System of Reclamation and Salt Preparation in Sunderbans

Gautam Kumar Das

System of reclamation changes the scenario of the Sunderbans, particularly of wildness inclusive briefing of the natural habitat of the tigers and crocodiles and as a result, introduction of human habitation within the reclaimed land. Collector of Jessor, Tilman Henckell was the pioneer of such system of reclamation in the Sunderbans during his tenure of 1781 – 1790. He played a very positive role in taking initiative of reclamation clearing the dense jungle of mangroves and tried an utmost effort for the welfare of the molungees who were responsible for salt preparation. His scheme failed as the members of the Board were not convinced with his proposal. But ultimately progress of reclamation has been going on steadily for about forty years after the tenure of Collector, Tilman Henckel. Further, he took initiatives for the welfare of the molungees of tribal origin namely Chandabandas, from which the name of the Sunderbans supposed to be denominated.

Existence of forest lands of the Sunderbans was first quoted in ‘Indica’- the report prepared by Megasthenes (381-312 BC), the European traveler during his visit in India in the era of Emperor Chandragupta Mourya. Ptolemy informed the existence of the forest of the Sunderbans in his map projecting the Gangetic delta describing specially on the Gangadari or Gangaridi (People of the Ganga) during the first century A.D. Piliny tried to locate actual position of distributaries of Ganga delta, its land and water during the 2nd century A.D. Jeao de Barros compiled the more accurate map of the Ganges delta during the sixteenth century. Raja Pratapaditya, one of the Bara Bhuniyas (local chief) constructed the naval port in the heart of Sunderbans. Some broken concrete structures are visible in the dense forest areas of the present days Sunderbans. James Rennell published a number of maps in successive years from 1770 on the extent of Sunderbans for the first time by systematic survey. The then Sunderbans existed, not by name, but enclosed on all sides with the mangrove forest.

Sunderbans division was first introduced by the British rulers before the partition of Bengal and Khulna was the head quarters of that division. After the independence of India, Radcliff Award recommended the western portion of Sunderbans division as its Indian part in the year 1947 and Alipore became the head quarters of the Indian Sunderbans. Part of the Indian Sunderbans comprising of 2585 sq kms of mangrove forests is announced as Tiger Project area for the first time in 1973 keeping with the objectives of protection and conservation of flora and fauna. Sunderbans is declared National Park in 1984 and gradually as World Heritage Site and Sunderbans Biosphere Reserve respectively in the year 1989.

The largest delta of the Ganga – Brahmaputra River system in erstwhile Bengal at its southern extremity bears the name Sunderbans. It is located at the south of Dampier-Hodges line. Lying south of tropic of cancer the total Sunderbans area is bounded by Baleswar River on the West and Hugli River on the east. The entire Sunderbans covers an area of 25,500 sq km having 66% of it as land and 34% as water. About 9630 sq km of the total area of Sunderbans is under India and rest 15870 sq km under Bangladesh. In important reservoirs of species of plant and animals, bound together over a long period in the Sunderbans of India and Bangladesh is an enormous tract of compact mangroves forest in the world. Its importance for its forestry composition, domestic use and wildlife habitat has created for it a unique position not only in economic growth but also in culture and heritage of both India and Bangladesh. A wide range of forest products such as timber, fuel wood, pulp wood, match wood, thatching materials etc are also obtained from this forest.

The area of the present Sunderbans was once very much populous during the reign of one of the most veteran ‘Baaro Bhuniyas’ namely Pratapaditya covered with brick-built houses, temples, port, pastures, agricultural lands and economically stable villages. But after the fall of Pratapaditya, this vast zone gradually turns to void left by the departure of local inhabitants as a result of regular intrusive presence and tyranny of the Arakanese ‘Maghs’ and ‘Portuguese’ pirates. The no man’s land gradually becomes dense forest as the tidal waters spill over from the network of the tidal courses and inlets that carries the seeds of the mangroves of different species upon the non-protected villages without trace of embankment. Ultimately the once wealthy and enriched kingdom of Pratapaditya, dearth of a single human being, has been converted into a dense jungle within a span of near about one and half century. Nobody lived within the jungle or surrounding this jungle of ‘Vati’ area i.e. lower Gangetic deltaic plain. Naturally there was no local name of the forest or nobody named this newly grown up dense mangroves jungle.

