Storms and cyclones have blurred the lines of economic and social divide in the Sunderbans. While people below the poverty line are either forced to migrate or live in even more deplorable condition, about a major chunk of the population on the islands, which was above the poverty line, bore the brunt by getting limited access to the relief sent during and post-Aila. Primarily farmers, some of these people’s land were inundated in the floods and some were left with salt-crusted tracts after the water receded. Families are now forced to buy all of the rice they need at Rs 22 a kg. Prices of vegetables have also skyrocketed. People have to manage on one to two meals a day.
A shopkeeper in Moirapara (Konkondighi, Sunderbans) shows the thick layer of hay strewn on the passage next to his shop. “Ei bar jomi te e chhara ar kichui hoye ni (this is all that has come out of our land this time),” said Gopal Nashkar who can still feed his family because of the shop he owns. But that is not enough. “My son is in 3rd year of college studying microbiology and my daughter is in class 12. I am no longer able to buy their books and give my son money so that he can go to his college which is very far. Both of them are thinking of dropping out and helping me run the shop” he added.
A woman from Jharkhali Island, Kalyani, who belonged to a joint family with her house buzzing with people all the time, is left with her aged in-laws in the house whose one side has collapsed after the cyclone. All other people who were young and capable have left for the city in search of jobs. All the land they owned have turned saline and growing anything there has become impossible. Even the ponds have turned into brackish pools.
“The ingression of saline water into the crop lands of the Sunderbans after Alia resulted in the soil salinity shooting up to 40 deciseimens in certain parts, more than five times the salinity an ordinary paddy plant can tolerate,” said Dr. BK. Bandyopadhyay, head of the Central Soil Salinity Research Institute’s regional research station at Canning in the State’s South 24-Parganas district. The situation was made worse by the late rains and the long time it took for the waters to recede, he added.
The lost land can be treated back to normal and the experts have even found a way to yield crops from land with high salinity level. However, not even a single person in Raidhigi, Konkondighi, Gosaba, Kultali and Jharkhali is aware of the ways to get his land back. Though teams were formed and policies were formulated to help such farmers and teach them concept of rainwater harvesting and multi-crop harvest, the plans and policies never reached the actual victims of the calamity. The salinity tolerant rice was not promoted at all in the islands where the farmers were already apprehensive.
Moreover, the farmers claim that even the saline resistant paddy is of no use. “Some people had come and they told us to harvest a new sort of rice. The paddy was costlier and we didn’t have money. Some people tried the new variety which was claimed to be able to survive in saline lands. But the yield was very poor. There was mostly hay which even the cattle would not eat,” said Shambhu Mondol, a farmer in Jharkhali.
According to Dr. Bandyopadhyay, there are more than a dozen varieties of saline-resistant paddy that have been developed of which CSR-4 and Canning-7 can withstand salinity of up to 9 deciseimens and are recommended for the region. Three months after Aila struck when the saplings were trans-located, “salinity had not declined sufficiently for normal varieties to survive.”
Farming of beet and carrot is less hurt by increased salinity. Whereas production of regular crops like rice and cereals are most affected. However, according to Nabard, the delta has practically become a single paddy crop region, also due to high iron content in ground water. Since the Aila devastation, there has been a frantic search for the salt-tolerant rice seeds created by the ancestors of the present Sunderban farmers, wrote Debal Deb, founder-chairman of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies, in his paper Valuing Folk Crop Varieties for Agroecology and Food Security that was published online by the Bioscience Research Project.
Rabindra Narayan Basu, former chairman of the state agriculture commission, who had conducted salt stress experiment on different rice varieties, says: “The local varieties are more salt-resistant compared to the high yielding ones. The situation is quite a challenge in Sunderbans in that for farmers to return to the old varieties now will be difficult because the seeds are not available easily.”
“Salinity in agricultural land can be brought down by flushing it with freshwater and also by treating it with gypsum. Cultivation of saline tolerant rice varieties and multi-crop plantation is an option but people go for commercial rice which makes things difficult,” said Mr Sugata Hazra, head of oceanographic studies centre at Jadavpur University.
The farmers however claim that even if they go for multi-crop plantation, the results are the same. The land has become such that it yields nothing.
Mr Hazra said that rainwater harvesting is the need of the hour. “British used to make reservoirs with high walls to collect rain water. But now even the tube wells are in low areas. Boring up to the depth of 300ft is needed to set up tube wells. During cyclones even they are submerged. We are planning to install hand pumps at a height where one would have to use stairs to get to it. Many hand pumps have been sanctioned.”
But before endless political strife comes to an end, before teams are formed and findings are discussed, before NGOs organize trips to such area and government wake from its delightful slumber, hunger is an uninvited guest in every household.