There is an old saying in Bengali, ‘Jol e kumir, daanga e bagh (Crocodile is in water, tiger on the land)’, which means danger from all sides. For the residents of Sundarbans, a lush green UN world heritage site spread over 10,000 square kilometres, inhabited by the world’s largest tiger population, this proverb is a nightmarish reality.
Kaushalya Mondal (27) is one of the youngest tiger widows living in the Pakhirala village in 24 Parganas (South). The crude description is given to women whose husbands have died in tiger attacks. It’s been three years, the death of her husband, Ramapada, has circumscribed everything about life. “I don’t feel like talking about the incident,” she says, even as she refers to it, while welcoming us inside her thatched roof hut. Kaushalaya is alone in the hamlet. The neighbouring houses have no adult male members as well. Every year, from October to January small groups of men leave for fishing. It is the peak season for catching crabs and fish. They leave every week for a few days and make several trips in these months.
It was an October afternoon in 2014 when Ramapada along with his elder brother and uncle had gone to the swampy jungle to catch fish. They were yet to cast their fishing nets when a tiger jumped on the boat and dragged Rampada away. The sudden thrust on the small dingy boat caught everyone unaware. The elder brother chased the beast to save Rampada. The oar was his only weapon. After a few thrashes, the tiger left the limp body and disappeared. His uncle and brother brought home a dead body, flesh was torn with claws and neck broken with impact.
The scars were brutal and unforgiving like what was to follow for Kaushalaya and her two children. With no roads, bare connectivity, the body was taken from the village to a nearby health centre and a morgue 80 kilometres away. The paperwork subsumed everything else, pain, death and life ahead. “We somehow managed a mini-van to transport the body from the police station to the mortuary. We spent over Rs 4000 just on it. We toiled and walked from one office to another, collecting signatures, to collect a postmortem report,” Kaushalya remembers.
It was two-and-half-years, several rounds of government offices and affidavits later that the family got Ramapadas’ autopsy report — a document vital to claiming any compensation, either from the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR), managing the forest or the insurance company. In Kaushalaya’s case, no compensation came as her husband was fishing in the “core area” of the reserve.
Life and death in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest located at the mouth of the Ganga and Brahmaputra rivers between India and Bangladesh,
revolves around two words, buffer and core. In case of death caused by animals (tiger, sharks, crocodiles, snake), the STR under the state government gives compensation of Rs 2.5 lakh. But the tiger-related incident should have taken place in the “buffer area” of the forest and not in the Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH) or “core area”, where the presence of the wild cat is in large numbers. Humans are not allowed to enter these “core area” zones for any form of trade.
In most cases deaths take place in the core area so no compensation is given. “We cannot help them, the laws are very clear. They are in fact breaking the rules,” says Field Director Nilanjan Mallick, STR. While Ramapada’s family managed to bring his body back, in many cases the body of the tiger victim is not recovered. The police then dub it a missing person. Forest officials conduct investigations at the location a few days later to see if there are any signs of an attack to confirm the death. With nothing to prove that the death was on account of a tiger, except an FIR, compensation is always a far shot. Many never report tiger-related deaths for fear of a hefty fine or talk about details of their fight with the tiger as it might get them arrested for animal cruelty. “We don’t want to harm the animal, we have our ‘mantra’, we chant that when we see it and that’s how I have managed to save myself on numerous occasion,” says Nirmal Sardar, a tiger-attack survivor.
The irony is that the death of his son at the claws of the tiger hasn’t kept Kaushalaya’s father-in-law, from entering the same forest areas. With no source of income and just bare quantities of rice and wheat available under the food security scheme, there is no choice. Fishing, catching crabs, collecting honey and timber are the only source of livelihood for families that live near the banks. This makes the villagers of Jamespur, Johar Colony, Dayapur, Imlibari, Luxbagan, Rangabelia, Sathjelia, Kumirmadi, Bijaynagar among others particularly susceptible to attacks by tigers, crocodiles and sharks. Some estimates say fatalities are almost in every third family.
