Folly in the Sudarbans

Date of Publication: 2004-11-00

In 2003 the business group, Sahara India Pariwar, submitted an ambitious plan to the government of West Bengal proposing the creation of an enormous new tourism complex in the Sundarbans. Although the details of the plan have not been made available to the public, the broad outlines are described on the Sahara Parivar's website. According to the site, the project will include many different kinds of accomodation, including '5-star floating hotels, high-speed boathouses, land-based huts, luxury cottages and an 'eco-village'. Landing jetties are to be built and the project is to be serviced by hovercraft and helicopters. 'Exclusive, beautiful virgin beaches' are to be created and hundreds of kilometres of waterways are to be developed. The facilites will include 'a casino, spa, health, shopping and meditation centres, restaurant complexes and a mini golf course', and tourists will be offered a choice of 'aqua sports' including scuba diving. The total cost of the project will be somewhere in the region of six billion rupees (155 million US dollars). In short an industrial house that has no special expertise in ecological matters is proposing a massive intervention in an area that is a designated World Heritage site and Biosphere Reserve.

The precise status of the project is not clear. For a while, to the dismay of environmentalists everywhere, it was thought that the West Bengal government had already given the project the go-ahead. But recent statements issuing from Writer's Building suggest that the authorities are currently re-evaluating the Sahara Parivar's proposal. This is a welcome development, not least because it provides an opportunity for a public discussion of the project and its merits.

To begin with, it is worth asking whether the project is feasible even on its own terms. What for example, are the chances of converting a stretch of the Sundarbans into an arena for water sports and a haven for beach lovers? This an area of mud flats and mangrove islands. There are no 'pristine beaches' and nor are there any coral gardens. The Ganges-Brahmaputra river system carries eight times as much silt as the Amazon and the waters of this region are thick with suspended particulate matter. This is not an environment that is appropriate for snorkeling or scuba diving. In the water visibility is so low that snorkelers and scuba divers would scarcely be able to see beyond their masks. What is more, these waters are populated by estuarine sharks and marine crocodiles. A substantial number of villagers and fishermen fall prey to these animals every year. Snorkelers and divers would face many dangers and in the event of fatalities the Sahara Parivar and the West Bengal Government would be liable to litigation.

Even swimming is extremely hazardous in the Sundarbans. The collision of river and sea in this region creates powerful currents, undertows and whirlpools. Drownings are commonplace and boats are often swamped by the swirling water.

Swimmers who accidentally ingest water would face another kind of hazard. Consider for example the experience of an American woman who visited the Sundarbans in the 1970s: she dipped her finger in a river and touched it briefly to her tongue, to test its salinity. Within a short while she developed crippling intestinal convulsions and had to be rushed to hospital. Bacteria and parasites are not least among the many life forms that flourish in the waters of the Sundarbans.

The location the Sahara Parivar has chosen for its project lies athwart the entrance to the Hooghly River, in the vicinity of Sagar Island. This spot has the advantage of commanding direct access to the Bay of Bengal while also being easily accessible from Kolkata. But when the weather is taken into account these apparent pluses are quickly revealed to be an uncompounded tally of minuses. A quick glance at a map is all it takes to see that the chosen location is directly exposed to the weather systems of the Bay of Bengal. What would happen if the complex were to find itself in the path of an incoming cyclone?

The Bay of Bengal is one of the most active cyclonic regions in the world: two of the most devastating hurricanes in human history have been visited upon the coast of Bengal, in 1737 and 1970. Each of these cyclones claimed over 300,000 lives, a toll higher than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. The toll might have been higher still if not for the the Sundarbans. The mangrove forests have historically absorbed the first shock of incoming cyclones: they are the barrier that protect the hinterland. This is why the people who live in this region have generally been wary of creating settlements that abut directly on the sea.

That this region will be hit by another devastating storm is a near certainty, in this era of global warming. Much of the destruction caused by cyclones is the result of 'storm surges' - the massive tidal waves that precede an incoming storm. What would happen to Sahara's 'floating hotel' with its restuarants, helipads, shopping arcades, meditation centres etc. if it were to be hit by a fifteen-metre tidal wave and 200 kmph winds? Suffice it to say that the damage would be enormous and many lives would be lost. And what of the casualties? There are no advanced medical facilities in the Sundarbans: where would survivors be treated? Tourists who are harmed or injured are almost certain to initiate litigation. Who will be liable for damages: the Sahara Parivar or the Government of India?

And what of the question of insurance, which appears to have been ignored by the Government and by the Sahara Parivar alike? The 'floating hotel' will need to be insured, like any seagoing vessel. Considering the pattern of cyclonic activity in the region no reputable firm is likely to provide insurance for this project. If they did the premiums alone would make the project unprofitable. If there is no insurance the government will be fully liable for all damages. If indeed there is a major catastrophe here, the entire tourism industry in India would suffer a crippling blow to its reputation. The risk simply is not worth it.

The Sahara Parivar claims that it will open 'virgin' areas to tourists. But the islands of the Sundarbans are not 'virgin' in any sense. The Indian part of the Sundarbans supports a population of close to four million people - equivalent to the entire population of New Zealand. The Sundarbans are an archipelago of islands, large and small. Many, if not most of the islands have been populated at some time or the other. In fact several islands were forcibly depopulated in order to make room for Project Tiger.

