Overlooking the Dutta river, Yusuf Sheikh sits on the jetty in Pakhiralya watching the sun sink into the dense jungle on the opposite bank. Smoking a bidi, the 48-year-old fisherman discusses with friends the best time to start their annual journey to collect honey from mangrove forests ahead. They don’t see much changing with the Lok Sabha elections, for which Sundarbans will vote on May 19.
Every year, in the month of Chaitra (early April), around 500 people from Sundarbans villages venture into the deep swampy forests to collect wild honey. It’s a risky job, but they don’t have many other options in this part of Bengal.
For the villagers living in the delta islands of the estuarine territory adjoining the world’s largest mangrove forest with the biggest population of tigers anywhere, braving the beast is a daily routine, so are the tiger killings. “Modhu khoja mane bagh khoja (looking for honey means looking for tiger),” Sheikh explains. But the opportunity to earn a good amount of money in just 15 days, is far too enticing.
“If the collection is good, say about one quintal per head, then we can earn up to Rs 20,000,” explains Hossain Sheikh. The 56-year-old fisherman and boat owner has been going to the forest to collect honey for the last 45 years. “It is the fastest way to earn some money in the job-deprived forest region, but also is the riskiest.”
They could be earning more, but in return for the forest passes, they have to sell a bulk of the honey to Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR) for just Rs 125/kg, almost half of what they would get for it outside.
Fishing, catching crabs and collecting honey is the only source of livelihood for families that live near the banks adjoining the forests. This makes the villagers of Lahiripur, Jamespur, Johar Colony, Dayapur, Imlibari, Luxbagan, Rangabelia, Sathjelia, Kumirmadi, Bijaynagar, Bali islands in Gosaba block close to Sundarban National Park among others particularly susceptible to attacks by tigers, crocodiles and sharks. The other options are catering to the three-month tourist season or to leave their families and work in the metros or southern states for a few months every year.
“Before the [cyclone] Aila happened, we could still earn something by farming, but now our lands aren’t even good for that,” laments Saidul Alam. “I had a small piece of land and with my father and two brothers, we used to cultivate rice and pulses and some seasonal vegetables to earn a living, doing some odd carpentry jobs on the side. But then Aila came and washed away all our fortunes,” says the 37-year-old father of three. “I started going to the forest only because it gave me an opportunity to earn more, pay off my debts. Also, I don’t have to leave my ailing mother, wife and daughters alone here,” he stresses.
The salinity of the soil increased drastically after being inundated by the salty distributaries during the devastating 2009 cyclone. The powerful storm, which nearly displaced 200,000 people in the forest region, wiping out homes and wrecking embankments, has left lasting marks on the community.
“Yes, so what if the state government is giving us Aila rice for Rs 2, is that all you need to survive?” asks Rabin Sardar. “What about jobs and all the other benefits Didi [Mamata Banerjee] promised for our fishermen cards?”
The Sundarban Development Board (SDB) under the aegis of Department of Sundarban Affairs may look good on paper, but has hardly helped the community. To suggest alternative livelihood to fishermen, the forest department also promises them goats, hens and ducks and also promotes vocational training. However, people claim those do not help them to earn a living at all.
“The government promised to give us the costly fish feed to aid freshwater pisciculture so that we don’t go to the forest to catch fish. We haven’t seen any of it,” says Dhoodhkumar Mondal. “All that we see is a nexus between local party leaders and forest officials. They give all the support and aid to local leaders, who distribute it among their favourites. This has become the system here. The people for whom it is really meant, it never reaches them,” adds Mondal.
Sundarbans which falls under the Jaynagar (SC) reserved constituency was once an RSP bastion thanks to Sanat Kumar Mondal, who won the Lok Sabha seat for eight times from 1980 to 2004. Although the party lost in 2009 and 2014 election, RSP was still the second largest party. People voted TMC candidate Pratima Mondal in 2014 thinking their lives will change for the better. But nothing much has happened.
“It doesn’t matter for us who is in power, no one cares for us. All are the same, ignorant about our problems,” says 32-year-old Rutfar Mollah. “Why should we vote? No matter which party comes to power the state of the fishermen will remain the same and we have seen that after voting for different parties. The only reason we vote is because we fear the hooliganism and harassment by the ruling party’s people,” he adds.
“The five years that Modi came or the eight years Mamata ruled, our condition hasn’t become better. We are still forced to go to the forest and migrate to different cities to earn a living. Forget the low wages in the state, what about job creation? If other states can create jobs, can’t the same happen in our own state?” ask Mollah who has to leave his family every year as there is no source of income in the islands. The Sundarbans made up of 102 small islands, of which 54 are inhabited, witnesses mass migration soon every summer; usually to the metros and the southern states.
The grid of tidal waterways, mudflats and small islands of salt-tolerant mangrove forests might have given Sundarbans a new influx of tourists, but is it restricted to a three-month period. “We ask our kids to not go to the forest, but work in the tourist lodges during the peak crab season. We don’t want them to endanger their lives but they too want to jump in as the money earned through tourism is not much,” says Pratap Majhi.