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Spilled oil yet to cross border, fear does

The oil spill at the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans has not reached Indian territory yet, claims official. The reach of its news is also limited only to handful of locals. But the fear of an ecological catastrophe has fully blown on both sides of the border already.

Swapan Dalui, a fisherman from Baghnan in South 24 Paraganas, is one of the few who has heard of oil spill. “I heard only this morning of this. Will this affect us?,” asks Dalui, who is on a boat back to his native place from Dhamakhali, in North 24 Paraganas.The boat was also carrying few vernacular day’s newspapers to those remote areas, which has news of the accident, and soon perhaps fellow residents of Dalui will have the same concern about possible effect of the oil spill.

Dalui had noticed enhanced patrolling in the wee hours when he started for a his daily four hour boat ride with baskets of fish from Baghnan on the bank Raymangal river– which is in the Indo-Bangladesh border.

Gobinda Das, secretary of Sundarbans Matsyajibi Joutha Sangram Committee — a nodal body representing fishermen of the region — blowed the warning bell for authorities. “Some fishermen said on Raymangal river across the border of Sundarbans they have found large fishes floating dead this morning. The reason is yet unknown but we are asking authorities to check if it is due to oil spill,” he told Business Standard.

The accident took place on last Tuesday when an oil tanker carrying more than 350,000 liters of bunker oil sank on a Sela river, a major sanctuary for aquatic animals, following through the Sundarbans after being hit by a cargo vessel. There are already reports of less movements of animals like dolphins, crocodile since oil spill across Sela and neighbouring Pushur river in Bangladesh and same is feared on Indian side as well.The forest, one of the 32 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in India, is home to the Royal Bengal Tiger, Olive Ridley turtle, Ganges dolphin and several migratory birds from Siberia, apart from rare species of crocodiles.

“This sort of oil spill is always threatening the survival of multiple species of flora and fauna. Because of tidal fluctuations it can spread across Indian part of Sundarban as well. We are keeping a tab. We will inform disaster management team and other concerned authorities, if situation demands,” Ujjwal Kumar Bhattacharya, chief wildlife warden of West Bengal said.

The coast guard and BSF, which is in charge of patrolling the region however allayed concern. “Two over crafts have been deployed for patrolling beside BSF also keeping a tab. So far there is no sign of oil spreading over to Indian side of Sundarbans. There is no formal request from Bangladesh for help. If there is an request we will do whatever possible,” P V Narasimhan, DIG, coast guard (North East) said.

The effort so far from authorities is facing scathing criticism from environment activists. “Governments on both sides do not understand environment. It is a crisis, ecological disater. Time is running out, government should do everything possible and help. There are modern technology available to take out the spilt oil,” Nityanand Jayaraman, Chennai-based environment activist, who has worked on mangrove conservation.

According to Dhaka-based environment activist Kallo Mustafa,who is on the oil spill spot in Bangladesh, government there has sent a ship carrying oil dispersants to the area. “But the way oil is taken out by locals by sponges and similar material is ridiculous. Authorities seems to have no clue about the gravity of the disaster. The oil has already spread over 100 km and entire Sundarbans will be immensely affected by this,” Mustafa, told Business Standard over phone, adding, carcasses of otters, a water monitor lizards and some fishes have already been found around the site and trees too are cover with layer of thick oil.

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