The Royal Bengal tiger in this estuarine territory is amphibious—with an ability to survive both on land and water. This makes it extremely difficult to dodge them even in waters. Official count of deaths from tiger attacks in 2012-2017 is 46. The unofficial count is higher, 65 in Gosaba block alone where Kaushalya lives. It’s a figure compiled by a committee representing widows of victims attacked by tigers and crocodiles. Tiger deaths constitute more than 85 per cent of the deaths. “We have tried to raise awareness and provide alternative means of livelihood to this community seeing so many victims in the years,” says Nityananda Ray Karmakar, Forest Range Officer for Sajnekhali range. “With the help of Joint Forest Management Committees (JFMC), we try to help them, give them livestock. We give them ‘meen’ (baby fish or tiger prawn seeds) so that they can start breeding in small fresh-water ponds,” he adds.
While the government gives nearly 25 per cent of its annual yearnings through tourism to JFMCs to provide alternative sources of income or development work, there has been only partial success in getting villagers to switch professions. The local Trinamool Congress (TMC) leader, Sachin Mridha, also a member of the Pakhirala JFMC points to the many opportunities that are available, “They can do farming, participate in tourism related activities like selling fresh tender coconuts to retailers. They need not go to the jungle but we can’t stop them, it’s there ‘nasha’ (addiction).”
Villagers refute him, saying there is no sustainable alternative, even as they underline how perilous it is to go to the jungle. “I didn’t have debts when I went to the jungle. In the past years, I tried to sell coconuts I have incurred a lot of debt. Rs 300 a day is insufficient. And this is on a good day when tourist footfall is more in the area,” says Sonjay, a resident of Pakhirala. “I will be able to earn at least Rs 1,000 a day with fishing,” he adds. Bina Rani Mondal, a resident of Johor Colony, who lost her husband eight years ago agrees, “My husband had to go to the forest to earn. They were fisherman, they knew nothing apart from catching crabs and fish.”
Down south from the tourist hub of Pakhirala is Lahiripur, a deltaic island in Sundarban made up of 102 small islands, of which 54 are inhabited. A thick network of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests crisscross each other. The Sundarbans tiger is crucial to the mangrove ecosystem, as the mangrove is to the tidal ecology. Most in the area keep underlining the importance of the tiger to this habitat but wonder how the life of the tiger became more important than that of humans? “Can’t we be equal to the tiger?” asks Nirapada Sardar of Tipligheri, Lahiripur. A fisherman for more than four decades now, he says, “We understand that forest is important and so is the tiger. You can restrict our entry and access to the forest but can you do the same for the beast? It comes in our homes.”
The tiger entering inhabited areas has been rare but during the breeding season, female tigers often enter these areas to give birth. They find refuge in paddy fields and is protective about its cubs and is known to attack humans, cattle and livestock.
Due to rising water levels, a few islands have been inundated, leaving hundreds homeless. Things are grim in the village of Jamespur located on the banks of river Dutta. Almost every alternate house has a member here killed by a tiger. Some families have more than one victim, both men and women. Many are migrating.
Nilima Mondal (37) lost her husband three years ago. Her brother-in-law, Bhupati, the only bread-earner of the joint family doesn’t venture into the forest anymore. “Bringing Dada’s dead body from the mouth of the beast was enough. Life is extremely difficult but I decided to leave the path. Now, the only option is to go to other states during harvest to earn some bucks.”
Just outside their hut, a mini-van is waiting. Touts are collecting money from women standing outside their huts while ten men are inside with their packed luggage. The men will go to different parts of Andhra and Telangana by train later that night to cut paddy crops. It’s an exodus every harvest season when male members tired or terrified by tiger deaths go to other parts of the country looking for work.
Women, many of them “tiger widows” and their children will be left behind with the jungle and tigers that widowed them.“The river made me homeless not once but twice, the forest took away my husband. There is no place for me to go,” says 62-year-old Komola. She has learnt to live in the eye of the tiger.
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