Thou who lives in the forest,
Thou, the very incarnation of the forest,
I am the meanest son of yours.
I am totally ignorant.
Mother, do not leave…
– Sy Montgomery in Spell of the Tiger
Many such prayers are uttered by the inhabitants of West Bengal’s Sundarbans before entering the dense mangrove forests to collect wood, honey or hunt for fish, crabs or prawns. Their prayers, directed to the forest goddess Bono Bibi, seek divine protection against the fierce inhabitant of the forest, the Royal Bengal Tiger. For the natives, entering the swamp of mangroves is a necessary evil. Due to lack of livelihood options, they clandestinely enter the tiger-populated forests of the Sundarbans.
In its survey covering 1,100 households, the Sundarban Banadhikar Sangram Committee, an organisation working with forest-dependent communities in the Sundarbans, found that the lack of irrigation and brackish water surrounding the islands makes agricultural prospects difficult, pushing the community towards the forests.
In 1989, the Sundarban forests were declared a biosphere reserve. Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR) has since been divided into core, buffer and transition zones. No one is permitted in the core zone except with permission from forest officials. Ironically, it is this zone to which villagers seek access because it offers better prospects for honey gathering, wood collection and fishing.
The government demarcation, a fallout of the establishment of a biosphere reserve under the Wildlife Protection Act 1972, prevents them from collecting forest produce. And this for them is denial of their birthright. “We are inhabitants of Sundarbans, our ancestors are from here too but the government has divided the forest into zones without even consulting us,” says Hare Krishna Mondol, head of Lahiripur Gram Panchayat.
The predicament faced by the natives is in direct contradiction with the stated purpose of a Biosphere Reserve (BR) which is “to ensure sustainable use of natural resources through most appropriate technology for improvement of economic well-being of the local people.” Various government documents also reiterate this purpose of a br. A document of the erstwhile Ministry of Environment and Forests 2007 (now Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change) states that biosphere reserves are “special environments for both people and the nature and are living examples of how human beings and nature can co-exist while respecting each others’ needs.”
In 2006, the passing of the Forest Rights Act granted the forest-dwelling tribes right to earn their livelihood from the forest and even dwell there till due compensation is given. The Act has given villagers legal permission to enter the forests but the need to conserve tigers comes in the way.
As inhabitants forced by dire situations enter the core zones, they are increasingly falling prey to the tiger. After their death, their families are denied compensation as they are accused of transgressing the law. Villagers allege that even if a person who has taken permission to enter the core zone dies or even when a death occurs in the buffer zone, officials refuse to provide compensation. Repeated mails and calls to the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve and Sunderban Development Board by Tehelka for their version received no response. “Core areas attract fishermen because of the abundance of fish and crabs,” Tapan Kumar Mondol, former panchayat member of Lahiripur tells Tehelka. “Forest officials refuse to take responsibility since the men enter officially prohibited areas.”
The forest department is increasingly forced to walk the tightrope between the increasing tiger attacks and the demand for ‘right to livelihood’ by natives. The awarding of compensation is complicated by the fact that it is difficult to distinguish genuine cases from those who enter the forest as smugglers or poachers. On its part, the department has set up nylon fences around the forests to prevent tigers from straying into the villages and have patrol boats to check intrusion into the forests.
Pushed by hunger into the dense forests, many villagers lose their lives, leaving behind hapless families. “I saw the tiger maul my husband and drag him into the forest,” says Geeta Mridna, a young widow her eyes brimming with tears. It has been two years since the day her 46-year-old husband Gautam Mridna was dragged away and devoured by a tiger right before her eyes. Subsequently, a male figurine of flour was laid on a leaf and cremated, the community’s way of bidding farewell to a person whose remains are not found.