The British first noticed the vast low-lying forest area and they immediately resolved to reclaim this forest-land in order to collect the revenue by the introduction of agriculture on that mangrove habitat zone. Mr. Claude Russel (1770), the Collector General of 24 Parganas district first took initiatives followed by Tilman Henckell (1781), the Judge and Magistrate of Jessor district. A scheme of arrangement was drawn up for cultivation in the reclaimed area – “Cultivation in the Sunderbuns – Jessore. Collector directed to submit a separate report on the present state of - , and to furnish information how far the original objects of the plan had been attained, together with an account of receipts and disbursements from the commencement of the undertaking to the present period.” (Board of Revenue Index, 18th March; 19th April, 1790). As the coast salt manufacturing work was in progress adjacent to or inside the forest beauty of the Sunderbans, the wild beast not only infested the area, but attacked molungees resulting loss of so many lives. To avoid such worst situation the Company rulers declared prize money for tiger-killing at the rate of Rs. ten per tiger. Locals of the Sunderbans of the Jessore district only (presently in Bangladesh) killed 33 tigers in a calendar year of 1788 and the disbursement of Rs. 330 is recorded in the Board of Revenue Index (20th July, 1789) – “Tigers – Reward for killing  - Jessore. Disbursement of Rs. 330 by Collector for killing 33 tigers, sanctioned.” Perhaps this report of “the separate rewards paid for the destruction of wild animals in the Sunderbans or of the annual loss of life caused by then” was unnoticed to W.W. Hunter (1875) as he wrote no information of such reward paid for killing of wild beast of the Sunderbans.

Hardworking labours from Santhal, Orano, Munda categories of tribal community were taken mainly from Hazaribag, Singbhum, Manbhum and Ranchi districts for the purpose of commencement of human habitation and settlement in the Sunderbans. Cultivators and latdars from the neighbouring district of Midnapore settled first at the reclaimed zone of the Sagar Island, Namkhana and Patharpratima. The duration of the human habitation in the Sunderbans region is never more than 115 years. The first tube well for drinking water facilities was sunk in 1950 in the newly settled and reclaimed zone considered for human habitation.

The Collector of Jessor, Tilman Henckell tried at his farthest limit on twofold works on reclamation of land for cultivation and rehabilitation of salt manufactures in the Sunderbans. Mr. Tilman Henckell was very much confident of grand success of the system of reclamation in the Sunderbans, as he thought of huge lease of reclaimed land by any zamindars and Talukdars, but in reality it was not happened. The Sunderbans plan was the then a utopian scheme of Mr. Tilman Henckell. He tried his best to overcome the hurdles faced for the reclamation scheme of the Sunderbans. Tilman Henckell proposed ‘in a letter, dated the 26th March, 1790, a statement made of the progress of the scheme as following – in 1785, 7000 acres, in 1787, 4364 acres, in 1788, 2704 acres; and in 1789, 534 acres and revenue revenue from the grants of reclaimed land first became payable in 1788 (Hunter, 1875). But the members of the Board of revenue were not satisfied by the statements and probable areas of the newly-cleared lands, rather they then expressed more stress on salt manufacture than cultivation, though the Board were convinced at the first time and agreed in favour of the scheme proposed by Tilman Henckell, Collector of Jessor (Resolution – 1; Appendix).

