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A brief history of the Sundarbans
by Sumit Sen
Sundarbans is the name given to a beautiful forest or a forest in which the Sundari tree (Heritiera fomes) grows. At the early stages of the history of the area, the entire Bengal basin was submerged under the sea and sedimentation from the Ganges-Brahmaputra river systems created a landmass, which is today’s Bengal Delta. The first Sundari trees presumably first took root below the Rajmahal Hills, establishing the northern extent of the Sundarbans in history.
The Sundarbans, as we know it today, has a fairly recent history. Much of the present tidal delta only stabilized as late as 5th – 7th century AD. When India collided and penetrated into the Eurasian plate in the middle Eocene, all of what later became the largest delta in the world, covering 65,000 km2, lay below sea level. The formation of the lower delta plain started during the middle Holocene and most of the presently occupied area of 10,017 km2 in India and Bangladesh was formed over the course of the last 6,000 years.
The Bengal Delta was originally occupied by vast stretches of grassland filled with saline marshes and tropical wetlands containing one of the worlds' largest stretches of biodiversity-rich forests – the Bengalian Rainforest. These forests were one of the richest wildlife areas of the world, holding elephants, tiger, gaur, leopards, wild buffaloes, three species of rhinoceros, seven species of deer and a wide variety of other fauna.
The first human settlers, who may have been the "Veddoids’, appear to have arrived in the delta by 5th Century BC, though the first archeological evidence of human civilization dates to around 400-300 BC.
Civilization flourished in the delta during the reign of Asoka (273-232 BC) and in subsequent Hindu periods. The indigenous inhabitants were the ‘Pods’ and the ‘Chandals’ who were fishing tribes. The process of human settlement continued unabated till the11th century, when shifting river channels and epidemics seemed to have forced settlers to abandon the area for a while.
Post 1200 AD, and beginning with the reign of the Bengal sultanate (1204-1575), the history of the Sundarbans is one of continuous conversion of forest tracts to wet-rice cultivation under the influence of pioneers professing an Islamic Sufi identity. By the mid-fifteenth century, the reclamation process had brought the southern extent of cultivation to the edges of south Jessore and northern Khulna.
The process of bringing virgin forest under cultivation continued unabated in the Mogul era (1575 – 1765). During this time the Ganges changed course from the original Hugli channel to combine upstream with the Brahmaputra. As a result, most parts of the 24 Parganas Sundarbans faced increased salinity and this gradually affected the flora and fauna of the area. The era also witnessed devastating cyclones, like the one in 1584, which is reported to have claimed about 2,000,000 living creatures.
At the end of the mogul rule, settlers had successfully pushed back the northern boundaries of the Sundarban forests to the very edges of Kolkata.
The British East India Company set up their headquarters at Calcutta in 1757 at the edge of the Sundarbans. The forests at that time stretched uninterrupted for 19,200 km2 and retained much of their splendor and diversity.
British rule started in India in 1765 and over the next century the British Government would relentlessly pursue a policy of deforestation and extension of cultivation in the Sundarbans.
In 1928 the British Government assumed proprietary rights to the forest and, in 1830, began leasing out tracts of the forests for reclamation ~ a process which continued until 1875-76. This period saw a great decline in the diversity of large mammals. Increasing regular revenues from the so-called Sundarbans ‘waste land’ was the main inspiration behind the all out attack on the forests which were ‘covered over with impenetrable forests, the hideous den of all descriptions of beasts and reptiles’1 .
The first call to preserve the forests was made by Dr. Brandis, the Conservator of Forests in Burma 1862. Based on his recommendations, additional reclamation grants were stopped, but deforestation continued, irrespective. By 1873, 5,100 km2 of forests had been converted into agricultural land and the Sundarbans area forest cover had been effectively reduced to about 14,100 km2.
It is only post 1873-1874, when faced with dwindling forest produce, the rulers started reviewing the policy of transformation of all available wetland forest to taxable agricultural land in the Sundarbans. The economics of exploitation had changed in the last century and forest produce had become scarce and more valuable than agricultural produce. No longer was it considered profitable to clear the forests for cultivation as much greater revenues could be collected from farming the forest itself.
