Reflections on a trip to the Sundarbans

Helal Uddin Ahmed | Sunday, 6 November 2016

Located in the southwestern tip of Bangladesh about 320 kilometres southwest of capital Dhaka, Sundarbans has an area of around 10,000 square kilometres, 60 per cent of which fall inside Bangladesh and the rest 40 per cent on the Indian side. Its deltaic swamps stretch along the coastal belt of Khulna division, and it is the single largest block of tidal halophytic mangrove forest in the world. Home to the world-famous Royal Bengal Tigers, it is criss-crossed by a network of rivers and creeks. The forest provides a unique eco-system and a rich wildlife habitat. Apart from tigers, other wildlife in the forest includes the beautiful Spotted Dear, Rhesus Monkey, Python, Wild Boar, Fishing Cat, Grey Mongoose, Fox, Jungle Cat, Pangolin, Crocodile, and Hyena. Over 150 species of commercially important fish, 270 species of bird, 42 species of mammal, 35 reptiles and eight amphibian species are found in the Sundarbans. There are many rest houses and camping places for the travellers to enjoy the unspoiled nature with all its charms inside the forest spread over the three coastal districts of Khulna, Bagerhat and Satkhira. Sundarbans was declared a 'World Heritage Site' by UNESCO in 1997. 
The Hiron Point (Neelkamal), Katka and Tin Kona Island are the main tourist spots in the Sundarbans, where tigers, deer, monkey, crocodiles and birds can be viewed while roaming freely. The Dublar Char - an island as well as a fishermen's village - is another tourist attraction, where herds of spotted dear are often found to graze. Water transports, which include private motor launches and speed boats, are the only means for visiting the Sundarbans from Khulna or Mongla of Bagerhat. One may also travel to Sundarbans by road from the border town of Satkhira district. Tourists may travel by air, road and river (aboard rocket steamers) from Dhaka to Khulna and Bagerhat - the gateways to the Sundarbans. 
My first and last trip to the Sundarbans was aboard a rented yacht between 10 and 14 February 2001, as a participant of the 'Management Accounting, Auditing and Budgeting' (MAAB) course of the Financial Management Academy, Dhaka. The trip could be looked at from two different perspectives. Firstly, from the viewpoint of a selfish and greedy human being who wants to lead a good life and is always on the look-out for pleasures in living; and secondly, from the perspective of a conscientious and empathetic citizen of this poor and underdeveloped country called Bangladesh.
From the first perspective, the trip was quite enjoyable except for some managerial lapses here and there. We had good food, were provided with comfortable cabins, our academic programmes on board the cruiser were excellent, our compatriots and faculty members were full of warmth, cordiality and humour, and our outings on the shores and the sea beach were quite pleasant. We were however disappointed at not being able to spot many of the flora and fauna that we were on the look-out for, including the Royal Bengal Tiger. But that might have been a blessing in disguise as spotting them could have brought trouble for us.
But if I look at the trip from the second perspective, the experience was, in some respects, quite painful. It was painful when I could see the primitive lifestyle of the fishermen - in the rivers and the sea, braving so many odds only to eke out a subsistence existence for themselves and their families. The misery of the people leading similar lives on the shore and in the forests, and the decaying flora and fauna in one of the largest mangrove forests of the world really touched me. 
I felt ashamed when it appeared to me that I was very much an actor - albeit, on the wrong side of the spectrum - in this global game of exploitation of the poor and the weak. It is a game where the winner takes it all and there is nothing much left for the losers. We seem to be playing 'project project games' only at the expense of the poor, the deprived and the underprivileged segments of our society. The winners in this perennial game are the 'metropolitan centres' of the world - who want us to play their own brand of sport where they invariably win, and the bureaucrats like ourselves who, along with the political and business elites, act as the rent-seeking middlemen at national and local levels - forever ready to wallop and devour whatever comes their way. 
The losers always seem to be the poor and the powerless - the peasants and the labourers, the unsheltered and the uprooted - who constitute almost 70 per cent of the population in this God-forsaken land. What is worse is that we are selling away not only our present, but also the future of our country, incurring debts and liabilities without any hesitation and then indiscriminately passing them on to our future generations. We as a nation seem to be trapped in a vicious time-zone where there is no yesterday, no today and no tomorrow for the vast multitude of the population. We seem to be haunted by our past, chased by our present and hounded by our future, and there seems to be no sanctuary in sight, near or afar.  
That reminds me of a few lines in A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens - one of my all-time favourites. The lines may not be exact, but they nevertheless point to the predicament of greedy and selfish individuals like us. It reads something like this, 'Sadly, sadly the sun rose. It rose upon no sadder sight than the sight of a man, a man who had good abilities and emotions, but who was incapable of their proper use. Though sensible of the blight on him, he resigned himself to let it eat him away'.
Dr. Helal Uddin Ahmed is a retired Additional Secretary and former editor of Bangladesh Quarterly.
[email protected]