Kolkata: A team of Dutch engineers had in 1960 offered to build dykes to keep the sea out of the 54 islands in the Sunderbans delta that were inhabited, but they had asked for a steep price—Rs19 crore, or around Rs2,500 crore at current prices considering inflation of 10% a year. Then chief minister of West Bengal Bidhan Chandra Roy was keen to build the dykes, but couldn’t secure Central funds.
Almost 50 years later, the need for dykes was felt when cyclone Aila left in its wake hundreds of thousands of people homeless and countless islands in the delta submerged. Experts say dykes that the Dutch built in their country could have coped with the irresistible ferocity of tidal waves churned by strong winds that struck the Sunderbans on 25 May.
More than a fourth of the 3,500km of mud embankments built by the British at least 150 years ago collapsed like a pack of cards when struck by 20-foot- tall tidal waves, revealing that the state government had done little to strengthen the embankments since the British left.
After Aila: A 3 June photo of villagers constructing a river embankment at Kumirmari village in the Sunderbans, the world’s biggest mangrove reserve, some 170km south of Kolkata. Deshakalyan Chowdhury / AFP
Only a third of the 6,000 sq. km Sunderbans delta is in India, and it is inhabited by 3.5-4 million people. The rest of the delta is in Bangladesh, where most of the embankments have been rebuilt with concrete—some even have causeways on which vehicles ply.
But West Bengal cannot afford such embankments, says Subhas Naskar, the state’s irrigation minister. “Building concrete embankments (around all islands on which people live) could cost as much as Rs15,000 crore. Bangladesh could build concrete embankments because it received foreign funds, but we are dependent on the Centre.”
Human settlements in Sunderbans are believed to have started at least 400 years ago, and the area was mapped as early as in 1764 after the British gained control of the delta from Mughal emperor Alamgir II. “Of the 102 islands that went to modern-day India, the British cleared and settled 54 by erecting mud embankments. But since then there has been no upkeep of these mud structures let alone any improvement in technology to cope with tidal waves,” says Tushar Kanjilal, a Sunderbans expert and secretary of Tagore Society for Rural Development, a non-governmental organization (NGO).
NGOs working in the Sunderbans such as Tagore Society for Rural Development have been warning the state government—particularly the irrigation department, which is responsible for the upkeep of the embankments—that a disaster was imminent, according to Kanjilal, but all that the state government did was reinforce the embankments with bricks, gunny sacks and bamboo structures. That’s all that the irrigation department could afford because it gets only Rs92 crore a year for all its maintenance responsibilities.
“We were prepared to face strong tidal waves but not a cyclone like this,” says Naskar. Water level normally rises to a maximum of 6.5m, but because of cyclone Aila, it rose to 7-8m, so the embankments gave way, explains D.N. Mookherjee, secretary in the irrigation department. “Now, even a basic repair of the 900km of the damaged embankments could cost around Rs700 crore, which is very difficult for the state government to cough up on its own,” says Mookherjee.
The state government is racing against time to mend the embankments as it prepares to face at least 10 more high tides, or bhora kotal in local dialect, over the next four months, the first of which could strike as early as on Sunday or Monday. Locals are pulling out all stops to repair the embankments in whatever manner they could on their own, but they seem to be losing the battle.
With the water level beginning to rise ahead of the full moon on Sunday-Monday, thousands of people have been asked to move to shelters, and the army has been called in to help the administration rescue people and repair the embankments faster.
Experts say the best way to repair the damaged embankments is by reinforcing them with 5m- tall jute tubes filled with sand and mud. But even that could cost Rs5 crore a km, or a whopping Rs4,500 crore in all, according to Naskar. “We can’t afford that…yet we are exploring the possibility—we are getting advice from a US firm,” says Naskar.
Because the state government couldn’t afford expensive means such as dykes to keep the sea out, it chose not to confront it. The administration adopted the so-called open system of management, under which studies were to be conducted to understand the vagaries of nature so settlements could be forewarned about natural disasters such as cyclone Aila.
“But under the open system of management, data should have been collected on water speed, silt content, tidal movements and so on, over a period of time so that models could be created and people forewarned and moved out,” says Kanjilal. “But this is too much to expect when even mud embankments aren’t maintained properly.”