The Sundarbans: A Tale of Sahibs and Cyclones

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    Tropical cyclone Amphan of May 2020 has been the strongest to hit Kolkata since 1737. Large parts of West Bengal’s capital remained without power or water. But beyond the glare of television cameras, even greater damage was sustained by the Sundarbans, one of the most cyclone-prone regions in the world.

    Sadly, none of this is new to the people who live there. Every year brings cyclones, death and destruction to the mangrove forests of the Ganges delta. It is in fact these mangrove forests, which sit at the southern edge of West Bengal, that act as a buffer, protecting cities such as Kolkata by taking much of the bite out of most cyclones and preventing storm surges, enormous destructive tidal waves, from advancing too far inland.

    According to a WWF estimate there are 4.5 million people living in the Sundarbans. Why would so many people settle in such a remarkably inhospitable environment? How did they get there, and why do they stay? Like so many of modern India’s problems, the roots can be traced to British colonial rule.

    The trouble began with the Permanent Settlement of 1793. Enacted by Lord Cornwallis, it levied a fixed tax on landholders, allowing them to keep the rest of their produce. Since taxation was fixed, it was in the landholders’ interest to produce more, and it was assumed that this would drive investment in agriculture, alleviating famines and peasant distress.

    The unintended consequence of the Permanent Settlement was that it fixed the Company’s revenues at a time when its ever-growing standing army was being pressed into more wars and conflicts, and needed more money every year. Where would more revenue come from? One possible source, it was decided, was an agricultural expansion into the heavily forested Sundarbans.

    Agricultural expansion into East Bengal had begun during the reign of Aurangzeb (r. 1658-1707), about 100 years earlier. The added revenue had helped fund the Emperor’s expensive Deccan campaigns. But even for the Mughals, the tiger-infested mangrove forests had proved impenetrable. The primary industry in the region had been weaving. But with the British placing a 75 percent import duty on Indian fabric in England, the weavers lost their foreign market. With the invention of the spinning mule and the advent of steam power, cheap English fabric, subject only to a nominal duty, flooded the Indian market and the weavers lost their domestic market too.

    The other major industry of the region, also dating back to Mughal times, was salt. But under colonial rule, the East India Company had a monopoly, and levied an absurd 650-per cent duty on domestically manufactured salt. By the 1830s, cheaper British-made salt started entering the Indian markets and the salt works of the delta region ground to a halt.

    With revenue from the region falling, the Company decided to deforest the Sundarbans and turn it into farmland. In 1783, Tilman Henckell, the magistrate of Jessore (now in Bangladesh), proposed that large tracts of the Sundarbans be cleared and handed over to developers on generous terms. There was to be no tax for the first three years, 50 percent tax for the next three, and full taxes to be paid only from the seventh year. Thus, he hoped, the “totally unproductive” forests could be turned into a valuable source of revenue.

    By 1830, the Sundarbans Commissioner William Dampier noted that in the Bakarganj region of the Meghna estuary of the Sundarbans alone, about 85,000 acres of land had been deforested. With the lands once belonging to the salt works also now being used for agriculture, paddy fields in the region began stretching out almost to the edge of the ocean. Many who had been rendered jobless due to the decline of industry in the region, now migrated to the Meghna estuary (in present-day Bangladesh) to become cultivators.

    Meanwhile, in what is now West Bengal, there was a concern that the Hooghly River was silting up, which would soon make the port of Kolkata unviable. The government proposed the setting up of an alternative port on the Matla River in the Sundarbans; 8,650 acres of forest land were cleared, and a port and township built here in 1862. It was named Port Canning, after the then Governor-General of India.

    The foremost expert on cyclones at the time, Henry Piddington, was the first to raise an alarm over the developments in the Sundarbans. In fact, it was Piddington who coined the term ‘cyclone’. He had noted that these storms had a calm centre and that the winds around them ran anti-clockwise in the Northern hemisphere and clockwise in the Southern hemisphere. Because of the helical nature of the winds, he named them ‘cyclones’, from the Greek ‘kyklos’ or circle.

