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Mamata Banerjee’s mangrove project does not enthuse eco-watchers

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Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, who is on a mission to save the deltas of Sundarbans and adjacent areas, which are ravaged by cyclones almost every year, has entrusted the forest and environment departments with the task of studying the feasibility of creating a natural barrier in these areas by developing mangroves. While the state government is keen on embarking on this mission, many eco-watchers claim that planting mangroves across such a vast area is an absurd proposition, while some others dismiss this as just another of Mamata Banerjee’s political gimmicks.

While a 24-member committee, with an expert panel, has been formed for the mega project under the chairmanship of Pollution Control Board chairman Kalyan

, experts have been questioning the feasibility of raising mangroves over the Sundarbans, which is roughly spread over 9,630 sq km, of which, nearly 5,400 sq km is inhabited by humans while the rest is forest area. According to experts, 4,260 sq km of the Sundarbans is forest area with close to 50% of it being water.

Specialists who have been observing Sunderbans’ ecology wondered whether it was possible to plant five crore or even more saplings in this region –– a plan which sounds absurd to experts. Although the purpose of the state government is to compensate for the plant loss caused by Cyclone Amphan and Yaas, experts expressed doubt whether the state forest department has that many seedlings of mangrove trees. Since the roots of the mangrove trees are well spread out, they need considerable space between each other, another expert pointed out.

Renowned environmentalist Subhash Dutta told Economic Times, “Planting five crore mangrove trees is an absolute political gimmick. Post-Amphan, there was tremendous financial corruption involving this plantation. The corruption is such that no one will understand how much cultivation is being done, how many trees could survive and how many died. So, this time, even if a mega project is undertaken, it is just a political gimmick.”

“Sunderbans is the largest delta in the world but the forests are not protected properly, neither by India, nor by Bangladesh. There is continuous infiltration from Bangladesh in the Sunderbans region and people whose houses are washed away in the villages are not Indians, but Bangladeshis. Indians do not live in the villages which get inundated. I have filed a case in this regard in Calcutta High Court’s Green Tribunal,” Dutta said.

“A few years ago, the Sundarbans Affairs Department had given seedlings to people for planting mangroves. But none of them survived,” an expert on condition of anonymity said.


GOVT KEEN ON MISSION


But the thinking of the state government is different. Banerjee has been particularly piqued by the fact that temporary embankments have been washed away every year even as Cyclone Amphan and Cyclone Yaas hit West Bengal in 2020 and 2021.

“Every year, we build embankments and they get washed away due to natural calamities, leading to huge loss of funds. There needs to be a permanent and viable solution. Mangrove forests help to hold the soil and that is the need of the hour,” Banerjee said, during a Cyclone rehabilitation related meeting recently.

“I am aware about the plight of people in Sunderbans Gosaba and Patharpratima areas. Most of the villages are inundated and saline water has entered the agricultural land,” she said. She also expressed apprehension about the speed and quantum of plantation work undertaken after the last cyclone.

Banerjee said a five-crore mangrove plantation was planned after Cyclone Amphan. However, the success of the project is yet to be ascertained.

Sunderbans rural MLA Manturam Pakhira said, “We have started mangrove plantation from this week. We want people to participate in this and women will get more work for this plantation work through the 100 days work scheme.”

With Cyclone Yaas wreaking havoc in South and North 24 Parganas, including Sunderbans, the chief minister has now instructed that the plantation process to build a natural barrier through mangroves be expedited.

“The committee members and the experts will give their opinion about the plan of action for the mangrove plantation in Sunderbans and other areas of South 24 Parganas,” Kalyan Rudra told ET. He said the action will be taken depending on expert opinion.

A healthy mangrove population in the Sundarbans is considered crucial as it works as a barrier to high-intensity cyclones that impact the islands of the delta.

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