any upgrade in infrastructure is extremely welcome,” said Santanu Gayen, the headmaster of the school, to the consul general.
Home under the sea
“The local residents told me how rapidly the sea and the rivers are advancing. The original homes of some of the residents are now more than a kilometre into the sea,” said the consul general.
After a recce of the area, the French official sat with government officials in the Sagar block to know in greater detail the climatic threat to the area.
“He was keen to know about the climatic problems in the area and how we counter them,” said local block development officer, Sudipta Mandal, who has played a key role in mitigating disasters in recent years.
“The consul general and his team also discussed the possibility of involving French businesses in promoting local tourism. He was also keen to know how climate change was causing migration and loss of livelihood,” said Sombhudwip Sarkar, executive officer, Gangasagar Bakkhali Development Authority.
On the second day, Talpain visited Ghoramara, a half-an-hour boat ride from Sagar and the ground zero of climate change, and took stock of the situation by visiting a local school and speaking to residents.
“We took him to the most impacted areas, like Khasimara and Raypara. The consul general was very informal. He had lunch with us and asked questions to understand the situation at the ground level,” stated Sanjib Sagar, the pradhan of the local panchayat.
Talpain and other local officials take stock of the damages left in the wake of the cyclone Yaas on Sagar islandMy Kolkata
Talpain even took a photograph of his toto driver, Maina, and later sent the photo to him.
“The impact of climate change is on the rise. In that context, the French consul general’s trip was important and we hope to build on it,” said Bankim Hazra, the state minister for Sundarban Affairs and the MLA of Sagar.
“Though we have built many large cyclone shelters across the Sunderbans, the schools still play an important role as temporary disaster shelters. Hence, any initiative to upgrade their disaster-management infrastructure is extremely welcome,” said Javed Ahmed Khan, the state minister for disaster management and civil defence.