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Government starts building massive embankments on the fragile delta using untested technology. Experts say the project benefits contractors, not islanders
For the residents of the Sundarbans vagaries of nature are not new. But as the calendar draws close to May 25, even an overnight drizzle drives up their fear quotient. The memories of Aila that struck the delta three years ago, killing 300 people and razing 400,000 houses, are still fresh in their mind. Saltwater ingression made farmlands unsuitable for agriculture, triggering large-scale distress migration. The supercyclone had breached about a fourth of the 3,500 kilometres of mud embankments that guarded the inland ecology and human habitations of the islands for over a century. Soon after Aila, a task force set up by the Union water resources ministry recommended reconstructing the breached embankments by March 2012. The third monsoon since Alia is knocking on the door, but not even a kilometre’s work is complete.
What’s worrying, the Sundarbans Embankment Reconstruction Project, pegged at Rs 5,032 crore, is constructing massive embankments using expensive and previously untested technology, which experts and the islanders fear will benefit the contractors more than the millions of lives it is meant to protect.
The Aila Task Force had asked the West Bengal Irrigation Department to survey the status of the remaining 2,500 km of embankments and submit a report within six months on measures to prevent recurrence of embankment failure in future. The survey is yet to begin. They had also recommended a long-term data collection to understand water flow, erosion and accretion patterns in the delta. Nothing has moved on this front.
Created by the confluence of the Ganga, the Brahmaputra and the Meghna, the Sundarbans is the largest delta in the world spread across the mouth of Bay of Bengal, from India to Bangladesh. On the Indian side are 102 islands, of which 54 are inhabited. The rest comprise vast swathes of mangrove forests that are home to the Royal Bengal Tiger.
A vast area of the Sundarbans is tidally active, where erosion and accretion of land happens to this day. The rivers deposit the sediments, estimated at over a billion tonnes annually, at the sea mouth, which is then carried by high tides into numerous creeks and estuaries in the delta. With every gush of the high tides, the islands get eroded and mudflats are formed. Nearly 2.5 million people live on these islands that constantly change shape.
Most mud embankments that guard the islands today were built during the British rule some 250 years ago when they cleared forests and settled people on the islands to earn revenue from agriculture. Embankments were built to prevent saline water ingress. On the flip side, this impeded the process of silt deposition on the islands and riverbeds became elevated. Today river water flows above the island levels. The rise in sea levels due to global warming poses another threat; according to a report by Delhi-based non-profit Centre for Science and Environment sea level rose at an estimated 12 mm per year in the last decade. Without embankments, human life is impossible in these islands. Simultaneously, rivers also eat up into the fragile islands. So, retreating embankments are constructed, giving more room to the rivers. The practice is well-established in the Sundarbans.
“No technology can stop an advancing river or tidal wave. What we can do best is to move back and buy time from nature,” says Tushar Kanjilal, member of the Aila Task Force. He heads non-profit Tagore Society for Rural Development. Kanjilal suggests that the expensive and massive embankments planned in patches are no guarentee against nature’s fury.
The Rs 5,032-crore Sundarbans Embankment Reconstruction Project will be implemented on a 75:25 cost-sharing basis by the Centre and the state government. As per the project report, the new embankments will be almost double the size of the traditional mud embankments: five metres high and 30 to 45 m wide at the base, depending on the geography. The core structure will be made up of soil or river silt, but the riverside slope of the embankment will be covered with polypropylene sheets and a layer of concrete brick blocks. Laying a kilometre of polypropylene sheet costs Rs 15 lakh. The project further entails using heavy machines for all earthwork.
Analysts say the use of such expensive technology is contractor-driven. For building every kilometre of embankment, Rs 5 crore to Rs 18 crore will go to contractors. Jaya Mitra, who writes on environmental issues in Kolkata, says, “There was enormous scope for this project to spruce up the local economy and generate employment.”
Indrajit Roy Sarkar, general manager of BLA Project, the company reconstructing embankments in Hingalgunj block of North 24 Praganas district, justifies the use of heavy machines. “The required compaction of soil cannot be achieved by hired labour. Besides, 20 scrappers can finish the earthwork for a kilometre in 45 days; using labour will take many more months,” he adds. The company is constructing 1.4 km of embankment at Rs 7.5 crore.
