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Smitten by the Sunderbans

The Sundarban mangrove forests of West Bengal and Africa are bound by a thread in eminent French writer-humanitarian Dominique Lapierre’s literary landscape — they are his workstations.

entertainment Updated: Dec 03, 2010 01:09 IST

The Sundarban mangrove forests of West Bengal and Africa are bound by a thread in eminent French writer-humanitarian Dominique Lapierre’s literary landscape — they are his workstations.

“The project in the Gangetic delta, which began three years ago as a healthcare measure for villagers, has grown to touch one million lives,” said Lapierre, who was in India to oversee his Sundarban Project, a relief initiative in West Bengal.

Lapierre’s initiative in the Sundarbans is spread across 14 projects, comprising 600 drinking water wells, 120 schools and mobile hospitals.

He says it is “a continuation of his City of Joy endeavour” - the spillover from the book about the life of a rickshaw puller in Kolkata that earned him global acclaim.

Why the Sundarbans?
“It is one of the poorest areas in the world. Nobody thought about it — it was not on the map of India. They are very difficult islands in need of help. The project was the culmination of efforts to show to the world the heroic people of the Sundarbans who managed to survive the adversities,” the writer said.

Three years ago, when Lapierre decided to help them, he realised that the only way to “help the people of Sundarban was to go to the island with a mobile hospital”.

“We operate four boats — mobile hospitals. Last year, during the cyclone Aila, our boat was the only one to come to the rescue of the people because we approached the delta through the sea,” he said.

“Kolkata is so much in my blood that as I travel around the world, I hear the voice of my friend — the old rickshawallah,” he said ringing a metal hand-rickshaw bell that he carries with him.

His projects are small, mostly supervised by the writer and his wife.

“We do everything ourselves — there are no other people and not much expenses. We don’t have to pay salaries,” he said.

Lapierre said he has set up a fund in Delhi with his friends in India to raise money for his projects. “It has a budget of Rs12 crore. I hope to attract Indian money from those affluent people who have money to spare but don’t know how to share. India has more billionaires than China,” Lapierre said.

Lapierre was conferred the Padma Bhushan in 2008 in recognition of his efforts.