Tilman Henckell, founder of the system of reclamation, fixed three market-places in the remote isolated island habitation surrounded and covered with mangroves and infested with wild beasts like Royal Bengal tigers, estuarine crocodiles,  king cobra, rock python etc in order to exchange and sell of produce like crops and salt to the traders involved in the export and import. One of such market-places adjacent to Bangalpara and at the bank of the Ichhamati River is named after Mr. Tilman Henckell, as Henkellganj. The person behind such denomination of Henckellganj, was the native agent of the Mr. Tilman Henckell who denominated the market-place due to “troubled by the depredations of tigers; so he called the place after Mr. Henckell, expecting that the tigers, out of respect and dread of the Judge’s name, would no more molest him.” This name of Henckellganj continued for a few years “until at last the Survey authorities, picking up the local pronunciation, wrote it down ‘Hingulgunge’ on their maps, and blotted out the history it contained” (W.W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, Volume 1, Districts of the 24 Parganas and Sundarbans, 1875). W.W. Hunter (1875) noted the designation of Tilman Henckell as the ‘First English Judge and Magistrate of Jessor, appointed in 1781’, though Tilman Henckell himself wrote his designation as Collector of Jessor at the subscription of his letter sent to the Board of Revenue perhaps the post of Judge and Magistrate of 1781 had been reshuffled to the same post of Collectorship in 1787. Ultimately Tilman Henckell, Collector of Jessor got success in cultivation after due reclamation by the clearance of jungle out of wildness, waste or submersion. And such attempt of reclamation and cultivation was entitled as “The Sundarban plan, as it was then called, was approved of by the Board of Revenue, and speedily brought into operation, - Mr. Henckell being made Superintendent for cultivating the Sundarbans” (W.W. Hunter, A Statistical Account of Bengal, Volume 1, Districts of the 24 Parganas and Sundarbans, 1875).

Human settlement in the Sunderbans region of the vast area has been started from 1757 onwards when Nawab Mir-Zafar handed over the whole area of 24 Parganas to the East India Company. But the proliferation of human habitation did not take place in a large scale during the following decades mostly due to inhospitable natural conditions of the region. It is only around 1800 AD, large number of oppressed, famine-stricken peasants, degraded to landlessness, in adjoining districts, started venturing into inaccessible area of Sunderbans merely for their survival. Commencement of lease for agriculture after deforestation of Sunderbans forests was directed by the British East India Company Government approximately in the year 1800 and the lease processing was accomplished around 1885 AD, although the process of reclamation in the area of the Sunderbans was initiated in 1787 by Tilman Henckell, Collector of Jessore. Tilman Henckell started reclamation and communicated his plan of action through a letter on 23rd July, 1787 to the members of the Board of Revenue for due approval, with an objective to earn more revenue for the Company from the reclaimed area of the Sunderbans through cultivation (Letter 1; Appendix). The said letter has a great impetus upon Sunderbans changing societal structures of the region. Before analysis of the letter and contemplation of the ideas of the collector regarding cultivation in the reclaimed area, a few observations of the letter of Mr. Henckell and clarification thereon to avoid general problems as following: Firstly, the annexed entire body of the letter by Mr. Henckell or resolution taken by the Governor General in Council remained unchanged; a few meaningless words particularly of the Bengali – origin visible all along the letter too remain unchanged, these words are wrongly written simply due to lacking of proper Bengali language of the European officials; some words are illegible in the record book, they are lying vacant. It seems a few words are anomalously written in the record books by the script-writer during transmission from the original document. Anyway that era of 230 years back is lacking even a type writer. Sometimes many a words or group of words are lying vacant due to almost invisible impression of the ink written scripts of about two and a half centuries back along with a few meaningless words copied anomalously from the original letter by the script-writers. Further, letter issued and letter sent by the competent authorities are duly copied in the record books from about the beginning of the era of the East India Company rules.

Land lease executed after system of reclamation at Sunderbans for agricultural purpose was the consequence of the permanent settlement pact by the British Government during 1793 AD reclaiming the agricultural lands after deforestation. Areas of the Sunderbans including Sagar Island was such selected areas to serve as the avenue for agricultural practice after reclamation. Zamindars and Latdars were considered on a few conditions by the British Government such as i) Lease holders had not to pay land revenue up to thirty years from the date of commencement of lease. ii) after surveying of areas, reclaimed land would be considered as property of zamindars after thirty years of commencement of lease and then lease holders had to pay at the rate of four annas (one anna = four paisa) per bigha as land revenue and (iii) Lease holders had to take steps on inhibiting the tidal saline water incursions into the newly reclaimed agricultural lands through the construction of river dykes or embankments.

