Caught between tiger and crocodiles: untold stories of Sundarbans

Swapan Kumar Bhunia (35) has been living in Kerala’s Thrissur district for the last 10 years. He works at a showroom to earn his bread and butter.

The only son of the family, Swapan is married and has a son (12 years old) and a daughter (4 years old). He visits his family only once a year, who live almost 2000 kilometers away in a village named Patharpratima, which is in the Sundarbans area of West Bengal. It’s not that he doesn’t want to see his wife and kids more often, but the train journey is too exhaustive and flight tickets are not cheap (around INR 5000) as well. So, he doesn’t have a choice.

It’s not just Swapan, according to local sources, there are around 5000 people working as migrated laborers in various parts of Kerala. Sundarbans is recognized as the UNESCO World Heritage Site. But the people of the region are among the poorest of the poor in the country. Agriculture, fishing, and tourism are the three major sources of income in Sundarbans. But as far as agriculture and fishing are concerned, the ground realty changed drastically over the years. Agriculture is no longer profitable. Due to frequent cyclones and floods, the farmland is often inundated with saline water from the river, which reduces the productivity of the soil. Once saline water enters farmland, one has to wait for at least three monsoon rains in order to neutralize the soil, so that it can be cultivated. But the fact is, once the land is inundated with saline water, its productivity never reaches where it was before. Rice is the main crop of Sundarbans. Apart from that, not much can be cultivated. Farmers mainly depend on rainwater. Growing crops in winter and summer is extremely difficult as the irrigation system is not developed either. Only a handful of rich can afford to install a deep shallow pump, which is used for irrigation during the winter and summer harvesting seasons. But that option is not viable either as the groundwater level is rapidly decreasing.

“Nobody likes to stay away from their families. But I don’t have a choice. There is no work in my village. Had there been even a factory in my village, I would have worked there, so that I could stay with my family and see my kids every day” Swapan laments. He further adds, “I want to make sure my kids are going to school, getting a good education. I want to ensure they eat good food every day. But these are not possible if I stay in my village. My father is a small-scale farmer but we hardly see any money coming from our land. Due to frequent natural calamities, our crops are often destroyed before the harvesting season. My father takes a loan for cultivating rice. But whatever crop we get is not sufficient to pay off the loan.”

Not just Kerala places like Chennai and Gujrat are also flooded by migrant laborers from Sundarbans. Many of them are farmers. Some of them have a fair amount of land, but they have no option but to go for odd jobs in distant parts of the country.

Fishing communities are having a tough time because of frequent tiger and crocodile attacks. The majority of the people catch tiger prawn seeds from the river, which is known as Meen locally. The rivers of the Sundarbans are full of crocodiles. They often attack people when members of fishing communities go into the river. One such person is Soumitra Maity, a young lad from Brajaballavpur village of Patharpratima block. He was attacked by an adult crocodile while catching tiger prawn seeds from the Rakkhaskhali river in June last year. He was severely injured in the attack. He was admitted to Madhabnagar Grameen Hospital. The injuries healed now but he no longer dares to go to the river to catch tiger prawn seeds. He is a small-time farmer. To support their family, now he is doing odd jobs as well.

But not all have that option. Mainly the women family members go to the river to catch tiger prawn seeds. They wake up early morning and set out for the river before sunrise. They go chin-deep into the water to pull their net to catch fish in spite of knowing the rives are filled with crocodiles. Most of their husbands are either working in a different state or handicapped or ill.

Not just the crocodiles, the excessive salinity level of the river water is also a cause of concern. Constant exposure to this water can cause skin disease as well. Off late many have started catching fish from a small boat, instead of directing going to knee-deep water but not all can afford a small boat either.

One of the major items for the fishermen is mud crabs. But this is fraught with danger as well. Every year in Sundarbans many come under the paws of the mighty Royal Bengal Tiger. The fishing folks know catching crabs is risky where they need to go to the creeks inside the forest, where they can expect good catch. But to earn some extra bucks, they have to do that and they pray to the Bonbibi (considered the tiger goddess in Sundarbans) that no such incident happens. But the reality tells a different story.

Kamala Munda lives in a remote village in Kultali of the Sundarbans area. She lost her husband Pancha Munda in a crab-catching trail. He was the main earning member of the family. Now Kamala begs on the streets to support her family. “We went to catch crabs in Ganges-Yamuna Baitha Bhangi river.

We were a total of four people on the boat. We reached smoothly. But we got into trouble while returning back. After catching fish, we were approaching our boat. We were in the front. My husband was behind. Just when we reached our boat, a tiger appeared out of nowhere and jumped on my husband, and dragged him inside the forest. As we started screaming, the tiger left my husband and went away. When go brought him onto the boat, by then he was dead”, said Kamala with teary eyes.

She has two sons. One was studying before this incident but now he can’t afford to do that. Her other son started earning but after a road accident, he can’t go to work anymore. Now Kamala goes door to door to beg and also does odd jobs. But these are not enough. She says that in spite of providing all the related documents of the tiger attack, she is yet to receive any financial assistance from the government.

Father of five daughters and one son, Abu Taleb Piyada vows never to go back to the forest. He literally fought for his life with a Royal Bengal Tiger. He still can’t believe that he is alive.

Another resident of the Kultali region, Piyadad went on a fishing trail with three others. Their boat was stationary in a canal tiger attacked him. Other nearby fishermen came rushing to the spot and somehow chased to tiger away. But Piyada by then was severely injured. First, he was taken to a government hospital. Later he was admitted to a private nursing home. Even though Piyada is fine now but he has completely stopped going fishing.

He says it’s too risky. As he was admitted nursing home for better treatment, he had to shell out a lot of money. Now he is sitting at home, with no income. Then how he is supporting his large family? Piyada says, he sold a modest amount of paddy that he cultivated on his land. But that is not sufficient. Piyada has no idea about his future.

Another source of income in Sundarbans is tourism. But it only lasts for a few months during the winter.

More importantly, the area lacks proper infrastructure to support tourism.

Sundarbans mainly consists of a few hundred islands. Connectivity is a big challenge. The nearest airport is Kolkata. If international tourists wish to visit the area, it’s not easy for them to find appropriate transportation.

Sundarban’s only crocodile project is located in the Bhagbatpur area of Patharpratima. Road condition from Kakdwip to Bhagbatpur is not maintained properly. The locals say, elections come and go but Sundarbans still remain in the dark. Political leaders have only seen the area during the election campaign and once it’s done, they vanish from the area. The next Panchayat elections are due in 2023.

People are eagerly waiting for earlier election promises to be fulfilled.

Another major challenge for the Sundarbans is climate change. Due to global warming, the sea level is rising rapidly. Islands like Ghoramar are losing their land every year. In other parts of the world, people living in the low lying are recognized as environmental refugees. But no such status is given to the people of Sundarban to date.

By Biswajit Manna . Kolkata

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