Nature is in its wildest forms in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest and a treasure island of biodiversity. However, every time I visit the area, I realize that poverty and hunger are extremely high in this region as life is a struggle against the harsh nature. During the summer and monsoons months, the islands are also frequently lashed by cyclones.
Poverty next to Tigers
Kaihali, one of the 52 islands of the Sundarbans, is situated at the confluence of river Matla and Kantamari. On the opposite side of the Matla River is the Sundarban Tiger Reserve. Often, tigers swim to the Kaihali islands in search of food. Here, in the 60s, Welthungerhilfe’s partner Ramkrishna Mission Ashram Nimpit (RKM) had started a small ashram and school for the children of Kaihali and the adjacent islands. In the early 90s, Kaikhali was inundated with a terrible flood of salt water as the river embankment collapsed. Agriculture was terribly affected and the inhabitants – who depended on farming – devastated. This is when Welthungerhilfe started working on the island, through the Integrated Rural Development Project, aimed at improving the livelihood of the inhabitants, until then based solely on fishery and collection of honey, crabs and other forest produce.
23 Years of service for Welthungerhilfe
This is also when Panchugopal Bhandari joined the project – and he has not looked back since. Pachugopal, 45-year old, is originally from Nimpit; his 10-year old daughter attends the ashram school for girls. In the past 23 years, projects have come and gone, but Panchugopal has always remained there, standing up for the hapless people of Kaikhali Islands. When I ask what he likes so much about his work that made him stay for 23 years in the same villages, Panchugopal’s response is very straight-forward: "I have worked with farmers in land shaping, integrated farming and fisheries and this really helped to improve the livelihood of these poor islanders." This is what has motivated him to continue doing his work.
While sharing some memories of these 23 years with me, he remembers a poor farmer who had two bigha (2/3 of an acre) of low land, owned one small mud house and grew only paddy once a year . Panchugopal helped him with land shaping and integrated farming. Over the years, the farmer not only had paddy cultivation twice a year but also started growing vegetables and initiated fishery and poultry activities along the field dyke. This changed his life totally,” Panchugopal explains to me “his income increased about five times, he built a pucca house and could get his daughter married to a man from a middle class family. It is success stories like these that keep Panchugopal going.
The value of reliable partners in disaster relief
During the Komen cyclone that hit West Bengal last July, Panchugopal was back in action and his commitment and sincerity in reaching out to the poorest of the poor was visible once again. He was in charge of the tarpaulin distribution in the emergency relief operations that were carried out by SRAN, with support from Welthungerhilfe. This is when I met him, during a monitoring visit I made to the area to supervise the relief activities. His description of what he had to do to coordinate the tarpaulin distribution really made me reflect again on how valuable our partners and their field staff are. Panchugopal visited nearly all the villages in the area and each household to find out the families who needed support. It took him two weeks of walking in the knee-deep mud and water. He photographed each house he felt was severely damaged, shortlisted the houses and made a final list of 1000 families. He then shared the list with the village committee, who went back to the houses to cross-check. The list then went to the local elected member for the final approval. “This was not an easy task,” Panchugopal told me, "as in such times of crisis it is extremely difficult to deny help to some, but we had to prioritize those who needed it the most".
Once the list was finalized, he went back to each house, struggling again through water and mud, and distributed tokens that the family then presented on the day of the tarpaulin distribution. Thanks to Panchugopal’s tireless work, 1000 tarpaulins were distributed to all the selected families and the community was ultimately very happy with the decision on the target households.
All the credit goes to the hard-working and field staff like Panchugopal, who put in their hearts and souls to reach out to the most vulnerable people and to make sure that the funds raised in Germany do benefit the poorest of the poor. The success and impact of Welthungerhilfe would not be achieved without these frontline warriors of change, and this article is a small, but needed, token of appreciation and recognition for their tireless and life-changing work.