Visit to Sagar Island, Sunderbans, West Bengal

By Ushakumari S on 14th May, 2019

Himanshu Mondal has been inviting us to visit his Sagar Island since 2011. During our last Bengal visit in 2012 we had actually reached Kakdwip, but could not cross the river due to heavy rain and storm. From there one has to take a boat to cross the river that seems like the sea (known as Hooghly river or Muriganga river locally) to reach Sagar Island. Sagar is the largest inhabited island in the Sunderbans. This is the southern most part of Bengal. This island is also known as Gangasagar or Sagardwip.

  We reached Kakadwip on November 22 and took the ferry to Kachuberia where people get down to reach various places. The island is 38 km long and 20 km wide. Truly an island! Sagar is inhabited by over two lakh people, most of them farmers and fisher folk. Sagar block has the highest percentage of educational attainment in West Bengal. It has 97% literacy. While travelling from Kolkata we were discussing about the waste issue in Kolkata. But when we entered Sagar Island it  looked serene and clean.  We asked Himanshu, our local colleague, about it and he responded that people are aware of environmental issues and are concerned.

 

The other interesting thing we found is that food was very cheap. Food was diverse and cheap in the train! There was our breakfast. Rs 10 for four people! Macro economists can never understand this culture of economical living .So they will continue to recommend food import and industrialization of the country.

 

We were also introduced to this new fruit, which we have never tasted before- paniphal or water chestnuts or singhada (Hindi). We ate a lot of ‘paniphal’, (it is the fruit of a water plant which is grown in the wetlands connected to the paddy lands) on the way. Save Our Rice campaign began in Sagar Island due to Himanshu Mondal’s interest and commitment.  The devastating Aila cyclone of 2009   devastated lives and livelihoods in Sunderbans. Farmers lost their crop and the soil became salty. The tentative trial by a few farmers in some islands showed indigenous paddy seeds worked even under these conditions. The Save our Rice campaign conducted meetings and training programmes to spread the idea of efficacy of indigenous seeds. The idea spread and Himanshu, himself an organic farmer who cultivates paddy and vegetables, visited Mumudpur to visit farmers who practicingorganic farming using indigenous seeds. He was happy to meet and also collected some seeds and began his work in Sagar Island.

Himanshu also runs an organization called Mrithyunjaya Nagar Mukthi Thirtha. Oncehe started cultivating Kerala sundari, a traditional paddy variety, on his land, many people started to visit and see the results. The visiting farmers began collecting seeds and slowly the seeds got spread and in this year more than 1000 farmers are cultivating Kerala sundari and Bahurupi, both traditional paddy varieties found in West Bengal.

During this trip we met some of the farmers who are cultivating Kerala sundari and Bahuroopi. All of them, both men and women farmers, were very happy to narrate their experience. They own little land, mostly 1-2 bighas  (one bigha is around 30 cents). All of them told us that these varieties perform well in terms of yield and do not need much input. Therefore, these are suitable for low- input agriculture systems that help small and marginal farmers to earn a sustainable livelihood.

We interviewed Dileep Das who is cultivating Kerala sundari for the
last three years. He owns 1 bigha of land and from that got around 800 kgs of paddy this year. He said that his cost of cultivation has come down to one fourth what he used to spend earlier. Another women farmer we talked to was Mayarani Mondal. She said that she has sowed Bahurupi this year and is expecting a higher yield than Kerala sundari. Alauddin, the State Coordinator of the SOR campaign , and Himanshu narrated the crop cutting exercise done by the Agriculture Department last year in their  field. It was comparable to the high yielding varieties.

 

We also attended two meetings, one with a women farmers’ group and the other meeting with conventional farmers who still use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. The women farmers were more than willing to share their thoughts and ideas and expressed a desire to shift to organic methods and traditional seeds. During the second meeting the men were shared that the main problem in the area  is  the cultivation of betel vine cultivation, the main economic crop in this region. Earlier it was water melon and chillies. A  number of pesticides are used on these crops. Paddy is mainly  cultivated for food and not for sale. However, the farmers  have begun to sell rice in the local market and the SOR campaign is planning a traditional rice mela in Kolkata in March. It is expected that these initiatives will result in creating awareness about traditional rices and also growing the market. Himanshu also has a dream to provide traditional seeds to 5,000 farmers in the next season and change them to organic practices and food security.