A women’s SHG stands guard against natural calamity; plants mangroves. Wins Plan India Impact Awards
Studies and research have widely acknowledged that mangroves protect our coasts against natural hazards such as storms, tsunamis, and coastal erosion. While the level of protection provided by mangroves remains subject to debate. Numerous mangrove restoration projects were instigated after the 2004 East Asian tsunami.
This was done with the belief that replacing lost mangroves would reduce future risk.
In India’s West Bengal, Saleha Bibi has taken up the same work on herself. She is protecting over 20 hectares of mangrove land to ensure that it provides safety and security to her community.
Saleha Bibi & her story
Saleha Bibi comes from Pathorpratima thana of Durbachati Gram Panchayat in West Bengal. She is a homemaker from an economically marginalized family. She lives with her son, a driver, and her husband, Mujibur Rahman, who spends nearly the entire year fishing at sea.
To keep herself occupied in her free time, Saleha started working as a member of a local volunteer group. She helps with various activities, awareness campaigns, and more. When there are relief activities to be carried out, Saleha is the first to help.
After the deadly cyclone of 2021, floods destroyed many homes in the community and displaced the belongings of most of the locals. This left many homeless. But, even the roads were destroyed and people could find no path for shelter.
Everything in sight was wiped away by the floods in the river and people were struggling for their lives.
The elders from the island had witnessed a similar atrocity, a few years back, in the Aila Cyclone. That incident left the Sundarbans distressed. They claimed that just as nature and the people had just started to recover from the tragedy. Before they hardly emerged from the losses of the previous cyclone before the next one struck.
Rescue operations after cyclones
Saleha Bibi’s life has always been full of challenges and she has faced them with utmost bravery and grace.
After the cyclone of 2009, Saleha Bibi and her Women’s Self-Help Group – ‘Panitar pally Unnayan Samiti’ had taken up the work themselves to rebuild the community. They were instrumental in building roads, re-planting trees along the coast, rehabilitating people, helping animals, and more.
By 2021, the community witnessed multiple natural calamities. While rehabilitation works were carried out immediately, the community agreed that preventive measures need to be taken to avoid the loss of livelihood.
People came together to discuss the cyclone, the underlying issues, and a solution. Many participated in the discussion including SHG workers, community heads, and Saleha Bibi. During this, many people in the community agreed with Saleha's viewpoints.
Growing up among nature, she learned about mangroves from a young age. She watched the flora and fauna evolve in coastal conditions and noticed the forest stands strong against tidal currents as well as flooding.
So, she suggested planting more mangroves along the coasts. Once it was accepted, she took it upon herself to plant as well as protect them.
Mangroves to the rescue
After suggesting that mangroves can keep them alive, Saleha began researching to understand the mangroves surrounding her community. She wanted to learn what caused them to reduce in number.
By speaking to officials and locals she realized that people have been greedy and are stealing from mangroves arbitrarily to satisfy their greed. But now, it was time to protect the mangroves to ensure the mangroves can protect them in turn.
Saleha Bibi crossed a river and traveled 15 kilometers to the Block Development Office (BDO) in her village. She asked for help to acquire the mangroves so that she could protect them. After hearing the concerns from the SHG, BDO agreed.
They provided Saleha Bibi and ‘Panitar pally Unnayan Samiti’ with mangroves across a 20 hectares long chunk of land. The duo were ecstatic and immediately began strategising a protection plan. Saleha made it her mission to do what was necessary to protect her community.
These mangroves are common grounds for tigers, crocodiles, plants with poisonous thorns on embankments, and large areas of uninhabited land along the river banks.
Exhibiting unparalleled bravery and strength, the SHG has been guarding the mangroves till today. Irrespective of their, the members protect the same from cows, goats, and theft.
For the initiative and exemplary service to the community, Saleha Bibi and her Women’s Self-Care Group ‘Panitar pally Unnayan Samiti’ were awarded the Best Women’s Self-Help Group award at the Plan India Impact Awards 2022 (PIIA 2022).
While the results of restoration efforts may not be visible immediately, Saleha believes the award is a motivation for their work. It will help them expand their activities, protect more natural spaces, and keep people safe.