THE Sundarbans gets its name from the sundari tree (Hertiera fomes), the dominant mangrove species in what is recognised as the world's largest surviving mangrove system. Literally, the name means "beautiful forest". The Sundarbans forms the southern part of the delta system between the Hooghly river in the west and the Meghna river in the east in Bangladesh. It is a system of islands formed by rivers depositing their burden of silt and sand before flowing into the sea, and is spread over an area of 20,400 square kilometres. Sixty per cent of the Sundarbans now belongs to Bangaladesh. In West Bengal, the Sundarbans delta covers an area of 9,630 sq km and is spread over North and South 24-Parganas.
The Sundarbans forests were virgin territory until the 19th century. Serious colonisation of the delta started after 1856 on a British push to reclaim land for cultivation. Pattas were granted to absentee landlords who brought in share-croppers to cultivate the land. People came in from the neighbouring district of Midnapore and also from Orissa to build up habitations, cutting down forests in the process. This process of colonising the Sundarbans, however, started before the islands had acquired the height required to support human habitation and agriculture.
There are some 100-odd islands on the Indian side of the Sundarbans, of which 54 have lost their forest cover. The depleting forest cover, a steadily diminishing tiger population and the intense human pressure on land put the ecological system of the delta at risk.Sarbari Sinha