Lashed by cyclone Amphan last year and cyclone Yaas two months ago, Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a unique biosphere in south Bengal, is witnessing a government project helping the local rural society through a programme that aims to stop dumping of plastic in land and water.
Of the more than 100 Sunderbans’ islands – most of which are inaccessible and provide home to the Bengal tigers in Bangladesh and India – the nine islands at Gosaba in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal are the site of the project that started in June. Of the 0.24 million people living in the Gosaba community block, according to the 2011 census, around 38 % were bracketed below the poverty line.
At a time when the Covid-19 pandemic and lockdown have hit livelihoods, a monetary incentive to villagers for collecting and returning plastic waste has led to mass involvement and creation of self-help groups for women. In addition to contributions from donors and private institutions, the money required for Bengal’s first buy-back project is being raised by NGOs through crowdfunding.
Though dumping of plastic by villagers and thousands of tourists visiting the Sunderbans threatened the ecology in recent years, a crisis was noticed when millions of tons of food and relief materials were sent to the islands in plastic bags after the cyclones, say government officials, NGOs and local people. As gigantic waves of saline water from the Bay of Bengal flooded the sources of potable water, pouches and bottles sent to the islands aggravated the problem.
Rivers cutting across the Sunderbans carried some of this waste even to the core areas, the habitat of the tigers. In 1987, the Sundarbans National Park was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
“After cyclone Yaas, dumping of plastic posed a serious problem. Since we could not ask anyone to stop sending relief materials, a solution needed to be worked out. Some of our officers suggested that we rope in NGOs and the civil administration. The officer-in-charge of the Baruipur women’s police station came up with the idea of offering monetary incentive,” Vaibhav Tiwari, superintendent of Baruipur police district, told HT.
“A large number of local people have joined the programme and many are helping voluntarily,” Tiwari added.
The response from NGOs has been overwhelming and more than 50 have joined the programme, district officials said.
“The project was launched on World Environment Day on June 5 and collection of plastic started from June 11. The police department joined on June 18. We are offering ₹100 for one sack of plastic. The nine islands in Gosaba cover an area of 2,500 square km, of which 285 square km have human habitations. So far, we have collected more than 11 metric tonnes of plastic,” said Saurabh Mitra, the community block development officer of Gosaba who is overseeing the project on behalf of the civil administration.
“Among the NGOs working with us, Amra Sushama Jaloprapat has taken the plastic to recycling plants and scrap yards. The work is now affected by monsoon and floods. It will resume once the weather clears,” Mitra added.
Kakali Ghosh Kundu, the officer-in-charge of Baruipur women’s police station who came up with the idea of buying back the plastic, said, “We do not use the word money. We call it an incentive.”
“In the past, we ran a project to collect plastic waste from boats used for tourism. It saw some success. For villagers, whose livelihood has been hit by the pandemic, the incentive offers support because food and water are not the only needs of life. We are now making preparations to send boatmen to retrieve plastic waste from the rivers. The principal idea is to make people conscious about ecology,” said Ghosh Kundu.
Appeals for donation to run the project have wielded unexpected results, said the officer. “While there are people who have donated in lakhs, a little boy gave us all the money he saved in a piggy bank. We urge donors to take part in the collection camps for a real-life experience,” said Ghosh Kundu.
Increased police activity in the islands has also led to a decline in human trafficking and marriage of minor girls from poor families, officers said.
“After every calamity, pimps visit these villages and take away young girls by luring them with jobs in big cities. We rescued many victims in the past. These crimes have gone down because of the police presence,” said Ghosh Kundu.
Jhumpa Ghosh, a director at Change Initiatives, one of the NGOs, said, “The plastic collected so far has been sold to a cement factory and a recycle plant. We are now doing a feasibility study on income generation for the self-help groups so that women can make slippers out of recycled plastic. A company in Kolkata has offered to help. This can make the project self-sustaining.”
“Thousands of people have so far been given free ration. We ask them to come with sacks of plastic and take food kits in exchange. This has worked as well,” Ghosh added.
Seema Das Pariah, a homemaker with two children, said more than 800 women have taken part in the collection process and 20 women from her village are part of her own group that is spreading awareness on pollution.
“The project has succeeded because of its socio-economic value. Women are visiting homes, distributing leaflets and putting up posters, especially near eateries where plastic and thermocol plates are dumped at random. Shopkeepers are told to keep these in garbage bins and we go for collection once a week,” she said.