Naresh, the oarsman was navigating through the shallow waters in Sunderban, taking me deeper into the estuary, where young men and women were laying traps and waiting for the high tides. The net-trap has been laid, by midday the tides will rise and a thousand fishes will come with the flow, bringing business.
Fishing is the major occupation for the people of Sunderban, requiring them to stay inside water for 6-7 hours every day, till their skin softens. This endangered mangrove forest is a complex maze of diversified flora and fauna of Bangladesh and India. In the deep saline mangrove, stretching across 1,330 sq km, there is a persistent animal-human conflict.
Naresh sits on his small boat
According to the Status of Tiger India 2014 report by the National Tiger Conservation Authority, tiger population has maintained itself at 76. But Naresh is sure it is much more than that. Apart from being a boatsman, Naresh works with the Wildlife Insititute of India.
Naresh is the person responsible for setting camera and radio sets on tiger's neck, to initiate the tiger counting process. He says, “No matter what the statistics says, we know that the number is much higher, and every year it is rising.”
As we slowly enter the deep forest, Naresh cautions me to not put my hand in the waters. “Sunderbans have crocodiles in the waters and tigers on the land, where can a man escape?” he muses.
A fisherman prepares his bait in Sunderban
The Sunderban has been dealing with lot of problems from the start of the decade, the major being the environmental degradation. Tushar Kanjilal, who got a Padma Shree for his conservation work in Sunderban, prophetically says, “There will be no Sunderban left, if both the animals and men do not understand how to stay there symbiotically.”
What prompts him to say this is the rise in man-eating tigers attacking the villagers. “We all have to make a living and hence we go to the forest. Some come out, and they're lucky. Some are not so lucky,” says Govinda, a local fisherman.
Most of the villagers are highly dependent on the Sunderbans for two things. One is tourism, which can only sustain them for a few months, and the other is forest resources, which is dangerous and involves camping inside the forest for weeks. Even though villagers go in groups during the honey collecting months and rent boats for 8-10 people, man-eaters can take them away in their sleep.
Even women are engaged in fishing and sometimes stay in the waters for 6 to 7 days for fishing
This macabre situation has given rise to a peculiar colony named ‘Bidhoba para’ (widow's colony). Located on the other side of the sea, this colony is the most undeveloped part of Sunderban. There is little or no electricity, few shops, and fewer people. Its nomenclature comes from the widows left behind by the victims of man-eaters. Alone, decrepit, left to their own means, most vanish like smoke. Others stay, trying to rise from the oblivion, needing to break the taboo and venture into the forest.
Naresh has a 'Tiger Widow' aunt who goes into the forest to make a living after her husband was mauled by a tiger. “No government help, no savings and social stigma forces these women to step out and look for a living. The forest is their only source,” adds Naresh.
Tushar Kanjilal, also principal of the local Rangabelia School says, “Some women run away, take to prostitution, or other jobs in metro cities as an alternative.”
Bimala sits in the Jila Parishad hall waiting for electricity to come back on a hot, sunny day
In Bengal government's State Health System Development Project research, funded by World Bank, it was found that 44% of the 65 women out of 1000 of Tiger Widows on either side of Sunderban suffer “from designated mental illnesses,” of which most were major depressive disorders (MDD) including recurrent MDD (14.8%), dysthymic disorder (11.1%), and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) (5.5%)”.
Left with little or no money these women opt to venture into the dangerous waters for fishing. But with no bank accounts, life insurance, or even id cards, depression becomes their only fissure. However a chosen few in the Gosaba block of Sunderban are now trying to shield their poverty with a more constructive work.
Some women of Pakhiralaya of Gosaba block are trying to become self-dependent and have opted to do so by making jute bags. ‘Tigers Widows Project’, a government initiative started two years back with 21 women. It is now a struggle of only eight.
The group of eight women just outside the Jila Parishad office, looking for an alternate living
On a sunny, yet wet and humid day, one can hear a constant mechanical whirr coming from the 6-7 sewing machines of a large, dingy hall room of the Jila Parishad. This room was set aside as workspace for Tiger widows. It was an alternative earning initiative for women. While the programme became a candle without a wick, these eight women are looking for more than just an alternative livelihood. Most of them are unskilled to find a job outside Sunderban.
Too much exploitation is merely reducing the Sunderban to a dumping spectacle. Not only do the people need an alternative but also an understanding of what the nature needs. This group of eight, are looking for a sustainable Sunderban. Bimala a tiger-widow says, “How long can we just keep using the forest resources? The time will come when the forest will become a desert.”
Although handful women of fearless eight have produced a lot of jute bags, they have barely earned any profit the last two years. Shasti the leader of the group alleges, “Although the jute board paid us our cheques, it never passed the pockets in the office.”
So far, they are owed Rs 1.5 lakhs and yet they continue to work. Sumitra Maiti, a young women from the group says, “We are not going to give it up, earlier we used the Jute board platform to sell our products, but now we will open our own shop for earnings.”
The few elderly windows in the group keep to themselves. Their eyes-sight slows them in their sewing, and their mental state disrupts their talking. Vishakha, a widow for the past 30-years, lives alone, even though she has a son. She travels 10 kms on foot every month to get her subsidised ration from Rangabelia.
Despondency has not yet marred Vishakha who lost her husband years back
“My son illegally enters the forest and collects honey. He keeps going to jail, but still continues to hunt like his father. I have asked him not to, but he doesn't listen. I lose my mind over it. He left me alone because of my constant nagging,” she admits. Despite her inability to put a thread through a needle, she sits with the others and helps them sort out the bags.
Bimala Biswas a septuagenarian lost her husband 25 years ago. She stares at the river where his mauled remains were found. Back then, she got a compensation of Rs 2,000 from the government. She raised her son alone, but he doesn’t see her much.
“Now that I am old and can’t work, no one tolerates me. I had to start working here in the jute training programme,” says Bimala.
Another widow sits at the sewing machine with the rest
Electricity is another hindrance for setting up an alternative for the people. The group complains, “We do not use motor machines because there is no electricity. This affects how many bags we can make per week. Even when there is electricity, the voltage fluctuates so much, that we can’t even run the fan.”
Despite their limitations, every day they make the machines squeak with their feet and hands, straining their eyes, shoulders and knees at work. Whether or not they succeed in setting up a full-fledged business, their herculean efforts to make a living cannot be ruled out.
Although the Jute Board initiative started the programme for Tiger Widows, it was never solely meant for them
After the sun sets, the Sunderban is bathed in dark, with silver streaks illuminating the vast hinterlands. During nights the sounds of silence gets mixed with ferocious roars of the royal Bengal tigers from the forest and the lapping of saline waters. Depression, apathy, may have a hold on the people, but they carry on. As Shasti, the group leader of the jute programme says, “We all have hope, even if it’s far-fetched.”
Sasthi, the leader of the group sorts her bags in order to start her work