Tilman Henckell was then Collector of Jessore. He managed to establish a salt depot or godown for the welfare of the poor molungees and somehow the place was denominated as Henckellganj. Nobody knows either Tilman Henckell or the salt manufacturer molungees denominated the place of salt godown as Henckellganj beside Ichhamoti River, but Mr. Henckell, Collector of Jessore District, was asked for the explanation by the Governor General in Council – “Hinckell Gunge – Jessore. Government order directing the Board to call upon the Collector to explain the term of - , and, if any such gunge existed under that denomination, to report by whose authority it was established, and whether it was under the immediate control of the Collector or any farmer” - Board of Revenue Index, 15th February, 1788. After a debate or discussion or a gap bridged all from each sides end, somehow, the denomination of place of salt depot remains same, as Henckellganj. Each of the molungees pronounced the salt depot or godown excellent, but Henckellganj had certainly changed into Hingalganj as the molungees’ pronunciation was faulty, they had not been taking lessons in the pronunciation of English names or words. Anyway, Tilman Henckell rescued the molungees from the middlemen i.e. salt traders as they tortured poor tribal molungees to extract more quantity of salt against the payment of less money. Molungees simply worshipped the Collector of Jessore followed by a report published in the Calcutta Gazette on the 24th April, 1788 – “It is a fact that the conduct of Mr. Henckell in the Sunderbunds had been so exemplary and mild towards the poor Molungees, or salt manufacturers, that to express their gratitude they have made a representation of his figure or image, which they worship amongst themselves.” Similarly the British Company authority had shown leniency towards molungees and ordered to investigate where the molungees undergone arrest by the Shikdars if they failed to fulfill the production of salt in terms of quantity against advance taken from them - “24-Pergunnahs Agency. Representation from agent that the – in the agency has been much retarded owing to the arrest of Molunghees by the Shikdar of Pergunnah Mooragatcha on account of rent due from them. Board informed Comptroller of salt manufacture that if the Shikdar be guilty of any improper conduct towards the Molunghees, he should apply to the Collector for redress” (Hunter, 1875).

We have never known ‘molungee’ as there is no community in the name of molungee of late, though we have visited Sunderbans repeatedly. Common people generally ask for the meaning of the word ‘Molungee’ as the term is very much uncommon today, even to the inhabitants of the Sunderbans. Molungee is meant for manufacturer of salt, another poor labour class, and a tribal community namely Chandabhandas, completely extinct from the Sunderbans. The nature and work of the molungees are specified in the record of the British East India Company (spelling remain unchanged for all records mentioned or quoted in this article) – “24-Pergunnahs. Board directed Collector to submit a statement shewing – granted to zamindars and talookdars till 20th June 1791 on account of arrears of rent due to them from the Molunghees employed in the manufacture of salt. - 24-Pergunnahs. Claims of zamindars for – on account of rent due from molunghees engaged in the manufacture of salt. Board directed Collector to proceed against the zamindars for recovery of the amount due from them on account of such rent agreeably to the regulations, informing them at the same time that they are at liberty to prosecute their claims on the molunghees in the adawlut” – Board of Revenue Index (27th May, 1791).

Molungees, as termed for the salt manufacturing class professionally had the contribution on denomination of the Sunderbans through their community name, Chandabhandas. The denomination of the Sunderbans is a phenomenon of recent past that comes from the tribal name Chandabandas of about 230 years back. Even it is a matter of great surprise to the lovers of Sunderbans that there is not a single evidence or existence of the Sunderbans by name in any old records available at the office of the then Sunderbans Commissioner before the publication of the first scientifically prepared map of the Gangetic plain by James Rennell in 1776. The denomination has gradually been modified determining the mode of pronunciation slightly altering the spelling from Sunderbunds (of James Rennell) to Sunderbuns (nearly Sunderbans) noticed in the Board of Revenue Index (22nd April & 17th June, 1788) as following – “Jessore. Information regarding original plan proposed by Collector in 1784 for augmentation of revenues of Sunderbuns by increasing cultivation called for” (Government Order).

