Sundarbans women show the world how mangroves reduce impact of cyclones

In July this year, the ‘Sundarbans model’ was accepted nationally by the Union government as a Rs 200 crore project named ‘Mishti’

Had it not been for the Sundarbans, the whole of West Bengal would have been open to the devastation caused by recent cyclones (photo: Wikipedia)
Had it not been for the Sundarbans, the whole of West Bengal would have been open to the devastation caused by recent cyclones (photo: Wikipedia)
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IANS

West Bengal often hits national headlines for controversial reasons, but there is at least one area in which the state has been acclaimed as a national role model. And that is minimising the impact of increasingly frequent and untimely cyclonic storms in coastal areas. Indeed, had it not been for the Sundarbans, the whole of West Bengal would have been completely open to the devastation caused by recent cyclones like Amphan and Yaas.

Besides being accepted as the national model for systematic and scientific mangrove plantation to reduce the impact of cyclonic storms on coastlines, this project adopted in the Sundarbans area, spread across the South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal, has also become an exemplary example of women's empowerment.

In July this year, the ‘Sundarbans model’ was accepted nationally by the Union government as a Rs 200 crore project named ‘Mishti’. Now, extensive and systematic mangrove plantations will come up along the Indian coastline right from Gujarat to Odisha to minimise the impact of cyclonic storms.

At the same time, the spirit of women's empowerment that was part of the ‘Sundarbans model’ is also being replicated in the national model of ‘Mishti’, where women-dominated self-help groups (SHGs) will be entrusted with the task of plantation and maintenance of mangroves along the coastlines.

Encouragingly, six coastal states — Maharashtra, Karnataka, Gujarat, Odisha, Tamil Nadu and Kerala — individually approached the West Bengal forest department by the end of last year to purchase nine varieties of mangrove seeds for their states.

A team of experts from West Bengal also visited these six coastal states to train their counterparts there on the plantation, nurturing and maintenance of mangrove saplings.

According to experts, the specialty of mangrove plantations are the stilt roots that develop from the stem nodes and join the soil substratum, providing mechanical support even to weaker stems. That is why mangroves are in a better position to bear the impact of cyclonic storms and are not easily uprooted.

Though the West Bengal government and the ruling Trinamool Congress have taken credit for the ‘Sundarbans model’ being adopted nationally, the beneficiaries often give real credit to a group of environmental activists.

These protectionists, under the aegis of the Nature Environment & Wildlife Society (NEWS), began a mission in 2007 to achieve permanent and concrete protection from the ravages of tropical cyclones.

The initiative, under the banner of ‘Project Green Warriors’, involved women from three villages in the Sundarbans area in South 24 Parganas, namely Dulki-Songaon, Amlamethi and Mathura Kand.

Before the beginning of the project, though the state forest department practiced mangrove reforestation in July every year, nothing remained by winter since the plantations were monoculture in nature.

Lack of monitoring was also a reason for the quick wiping out of the plantations begun by the state forest department before 2007.


However, once ‘Project Green Warriors’ began operations involving 150 village women, there was a change in the approach towards systematic mangrove plantation as a long-term resistance tool against cyclonic storms.

Volunteers from NEWS, along with the 150 SHG women, began educating local people to avoid practices like cattle grazing in the mangrove plantations or fishing net-dragging that were uprooting the plants and leading to soil erosion. This extensive and parallel exercise resulted in a good yield between 2008 and 2009.

The positive impact of the project on Sundarbans was felt in May 2009 during Cyclone Aila, whose tail touched the Sundarbans before it moved on to Bangladesh. While the rest of the Sundarbans was severely affected by Aila, the patches of land where the mangrove forestation was done under the project were absolutely untouched.

That was an eye-opener for everyone, and NEWS started mobilising funds, doing risk-mapping, and between 2010 and 2015, over 18,000 local women were involved in the project.

Over 4,600 hectares of land scattered over 183 villages in 14 community development blocks in the Sundarbans area was brought under large-scale mangrove forestation. Later, mangrove plantation was also included in the 100-day job project under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, ensuring that the protection of the coastlines continued unabated.

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