Past And Present

Changing Sunderbans

Gautam Kumar Das

The largest delta of the Ganga-Brahmaputra River System in erstwhile Bengal at its southern extremity bears the name of Sunderbans. The changeable ways of the total areas of that Sunderbans puzzle even a common man. The entire Sunderbans covers an area of 25500 sq km having 66% of it as land and 44% as water. About 9630 sq km of the total areas of the Sunderbans is under India and the rest 15870 sq km is under Bangladesh. This is a tale of Sunderbans regarding demarcation of areas before the partition of India that has shown in a map of settlement published by the British Government of Bengal during 1919. The situation has certainly changed of late due to quick reclamation and conversion of agricultural land and usual occupational hazards with human habitation.

William Dampier and Lieutenant Hodges, appointed as the Commissioner and Surveyor by the British India respectively, prepared a map for the Sunderbans in 1831 which was considered and used as the standard map for the Sunderbans till date. They named and divided the entire areas of the Sunderbans into three parts—the Bakharganj Sunderbans, the Khulna Sunderbans and the 24 Parganas Sunderbans. The Bakharganj Sunder-bans was covered by the areas of land in between the Haringhata, Bishkhali and Buriswar Rivers, whereas, the Khulna Sunderbans in between the Haringhata and Raimangal Rivers and the 24 Parganas Sunderbans between Raimangal and Muriganga or Bartala Rivers.

An affluent intrusion of landless class is yet but a recent phenomenon in the region of the Sunderbans. Presently the luxuriant mangroves have been completely destroyed in Bakharganj district. The Bakharganj district is itself abolished in the present Bangladesh after achieving independence very recently in 1971. The areas of Bakharganj district of the past is at present the parts of the three districts namely Barguna, Patuakhali and Pirojpur. The mangroves areas under present Barguna district has been destroyed completely and the reclaimed areas are entiiely converted into the agricultural land and cultivation is going on therefrom. The same scenario is seen in the Patuakhali district where only the afforestation programme has been taken up for mangrove plantation at its extreme south of Lata Chapli area recently. No natural mangrove swamp or tidal marshes are visible in the entire district other than that of the plantation programme of Lata Chapli. Surprisingly a few bushes of Golpata are grown within the midst of the agricultural land in this region and the saps are collected from the trunks of those herbs using plastic bottles hanging from them. The saps collected from Golpata have been used as ingredients for the preparation of fermented drinks of local preparation. Mangroves are not traceable in any part of Pirojpur too which was a part of the compiled map prepared in 1919 from a survey made during settlement operations in the confluence of Kaliganga and Swarupkathi Rivers within the jurisdiction of the then Sunderbans.

Khulna district, the other part of the Sunderbans, is divided longitudinally into three districts namely Bagerhat, Khulna and Satkhira from east to west in the independent Bangladesh. In Bagerhat district, at present, Sunderbans is characterized with the substrata soil and water with low salinity level. Luxuriant mangroves grow there covering the entire areas in between the Bogi forest station stands on the bank of Bhola River and confluence of Baleswar River with the bay of Bengal. Similar to that abundant occurrence of mangroves is observed in the areas in between Karamjal and Alor Kol region in the same district. Dense mangrove forests still exist at Dakop, Chalna, Kalabogi and Sutarkhali zones of the southern part of the Khulna district. On contrary, mangrove vegetation of the Satkhira district has its close resemblance with its appearance and characteristics with that of the mangroves of the Sunderbans of the Indian part. Almost all the mangrove species are dwarf in nature due to high soil and water salinity like those of the mangroves of the Indian Sunderbans.

Mangrove forest in the Indian Sunderbans is restricted within the areas of 9630 sq km covering the parts of both North 24 Parganas and South 24 Parganas districts of West Bengal. But mangroves are now scarce in Jaynagar I & II, Mathurapur I & II, Kakdwip and Canning I blocks of the South 24 Parganas and similar scenario of scarcity in Haroa, Minakha and Hasnabad blocks of the North 24 Parganas. Mangroves of the Sunderbans of the Indian part presently occupy the areas of only 4266 sq km. Naturally the blocks with scarcely mangrove vegetation should be edged out from the actual mangrove occupied areas of the Sunderbans from the map prepared by Dampier and Hodges of about 200 years back and a new line of demarcation would have to be drawn in the freshly prepared map where mangroves occur and exist in reality particularly in the Indian Sunderbans.

The tale of this survey ends with a promissory fact for the Indian Sunderbans. The natural afforestation gradually emerging on chars (islands), point bars, marginal bars, natural levees and mid channel bars even in the different areas of the estuarine river basins of the Indian Sunderbans is going on. Improvement of mangrove canopy with luxuriant vegetation has been detected through GIS Study. Discontinuity of permit for wood harvesting simultaneously with afforestation programme, the mangrove areas start increasing around 3% in the entire areas of the Indian Sunderbans, whereas, increase of approximately 23% of the mangrove areas of the forest block of Thakuran alone is the highest among all the blocks of 24 Parganas (South) and Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR) within a span of 70 years from 1948 to 2003.

Vol. 48, No. 42, Apr 24 - 30, 2016