Far from the city of Kolkata, about 100 kilometres away lies Sagar Island. Spread over an area of 282.11sq km with more than two lakh population (Census 2011), the island attracts thousands of pilgrims during the Gangasagar fair in the month of January. Sagar Island in India is the largest island of the Sundarbans deltaic complex. The Hooghly River lies to the north and west, the Muriganga distributary to the east and the Bay of Bengal to the south of the island.

 Today, Sagar Island  is at the cusp of environmental challenges. Unprecedented weather events and changing seasonality has led to a reduction in river depth, embankment collapse/breach, flooded agricultural fields, riverbank erosion, increased river salinity, river flow changes, and coastal erosion. If a chronology is put to these events, we can see a kind of pattern: after the 2009 cyclone Aila, the July 2014 floods followed. Between the years of 1951 and 2010, cyclones making a landfall in the Sundarbans have only steadily increased. As communities in the island cope with the changing sea levels by relocating to more stable parts of the Sundarbans or migrating to other states and countries, earning a livelihood on Sagar Island for those who chose to stay back has been challenging. Changing livelihood practices by non-traditional fishermen have led to an increase in by-catch or incidental capture of fish species due to lack of skill/knowledge in sustainable fishing practices. Human-tiger conflict has also increased -  the highest number of casualties are among fishermen, followed by crab and honey collectors.

But this is a story of hope and survival:  stories of people who chose to stay put, and are constantly adapting to  the changing climate scenario.

Agriculture still prevails as the cornerstone of both subsistence and livelihoods for the majority of the households. Both amon (monsoon cropping) and bodo (winter cropping) are being practiced in the villages at the moment. The latter however has fewer takers. Mrinal Kanti Mallick of Silpara village asserts, “We cultivate betel leaf, potato and paddy. But it is entirely mono-cropping because we are not equipped with irrigation facility. We source the water from our pond.”

© Saswat Pati

In the small hamlet of Phulbari resides one Srikanto Das, a traditional agriculturist who abides by organic farming practices. An afternoon spent with him helped one understand the many local initiatives:the salt tolerant paddy cultivation, the system of rice intensification and, most essentially, establishing a seed bank to conserve the germplasm of these varieties. The discussion provided an insight to the endless possibilities of replication on a larger scale.“Why just in Sundarbans, the whole nation has to finally go back to organic farming if one aims to conserve the land and its natural nutrients over times to come”, claims Das. Along with Paribesh Unnayan Parishad (PUPA), WWF-India’s knowledge partner in Sagar Island which has been working on various livelihood interventions in the area, farmers like Das have worked towards learning and understanding these interventions. . At present, PUPA is dedicatedly working on creating an indigenous seed bank. They started with a mere 20 to 22 types of rice varieties which have now gone up to more than 150 types within a span of a few years. These are the saltwater tolerant variety, paddy variety that can mature in a short growing season, the aromatic variety, rice type which will withstand sudden floods and so on. Explaining the Cost-Benefit Sharing System,  Saheba Khatun who is associated with PUPA states, “It is about sharing both the input costs and benefits reaped for any service that a community member might be interested to avail from PUPA”.

As the fertility of the land is in constant decline, Srikanto Das rues, “The aim is to urge our farmers to shift from chemical fertilizers to organic farming. Expenses incurred for organic farming are not starkly disparate to that of non-organic farming. Even a decade ago, just 5 kilograms of chemical fertilizers on 0.13 ha (1 bigha) of agricultural tract produced approximately 800 kg of paddy. . Now, even with 15kg of fertilizers there is no estimable harvest”.

For farmers like Das who have been instrumental in creating the seed bank, local NGOs have provided a fitting platform “The first step is to prepare the landrace after which, System of Rice Intensification (SRI) is put to use. Transplanted single seedling should be carefully placed at an average distance of 20-30 cm in square land patches to keep cross pollination in check. Before implementing SRI, 0.13 ha of land needed eight to 10 kg of seed sowing. But after putting SRI to practice, as small a quantity as 2kg of seed yielded more produce. Our farmers have reaped the benefit from the exercise through better yields and lower agronomy costs,.” explains Das.

The statistical account of 24-Parganas had reported a total of 129 types of spring and winter traditional rice varieties. The quality and types of these varieties have reduced over the years but agricultural lands have increased owing to the clearing of the forests with steady influx of human population. It is therefore evident that the practice of conserving indigenous varieties has made a long journey.

© WWF-India

Even a century later, the praxis has continued to exist. With the sole aim of building a resilient threshold of rice variety which can survive the unpredictable climatic scenario of the land, PUPA has meticulously conserved more than a hundred types in sealed and coded clay pots. They distribute the seeds to interested farmers with just one condition—the farmers must cultivate it and return double the amount of seed given to them. This not only ensures snowballing of the sample, but also keeps the traditional practices thriving.

Amrit Das has a total of 0.26 ha (2 bigha) of land; one is slightly saline (Plot-I) while the other is entirely saline (Plot-II). PUPA provided him with 5kg of the Kerala Sundari type with the condition of returning the same quantity of rice to the organization after harvesting. No chemical fertilizer was utilised, to curtail the expenditure and to keep the method organic. In terms of yield, Plot-I having slightly saline soil had faster yield whereas Plot-II reaped yields a little later. As far as production is concerned, Kerala Sundari in Plot-I produced 29.6 quintal/ha and Plot-II produced 24.68 quintal/ha.

In another nearby village of Shibpur, in Dhablat Gram Panchayat, Prabir Jasu has over a hectare of fallow land. “There has been no cultivation on this land from the last decade. Periodic tidal surges have robbed the land of all its properties. I have not witnessed any training for salt-tolerant agriculture and I cannot vouch for anyone practicing it. Given the opportunity though, I am eager to learn and engage in the process”, says Prabir Jasu.

© WWF-India

Perhaps there is a long way to go before the concept of a seed bank and efficient farming catches on and is uniformly spread across Sagar Island. But the rite of passage has surely begun.

WWF-India acknowledges the contribution of Paribesh Unnayan Parishad (PUPA) for providing the indispensable support in terms of carrying out the field exercise and accessing crucial information that helped in shaping this story. 

The author, Debopriya Mondal, is a Project Officer in the  Sundarbans Landscape, WWF-India

Second image from the top © Saswat Pati

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