Cyclone Aila affects agriculture in Sunderbans

The cyclone led to the ingress of saline sea water into the lush green fields stretching across South 24-Parganas and North 24-Parganas districts, where paddy cultivation provides direct means of livelihood to 85 per cent of the population.

The salinity in the soil has snatched away other means of livelihood -- animal husbandry and pisciculture -- from the poor villagers.

"We had no crops in the last season and this year too the prospect of cultivation looks bleak as the salinity refuses to fade away," Dushmanto Mondal, a farmer of Lahiripur village in Gosaba block, said.

In many areas of the worst-affected Gosaba and Basanti blocks in South 24-Parganas district, this correspondent hardly saw any grass cover in these places. From being a big supplier of crops like paddy and various vegetables, villagers here have been forced to turn buyers.

"We use to sell rice in the market earlier. Now we go to the same market to buy it and that too at high prices," 30- year-old Swapan Sil, who goes to faraway Burdwan district twice a month to work, lamented.

"There used to be lush greenery all around us. But now it is difficult to find even a single blade of grass. We don't know when paddy would grow again on this field," wondered another farmer.

The salinity has also made the soil unfit for building mud houses, the most common form of dwellings in the rural areas. "The salinity in the mud makes it weak. The soil, as a result, loosens when any strong wind puts it under pressure. We can't even make good houses because of the saline soil," Robin Deb, a villager in Mathurapur II block of North-24 Parganas, said.

The pradhan of Nagendrapur gram panchayat, Gopal Halder, alleged that the state government has not provided any relief money. "They have not sent any money. So the relief work has been poor in the area," he said.

Poultry, cattle breeding and pisciculture are the major sources of livelihood in the Sunderbans. "Without grass and fodder, how will the poultry and cattle survive? The villagers have sold most of their ducks, hens, goats and cows as they couldn't feed them. Many of them even died in the post-Aila period," said NGO worker Sujit K Chakrabarty from Lutharian World Service India.

According to estimates, 70 per cent of the cattle were sold off after the disaster. "Every home had at least one goat. But after Aila, we had no other option but to sell it off at cheap prices," Monorath Purakaith of Uttar Mundapara village said.

The saline sea water also entered the ponds used for the cultivation of fish, crabs and prawns, killing all aquatic life in these water bodies. "I cultivate some brackish water fish in my pond, but the quality is not at all satisfactory," said Jatin Sardar, who is struggling to have two square meals a day.

A handful of villagers, however, have found work, thanks to the NREGA schemes in various schemes run by NGOs.

The Tagore Society for Rural Development has employed some villagers to plant mangrove saplings for their mangrove conservation project in Gosaba block, while Pally Unayan Samiti pays locals for digging up ponds to encourage rain water harvesting and pisciulture in Basanti and Gosaba blocs.

"The rest of the working male population have migrated to the mainlands in search of jobs," said a district official. Agricultural scientists fear that the villagers might have to wait for three to five years more before the salinity gets completely eroded.

"Depending on the rainfall, it might take 3-5 years for the salinity to go. The farmers had unfortunately switched to modern high-yielding paddy seeds ignoring the indigenous varieties which are saline-resistant," Dr Asish Ghosh, a member of the National Biodiversity Authority, said.

More than 22,000 homes were ravaged and two lakh people living in the Sunderban delta affected when Cyclone Aila struck on May 25, last year.

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