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Special Content

Issue no 35, 26 November - 02 December 2022

MGNREGA Scheme in Sundarbans Area Leading to Improvement in Livelihood


Dr. Prosenjit Majumdar

The Sundarbans is a mosaic of islands of different shapes and sizes, perennially washed by brackish water shrilling in and around the endless labyrinths of water channels with a unique ecosystem dominated by mangrove forests. It gets its name from the Sundari trees, a special kind of mangrove tree, found in this area. The Sundarbans abound Saltwater Crocodile, King Cobra, Wild Pig, Spotted Deer, Monkey, and different varieties of birds along with the majestic Royal Bengal Tiger. It has been declared as one of the UNESCO's World Heritage Sites. The property is currently being managed and regularly monitored by the regular staff of the Forest Department. The key objective of management is to manage the property to retain biodiversity, aesthetic values, and integrity. Several Forest offices and camps are located in certain important parts of the forest. However, in recent times, the ecosystem of this forest is under threat due to unscientific human interferences. The forest resources such as honey, wax, etc. are being collected by local people which is in huge demand in the market due to its high quality and taste. A delicate balance is needed to maintain and facilitate the ecological processes of the property on a sustainable basis.The site is intersected by a complex network of tidal waterways, mudflats, and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests, and presents an excellent example of ongoing ecological processes. Tigers readily cross these islands and human-tiger conflicts are common in this area. However, the nylon fencing around the forest prevents the tigers invade the villages. But lately, the forest department is facing problems in controlling the wild straying into the villages because of the lack of staff, infrastructure, and funds. To reverse the rapid loss of mangrove forests and to promote sustainable use of this invaluable ecosystem, along with filling up the gap of lack of forest guard and infrastructure, a scheme named Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) is being implemented to provide at least 100 days of guaranteed wage employment in a financial year to every rural household for enhancing livelihood and security of the unskilled manual workers. Under this scheme, the majority of MGNREGA related endeavours are spent on the creation of assets that help in the betterment of subsistence opportunities and further enhance the village economy. To achieve this objective, the MGNREGA scheme is converged mostly in the forest area which is beneficial for both the local people and the forest department. The working conditions inside the forests are extremely tough. Several problems of the forest officials have been solved by implementing the MGNREGA scheme to Bonnie Camp which is located close to Bay of Bengal. Mr. Manash Kumar Ghosh, Additional Divisional Forest Officer, South 24Pgs district of West Bengal and other Forest Officers made the Bonnie Camp of Sundarbans area beautified and resolved several issues of the forest staff, posted inside the camp. Shri Budhhadeb Guha, a famous novelist named the camp as 'Bonnie Camp'. The camp provides Social Protection and Livelihood Security to the most vulnerable people living in and around of forest area of Sundarbans by providing employment opportunities. Local communities depend on the forest for their livelihood and therefore have an interest in protecting it. Besides the local people being involved as labour under MGNREGA scheme for the beatification of the campsite, there also have been several other upshots, mentioned below:

CREATION OF ASSET WITH OUT FOREST MANPOWER: Most of the time forest guards are busy in patrolling as a result it is very difficult for them to develop the campsite. Assets have been created in the Bonnie campsite of Sundarbans under convergence of MGNREGA through the joint efforts of the local community and the forest department which has contributed to the conservation and management of natural resources around the area. The camp has a beautiful and wellmaintained park, artificial bridge over a small pond and the forest gardens which were developed inside the camp site by engaging the local people through the convergence of MGNREGA scheme. These assets contributed to the beautification of the campsite. Sweet water ponds were constructed inside and outside of the forest area and tree plantation is done by the local people under MGNREGA scheme. The sweet water is used to provide drinking water for the wild animals. The locals involve themselves in fencing works to prevent illegal poaching and prevent wild animals to enter the villages

AGRICULTURE PRODUCT: The forest guard and forest staff posted inside the campsite face difficulties in obtaining vegetables as there is no market nearby their site. The land inside the campsite is used to grow vegetables by the locals with the help of Forest Guard and later on, these vegetables are used by the Forest Guard for their daily sustenance and also the local people engaged under MGNREGA scheme use it when they temporarily stay inside the campsite for creation of assets inside the forest and development of campsite. Forest gardens have been a significant source of food security for these people.

SOCIAL ISOLATION: Only 6- 8 people are working inside the campsite of the forest. They are socially isolated due to staying inside for lengthy periods, having no communication with family, and a very poor mobile network that increases the chance of various psychologic problems. They are physically separated from their family members and lives in a remote forest area that results from loneliness or low self-esteem. Over time, a person may develop social anxiety, depression, or other mental health concerns. The people engaged under the MGNREGA scheme is staying temporarily inside the camp can help forest officials to build social skills and connect with each other's which helps the forest officials to recover from the effects of isolation.

COMMUNITY PARTICIPATION IN FOREST MANAGEMENT: The constant shortage of forest staff makes it difficult for the forest department to protect the forest. Local assistance is highly required for the effective protection of the forest. A community always plays an important role in the protection of wild animals. During their stay at the campsite, several awareness programs on afforestation and eco-system were organized. The community help results in the effective conservation and preservation of forest resources and the action for the conservation of many forest species. Developing relationships between the Forest Guard/forest department and the local people is established based on mutual trust that develops when the people participate in the labour activities inside the camp area through MGNREGA. Forest security against the poachers has been addressed through the MGNREGA scheme. They also keep a watch to protect the forest from fires. During their stay at the campsite, the local people are trained to do the job of forest guards to save the wild animals which help to reduce the casualties.

REDUCE CONFLICT AMONG LOCAL AND FOREST GUARD: Many local people have ways of thinking that the wild animals and the forest are the property of the forest department that develops the conflict between local people and forest guard which force them to act against forest officials. The biggest challenge facing any forest guard today is to protect themselves from the local people. Exploiting forest product in Sundarbans is prohibited for everyone, including the locals. But, the locals are heavily dependent on forests product for their food, housing, and livelihood. Preventing locals from these areas is practically difficult without the cooperation of local people. The participation of local people through MGNREGA in the forest helps economic balance. More women were employed in developing the campsite under the MGNREGA scheme which helps both parties not only reap economic benefits of the local community but also social amiability among the villagers and the forest guard.

VILLAGE PEOPLE SUPPLY THE FOOD TO FOREST GUARD DURING PATROLLING: While patrolling sometimes either they do not have time to cook or do not have raw materials to cook. During the time of developmental activities inside the campsite, the forest guard develops a harmonious relationship with the local village people who are engaged as labour under MGNREGA scheme as a result some local people when they are in their village, extend their help and sometimes provide food to the forest guard while patrolling. It is a merit that an alternative income generation has also been created for the local people which offer them a better and more progressive lifestyle. Thus, after successfully implementing the MGNREGA scheme in Bonnie camp, the same concept is being used to implement the MGNREGA scheme in other camps of Sundarbans namely 'Kalash' and 'Chulkati' which are located in the last islands of Sundarbans, West Bengal.

(The author is National Awardee for Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities and currently working as Social Welfare Officer in Ali Yavar Jung National Institute of Speech & Hearing Disabilities, Department of Empowerment of Persons with Disabilities (Divyangjan), Ministry of Social Justice & Empowerment, Govt. of India, Kolkata) He can be reached at pmajumdar2590@gmail.com) Views expressed are personal.