Sundarbans in eye of the storm as Centre, State tussle stalls MGNREGA work

Kolkata, Sep 28 (IANS/ 101 Reporters) Cyclonic storms are nothing new to the Sundarbans region of West Bengal. But with the Union Government stopping fund allocation under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) since December 26 last year citing non-compliance with directives, the low-lying islands known for their mangroves have become all the more vulnerable.

This year, no construction or repair of earthen embankments to prevent seawater incursion and erosion was carried out in areas with human settlements in the delta. Same was the case with mangrove plantation along the rivers. With no work coming their way, families of MGNREGA workers struggled to make ends meet. Their pending wages also remained unpaid.

There is an elevated risk of embankment breaches now. Even otherwise, salinity due to rising sea levels has substantially reduced soil fertility in the region. Prabhas Mandal (62) attested the same. “I used to harvest six quintals of paddy from my one bigha land. Now, I get only 4.8 quintals.”

“Sand overlay during seawater ingression means no farming can be done on that land for the next three to four years,” explained Prasanjit Mandal, the chairman of Bali-based Sundarban Foundation. He said the stoppage of MGNREGA funds has affected small projects meant for tackling climate change.

Krishnapada Mandal (72) and his wife Behula Mandal (65) live on the banks of the Bidyadhari on the island of Bali, where frequent cyclones have become a norm since 2009. A cement embankment and mangroves offer relative protection to them from the ravaging sea, but they still live under the constant fear of storms.

“Climate change has shaken us. We never faced such recurring storms in our childhood. Fish population is down by 25 per cent. Forest mangroves are fine, but those in the village and near the river are affected,” Krishnapada said. Experts attributed the decline in mangroves to the frequency and intensity of cyclones, with even fresh attempts to reinstate them being threatened by increased salinity of water, overgrazing and erosion.

Pending MGNREGA dues

The Indian Sundarbans, which accounts for 41 per cent of the country’s mangroves, are spread over 13 blocks of South 24 Parganas and six blocks of North 24 Parganas districts. In June 2020, West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee announced plans to boost their numbers by planting another five crore mangroves. However, the Central fund issue jeopardised the plan.

While admitting that workers were not paid, Additional Principal Chief Conservator of Forests and Director of Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve Rajesh Kumar told 101Reporters, “We do not pay them directly. The payment is done through the District Magistrate’s Office, where their job cards are made.” He acknowledged that allocations under the scheme were closed at present.

Payments of over Rs 20 crore were pending under various heads, including workers’ wages, administrative charges and material costs, according to a letter sent on June 22 by the South 24 Parganas Forest Division to the Chief Conservator of Forests and Joint Director of the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve. It said over 11 lakh person-days were created in South 24 Parganas under the MGNREGA for planting and maintaining mangroves, besides preparing nurseries.

Data obtained by 101Reporters from a letter sent on June 22 by the South 24 Parganas Forest Division to the Chief Conservator of Forests and Joint Director of the Sundarbans Biosphere Reserve

“Labourers are showing their grievances in the field due to the non-payment of wages,” the letter added.

As for North 24 Parganas, an official said on condition of anonymity that wages totalling Rs 14 lakh were pending for around 6,000 MGNREGA workers engaged in mangrove plantation by the forest department, while another Rs 72 lakh accounted for material costs.

On September 23, MGNREGA workers from various districts, led by the Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity, blocked roads in protest and filed complaints across police stations in Purulia, Nadia, West Medinipur and North 24 Parganas districts against the MGNREGA programme officers from several blocks, who they claim “resorted to trickery to make innocent workers work, knowing that they cannot pay wages to them”.

Women suffer the most

“We built earthen embankments and planted mangroves for 100 days from last year to this January. However, we were paid only for 35 days. This year, we have not even received our job cards,” alleged Utpal Pramanik, an activist and MGNREGA worker from Gurguria Bhubaneswari gram panchayat of Kultali block in South 24 Parganas district.

Paschim Banga Khet Mazdoor Samity state committee member Anuradha Talwar told 101Reporters that workers cannot be punished for corrupt practices, including use of JCB machines, inflated man-days, bogus muster rolls, ineligible cardholders and unlisted work.

“Over 50 per cent of the MGNREGA workers here are women. Men generally migrate in search of work. The scheme ensures employment within five km of their homes. Hence, the withholding of funds has affected women the most. Spending on children’s education has come down. In some households, even food-related expenses have to be curtailed,” she said.

As much as 40 per cent of the region’s people are engaged in agriculture or allied works, and another 39 per cent are into manual/casual labour. But climate change and heavier monsoons have forced those with landholdings of less than two hectares to migrate, said a report on the Sundarbans by the Centre of Financial Accountability. It said 63 per cent of the respondents were seasonal migrants, 22 per cent were permanent migrants and 15 per cent travelled daily for work elsewhere.

The MGNREGA works with a focus on building agriculture and water-based livelihood options could stem migration, said Talwar, while demanding that the law enforcement agencies should examine the alleged irregularities in the scheme.

Local solutions to climate crisis

Though MGNREGA’s role in building climate resilience in local communities is increasingly appreciated, poor planning and management threaten to derail its potential. Kanai Haldar, a member of West Bengal Khet Mazdoor Committee and an MGNREGA worker, said, “The main works under the MGNREGA are construction of kutcha dams and ponds, and planting of mangroves. Plantation of medicinal shrubs, construction of unpaved roads and building of houses under government schemes are other avenues of employment.”

According to Dr Abhra Chanda, Assistant Professor, School of Oceanographic Studies, Jadavpur University, a clear concept should be in place if MGNREGA works have to make a difference. “Though dense mangroves and pucca dams may be the most effective protective measures against extreme weather, only mud dams are built in abundance in the Sundarbans,” he told 101Reporters in an email interview.

Citing how lack of foresightedness failed the works, he said, “If the government strives hard to protect the island periphery with concrete embankments that can last for a century, local people can be deployed under the MGNREGA in their construction. However, if we restrict ourselves to building non-scientific kutcha embankments, the work taken up would be futile and cannot offer any long-term solution to the recurrent problems.” He additionally called for working on a comprehensive river rejuvenation plan to increase the flow of freshwater into the mangrove forest, the most effective way to ensure its conservation.

But with the MGNREGA in limbo, such ambitious plans may have to wait, even as the Sundarbans runs out of time.

(The author is a freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

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