There is enough economic justification for pursuing a policy to achieve the Vision Scenario.
This essay comes from Kolkata in midst of the ravages that super cyclonic storm Amphan has left us with. South West Bengal that entails the Ganges delta (where Kolkata is located) has borne the brunt of the rage of the monstrous catastrophe that is unprecedented in recent history. Till now, reportedly 76 lives are lost, and the property damages are immeasurable. The visibly massive damages to the urban infrastructure in Kolkata can make one realise the severity of the damages to the coastal regions and the Indian Sundarbans delta (ISD) that faced the direct initial impacts of the cyclone in its heightened intensity.
The cyclone hit the West Bengal coast in the afternoon of 20 May 2020, making landfall at around 20 km east of Sagar Island in the Indian Sunderbans with maximum sustained wind speed of 165-175 kmph gusting up to 185 kmph. The estimated storm surge of 5 meters above tide inundated coastal regions as also the Indian Sundarbans, with impacts felt in large parts of the low lying areas of South and North 24 Parganas districts during the time of landfall. High tide was predicted to be 4.53 m and low tide 1.32 m on 20 May. As always, any storm brings with itself the not merely the damages from its ferocity, but also inundations. As learnt from the field so far, the western side of the delta has borne the major brunt, though the impacts are also felt in the eastern side. The School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, identified that the maximum impacts of Amphan have been felt in several south-western islands of the archipelago (which ISD is) due their gradients and higher exsposures.
As such, the Indian Sundarbans faces a double whammy:
i. The embankments designed all across cannot cope with storm surges of 4-5 meters;
ii. The inundated waters take months to recede due to lack of drainage and sanitation in the spaces of human habitat. This poses a very high risk to the residents of the region, who at the best of times are amongst the most vulnerable in the country. They are not only exposed to the vagaries of the violent cyclones, but are also easy victims of illnesses that are brought about by the stangant inundations.
According to a 2014 World Bank Report, sea level rise, salinisation of soil and water, cyclonic storms and flooding have combined over the past century to render the Sundarbans as one of the most hazardous areas in the Indian subcontinent. Although the Bay of Bengal is not traversed by the maximum number of tropical cyclones on the planet, in terms of storm surges, the maximum impact seems to occur here due to high population density in the ISD. Of the 190 Gram Panchayats in the region, about 60 percent have rivers and creeks, meaning about 3.5 million people are vulnerable to storm surges.
This does not take away the fact that our early warning systems have improved substantially. The adequate amount of early warning during Amphan helped the West Bengal government take early actions to evacuate highly vulnerable deltaic and coastal regions thereby moving around 500,000 people to safer zones. However, while life could be saved through such movements, the immovables including properties were not.
In the Indian Sundarbans as also elsewhere, residents of low lying areas have often been advised to move to cyclone/flood relief centres. But people across Indian Sundarbans are reluctant to do so. This is especially true for farming families who live away from these centres. The reluctance emanates from the inability of the farmers to sell their recent paddy harvest due to the ongoing lockdown, and uncertainty surrounding the fate of their livestock should they temporarily shift. There is also an apprehension in the community that at these shelters maintaining distance with others to avoid the COVID-19 infection would be nearly impossible. The apprehension is heightened by the late arrival of some stranded migrants and these structures serving as quarantine facilities. However, closer to the time of landfall, the administration and the NDRF had little choice but to forcibly shift those on the edges of the islands to relatively safer locations. In the southern subdistrict or block of Namkhana itself, about 50,000 were moved to shelters. If it is not for COVID-19 to infect them, the cyclone would batter them.
As the former Mayor of Chicago, Rahm Emanuel once said: “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste,” implying that a crisis is an opportunity to do things that were not considered or were thought to be impossible. The 2009 Aila supercyclone made many realise that the existing infrastructure of the coastal Sundarbans is not sufficient to combat a gigantic disaster. Amphan, being even more intense, magnified the fact that sustaining human habitat in the vulnerable regions of the delta is not advisable. All these are to be considered in the backdrop of the fact that the Bay of Bengal has registered a steep rise of 26 percent in cyclone intensification rate over the past hundred years.
In 2011, WWF India proposed a vision for the Sundarbans that involved enhanced protection for human economic activities together with regeneration of mangrove forests, and encouragement of phased and systematic outmigration. In the four-phase approach, it was envisaged that there would be improvement in human development and prevention of avoidable loss of life and livelihood due to high intensity weather events, as the impending one. Partial reversal of ecosystem degradation attributed to the colonial period and improvement in ecosystem services was envisaged on the basis of mangrove regeneration on land relinquished by emigrants. The suggested scenario has the potential to provide benefits in the form of increased natural protection to areas further north, increased productivity of Bay of Bengal fisheries, opportunities for tourism, and an increase of natural habitat by 28 percent within the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve.
This Vision Scenario was discussed with at least 500 residents of the Indian Sundarbans at three different locations during consultative sessions in April-May 2010. At that time, only about 5 percent of the participants thought emigration was possible. This may have been partly informed by negative experience of involuntarily displacement of people in other parts of the country.
The perception of the at-risk population regarding the feasibility of the proposed scenario could be markedly different if a carefully phased out, participatory capacity building and empowerment is pursued for poverty alleviation and risk reduction. In such circumstances moving away from high-risk areas towards better opportunities may appear as the most attractive option for the younger section of the population. In a research survey carried out in 1,453 households across fifty villages in 2016, it was found that there was at least one migrant in the family in 60 percent of the cases. Around 38 percent of those surveyed expressed their desire to migrate for a better life and livelihood option.
An ecological economic analysis further suggested that the net benefits flowing from the Vision Scenario is 12.8 times of that the status quo/business-as-usual scenario, given that there are immense benefits from the costs of property losses being saved and better flows of ecosystem services due to mangrove regeneration. Mangrove regeneration also creates better buffer zones for combatting cyclones and the ensuing storm surges. Hence, there is enough economic justification for pursuing a policy to achieve the Vision Scenario.
For the vision to be acceptable to state actors, at the outset, they need to be shown where the at-risk population could potentially be accommodated through infrastructure upgradation and enhancement of market opportunities for the host population as well as the emigrant population. There are 25 low-risk, high density Gram Panchayats (GPs) that could serve as host locations for the at-risk population. The process ning a generation or two has to ensure that opportunities created for the relocated are not usurped by others, and voluntary relocation includes economically feasible reconstruction of productive activities with sufficient income generation, and cultural integration with a new way of life over a much smaller space. This is what we call “Strategic and Managed Retreat.”
Strategic and Managed Retreat instead of repeated disruption and ad hoc temporary resettlement, though expensive, is known to outweigh the upfront costs in most cases. Globally, this is an accepted mode of adaptation! An increase in the frequency of extreme events is symptomatic of the fact that tropical depression forming in the Bay of Bengal has a high probability to reach to severe cyclone stage. Hence, the administration and the people of the Indian Sundarbans have little choice but to consider voluntary relocation to safer locations, but in a participatory manner so as to minimise possibilities of conflicts. The present crisis created by Amphan must not be “wasted.”
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