Though the Union water resources ministry cleared the project in 2010, only a few metres of the core structure was in place when Down To Earth visited Hingalgunj in March 2012. All 14 scrappers were lying idle. Work was halted temporarily because the irrigation department changed the alignment, the project in-charge informed. For each lost day of work, the hired scrappers were paid nearly Rs 30,000. Just to carry them across a 500-metre channel, the company spent Rs 28,000.
Other contractors who won the bids are Nagarjuna Constructions and ECI Engineering. Their expertise is in projects like highways, mining and power generation. This would be the first time they will work in the complex estuarine delta of the Sundarbans.
Polypropylene sheets will also be used for the first time in the delta. Experts have already expressed concerns over using non-biodegradable sheets on a large-scale in a biodiversity hot spot. They are also sceptical about the claim that polypropylene sheets will increase the slope stability by protecting the earth on the embankments from being washed away. Arun Biswas, former deputy director at the National Environmental Engineering Research Institute in Kolkata, says, “The sheets were previously used to protect the embankments on the Ganga in northern Bengal, but their efficacy is not proven.”
The project lacks a holistic understanding of the Sundarbans’ hydrology, says Kalyan Rudra, noted river scientist from Kolkata. Since deposited sediment layers are not yet consolidated and some areas are slowly subsiding, a heavy load due to brick soling and broader base of embankment can lead to a collapse of the bank. A cheaper solution is to use locally available material like bamboo mats. Instead of leaving just 30 m along the embankment for the river to deposit silt, the project should leave more land as spill area. The project could have been designed to use local labour under rural employment guarantee schemes, Rudra argues.
Sujit Chowdhury, geologist with non-profit PAN Network, says the project could be implemented better if accretion and erosion pattern in different islands were studied through high resolution satellite images and then the patches for new embankments were selected. Long-term studies are required to understand the water flow dynamics and sedimentation patterns. One cannot apply engineering marvels inside the complex estuarine delta, he adds.
“I was openly sceptical about the use of expensive technology, but for the engineer-bureaucrats in the task force, I was technically ignorant,” says Kanjilal, who has received Padmashree award for development works in rural areas.
Jaya Mitra rues that the project has ignored the islanders’ years of wisdom acquired by living next to embankment.
Delayed and partial relief
In Chandanpiri village of Namkhana block, residents have formed a resistance group opposing the technology. The project plans to acquire 24 hectares from 135 households in the village. “There is over a kilometre of mudflats with mangroves ahead of the existing embankment, which the residents had erected soon after Aila breached it. The department can strengthen it instead of acquiring more land for a new embankment. But they never discussed with us,” says Surajit Bera, who is leading the agitation. The project plans to dredge silt from riverbed using an expensive technology, which will increase the project cost to a whopping Rs 28 crore for just two km of embankment.
In Gosaba and Sonakhali blocks of South 24 Parganas district, residents do not know how the embankments are going to be constructed. “When the land revenue department came to measure land, it selected a certain stretch. The rest of the embankment, which is also collapsing, is not going to be reconstructed,” says Bidyut Khatua, former panchayat pradhan of Rangabelia village in Gosaba. “This is a major flaw in the project,” says Sujit Mandal who grew up in a Sundarban island and now teaches at the Jadavpur University in Kolkata. “It plans to armour small perimeters of islands, leaving the rest to nature’s mercy. This might lead to breaches elsewhere as most portion of the embankments are over a century old. ”
When asked about the delay in implementing the project, the defence put forward by the officials is difficulties in land acquisition, a politically charged issue in West Bengal. They estimate the total land required for the project at 5,600 ha. “Till date we have managed to acquire only 56 ha,” says Dhiman Mukherjee, chief engineer of the project. Mukherjee says people are not willing to cede land and want jobs as compensation—a promise the newly elected and populist Chief Minister, Mamata Banerjee, made but did not act upon. He also says that land records in the delta are not properly maintained and many people are encroachers on the government land.
But ground realities differ. Subal Mandal from Gosaba says he was served a land acquisition notice in December last year. But after that he never heard from the department. Nor does he have any idea about the compensation package. He is willing to give the land at the prevailing market rate, provided the compensation is paid in lump sum and not in instalments.
In neighbouring Basanti block, 65-year-old fisher and farmer Kauz Sheikh says, “I have always seen villagers donating land for embankments. Who will refuse to give land if the government offers money?” For the islanders, who have lost most of their land to the hungry tide, it is wise to give land in time, and get paid for it.