In 1979 the Left Front government evicted tens of thousands of refugee settlers, mainly Dalits, from the island of Morichjhapi. The cost in lives is still unaccounted, but it is likely that thousands were killed. The eviction was justified on ecological grounds: the authorities claimed that the island of Morichjhapi had to preserved as a forest reserve. It is scarcely conceivable that a government run by the same Left Front is now thinking of handing over a substantial part of the Sundarbans to an industrial house like the Sahara Parivar. It runs contrary to every tenet of the Front's professed ideology.

The Sahara Parivar's project would turn large stretches of this very forest, soaked in the blood of evicted refugees, into a playground for the affluent. Although forgotten elsewhere, in the Sundarbans the memory of Morichjhapi is still vividly alive: would it be surprising if the people there took this project to be an affront to their memories and a delibarate provocation? And if indeed there were to be protests and disturbances, how would the government ensure the safety of the tourist complex? Piracies and water-borne dacoities are daily occurrences in the Sundarbans. The government is powerless to prevent these crimes. To police the winding waterways of the Sundarbans is no easy matter and the police presence in the region is minimal anyway. How will the authorities provide security to tourists in a region where the machinery of state has not so much withered as never been properly implanted?

It is clear then that even within its own terms, this project is misconceived. Its chances of profitability are so slim as to suggest that some other intention lurks behind the stated motives for embarking on it. Certain other business houses are also said to be interested in expanding into the Sundarbans, and this may well have something to do with recent rumours concerning the possible discovery of oil in the region.

But what would happen if a large-scale tourist project were actually to take shape in the Sundarbans? What for example, would be the environmental impact?

It needs to be noted first that the Sahara Parivar's project has not been subjected to a rigorous environmental impact appraisal. However, several independent groups have conducted preliminary studies and their conclusions suggest that the effects may be disastrous.

For instance, the floating hotel is sure to have an impact on the patterns of sedimentation in its vicinity. The consequences are impossible to predict. It is quite conceivable that the structures will have the effect of retarding the flow of silt out of the Hooghly into the Bay of Bengal. This in turn will lead to increased siltation upriver and it might even cause a blockage in the rivermouth.

The floating hotel and its satellite structures will also disgorge a large quantity of sewage and waste into the surrounding waters. This refuse will include grease, oil and detergents. The increased level of pollution is certain to have an impact on the crabs and fish that live in these waters. Very high levels of mercury have already been detected in the fish that is brought to Kolkata's markets. A sharp increase in pollution could have a potentially devastating effect on the food supply of the entire region.

The polluting effects would not be restricted to sewage and waste: there would be light and noise pollution as well. The hotel's lights would disorient certain species. Olive Ridley turtles, for instance, would not be able to find their way back to their nesting places.

The Sahara Project also envisages the deployment of a large number of speedboats and other high-powered watercraft, possibly even including jet skis. Fast moving craft such as these pose a great danger to marine mammals, particularly to such endangered species as the Irrawaddy Dolphin (Orcaella brevirostris). The high-pitched noise produced by speedboats disrupts their echo-location systems, often resulting in casualties. In January 2000 I myself came upon the carcass of an Irrawaddy Dolphin on the banks of the Matla river. A huge hole had been gouged out of its head, probably by a propellor. Increased traffic in these waters will result in many more such casualties.

Historically the waters of the Sundarbans were home to great numbers of whales and dolphins. British naturalists of the nineteenth century reported the area to be 'teeming' with marine mammals. Very few of these animals are to be seen in these waters today. Their fate is unknown because there has been no major census or survey. There is limited expertise in this field in India and the Sundarbans being a border region, foreign researchers have not been allowed to conduct surveys for reasons of security. For all we know the cetacean population of this region has already dwindled catastrophically. It would be nothing less than an outrage if an area that has been closed to zoologists should now be thrown open to tourist developers.

These are just a few of the possible ecological consequences of the project: there are sure to be many others.

Tourism is the world's largest industry and it is already one of India's most important revenue earners. Clearly every part of the country will have to reach an accomodation with this industry: it would be idle to pretend otherwise. There is no reason why tourists should be excluded from the Sundarbans, so long as their presence causes no harm to the ecology or to the people who live there. But if tourism is to develop here it should be on the model of other ecologically sensitive areas, such as the Galapagos islands, where the industry is held to very high standards. The Sundarabans deserve no less and it is the duty of the Government of India and the government of West Bengal to ensure that this unique ecosystem and its inhabitants, animal and human, receive their due.

The Sahara Parivar is not the first to conceive of a grandiose plan for this region. In the early nineteenth century the British dreamt of creating a port on the Matla river that would replace Kolkata and be a rival to Bombay and Singapore. In 1854 Henry Piddington, a pioneering British meteorologist, wrote an open letter to Lord Dalhousie, begging him to reconsider the project. In his letter Piddington warned that in the event of a cyclone (a word he had invented) the new port would probably be swept away. Lord Dalhousie, secure on his proconsular throne, paid no attention to this lonely voice: the port was built and took its name from Lord Canning. But Henry Piddington was soon vindicated: Port Canning was swamped by a storm in 1867. It was formally abandoned by the British five years later.

Over the last few months, due to the efforts of a small group of concerned people, many letters have been sent to the Chief Minister of West Bengal asking him to re-examine the Sahara Parivar's Project. It falls to him now, as a democratically elected leader, to show better judgement than did his lordly predecessors in Writer's Building.