Namita Kayal was born near Satjelia, an island in the Sundarban in West Bengal, to a family who worked as farmers. Born in a Muslim para (neighbourhood), Namita says she was not allowed to continue her studies after the fourth grade, and married very early. She was just twelve years old when she moved to her in-law’s house in Satjelia, a few kilometres away from her family house. Her husband frequently went into the forest with his brother to fish. Several years went by. One afternoon while she was cooking, Namita was suddenly informed about her husband’s death due to a tiger attack. At the time, she was only 19 and already had two children – a son and a daughter. Her brother-in-law, who was fishing with her husband at the time, also lost his life in the attack. Namita’s sister-in-law Anita now lives with her granddaughter, Sampriti Kayal, in the Sundarban.
Sampriti’s parents are construction workers in Tamil Nadu, having moved there soon after cyclone Aila occurred in May 2009, as there was no work available in the region. Cyclone Aila devastated West Bengal, leading to flooding, heavy crop loss and damaged houses, with at least 191 people losing their lives and hundreds of thousands rendered homeless. Just when they were planning to move back to the Sundarban to start a small business, the region was hit by another massive storm – cyclone Amphan, in May 2020. The couple had to invest the money they had saved for their business to reconstruct their homes, which were flattened by the storm. The Kayals’ story highlights the precarity of families living in the Sundarban, with increasingly frequent storms impacting their lives in unforeseen ways.
The Kayals’ story highlights the precarity of families living in the Sundarban, with increasingly frequent storms impacting their lives in unforeseen ways.
Lack of coherent planning
The Sundarban has long been prone to cyclones. It is an ecologically unique area, featuring mangroves, creeks and various types of flora and fauna, and most famously, the Royal Bengal tiger. During the Mughal Empire, the Sundarban remained relatively untouched, in part due to the persistent myth that the region was home to man-eating tigers and other wild beasts. This changed when the East India Company took over the administration of Bengal in the 1760s. Colonial settlers and hunters cleared acres of forest land, including mangroves, for cultivation, which decreased the tiger’s habitat and hunting grounds. During the time of the British Raj, the clearing of trees was handed over to the zamindars. The zamindars, in turn, began to construct embankments as a buffer against natural disasters under British supervision, with migrant workers from central India hired for the actual construction. However, due to unforeseen weather conditions, the work was either postponed or completed without coherent planning. This lack of planning continues to impact the lives of the residents of the Sundarban.
Tigers come to the kharis to drink water, and when men and women come to collect crabs; animals and humans come in close contact.
As early as the 18th century, storms heavily damaged the embankments. This has impacted the landscape in the Sundarban every time a storm has occurred.
In recent times, the mismanagement of the modern embankments (built from cinder and cement after cyclone Aila thanks to a World Bank grant, only to crack when cyclone Amphan hit) has led to salt water leaching into agricultural lands after heavy storms, making them unsuitable for cultivation. Cyclone Amphan alone had a wind speed of over 200 kilometres per hour, and was estimated to have caused a loss of over USD 13 billion in April 2020.
As the landscape shifted, the demography of the area shifted too. Dhiren Mondal, who is 81-years-old, tells us there were few people living in Satjelia when he was a child. But, over the years, the population has seen steady growth. This rise in the population affected opportunities for work in the region. Mondal says, “There were and are no industries. People from our village go to Kolkata for work. Women work as maids in urban houses, or work in shoe factories located near Park Circus, in Kolkata. On the other hand, men or women who stayed here for work started entering into the forest to collect fish and crabs.”
Due to the influx of salt water and the possibility of earning more income than through farming, residents began prawn farms in the lands they once cultivated. In doing this, they sometimes dig holes in the embankments to allow salt water to flow in from the sea, further weakening the embankments and increasing soil salinity, rendering even more agricultural land unsuitable for farming.
As the landscape shifted, the demography of the area shifted too.
Increasingly, residents are entering the designated ‘core areas’ of the forest to catch fish and crabs. The core area is a protected zone where no human activities are allowed; it includes the Sundarban National Park, which was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1987. Yet many residents penetrate into the protected zones, known as kharis in Bangla, as there are more crabs to be found in these areas. Unfortunately, most of the tiger attacks happen here, as kharis are narrow streams surrounded by dense forest land. Tigers come to the kharis to drink water, and when men and women come to collect crabs; animals and humans come in close contact.
