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SUNDARBAN SOCIO-ECONOMY

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Though the Sundarbans region is celebrated for its ecological attributes, it is a difficult place to live in. The inhabited portions of India’s Sundarbans are characterized by severe poverty, which both contributes to and arises from the vulnerability of the population to a growing range of natural hazards. Resilience is characterized by a capacity to adapt to changing conditions and persistent stresses by responding effectively. However, the resilience of those residing in the Sundarbans has been undermined by a long series of persistent pressures. Sea level rise, salinization of soil and water, cyclonic storms and flooding have combined over the past century to render this one of the most hazardous areas in the Indian subcontinent.

In the face of growing populations and declining carrying capacity of natural habitats, planning exercises for such communities are further confounded by uncertain future impacts of current unsustainable practices coupled with phenomena such as biodiversity loss and climate change. While there are many coastal communities facing such challenges, the Indian Sundarbans in the state of West Bengal provides an extreme case. Over 4.4 million (as per Census 2011) people that make this region their home find themselves geographically and socioeconomically placed between two extraordinarily different contexts: the economic growth opportunities in nearby Kolkata, one of the largest conurbations of Asia, and the exceptional ecological values of one of the richest and most unique mangrove ecosystems in the world.

The Sundarbans plays an important role in the economy of the state of West Bengal. The forest provides raw materials for wood-based industries. In addition to traditional forest produce like timber, fuelwood, pulpwood etc., large-scale harvest of non-wood forest products such as thatching materials, honey, beeswax, fish, crustacean and mollusc resources of the forest takes place regularly. The vegetated tidal lands of the Sundarbans function as an essential habitat, produces nutrients and purifies water. The forest also traps nutrient and sediment, acts as a storm barrier, shore stabiliser and energy storage unit. Last but not the least, the Sunderbans provides an aesthetic attraction for local and foreign tourists.

The forest has immense protective and productive functions. A number of industries (e.g., hardboard, boat building, furniture making) are based on raw materials obtained from the Sundarbans ecosystem. Non-timber forest products and plantations help generate considerable employment and income opportunities for at least half a million poor coastal people. It provides natural protection to life and properties of the coastal population in cyclone-prone Sundarbans region of West Bengal.