Coming of the tide

Shamik Bag, Indian Express, March 1, 2007
His plan to write a book on the Sunderbans joins author Dominique Lapierre to a long list of authors, filmmakers, photographers and tourist agencies who have the gruelling region in focus. The Sunderbans story, though, is far from over
French author Dominique Lapierre rues the fact that the perpetrators of the 1984’s Bhopal gas tragedy continue to elude the “courts of justice”, but knows what his book, Five Past Midnight in Bhopal, co-written with Javier Moro, has managed to do. It has prevented further “Bhopals from taking place in the world” and kept alive the tragedy in the minds of readers.
Now, the world’s largest mangrove forest region, the Sunderbans, has come under Lapierre’s scanner and his many visits to the deltaic terrain have exposed a tale of immense human misfortune to him, where “there is a lot of hardship and where even drinking water is salinated and arsenic contaminated.” Sunderbans, declares Lapierre, who is currently visiting Bengal, will be the background of his forthcoming book and, even as he is currently researching the area, says, the book will be on the lines of his earlier novel, The City Of Joy.
Located at the southernmost tip of West Bengal and Bangladesh and exposed to the idiosyncrasies of nature and wildlife, Sunderbans, these days, is also at the epicentre of widespread interest among a cross-section of people, including authors, filmmakers, documentary photographers, climate researchers and travel companies. For Amitav Ghosh, author of the immensely popular novel The Hungry Tide, which had the ‘tide country’ as backdrop, the “book has been as much about the story of its protagonists as a documentation of the human drama unfolding in the region,” he mentioned at a promotional event held at Crossword last year. Shooting for the film based on Ghosh’s book is likely to commence in 2008, according to its director Suman Mukhopadhyay.
Though each tide leaves vast tracts of land inundated and completely under water on a daily basis, as Ghosh writes in the book, the vanishing from the map of islands like Lohachura and Bedford, according to a team of scientists from Jadavpur University, holds out the portents of the Sunderbans dire future. As many as 12 more islands of the Sunderbans archipelago, spread over 26,000 square kilometres across India and Bangladesh, will go under water by 2020 because of an annual 3.14 mm rise in sea level, contends the research team of the School of Oceanographic Studies. Over 7000 people, says Professor Sugata Hazra, director of the School, have been left as “environmental refugees” and many more are likely to suffer a similar misfortune in the coming years.
Yet, it is in the inimical terrain that a grand welcome is being laid out to tourists. Sunderbans, according to conservationist, photographer and editor of wildlife magazine Environ, Biswajit Roy Chowdhury, has been hosting approximately 50,000 tourists annually, with an increasing number of tour agencies taking charge of their upkeep. While the current tourist infrastructure there has room for both budget and mid-range tourists, the recent launch of a luxury cruise at Rs 15,000-18,000 per passenger for a two night trip, is aimed at attracting the top-end of the tourist spectrum. R Sushila, executive director of Vivada that has announced the cruise service, states that the overall upliftment of the Sunderbans is in their interest. “We are offering a village experience to the tourists at Bali island where we are also contributing a portion of our profits for the local community. We also have a senior wildlife expert to inform tourists about the unique ecology and bio-diversity of the place,” she informs.
Meanwhile, Roy Chowdhury with Pradeep Vyas, who holds the office of the Field Director of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve, have come out with a coffee table book, Sunderbans – The Mystic Mangrove, which, he says, can matter to biologists, naturalists, sociologists and tourists. “A recent survey done by a student of Indian Institute of Forest Management, Bhopal, concluded that only about 53 percent of Sunderbans’ tourist carrying capacity has been utilised. But increase in tourism potential should also include the local, unemployed youths,” says Vyas. He counts the decline in incidents of man-animal conflict, the crackdown in poaching and animal trade, as among the major achievements in the Sunderbans. Yet, when Vyas, as the Assistant Chief Conservator of Forests, mentions a long wish list, which includes educating tourists on proper behaviour inside forest reserves and on eco-tourism and waste management systems on boats, it is clear that Sunderbans — after all the hype, hoopla and creative fascination — still needs its share of attention.

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