It was already late evening when Bhagabati Mondal, her husband Tushar and friend Shampa Gayen set out to collect crabs. Within half an hour, they reached a khari. After spreading their nets, they anchored the boat nearby, readying themselves for a long wait before harvesting. Suddenly, a tiger jumped on their boat from the land nearby. It was so sudden that Tushar was unable to react, while Gayen fainted. Tushar Mondal found a stick and started beating the tiger in an effort to fend it off, but couldn’t prevent the tiger from taking Bhagabati. He watched the tiger helplessly as it vanished into the forest. Bhagabati wasn’t the only victim. Akhil (name changed for privacy) lost both his parents to tiger attacks. Akhil’s parents did not have a valid pass to collect crabs and fish, but they could not travel to other areas to find work due to their age, and were forced to catch crabs in the core areas for livelihood.
Umashankar Mondal was born and brought up in Satjelia and is now working as a geography teacher at a secondary school in Murshidabad. He tells us, “They mostly work in different states, as there is no work here and also because our region is so prone to natural disasters that they have lost their agricultural land.” But due to the pandemic, they were sent back home once the virus began to spread. Since there was no other work available, and residents were unable to migrate due to the pandemic and the long lockdown, they started visiting the core areas to collect crabs. “The number of people entering the forest to collect crabs has increased since the COVID-19 pandemic and lockdown. These men or women are untrained, so they quickly become prone to tiger attacks,” Mondal says. “Most of these tiger victims are migrants, we call them climate migrants.”
According to local activists in the Sundarban, there have been more than 30 to 40 tiger attacks between October and December 2021 alone, out of which many were not reported in the daily newspapers. Umashankar says that the newspapers only report tiger attacks that happen in the buffer areas, which allow entry, despite the fact that most of the attacks happen in the core areas, where people are driven in the hope of finding larger crabs that would yield higher prices.
Lack of support
Most fishermen have a mandatory pass to fish as well as life insurance. According to those we interviewed, as per the terms and conditions of the policy, family members are supposed to receive INR 100,000 (USD 1300) in the event of the death of the policyholder. But the pass is only valid for those fishing in the unrestricted buffer areas. The deaths caused by tiger attacks in core areas are also called ‘illegal deaths’, which are often not covered by the mainstream newspapers. If any victim is caught fishing in restricted areas, they are liable for punishment by the Indian government.
The human-animal conflict in the Sundarban has been exacerbated by the climate crisis.
Both Anita and Namita Kayal complain about receiving any funds from the government. They tell us no one explained the details of their husbands’ insurance policies to them. When they went to ask for compensation, they were told that both their husbands had violated the terms and conditions of the insurance policy, as their deaths had occurred in core areas. Many others like Anita and Namita also did not receive financial support. On the other hand, many are doubtful even about the very existence of the insurance company providing these policies.
In most instances after a tiger attack, the victim’s body is not recovered. It is also rare for humans to survive a clash with a tiger, and even when this does happen, the lack of medical facilities proves an extra barrier to treatment. In fact, Umashankar Mondal says there is no hospital in Satjelia, with the nearest hospital located 60 kilometres from his house. Whenever medical emergencies occur, be it labour pains, a heart attack or any other major health problems, a family can expect to travel for more than two hours to reach the nearest hospital, by which time it is often too late for any kind of emergency treatment.
This impacted Jyotsna Shee’s husband Sankar when he was attacked by a tiger. Jyotsna fought the tiger using her sari and a stick, which she inserted into one of the tiger’s ears, saving her husband’s life. But the tiger had already sunk one of its claws into Shankar’s left shoulder. The couple travelled for more than five hours for medical treatment. By the time they reached the hospital, it was too late. Shankar was left with a paralysed left hand.
There have been more than 30 to 40 tiger attacks between October and December 2021 alone, out of which many were not reported in the daily newspapers.
A 2018 study by Chandan Surabhi Das titled ‘Pattern and characterisation of human casualties in Sundarban by tiger attacks, India’ shows an increase in tiger attacks in the Sundarban in the years immediately following a cyclone (with the average number of incidents increasing from 22 per year between 1999 and 2002, to 33 per year between 2003 and 2014 – with cyclone Aila occurring in the middle of this period). It also concluded that the rise of tiger attacks is connected to unauthorised entry into the forest, particularly by people looking to fish or collect honey. Residents dependent on farming for their livelihood have usually migrated for work, but migration came to a standstill due to the pandemic. After cyclone Amphan, the provision of licenses was also suspended for months, meaning that fishing was also restricted. This led to some entering the forest illegally to fish or collect crabs, leading to more people becoming vulnerable to tiger attacks.
The human-animal conflict in the Sundarban has been exacerbated by the climate crisis. Though the region has remained under constant threat of natural disasters, in recent years, severe storms are becoming more and more frequent. This is slowly changing the area’s landscape, and forcing people to change their patterns of life in order to survive. Yet, this phenomenon remains underreported, even as it continues to result in loss of life.