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Let's go to Sundarbans !!

I come from a small town - Howrah - in West Bengal, India. It is located in the southern part of the state. We have grown up watching river Ganges flowing very close to our locality. Not that we are a coastal community, but the river added a character to our otherwise mundane place.

The forests of Sundarbans are quite far from my place. It is a mangrove area located at the confluence of Ganges, Brahmaputra and Meghna rivers. I have heard so many stories related to it. One of the primary news that we often hear almost annually is the news of cyclone and flooding - Amphan and Yaas in recent times.

The name Sundarbans literally translates to "Beautiful forest". However, the likely origin is the presence of Sundari trees (Heritiera fomes) which are found in abundance. Declared as the UNESCO World Heritage Site, this place is co-monitored by India and Bangladesh. Among the rich natural tapestry is the habitation of an unique ecosystem - rare animals, birds, plants and trees - that makes this place a natural wonderland.

It is almost the last place for the endangered Bengal Tiger (also known as Royal Bengal Tiger).

Creator: Theo Allofs / WWF-US ; Copyright: Theo Allofs / WWF-US (WWF)

Also, have you heard of Bonbibi? The folktales of Bonbibi are quite popular. She is the goddess who is respected by both the Hindus and Muslims populations across Sundarbans. They pray to Bonbibi before entering the forests for protection against the tigers' attack. The tales go somewhat like this: Dakshin Rai (meaning: lord of the south) who is the arch enemy of Bonbibi attacks people in the disguise of tiger.

Pic courtesy: People's Archive of Rural India (Follow the link if you are curious about Bonbibi)

The other reason why this place is popular among the climate enthusiasts and environmentalists is Mangroves forests in the Ganges delta. This Mangrove forests is one of the largest such forests in the world. The Mangroves form natural fortification against the worst climatic disasters and therefore saving lives and livelihoods.

The biggest strength of Mangroves is its ability to capture and store carbon. Destroying this would mean release of tons of carbon back to the atmosphere creating a ripple negative effect on the environment. Incessant and uncontrolled deforestation has created what we all know - destruction of forests and its natural ingredients significant for sustainability. For long Sundarbans was also facing this crises. Additionally its protection capacity against natural disasters was also reduced impacting the coastal communities - both lives and livelihoods.

The place also provides employment to around 3.5 million people. A substantial portion of the income comes from Mangrove forests. The destruction of its natural habitat had a tremendous impact on the livelihoods of the locals. The increased salinity in the soil due to flooding means limited agricultural opportunities. The men of the areas had to travel to other cities and states as migrant labourers. The women needed to find sources of additional income to sustain their daily lives. They ventured into fishing. But this had other side effects on the health of women - prolonged standing in knee deep water even during menstruation increased miscarriages and Urinary Tract Infections.

Mangroves saplings planted in Sundarbans (Pic courtesy: Telegraph India)

Planting of large number of these trees has brought about significant results in terms of reducing risks associated with natural disasters. The local women are breaking the stereotypes and saving Sundarbans. They are participating in large numbers alongwith local NGOs in mangrove afforestation. It provides them with additional income while engaging in a hygienic environment.

Sundarbans is a rare place on earth which epitomises a unique combination of natural, social, economic and religious elements surrounding the lives and livelihoods of its people.

Next time you plan your leisure trip while also considering its environment angle, do not forget to keep Sundarbans in your bucket list !!

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