A study of policies and institutions that regulate the Sundarbans and the people living in them.
The Sundarban region, known for its exceptional biodiversity, is world’s largest remaining area of mangroves (Sundarban Biosphere Reserve 2016). The forest of Sundarbans is not only home to staggering diverse flora and fauna, but also acts as a powerful barrier to the cyclones that originate in the Bay of Bengal region, and would otherwise have taken a massive toll on human life and property. Thus, recognising its uniqueness, the UNESCO declared the Sundarbans, a World Heritage Site and major conventions such as the Ramsar Convention, Convention on Biological Diversity, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora are some of the major conventions with direct bearing on the Sundarbans wetland.
Over the 4.4. million (according to Census 2011) people that make this region their home find themselves placed between two very difficult and different contexts: the economic growth of the region to better their dismal living standards and the exceptional ecological value of one of the richest ecosystems of the world (World Bank 2014). Under such circumstances, the complex rules, multiple legislations and regulatory bodies have been rendered ineffective. It is for this reason that we aim to understand the institutional approach that has been taken to tackle the issues surrounding the Sundarban region.
In the context of climate change, the year being marked by the wrath of Amphan and the consequence faced by the Sundarbans, this article tries to trace the major threats and challenges surrounding the Sundarbans and how the regulatory institutional framework can address the situation at hand. The objective of the article is to address the loopholes that may exist in the current framework, as well as identify the strengths and use the latter to plug in the loopholes that may have been identified.
Threats and Challenges for Sundarbans
History has it that the Sundarbans was exploited for its resources, without its exploiters having adequately compensated its people or the nature. The forest saw the regime of different masters and it was only in 1988, when the Forest Policy for the first time ever discouraged monocultures and stressed protection of the environmental stability of forests. Nonetheless, Sundarbans suffers from environmental degradation due extreme population pressures and the consequences of the economic activities, such as increased agricultural activity, fishing and tourism, undertaken in the region. According to the World Bank Report of 2014, the estimated cost of environmental damage associated with biodiversity loss and ecosystem degradation and is about INR 6.7 billion annually, which accounts for about 5 percent of the Sundarbans GDP (World Bank 2014).
The situation in Sundarbans is a complex one and the protection of the biodiversity cannot be ensured without taking into account the well-being of the 4.4 million inhabitants in the region. Poverty reduction in Sundarbans requires a program across multiple socio-economic dimension that addresses human capital development as well as improvement in livelihood opportunities which takes advantage of local resources to improve their income and food security concerns. Given there’s limited education and lack of employment opportunities in the area, the reliance on forest resources is high, and there’s exploitation of both forest and aquatic resources. Consequently, over the years, there has been significant threat to mangroves due to poaching and illegal felling (Sahgal, Sen and Grewal 2007). In the context of climate change, statistics suggest the rise in the sea level over the coming decades along with the intensity of the cyclonic storms, continue to pose a threat to the mangroves. Furthermore, the upstream movement of the Ganga and its tributaries has led to a reduction in the freshwater flow to the delta and an increase in the salinity level in the region (Sánchez-Triana, Ortolano and Paul 2018). Additionally, there has been a decline in the fish and shrimp levels and there’s been an increase in the conflicts between wildlife and humans due to unregulated mass tourism. Discharge of untreated industrial effluents and domestic wastewater are impacting aquatic habitats and biodiversity (Sahgal, Sen and Grewal 2007). It is in the backdrop of these threats and challenges that we set to do a brief survey of the framework of regulation in the Sudarbans.
Framework of Regulatory Governance in India: An Understanding
The Sundarbans region has been subjected to human interventions for centuries and though the institutional framework of the Sundarbans has continuously evolved, the rules and regulations were shaped decades or even centuries ago, when the region’s conditions were significantly different from present times. This section, analyses (a) the existing institutional regulatory framework in place; (b) capabilities and limitations of the agencies operational in the region; and (c) recommendations to address the challenges posited.
- Current Institutional Framework of the Sundarbans
The current institutional context of the Sundarbans region is characterized by the existence of (a) interrelated instruments regulating the types of activities that can take place in different portions of the ecosystem; and (b) multiple national and state-level agencies and local governments, most of which operate based on a traditional sectoral approach that does not explicitly recognize the unique and changing conditions of the Sundarbans (World Bank 2014). The framework design is with respect to:
- Biosphere conservation;
- Coastal zone management; and
- Climate change.
The institutional framework of the Sundarbans was designed and implemented by the British during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Currently, multiple government agencies from all three levels of government – central, state, and local – operate within the Sundarbans region, each governmental entity having its own set of incentives, goals, and resources. Figure 1 show the different categories in which the Sundarbans is divided and in which these agencies operate.
Government of West Bengal’s (GoWB) Forest Department and Government of India’s (GoI) Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change (MoEF) play crucial roles in the management of the protected areas. Table 1 (below) depicts the key functions with respect to the Sundarbans. The Forest Department is also responsible for the reserve forests in the two districts of North and South 24 Parganas; and, its duties include operation of the lease and permit system through which authorizations for forest exploitation are awarded.