In 1875-1876 the government declared un-leased forest reserved, and placed them under the jurisdiction of the Forest Department– a move which created today's Sundarbans forest.
A variety of wildlife still survived till the latter part of the 19th century despite the rapid depletion of habitat. Hunter records "Tigers, leopards, rhinoceros, wild buffaloes, wild hogs, wild cats, barasinga, spotted deer, hog deer, barking deer, and monkeys are the principal varieties of wild animals found in Sundarban"2 in 1875. But the events of the next few decades led to the near complete destruction of the grasslands and rainforests, which coupled with the increase in salinity spelt the death knell for the Javan rhinoceros, leopard, wild buffalo, swamp deer and hog deer – all of which were either teetering at the brink of extinction or were lost forever from the Sundarbans by the turn of the century. The tiger, wild pig and spotted deer survived the mass species extinction because they had learned to adapt to a life in the deep tidally active mangrove forests spread. This was land unfit for cultivation and difficult to access and exploit.
Encroachments continued despite reservation and 1,200 km2 of the protected forest were deforested over a ten-year period ending in 1903-04. The ‘Lloyd Plan’ and the ‘working plan’ of Mr. Heinig covering the period 1903-04 to 1907-08 were the basis of forest administration until 1913. But these steps did not reverse or reduce reclamation.
The first real conservation step in the Sundarbans was taken with the implementation of Trafford's working plan which was drawn up in 1911 and was in effect for two decades 1912-13 to 1931-32. No land lease was allowed and the whole forest was declared as Reserve Forest. In 1926, boundaries of the remaining forest were fixed.
But this was too little too late. The nature and extent of the Sundarbans forest area and the mix of its fauna had changed forever by then. What was left for the wildlife of the Sundarbans were island based tidal forests towards the south of the Sundarbans – a habitat not suitable for sweet water dependent grazers like wild buffalo, rhino, swamp deer. They were simply pushed over the edge and into extinction. Overall, during the course of a century from 1880 to1980, about 8,270 km2 of wetlands, and woodlands were lost forever in the Sundarbans.
From the early 30’s of the 20th century, the Sundarban forests were managed using Curtis's working plan which focused on scientific harvesting. This plan was in effect when partition divided the administration of the Sundarbans between East Pakistan (now, Bangladesh) and India. Both countries continued to protect the area after independence.
Bangladesh’s economic dependence on the revenues from the Sundarbans and the ability of their forests to regenerate swiftly meant that they could continue with a policy of harvesting the produce. The Indian forests in the 24 Parganas by then had been seriously denuded by years of felling and the lack of adequate fresh water. India was also not dependent on the revenues from the produce of the Sundarbans and as a result commercial felling reduced and even completely stopped in many parts of the forest. However, the pressure of humanity had its last say on the Indian Sundarbans in 1963 and 1973 when refugees from East Pakistan (and Bangladesh) were allowed to clear reserve forests for agriculture and settle in areas like Jharkhali and Herobhanga islands.
In 1973, management of a large portion of the Indian Sundarbans was passed on to Sundarbans Tiger Reserve, which was established in 1973 under "Project Tiger. At the same time, the management of Bangladesh Sundarbans began to be regulated under the provisions of Bangladesh Wildlife (Preservation) Order, 1973.
In the last 25 years India consolidated its share of the residual 4,265 km2 of natural mangrove forests of the Sundarbans through a series of initiatives. In 1977, it declared Sundarbans a Wildlife Sanctuary and elevated parts of it to the status of a National Park on 4th May 1984. UNESCO inscribed the Indian Sundarbans on the World Heritage List in 1987 and the entire Indian Sundarbans area was recognized by UNESCO as a Global Biosphere Reserve in 2001.
© Sumit K Sen 2001 - 2009 I All rights reserved I Last updated 11 May 2011 I Contact Us