“Report regarding the rate – to be derived from lands in Sunderbuns for which pottahs were granted, called for from Collector” (Government Order).

Company people worked hard for the reclamation of the forest area, but hardly any record bear the name of the jungle of the lower Gangetic plain as Sunderbans during their progress of work. ‘Sunderbunds’ exists only in the map of James Rennell (1776). The uses of the name of the Sunderbans in black and white had perhaps been started in any time between 1788 and 1793, the year of permanent settlement where the name of the Sunderbans is clearly indicated for the collection of revenue, though ‘Sunderbuns’ is seen in the records of 1788. And here the question arises – how the ‘Sunderbunds’ has been simplified to such a beautiful name ‘Sunderbans’ and what are the possible sources for naming this estuarine forest-land as ‘Sunderbans’. The possible sources are considered to select name of the world’s largest mangrove forest as Sunderbans as following – i) ‘Sundari’-ban i.e. forest of the Sundari tree, ii) ‘Sundri’ (sindur)-ban i.e. the reddish colour of the Sundari tree’s wood is as beautiful as vermilion, iii) ‘Sudurer’-ban i.e. forest of long distance, iv) ‘Sundar’- ban i.e. beautiful forest, v) ‘Samuddurer’- ban i.e. forest adjacent to the ocean, vi) ‘Sundar’- ban (Sundar is the nick name of the Royal Bengal Tiger), vii) ‘Chandradwip’-ban i.e. the forest located within the Chandradwip, an old Pargana existed even in the British period, viii) ‘Chandabhandas’ (an old tribal race who were engaged in making of salt) > Shandabhandas > Soonderbunds > Sunderbunds > Sunderbuns > Sunderbans. Denomination of the land of ‘Chandabhandas’ into Sunderbans might be simply connected with the non-habituated pronunciation of the Bengali terms by the European people who were then the field managers and were engaged in the progress of reclamation and thereon cultivation. This probable possibility might be considered as the relevant source for the denomination of the Sunderbans as the British people gradually has been adopting the forest of ‘Chandabhandas’ with their changing vocabulary as ‘Sunderbunds’ in their time. The first evidence of Chandabhandas is occurred in a copper plate inscription discovered at Edilpur of the Bakarganj district written in Sanskrit and in Ganda characters, dated 1136 Samvat or 1079 AD. W.W. Hunter describes the copper plate inscription that records the grant of three villages by Madhava Sena, King of Bengal, to a Brahmin, who, with landlord rights, receives the power of punishing the Chandabhandas, or Shandabhandas, a race that lived in the forest and worked as molungees. Considering all of these factors, the name of Sunderbans has been derived and related with the name of the tribal race, Chandabhandas. And out of all possible sources for the nomenclature of the Sunderbans including nature, forest beauty, distance of the ocean, vermilion colour of the Sundari wood etc, the most acceptable and relevant source of denomination is left under consideration, namely ‘Chandabhandas’. Thus, the salt manufacturing labour class molungees as good as the tribal race ‘Chandabhandas’ of recent past brought glory towards denomination of the Sunderbans.

