Cyclone Yaas: Where are the 50 million mangroves gone, asks Mamata? 

Banerjee’s earlier government had planted 50 million mangroves after Cyclone Amphan despite experts criticising the plan

By Jayanta Basu
Published: Friday 28 May 2021

Mangrove plants. Photo: WikimediaWest Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee has inquired about the 50 million mangrove plants that her previous government had planted in 2020 after Cyclone Amphan and which could not protect the Sundarbans from Cyclone Yaas.

Banerjee had herself inaugurated the ambitious Sundarbans mangrove plantation scheme in 2020. She asked about them during review meetings on May 27 and 28, 2021.

“Where have the 50 million mangroves gone? Last year, there was big talk that they would be planted. How many have actually been planted?” she asked.

P Ulganathan, the district collector of South 24 Paraganas, said during a review meeting on Sagar island that the target was achieved in 2020 itself through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act programme.

“Normally, the rate of survival of mangroves is 70 per cent. However, the plants are hardly a few feet tall and not in a position to counter natural disaster,” Ulganathan told this reporter May 28 evening. 

“They will take a few more years to mature. This year, we are planning to plant more mangroves,” he added.

Prior warnings

Experts had earlier pointed out that the plan to plant such a huge number of mangroves in one go was neither practical nor useful. They had added the Sundarbans would need an area nearly half the size of Kolkata to plant 50 million mangrove trees and had called the scheme ‘improbable’.

The mega mangrove plantation drive was taken up mainly to compensate for the plants’ loss during Cyclone Amphan. A healthy mangrove population in the Sundarbans is considered extremely important as it is claimed to act as a barrier to the devastations caused by high intensity cyclones both within islands and also inland.

The Indian Sundarbans are spread over 9,630 sq km, of which, nearly 5,400 sq km is inhabited by humans while the rest is forest. Nearly one-third of this forest area got affected due to Amphan.

“If you plant mangroves anywhere you find space, they won’t survive and will succumb immediately when the next disaster comes,” a Sundarbans expert had warned last year. This is what has exactly happened during Yaas.

Biswajit Roy Choudhury, the Sundarbans expert, had underlined the difficulty of achieving the target last year. He told this reporter that mangroves planted by his organisation, Nature Environment & Wildlife Society, had also been fully damaged during the recent disaster.

“While the mangroves that we planted earlier survived, the recently planted ones have been completely washed out,” Roy Choudhury said.

Last year, he had said one can plant 5,000 mangroves on a hectare (ha) of land at the most. At that rate, about 10,000 ha or 100 sq km will be required (to plant 50 million plants), about half of Kolkata city.

“Apart from space, factors like salinity, wind patterns or river bathymetry need to be considered while planting particular mangrove species,” he pointed out.

“A certain amount of maturity is required before mangroves can be planted even on new chars (silted area), otherwise they will not survive,” Anurag Danda, a Sundarbans expert associated with think tank Observer Research Foundation, said.

Ravi Kant Sinha, principal chief conservator of forest and head of forest forces in West Bengal, told this reporter that his team planned to complete the assessment of the damage done to mangroves soon.

“It is amazing that while the government is spending hundreds of crores to plant mangroves, many in the Sundarbans have been felling them with clear support from local politicians,” environment activist Subhas Datta noted.

Meanwhile, Banerjee told Prime Minister Narendra Modi May 28 that Bengal had suffered Rs 20,000 crore in damages. She also demanded Rs 10,000 crore each for the Sundarbans and the coastal town of Digha, both of which are tourist hotspots and have been significantly affected by Yaas.

Modi later announced Rs 500 crore for West Bengal as an immediate disaster relief.

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