Unemployment and poverty is widely present in the Sundarbans. Due to hostile geophysical conditions that entails inaccessibility, communication impediments, low productivity and rain water depended agriculture, constant change in land masses coupled with prevailing climatic condition, the entire coastal zone of both North and South 24 Parganas districts is characterized by severe economic backwardness (Anon, 2002). Thus a large section of the entire population is totally depended upon the mangrove ecosystem for their livelihood. It is thus widely being felt that large scale and intensive eco developmental activities and practice of sustainable use of bio-resources can only save the Sundarban ecosystem from this holocaust. Though extremely meager against the monstrous size of requirements and not always operational the following measures are taken by the forest department in the villages near the Project Tiger. But in the long term benefit of these programmes will surely be achieved if intensive persuasion and political will is there and the NGOs are involved in various levels of coordination with proper monitoring.
- Participatory Management has been introduced in Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and 10 Forest Protection Committees and 14 Eco-development Committees have been formed in the fringe of Sundarbans Tiger Reserve and the response is positive
- Excavation of rainwater irrigation channel to increase agricultural production.
- Provision of pisciculture ponds in the buffer area to be managed by village co-operative for prawns and sweet water fish. This will help in income generation.
- Provision of Solar lights in the villages on the periphery both for lighting as well as to scare away tiger from straying into the villages.
- Provision of smokeless chullahs for optimization of fuel consumption.
- Raising mangrove plantations on the periphery to meet local fuel wood demand
- Fishing was allowed free in tidal water, provided that the fishing boats are registered with the forest and can carry maximum 4 persons. Fishing is disallowed in core areas.
- Provision of medical care facilities to the villagers through collaborative efforts of the Management and NGOs
Encouragement towards alternative livelihood scheme:
The maximum numbers of nearly 3.75 million people in the Biosphere Reserve area are extremely poor and live below poverty line. Improving the economic conditions of these people through promotion of sustainable utilization of forest products and properly chosen alternative economic activities are some optimistic approaches towards ensuring the long-term sustainability of the forest ecosystem.
To improve the economic condition of the people living in the fringe areas of the Sundarbans forests, selected programmes are being taken to train people in the cultivation of oysters, crabs and honeybees. Attempts have been made, although not necessarily with successful results to culture edible oyster, Saccostrea cucullata through some pilot projects. By blending sea farming with traditional fishing as suggested by Silas (1977), the traditional fishermen and their family members with a little training on seed collection and management of farm stock would greatly help to enhance oyster production and their earnings. 22.6 % of operational cost of oysters can be reduced if their family members themselves can look after farm maintenance and predator eradication. There is ample scope to reduce the cost of production by using cheaper cages and trays and by working the culture in co- operative basis. Although it has been largely being felt that to obtain high returns for the product, local demand for oysters has to be created by evolving better marketing strategy and creating market channels (Nayar, et al. 1987).
Although extremely rare, but the common edible crab or mud crab (Scylla serrata) is being reared in different parts of Sundarbans, after successful trial programmes. Grow out of smaller crabs and fattening, both are being attempted. But presently the culture practice is restricted among selective few. Still it is not popularized among the greater masses, wild catching of crabs will continue.
In addition to several privately run cooperatives organized for extraction of honey, schemes involving the harvest of honey from wild Apis dorsata, by placing artificial beehives inside the forest, have also been initiated. Although this species cannot be tamed, the yield has been about 20-25 Kg per box over a month period during trials. There are some encouraging rural development schemes taken up by some NGOs like Bally Nature and Wildlife Society at Bally island by providing the villagers the basic training in Batic print, tailoring and weaving mats from date palm. The Forest Department has reportedly taken some steps in preparing packaged powder of local variety of Sundari chilly involving villagers around the buffer areas. A special variety of poultry bird called Croiler (mixed breed of Broiler chicken and the country hen) has been distributed in some villages. These birds grow quickly and feed natural food by foraging and give eggs as well as can be used as table bird. Since rearing cost is minimum and medical cost is negligible, this variety of chicken has the potential to revive the already non-rewarding village poultry activities.
The oyster mushroom (iPleurotus sp.) is another extremely good item for village development, which has not been tried as extensively as it was required in any where in the Sundarbans. These varieties of highly nutritious fungi, which are cheap source of protein, vitamins, minerals and essential amino acids, can grow on wide range of climatic conditions and very much suitable for the hot and humid conditions prevailing here.The raw materials required like paddy straw are easily available from the fields and the family members of the villagers can do maintenance. As no fertilizers are required by this form of culture, and diseases can be kept at bay by following some very basic simple techniques, this form of farming can be tremendously rewarding for the villagers and very much eco-friendly at the same time. Proper training, supply of good quality of spawns and market supports can give all the necessary boost to this type of farming practice for the benefit of the villagers.
Another important and totally unexplored bio- resource of Sundarbans is seaweed. With genera like Enteromorpha, Ulva, Catenella are easily growing in the estuary, the potential of sea weed culture is huge in Sundarbans as these macro algae have great demand in pharmaceuticals, nutrition and confectionary industries as cheap source of agar, carragenan etc.
There may be lot more of other options available. But what were lacking till date were collective efforts from the respective authorities. The recent influx of ideas from various private consultancy groups who works under the patronization of Asian Development Bank (ADB), UNDP etc in various livelihood betterment projects for Sundarbans are an encouraging development.
Education and Awareness:
Mangrove eco-system is very fragile and people's sustenance in the area, again, mainly depends on the maintenance and sustainable use of the eco-system. At the same time this eco-system is the most productive eco-system on the planet guiding the benefit of the nutrient cycling of both terrestrial as well as marine system. Therefore, understanding of the system and its importance is very useful to the people and awareness building among the people around the mangrove forest is necessary. Educating people around the Reserve about the importance of conservation of mangrove eco-system and its natural resources as well as launching of programmes for training and demonstration of improvised technology for bringing socio-economic development in the region will certainly help in the conservation of this unique ecosystem. Thus, seminars, workshops, awareness camps etc are needed to be organized frequently in the vicinity of Reserve. Interpretation trips should be arranged for school students, villagers, Panchayat members and women. Audio-visual tools should be used to highlight the need of conservation of nature and eco-system. Short-term training course about the mangrove eco-system need to be conducted for the registered local tourist guides, which can generate local interest and employment. Recently one such initiative was taken by the forest department in which all the local tourist guides, both old and new, have taken part. The programme was partly organized by the WWF- India, WB State office and was taken place in Sajnekhali. The Mangrove Interpretation Centre established at Sajnekhali is a good step in this regard which will play a great role in awareness building and orientation of the people and tourist towards the paramount importance of conservation of nature in general and the mangrove eco-systems in particular.