India’s National Environmental Policy, 2006, recognizes that mangroves and coral reefs are important coastal environmental resources, given they provide multiple services, including habitat for marine species; protection from extreme weather events; and a resource base for sustainable tourism (Ministry of Forest and Environment 2006). Therefore, the Coastal Zone Management Authority (CZMA) is well positioned to enforce and oversee the national regulations within the Sundarbans, which are established through MoEF and are to be enforced nationally and through the state coastal zone management authorities.
GoI, under the leadership of the Prime Minister’s Council on Climate Change, has drafted a National Action Plan on Climate Change (NAPCC) which includes eight national-level missions to develop plans for climate change adaptation in several priority areas (Pandve 2009). However, the Sundarbans is not listed as a priority area within this plan but it has been identified as a priority region under the West Bengal State Action Plan on Climate Change although the strategies for vulnerable regions in that plan, were yet to be presented.
The Climate Change Division of MoEF is India’s nodal agency for climate change, dealing with climate change issues at both the domestic and global levels and is also the nodal unit for coordinating the NAPCC.
- Capabilities and Limitations of the Framework
Although a broad range of governmental organisations operate in the region and could address the issues of the region, evidence and experience indicates lack of coordination, inadequate data to guide policy efforts and poor monitoring and evaluation programs, have hindered progress at large. At the state level, around 20 different GoWB agencies implement one or more programs, or have a formal mandate to intervene in the Sundarbans (Table 2) but most of these have a sectoral focus and implement state-wide policies and programs. Consequently, the system fails to recognize the state’s diverse ecological, social, and economic conditions, which results, in the pursual of similar efforts, both the state’s hills in the North and the Sundarbans, the south.
DSA is the only agency that explicitly recognizes the region’s terrain, poverty, and accessibility challenges and has special mandate to address the region’s challenges (Department of Sundarban Affairs 2019). The Sundarban Development Board (SDB) which was created to look into “the planning and co-ordination of development activities in the backward region”, it’s scope of work, as well as the DSA’s, has been limited to the socio-economic development of the inhabited parts in the Sundarbans (Government of West Bengal 1973). Additionally, other departments with the responsibility for forests, irrigation and waterways, health, and education, continued to function independently, which defeated the purpose of creating DSA as a coordination agency. Therefore, the presence of numerous governmental organizations with overlapping authorities and responsibilities often results in duplication of efforts.
A different problem arising from lack of interagency coordination relates to the number of agencies whose de jure responsibilities are overlooked for compliance or safeguards. For instance, environmental impact assessments, which are supposed to be mandatory for significant projects anywhere in India, are not implemented for such projects in the Sundarbans.
And lastly, weak institutional capacity, agencies hobbled by lack of resources given the lack of incentive to work in an environment of risk, and overreliance on excessively restrictive regulations continue to weaken the institutional framework.
There is need to consider a new or revised approach that must be undertaken by the GoI and GoWB to address the institutional loopholes. To begin with, given the DSA, having the unique mandate to administer the region, should be strengthened in order to promote the increased interagency coordination and resolve the complex overlapping jurisdiction. GoWB should also consider the creation of a Sundarbans Planning and Risk Management Authority with a mandate to set regional priorities under a long-term vision, facilitate interagency cooperation, and coordinate implementation efforts (World Bank 2014). If created, the institution would work in tandem with the DSA and would be entrusted with anticipatory planning and selection of effective and efficient interventions, along with a coordinating role that ensures various sectoral agencies are doing their part (World Bank 2014).
To reduce population pressures on the forest, the Forest Department is implementing a permit allocation system to control entry into the forest. Forest entry permits could be reissued annually or biannually. Further, property rights on forest resources should be established. Furthermore, the institutional capacity of the Nodal Agency for Climate Change located in MoEF should be strengthened to better address climate change impacts in the region.
Policy Insights and Conclusion
The diverse and profound challenges in the Sundarbans no doubt require a suite of reforms and institutional strengthening interventions, there is need to strengthen the capacity and effectiveness of single institutions to better address problems in the region. For example, Department of Health and Family Welfare needs to focus on preventing and treating illnesses prevalent in the region. And then, initiation of paired cooperation and coordination efforts among lead institution needs to be undertaken, particularly those in the following sectors: irrigation and forestry; health and transport; irrigation and aquaculture; and health and forestry.
Furthermore, an important factor in the current context of climate change needs to be taken into account. Given that the impacts of climate change are highly local, and the effective means to adapt, depend on local institutions in addressing climate change concerns. And since the environmental problems are typically felt locally, local governments are often in a better position to understand climate change concerns in their respective jurisdictions, and thus would achieve more effective outcomes, if given the freedom to choose the most appropriate policies and programs. With this, it’s important to increase the participation of the local populations, both in planning and implementation, as the majority of climatic events (sea-level rise and storms) are mostly experienced by residents living in high exposure areas such as the Sundarbans.
(Sanjana Priyaranjan is a candidate for the Master’s Program in Public Policy at the Institute of Public Policy, NLSIU. Sanjana completed her graduation in Political Science with a special focus on International Relations at Jadavpur University. She has an interest in all things policy especially in the education sector, environment, and international relations. She can be reached at email@example.com)
Climate Change Division, MoEF, Comments on Draft NLTA Report, May 23, 2013.
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