1 May 2019
It’s quite an intrigue that though we, so far, have a reasonably success story to tell when it comes to develop sustenance of tigers and mangroves in Indian Sundaban; we have been quite a failure when it comes to reach development to the people of Sundarban. This contradiction actually seems quite surprising in context to our socio- economic – political perspective. Tigers don’t vote but people do; still while lot of money is pumped to the cause of the tigers, the people at large is yet to get the support that they need to have a decent quality of life. The obvious question that pops up; is it the failure of the prevailing political system or the fault actually lies with the provisioning of public service in the area?
The fundamental fault is actually embedded in the way the central or state government has outlined the development in Sundarban; which is basically similar to the manner development has been pursued in any other area of the state; be it Burdwan, Medinipur or likewise. In trying to pursue such a standard developmental model, or we may call it space neutral developmental policy, no importance or weightage has been given to the typical geographical or spatial characteristics of Sundarban – place based developmental approach. One has to give cognizance that, at developmental scale, the blocks of the two districts constituting Sundarban (North 24 Parganas’ blocks have been proposed to put under Basirhat district recently, and South 24 Pargana district ) are not only behind most other blocks of West Bengal but even stand behind rest of the blocks of the two districts, referred earlier.
The unscientific and unrealistic separation of districts, blocks and panchayats is a major roadblock to the development of the region. For example, there is an island in the Sundarbans, known as Amtali-Tushkhali which is split between two districts – North 24 Parganas (proposed to be changed to Basirhat) and South 24 Parganas – as well as two blocks; Gosaba and Sandeshkhali. The split has happened through the middle of the island. Due to this separation within same island, often confusion runs among the district or block administrations about taking onus of a developmental work.
Similarly Chotomolakhkhali, an island in Gosaba block, is split between five mouzas; three of which come under one panchayat while the remaining two mouzas are under administrative control of another panchayat on a neighbouring panchayate; which also has additional mouzas. Hence as a result, while a section of population can walk to the nearest primary health center in Chotomolakhali ; their neighbours have to cross a river to get primary health care ! Although pregnant women are allowed to go to the nearby health center, they or their family members have to go to the Panchayat office in other island to get birth certificate. If all five mouzas have been within Chotomollakhali, this problem would not have surfaced in the first place. Moreover as one island is often consisted of 2 to 3 panchayates; poor performance of one dilutes the overall performance of the island. This is almost a regular problem in number of islands which affects the lives and livelihoods of common people residing in that island.
Moreover there is also inconsistency in the governance infrastructure being in place. For example, Gosaba block, despite being split between many islands spread over an wide area, has only two police stations; and hence local people hardly can go to police station even for critical issues. All these examples shared are rules rather than exceptions for Sundarban.
Due to global warming and climate change, islands across the continents have been coming under increasing risk of being washed away. Sundarban is no exception. If any island succumbs to the vagaries of climate change and simply vanishes one day, as happened in case of Lohachara or few others, all these deliberations about development will be of no use. It’s an accepted position that the sea water level is rising, courtesy global warming. On the other hand, the islands are depleting mainly because of the random constructions of dam on the river. Due to the unplanned construction of dams on the upper part of the Ganges, enough sediment is not coming down which has been impacting the island development. The formation of delta is a dynamic process because the sea is pushing water from lower side; while the fresh water carrying silt from upstream is pushing from opposite direction; resulting equilibrium and ensuring stability of islands. However during the last 100 years, number of dams has been constructed mainly at the upper echelons of river interfering with the flow of silt downwards and, as a result, the islands are getting into existational crisis. Global warming is adding to the woes. Hence we immediately need to deliberate about the developmental model to be pursued in Sundarban in tune with the changing time. No doubt, we need a paradigm shift in our thinking if we really want to sustain Sundarban.
The two contrasting approaches to development are the spatially-blind or space-neutral approach backed by the World Bank and the place-based approach put to practice by the European Union. There is evidence to show that the Washington Consensus doctrine has failed to provide a general recipe for economic development (Gilberto Seravalli, 2015). Major economic improvements have taken place where the requirements for fiscal austerity, privatization, and market liberalization were not met, whereas very little progress has been recorded with serious imbalances where this recipe was applied. Therefore, the claim that best practices can be applied anywhere may not be true. If there are no general recipes, then opportunities and constraints must be considered on a case by case basis while attempting to usher in development. Is it better to invest in people regardless of where they live, or should we support the development of places to help people more effectively? Should all regions grow simultaneously or could just a few drag the others? Is the goal of developing backward regions unnecessary or unattainable? A debate is emerging between people-based (spatially-blind) policies and place-based policies that are pertinent for the development of the Sundarban region.