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The Sleepless Sentinel

Sufferings from life threatening diseases due to submerged condition in water !
The Horrors of Sunderban: Fishing women become prey to Crocodiles and Tigers

The world’s largest delta, ‘The Sunderbans’ has a total area of approximately 9500 sq km out of which approximately 4500 sq km consists of forest and water bodies. The remaining area of approximately 5000 sq km consists of a bulging human settlement and a population of 3.7 million, out of which approximately 1701(One Thousand Seven Hundred and One) fishing women in Gosaba block alone has stooped to desperate measures to make ends meet by catching fishes and crabs by treading waters all day long, as there are no other alternatives of livelihood. What they face as a consequence is no less than a horror story and horrific enough to frighten even the bravest of the brave.

Dire poverty compels them to take such life threatening profession. As fate would have it, in order to manage a square meal per day, most of them either get bitten by venomous snakes or become the meal of hungry crocodiles (Crocodylus porosus) and tigers (Panthera tigris tigris). Not only that, perhaps due to the submerged condition in saline water for long hours, they also develop uterus cancer. As if snakes and crocodiles were not enough. On the other hand, the world’s largest mangrove tiger habitat is under serious threat due to over exploitation of natural resources. Governments come and go with no change in the conditions while it’s the women who continue to suffer the most. Hence, immediate rescue and rehabilitation of these fishing women is the need of the hour.

Considering ground reality, RBRF (Rural Bengal Biospheric Research Foundation) conducted an extensive survey and collected data on these poor fishing women, especially at the 18 remotest islands of Gosaba block, sharing closest proximity to the Sunderban Tiger Reserve. This survey is first of its kind; no other government organization has been able to conduct a survey in this area, so vast in nature. They have been able to overcome inaccessibility problem, risking their own lives over a period of 4 months. The data included family, health, education, financial status along with the photographs of each individual. A complete database and project report has been prepared for immediate field implementation. But Government officials as Pradip Vyas, Director, Sunderban Biosphere Reserve and Nandini Chakraborty, Secretary, Sunderban Affairs Department continue to shove the project under carpet.

A site-specific alternative community livelihood program has already been designed by RBRF which also has been approved by World Bank. They have given their approval to provide sufficient funds to implement the project but the government’s reluctance to undertake the project has made everyone express their dismay at their decision blaming them for making excuses and ignoring miserable livelihood condition.

The Sunderban tiger reserve is a critical eco-system hence, hazardous human activities and exploitation of natural resources may create man – animal conflict leading to continuous disturbances to the inhabiting animals and vice versa.

One such example is the Meendhara or shrimp collection which has become an occupational hazard for the fishing women of Sunderban and has claimed many lives.

The soil in the Sunderban delta is not always suitable for agriculture due to the elevated level of salinity. Therefore, the villagers have picked up shrimp collection as an alternative means for subsistence in the area. Shrimp collection not only provides them with ready cash but it appears to be more paying than agriculture.

The agricultural land inundated with brackish water is used as fisheries. In the last three decades its demand went up considerably high in foreign market. Subsequently, a large number of people living in the Sunderban have shifted their economy from agriculture to brackish water fisheries, although it is termed as illegal according to present CRZ (Coastal Regulation Zone) act. And therefore shrimp collection is also taken as an illegal occupation to some extent. But the ground reality speaks of a different picture altogether. Despite being illegal, a large section of the population engages themselves in shrimp collection.

More than 4000 females (survey courtesy: RBRF) from various remote villages collect shrimp seed in submerged water condition, making them an easy prey for tigers, crocodiles and snakes.

In addition to that, the submerged condition of women in saline water for longs hours is held responsible for the number of still births and physically disabled ones.

Moreover, owing to communication hurdles with the mainland, villagers find it hard to sell their goods in the market. Apart from the marginal agricultural works, prominent source of livelihood includes fishing, crab collection, shrimp seed collection and daily labor.

Such is the condition of the poverty stricken villages that more than 70% of woman and children suffer from malnutrition, belittling their existence for a sum of Rs. 50-60 per day.

While it’s hard to take in the agony they go through to fill their stomachs. It remains beyond questioning that an alternative livelihood along with financial upliftment of these courageous women should immediately be put into operation either by government or by any other organization.

With the low survival rate of these fishing women, and the government turning a blind eye, Rescue and rehabilitation is still a distant dream.

It should be acted upon before it’s too late.

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