People gradually came to settle in the jungle-cleared reclaimed areas. Present day scenario after two hundred years of reclamation is quite different. Of late concrete and brick-built roads, culvert and bridges are constructed, though ferry services were once available connecting an island with the other. Ferry services are century-old practices as means of communication to cross the rivers, creeks and tidal inlets for the islanders of the reclaimed Sunderbans. Government since the British-era directly controlled the lease of the ferry services over different rivers till the year of introduction of the Panchayet-raj system i.e. local government. At present, the Panchayet (Local government) call for lease for year-long ferry service in the different parts of the Sunderbans, where 2 to 200 boatmen are engaged for helping transport of goods and people crossing over the islands. Recently a few of those ferry services have been disrupted due to construction of bridge over the river connecting islands. Government has already constructed seven bridges at Canning, Basanti, Gangadharpur, Nandakumarpur, Raidighi, Kultali and Dakshin Kashinagar in the Sunderbans leaving about three hundred boatmen jobless who are habituated with the ferrying of boat with their rudder and oar since their childhood. Boatmen, in the Sunderbans region are continuing the same kind of work through generations. They don’t have skill in any other job, even in fishing although they used to spend almost entire part of their lives on sailing boat. To earn their breads, these jobless boatmen are now forced to pull the rickshaw-van and become daily wage labour in the locality and construction workers in Kolkata megacity but it is only those who get facilities of train journey by low-fare and less-time. The older boatmen who are now unable to carry out physical labours like rickshaw pulling or working at the construction site have become a burden to their families. Considered once as the brave and strong in their villages, the aged boatmen have been suffering from malnutrition due to dearth of proper feeding. Everybody knows about the boatmen’s real malady and that they are simply jobless. Construction of bridge and the connectivity of the road thereon undoubtedly improve the overall economic growth of the region for easy conveyance of both goods and the people. Bridge-construction has got not only the impetus on the growth of local economy and development, but it helps in implementing the policy of education, health and process of local governance and administration. But in reality the jobless boatmen found no job in connection with those of or related with the newly constructed bridges. Their livelihoods have gradually been becoming strenuous and stressful. More than 300 boatmen are left jobless after construction of seven bridges and about 150 boatmen will be jobless in the near future as some bridges are still under the process of construction at Namkhana. Before forced to quit their skillful job within a year or two after construction of the bridge, the present boatmen ferrying on Hatania Doania at Namkhana have shown their penchant for sharp change by holding the handle of toto (battery-driven auto rickshaw) before leaving the rudder or oar forever.

Tilman Henckell, Collector of Jessor, undoubtedly initiated the system of reclamation in the Sunderbans covered with copses and jungles and infested with wild animals like man-eater tigers and crocodiles, though proceeding of reclaimed land recovered from the jungles was not productive with respect to heavily branched and propagated mangroves trees of immense size and stilt roots. The Collector faced another huge inconvenience when the zamindars forcefully occupied the newly reclaimed area and fixed ryotts (abadkaari) for cultivation claiming the land within their own zamindari without paying even a single penny for such possession of lands. Keeping such hurdles the progress of reclamation had been continuing slowly but steadily. After 25 years of such progress of work, the British East India Company authority appointed Mr. Smith, Assistant Collector for the measurement of land area of reclaimed zone. Therefore, the year of 1814 might be considered as the year of steady progress of cultivation in the reclaimed land, when a special Commissioner, had been appointed for supervision of both lease of land grant and earning of revenue against demarcated reclaimed land. After 60 years of steady progress the specific demarcated area denominated with the ‘Lot’ mark with the identity of a number and the total land area under cultivation was estimated about 1087.08 square miles, of which 771.73 square miles reclaimed during the period from 1830 to 1872 including numbers of estates in the Sunderbans – 431 under fiscal revenue from which a total of £ 41,757 land revenue collected in 1871 – 72 (W.W. Hunter, 1875). Of late the scenario has completely been changed where three-fourth areas of the entire 25,500 square km of Sunderbans come into the agricultural practices under two districts (North & South 24 Parganas) of India and three districts (Satkhira, Khulna & Bagerhat) of Bangladesh. Finally W.W. Hunter made out the real fact of severe consequence of such fast reclamation and asserted a prediction as a result of unwise reclamation by clearing jungle of mangroves that stand as a green wall in order to protect human lives and wealth from high devastating waves due to super cyclones – “and the more the forest is cleared away, the smaller the barrier placed between the cultivator and the devouring wave.” Hunter’s the then (1875) prediction and today’s Government slogan remain same – “Save Sunderbans, save Kolkata”.

Jul 17, 2018

Gautam Kumar Das

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