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A Dying Beach And A New Earning – Case Study

Climate Change Movement has a third world twist in India. While the Western World is ahead both in damaging contributions to Nature and starting a green initiative to check it, in populous countries like India there is a different take on it. With globalization and open market, India is surging forward with a 7 (or thereabout) % GDP growth for several years now and is considered a new emerging super power next to China. Some experts place more trust on India’s growth on account of its huge knowledge base,  human resources and reasonably stable political system (a secular democracy) as opposed to China’s single party based regime.

However, the same potential for growth and optimism is also a deterrent for any effective Environmental Governance, at least one that can ensure control of anthropogenic downside (read destruction and meddling with Nature) as understood or perceived in Europe. This is a fundamental dilemma that policy makers in Cancun faced and, I am afraid, with little hope of resolving. What rich can do to atmosphere by their affluence, poor can do with their numbers. If greed is the engine in the west, aspirations for a ‘comfortable’ life is the spinning wheel in India and mostly South Asia.

I do not subscribe to the idea of adopting policies that overlook right and just aspirations of people, simply because such policies are not enforceable. Some workable remedy to Climate Change essentially should involve a popular understanding of the damage and its impact and thankfully MDGs are fundamentally directed towards that. Investments are a priority for eradication of poverty, hunger and illiteracy and not for casinos, resorts, 125 storey shopping malls – certainly not in India.

A case in point is Mandarmani Beach in West Bengal, in eastern India.

West Bengal is one of those lucky places on earth which can boast both the lofty heights of Himalayas and blue waters of Bay of Bengal. Well, only till recently. The state has a meager 650 Km of coastline of which nearly 500 Km is an estuarine delta, way too dynamic morphologically with one of the world’s largest upland sediment discharge. A stretch of about 50 or so Km from Digha (border of neighboring state of Orissa) to Junput (or arguably a place named Dadanpatrabar) is a tropical sandy beach with its appropriate ecology. See the portion marked with red in the picture below:

If we look closely, this stretch is situated between two estuarine systems, one that of the great Hugli river up north-east and the other smaller estuarine system of Subarnarekha river in Orissa down south-west. Even this small stetch of beach is punctuated by small tributaries like Somaibasan (which falls in Bay of Bengal just N-E of Digha) and Mandarmani which is further N-E. The whole beach is mesotidal having siliciclastic, quartzo-feldspathic material with well sorted medium to fine sand (Friedman and Sanders, 1978). The beach is geologically nascent (2760 to 3080 years old only). If you consider that a baby, we are looking at an infantile death because the whole Digha Junput beach is on the verge of destruction. And though experts believe that it is partly due to nature and partly human activity, I contend that human ignorance is guilty though not charged.

Digha had been a tourist revenue earner for 6 decades for the state of West Bengal. But beach business with its usual activities like wave surfing, beach sports and guided sea bathing or boating/diving as seen in the west were never developed for two reasons (a) cultural difference and (b) lack of proper planning. As far back as 1995, I attended a seminar where the consensus was that Digha beach was dying an inevitable death within 20 years. I would have been very happy to have proved wrong, but like all bad news it was proved true. Digha is now a polluted, over-populated, dirty and dead beach city bearing macabre signs of ignorance and lack of sincere intent to save it.

As Digha was dying, for two decades there had been occasional voices to save it. The engineering plans to save the backshore (mostly the hotels, pubs and flea markets) had been nothing short of disastrous (boulder pitching and concrete block pitching) which only resulted in adversely affecting the wave energy dissipation mechanics and attracted more erosion. There was a marked tendency by media to blame this disaster on progressively stronger tides and cyclones in last two decades with little consideration that the beach grew and existed for 3000 years with all natural forces and nothing was so much wrong until Digha’s emergence as a holiday destination by people from cities who would want air-conditioned suites to enjoy sea view from behind tinted glass windows. Hotels and Holiday Inns mushroomed with all pleasurable amenities but funnily no sewage treatment plants. The steadily narrowing beach would have tens of thousands of footfalls any given day so one could kiss goodbye to beach fauna like rare hermit crabs and red crabs. For construction of hotels, backshore sand dunes, which are an essential part of any beach system, were flattened along with screw pines that held the dunes against tidal surges for thousands of years. The old, traditional fish-drying activities of the local fishermen perished and gave way to touting for hotels and transport. And nobody really cared about the effect of sea level rise in the coastal area, which being low-lying (the average reduced levels of the beach is only about 2.5 m higher than MSL) was being threatened by an SLR at a rate of 2.4 mm/year (Baksi et al. 2001).

