A mangrove-plantation drive that the Trinamul government had introduced to protect the Sunderbans after cyclone Amphan in 2020 had to be halted this year owing to the Centre’s freezing of funds under the 100-day job guarantee scheme.
State government officials said that as Delhi held up funds, citing earlier irregularities in their use, not only were lakhs of villagers who used to be employed under the large-scale job scheme sitting idle, environment concerns were also rising as mass mangrove plantations, planned as shields against natural disasters, had to be put on hold.
“We failed to start the plantation drive this year because of the dearth of funds under the MGNREGS. Lakhs of saplings are lying unused across multiple nurseries," said Sumit Gupta, the district magistrate of South 24-Parganas.
Chief minister Mamata Banerjee had in June 2020 announced that the state government would plant five crore mangroves in the Sunderbans after an assessment that nearly 1,600sqkm of 4,200sqkm of the forest had been ravaged by cyclone Amphan.
The drive was first started in South 24-Parganas, but was later adopted by the administration in two other coastal districts, North 24-Parganas and East Midnapore.
The mangrove forests straddle 13 blocks in South 24-Parganas and six blocks of North 24-Parganas.
“It is considered by experts that mangroves always help to save islands from erosion in the Sunderbans, which is also best known for having the largest tiger reserve in the country. Apart from the government, several individuals and organisations also plant mangroves in that region but the number is not so huge,” said a source.
“A few individuals or NGOs work in mangrove plantations. But those do not add up to even one per cent of the state government’s target,” he added.
According to the source, nearly 18 crores mangrove saplings were planted over the past two years across three districts, in which the South 24 Parganas had alone contributed 12 crore saplings.
Officials dealing with MGNREGS in South 24-Parganas said they had prepared as many as four crore saplings in 30 nurseries in collaboration with the forest department. They claimed most of those saplings could not be used.
“In mangrove plantation, the main cost incurred is in hiring labourers. Earlier, the labour payments were being made from the 100-day-job scheme (with central funds). We had created 6.05 lakh man days in 2020-21 and 8.83 lakh man days in 2021-22. This year the account is nil as there are no funds yet from the Union government,” said an official.
According to a source, the three districts cumulatively needed around Rs 30 crore last year for labour payments under the MGNREGS.
“We can’t source the funds from any other place. The sum needed is too huge, said an official in North 24-Parganas.
However, ground sources said that the claim of planting five crore mangroves was in contrast with actual plantation. The Centre had sought explanations from the state on the use of MGNREGA funds for that particular drive, leading to the allegations of discrepancies.
An official working with the mangrove plantation since 2020 offered another explanation. He said that almost 25-30 per cent of the planted saplings could not survive owing to natural factors.
Sources said the Mamata government has initiated an all-out effort to get funds under MGNREGS before the panchayat polls, which are scheduled early next year.
Recently, two senior IAS officials reportedly met their counterparts in Delhi to lobby for the funds.
Sources said the state government had sent multiple clarifications on alleged irregularities in the central scheme. But Delhi has not unbent.
“The state has incurred around Rs 3,000 crore as wage dues under the scheme,” said an official.
Like in other parts of the state, those who planted mangroves under the 100-days-scheme are visiting local offices to demand their wages.
“People are unhappy as we have not been able to clear their dues. If we could clear their previous dues, maybe the mangrove plantation could start,” a source added.