Pijush Mondol still recalls the day his father was killed by a tiger while they were catching crabs at a creek inside the Sunderban Tiger Reserve.
“It was in October last year. I was just two feet away from my father, looking the other way, when the beast emerged from the dense foliage and pounced on him,” he says.
But what was he doing in the tiger reserve? Mondol blames it on the 2009 Cyclone Aila, which changed the landscape of the region and laid waste to everything his family owned. “We were simple farmers before it came. We had no option but to take to the forest for our livelihood,” the 28-year-old says.
Mondol is just one of the many residents of the Sunderbans who is staring at an uncertain future because of the cyclone.
The Sunderbans – the world’s largest delta – is spread across India and Bangladesh. Of the 102 islands here, 52 are inhabited by 4.5 million people while the rest fall in tiger territory.
“Aila changed the face of the Sunderbans – from geography to socio-economic conditions to culture and politics. The storm damaged the embankments and saline water gushed into the villages, leaving the farmlands barren,” says Subhash Acharya, former joint director of the Sunderban Development Board.
Almost seven years have passed since the cyclone struck in May 2009, but all the problems plaguing the area – poverty, unemployment, falling agricultural yield, rising man-animal conflicts and the threat of climate change – seem to be here to stay.
It is with indignation that villagers recount how chief minister Mamata Banerjee had promised to rebuild the embankments – which guard the inland ecology and human habitations at the islands – before coming to power.
“Thousands of villagers live in fear here. Sunderbans is a sitting duck – one cyclone and everything gets washed away,” says Sasadhar Mridha, who manages the jetty at one of the islands.
In the Sunderbans, both life and politics revolve around these embankments. Though the Union government had allocated around Rs 5,000 crore for building them, less than 20% of them have been strengthened till now. “The government couldn’t acquire land to rebuild the embankments,” says a Gosaba villager. Others allege that corruption has marred even the little work that has been carried out on the embankments.
It is an issue that Revolutionary Socialist Party, a Left Front constituent and Trinamool’s main rival on these islands, plans to grab in elections.
The villagers, however, concede that the Mamata government has introduced a slew of development projects in the delta, including the provision of rice at Rs 2 per kg, financial help for schoolgirls and concretised roads. But will this be enough for the upcoming polls?