Help These Tiger Widows Start Their Own Business In The Sunderbans

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The Sunderbans National Park is known for its extreme natural beauty, but for the people residing here it has become some sort of a “death-trap” with around 50 fishermen or honey collectors being killed by tigers in the forests every year.

After losing the sole bread-winners of their family, the women are left to fend for themselves. For long, these tiger widows have been earning a living by doing tailoring or prawn-seed cultivation or subsistence farming and somehow making ends meet.
With the burden of population on the delta increasing by the day and parcels of fertile land being swallowed by the raging waters, these women are forced to venture into the jungle like their deceased husbands to eke out a living, risking their life and dignity.

Unable to buy a regular country boat, the women have to either make a boat (out of a hollowed out palm tree trunk that cost INR 3500 only as against INR 50,000 required for a country-boat) or rent a country-boat. 
"Driven by hunger pangs and fearing to be ostracized by the society, these women keep it to themselves and go about their life pretending as if nothing happened," says Arjun Mandal of Sunderbans Rural Development Society (SRDS) and the head of local fisherman community.

Most of the 4.5 million people eke out a living by fishing, crab hunting, collecting of honey and subsistence farming in the Sunderbans. So does Geeta Mridha, but not by choice. Since the 38-year-old tiger widow, from Lahiripur, doesn’t even own a small parcel of land on which she could grows crops and vegetable, the mother of two decided to go to the jungle to provide for her family.

According to SRDS, as many as 260 families lost their men or sole bread-winners in tiger attacks in Lahiripur only. Like Geeta who lost her husband in a tiger attack in 2014, more than a dozen widows were caught in the predicament — whether to go to the jungle or not”.

“It was February 14, 2014, there were five people in the boat. While the boat was navigating though the backwaters, a tiger suddenly emerged from the bushes and jumped on the boat and caught him by the throat and dragged him back into the bush. Even before the fellow fishermen could put up a fight, the tiger disappeared in the bushes. My husband's body was also not found,” says Geeta with eyes welling up as she tries to recall the nightmarish incident that changed her life forever.

After her husband's demise, the onus of running the family and providing for education of their two children aged 11 and 9 fell on Geeta. 
In 2015, these women from Lahiripur area of Sunderbans formed a group and started to go the jungle, risking their life and dignity.

“I cannot let my children starve to death that’s why I decided to go to the jungle. When my husband was alive, I always persisted that he should find another job and stop going to the jungle. He would very calmly tell me that the jungle was our last resort. That fishing is the only thing he knew and it is the only way to provide for the family."

These women have explored all available options, but none fetches enough money to run a family as fishing does. When in the jungle, the all women crew not only braves the risk of an imminent attack by a tiger or crocodile, they also have to fend off lusty or bribe-lusty officials as well as fellow fishermen. “On the land you have the tigers, in the water you have crocodiles lurking. And If that was not enough, there are two-legged animals (read men) who might pounce on you at any moment. Despite all this, we go to the jungle everyday to collect crabs or fish,” says Geeta.

Despite all the risk, these women are not sure how much they would end up making in a month. “Sometimes we make Rs 2000. Sometimes we have to be content with Rs 1000. But there are days when we return from the jungle empty handed,” pitches in Alapi Mandal, the 48-year-old tiger widow who accompanies Geeta on her trips to the jungle.

Usually the group goes to the jungle early in the morning and returns by the evening. “But then when there is a chance of getting more fish or crabs, we even leave at late in the night. During the peak season, we occasionally go to the jungle and live there for a week and return with a good catch,” said Alapi, who lost her husband in a tiger attack a decade ago.
When in jungle, the women have to be very observant and careful to any kind of sound coming from the surroundings. A splash in the water, a rustle in the bushes is enough to send shiver down your spine. "Now, we almost intuitively know that the danger is near. We can look at a wave and tell what threat is coming our way. Despite being alert always, if you miss to read the omens, you end up paying with the life of your friend or yourself. So far I haven't had any encounter like this, I try staying in the safer place as I have two young kids to look after. I have to live to give life to my children -- that's is the only purpose of my life. I try to stay close to the boat,” says Geeta.

None of these women want their children to be trapped in the vicious cycle of the life in the Sunderbans. "I have told them that education is password to get out of this death trap called Sunderbans. I always tell them to concentrate only on their studies. That I will take care of the rest," says the gritty mother.

Most are of the opinion if they get any small work that ensures two square meals a day, they would stop going to the jungle right away. They want to spend more time with their growing up children and see to it that they stay focused on studies and don't fall in a bad company. But getting a job elsewhere in the locality hasn't be easy for the tiger widows as they are blamed for their husband's death and branded as “swami-khego” or husband-eater by their family in-laws and society. 

But not everybody in the society thinks that away. Moved by their plight, activist Arjun Mandal has started a crowd-funding campaign to help these women find a safer way of earning a living on crowdfunding platform, Milaap (India’s very own Gofundme).

SRDS hopes to raise around Rs 10,000,00 that would serve as the capital to start a small business for these women. Social entrepreneur Lamxi Menon who runs a project called Wickdom has helped train these women in making wicks or baatis that SRDS would initially market in the Kolkata region and eventually sell the item through the e-com websites.

"I would be happy to be associated with the project. I don't mind traveling to the Sunderbans and training these women in making wicks. The local non-profit, however, will have to find a market for the product," said Menon.  

Help these Tiger widows create a new life. #IamNewIndia.

P.S: Contact number of Arjun Mandal, the founder of SRDS, 9647358783 

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Tigers have always invoked my deepest passions. While this is about helping widows, the root cause makes me passionate about this.