Large number of snake-charmers in West Bengal,who have been bearing the brunt of a ban on keeping the reptiles and their public shows,have formed a group to lobby for utilising their knowledge for benefiting society.
About one lakh snake-charmers in West Bengal,concentrated in the districts of Murshidabad,Birbhum,Nadia,Malda and Coochbehar,have been in dire straits because of the ban imposed under the Wildlife Protection Act.
The hapless people,who belong to the nomadic Bedia community,left with no other means to earn a living,have formed a pressure group ‘Bedia Federation of India’ to lobby for utilising their expertise for the benefit of society.
“Having lived with the reptiles since childhood,the snake-charmers know only one vocation that is handling snakes and holding public shows,but strong measures adopted by police and forest department for the last decade or so have put them in a difficult situation,” the leader of their organisation,Raktim Das said.
He argued that if they were not allowed to hold shows of snakes in public,they could be used as health workers and as a resource pool for anti-snakebite venom.
Das was instrumental in uniting the snake-charmers and he himself picked up the art of handling poisonous snakes. He regretted the repressive measures as at least 20,000 of them were lodged in jails with 10-12-year term.
Das demanded setting up of snake farms in every district where the snake-charmers would keep their reptiles and look after them as employees. This will find them a means to earn without severing their links with the snakes,besides production of anti-snake venom could be made on a mass scale.
All the snake-charmers,he says,know how to extract poison from snakes and if the government regularly collects venom from them and puts them on a payroll,there can be more mass-based production of the snakebite medicine.
“One can collect 12 grams of venom from a poisonous cobra. With one gram of venom costing Rs 12,000,you can only imagine how expensive it becomes for the government-run pharmaceuticals to procure venom for processing it as snakebite medicine.”
“If there is organised collection of poison through firms at the district level from snake-charmers,the procurement procedure can be simplified which will in turn bring down cost,” Das said. Snakebite medicine could be made available at all hospitals in rural pockets if such a mechanism was put in place,he added.
Das says only five per cent of the snakebite victims survive while the rest 95 per cent die due to a combination of delay in starting treatment and lack of snakebite medicine.
Even snake-charmers can be assigned the role of para-health workers in rural areas with some formal training by the government to come in case of snakebite emergencies in far-flung areas like the Sunderbans,he felt.
Ali Mohammed Bede,a snake-charmer from a remote village in Malda district,explained how he had been living with the reptile when he was a toddler. “Now my three-year old son also frolics with poisonous snake opening the ‘jhapi’ (the basket where the snake is kept).”
“Can you take away my son from me. Can you take away my pet from me? If snakes can’t be kept well by us,they are not well-off in zoos or snake parks either,” Bede said.
He said taking away the livelihood is forcing the 250-odd families in his Malda locality to turn to jobs like plying cycle rickshaw,sacrificing the centuries-old vocation.
“But we are not conversant with the modern ways,babu. Please see to it that we get to live,my son and my wife get to live in the craft we know the best for years,” he said.
“Though we try to continue with the trade to live,I can sense our whole community will meet slow death in coming years,” Lalan Bede,a snake charmer from Murshidabad district said.
The 50-something Lalan had been in this profession since the age of five,when he used to assist his father sambhu Bede.
“There are about 20 species/sub-species of poisonous snakes and we know their habitat and their characteristics. In the absence of trained snake handlers do you think by wiping out our community the government will be able to protect this species?” the untutored Lalan asked.
We have no ration cards,voter IDs because of our nomadic status though due to security considerations we had been forced to curtail our practice to move from one country to another to run our show in past few years,he said claiming the rules about keeping snakes and using for entertainment were not as stringent in some other neighbouring countries as here.
The snake charmers would congregate in Kolkata on February 17 to air their demands,he said.