Digha gone, tourist attraction shifted to Mandarmani, which was a small fishing hamlet until a decade ago. The hoteliers moved in, this time cautiously but with no lesser aggressively than we saw in Digha. The infamous term ‘hotel’ was replaced with a friendlier ‘resort’ – suitable thatched umbrellas with split bamboo benches were thrown in to show of concern to nature but soon enough large scale construction started, again flattening the sand dunes and felling screw pines and some of the resorts these days boast swimming pools and conch shell shaped villas to attract the wealthier section of tourists.

Two things happened in Mandarmani that out-class Digha’s beach-urbanization.

(a) Complete flouting of the Coastal Regulation Zone (CRZ) stipulations under the Environmental Protection Act by Government of India by real estate interests. The Local Government’s blindness in this matter is almost criminal.

(b) Large Scale use of nearly 8 Km stretch of Mandarmani Beach by cars (Mandarmani is one rare motorable beach on account of high silt content possibly transported by longshore currents from the Hugli Estuary.

According to CRZ, no construction is permitted from Low Tide Line to 500 meters landward side from High Tide Line. In a recent trip to Mandarmani I personally checked that almost all resorts have flagrantly violated this regulation and carrying on merrily. Here is an interesting read where you can get more details.

Mandarmoni Report

In 1995, I trekked on foot from Digha to Mandarmani (approximately 12 Kms along the beach) to spend a night in a camp and sleep on a canvas folding cot to wake up and find myself to be the only biped surrounded by a live carpet of red crabs. 15 years later Madarmani greeted me with diesel smoke, shanty shops and sprawling resorts. The once desolate beach was now filled with 4 wheel drive cars, vendors, crowd and noise. It looked as though the sea is losing to cars.

Unlike the crabs that have fled, the village people have quickly adopted to the changing economy of Mandarmani. They now ferry tourists into the seas in what used to be their fishing boats. Some of them sell candies and ice-cream cones.

The beach shows obvious signs of littering and fast getting polluted.

New resorts are coming up each day and new shanty shops too.

The beach traffic mainly consist of 4-wheel drives that are used as pick up and drop down service by many resorts as these resorts are only accessible by driving approximately 6 Km over the beach.

The livelihood of local villagers, which traditionally remained either fishing or agriculture, have suitably adapted to the changes. I met Jaydeb Sasmal (pronounced sasmawl), a man of thirty from the locality named Dadanpatrabar, is from a family of farmers. Jaydeb now drives a vehicle, locally called van rickshaw, which is basically a motorized version of a tri-cycle. The vehicle is out-fitted with a Kirloskar Cummins 200 cc single stroke diesel engine which is a multipurpose machine in rural Bengal. This engine can be used as prime mover for irrigation pump, husking machine and even running small generators for electricity. With a little ingenious modification it can run on kerosene or a mixture of kerosene and diesel. Jaydeb’s vehicle cruises at a steady speed of 15 Kms per hour with generous emission of smoke and sound.

I was curious to know how much Jaydeb earns per day and whether he is aware about the environmental problems associated with it. Check the video below for an impromptu interview of Jaydeb.

When we are facing sacrifice of our wasteful life-style to put a check on CO2 emission, fancy lectures will not sell to the likes of Jaydeb, since he is seeing this growth as life changing opportunity. In India and China, creating Climate Change awareness and effective control will certainly not work with a top-down approach. It will need to come from grass-root level, with active participation and with innovative eco-friendly indigenous enterprise.

I missed the red crabs very much. Informed that they are still seen near the Mandarmani Estuary (locally called ‘Mohana’), I took the service of Javdeb’s wonder vehicle. To my relief, the red crabs were still there taking their last guard before a final retreat. I was confronted by 10 year old Khaibar from the adjacent village holding a live crab in his hand and asking me to buy it.

I persuaded him to let the crab go paying 10 bucks – double the price he was offering to sell it to me.

Mandarmani will not last long. That’s sad news. But Jaydeb and Khaibar will continue to grab the next chance of earning a livelihood and since it is a betterment of their lives from abject poverty, India, the would be super power, will have to do the double duty of pulling down the upper limit of affluence-and-waste and pulling up the lower limit of poverty-and-ignorance.

Post Written by
Pabitra is an Honors graduate in Civil Engineering from Jadavpur University, Kolkata. He has specialized in the field of River Hydraulics working for more than two decades training rivers, protecting banks and beaches and fighting erosion of the river banks/beds. He has worked with Bio-Engineering models involving mangroves using them as tools for cost effective and natural means of anti-erosion technology.His work is mostly concerning the extremely morpho-dynamic Hugly estuary with Bay of Bengal In course of his work, he got exposed to indigenous people of the Sunderban wetlands, who are fighting a losing battle against aggressive Industrialization. Pabitra loves to read and write and he is full of crazy ideas. He is a Youth Leader and Adviser to Climate Himalaya. He is also a contributor member of THINK ABOUT IT platform of European Journalism Center and a winner of the recently concluded competitive blogging on Water. Pabitra believes that he has a tryst with the strange river-country south of Bengal.

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