    When he found out that a new port was being proposed on the Matla River, he shot off an open letter to the then Governor-General, which detailed in six sections the nature of storm surges, historical examples of their destructive power and why he believed the location of Port Canning made it particularly vulnerable.

    If the new port was built, Piddington wrote, “everyone and everything must be prepared to see a day when, in the midst of the horrors of a hurricane, they will find a terrific mass of salt water rolling in, or rising up upon them, with such rapidity that the whole settlement will be inundated to a depth of from five to fifteen feet”. His advice was ignored, but nine years after his death, it would be remembered.

    On the night of November 1, 1867, a cyclone made landfall in South Bengal, passing over Port Canning with “fearful violence”. The newspaper The Englishman reported, “A storm wave nearly 6 feet high carried away a portion of the riverbank jetties; the railway is much injured and the station destroyed”. The eye of the storm had passed right over Port Canning, according to the Bengal government’s Annual Report for 1867-68.

    “The station house, goods sheds and the railway hotel were all blown down; the Port Canning Company’s store hulk Hashemy carried away a great portion of the Railway Jetty, and the fresh water tanks were salted by the storm-wave.” Around 90 people and 500 heads of cattle were reported lost and even the survivors suffered greatly for want of drinking water, since everything, including wells, had been inundated by sea water. The port and the town had been reduced to a “bleached skeleton”.

    In the Meghna estuary, disaster would strike almost exactly nine years later. “Early on the morning of October 31, 1876, an immense wall of water about 40 feet high swept away 215,000 people,” writes author Benjamin Kingsbury in his book, An Imperial Disaster (2018). Another 100,000 died in the famine and cholera epidemic that followed. And yet, migration to the Sundarbans continued.

    More than 30 years later, massive plantations were still replacing the mangroves. In just one example, Sir Daniel Mackinnon Hamilton, a Scottish businessman, had 9,000 acres of forest land cleared to establish a zamindari and a cooperative in Gosaba, around 1910. Photographer Arka Dutta, who has worked extensively in the Sundarbans, points to yet another wave of migration, which occurred during the Bengal famine of 1943.

    Driven by hunger, thousands from Midnapore district in south-west Bengal, began to move to the Sundarbans because they had been told that even if rice was scarce, they could sustain themselves by fishing. Dutta points out that a large number of Sundarbans residents still speak the Midnapore dialect. Another wave of migration would occur in the wake of Partition, in 1947, when some 40,000 people from what was then East Pakistan crossed the border and settled in an area called Marichjhapi. Attempts to evict them from the reserved forest land would lead to the infamous Marichjhapi Massacre of 1979.

    Today, as a result of repeated flooding, and saline water from storm surges making large tracts of land unproductive, farming represents only 20-25 percent of the Sundarbans GDP. The bulk of its residents’ income comes from fishing. Naturalist Kingshuk Mondal says that a team of 4 to 5 fishermen, on a good day, may catch crabs worth Rs 45,000.

    With cyclones striking the coast every year, one would think the governments of India and Bangladesh would try to protect both the Sundarbans and the extremely vulnerable communities living there. Since the delta still acts as a powerful buffer, it would make sense to depopulate the area, rehabilitate the people and let the mangroves flourish. But no steps have been taken in that direction.

    Instead, on islands like Mousuni, which both Dutta and Mondal say is a single storm surge away from being wiped clean, rather than being evacuated, settlements are growing. There are even tourist resorts coming up.

    The West Bengal government, meanwhile, has been building roads and bridges and expanding rail networks in an effort to make the Sundarbans more accessible. There’s even an Indo-Bangladesh joint project to create a coal-fired thermal power plant in the delta, despite dire warnings from environmentalists.

    Those who cannot learn from history, they say, are doomed to repeat it. With Aila, Bulbul and now Amphan, the human and economic cost of not depopulating the Sundarbans is piling up.

    Cover Image: Drawing by Frederic Peter Layard of a village in a clearing in the Sundarbans, dated 1843 | British Library

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