Conquering the Remote ‘Sunderbans’ in India

Armed with a copy of Amitav Ghosh’s ‘The Hungry Tide’, a book that gives its readers an experience of life lived under the shadow of the Royal Bengal Tiger, Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda, embarked upon a journey of the swampy lands of the Sunderbans on a motor boat. What did they discover in this mysterious, yet alluring, tide country? In a land where cyclonic storms and tiger attacks are a part of life, they heard stories of great human tenacity and of greed and its consequences. In this excerpt from ‘Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India’, they recall their encounter with little Shuma and her friends at an impoverished riverine village.

‘This is the place where the Vidyadhari and Sonakhali rivers fall into the Bay of Bengal,’ our ranger informed us. We could see many small boats filled with fishermen busy at work. After a typical Bengali meal of dal, rice, aloo bhujjia, aloo patol and fish, we decided to stopover at one of the riverside villages. We wanted to see what these surroundings (which people came to see from the farthest reaches of the globe) meant to the people who inhabited them; people who had to brave the cyclonic storms of the Bay of Bengal and fend off animal attacks.

At 1.30 p.m. we reached the village of Dakhin Bartola, which was close to Gosaba. As we prepared to step on the jetty we saw dung cakes drying on it. Next to it, a number of young girls were prawn fishing. We had learnt that collecting the eggs of tiger prawns was a relatively new activity in this area. It had started in the eighties and became popular because of the high financial returns. On an average, an adult collected 1,000 eggs a day for which the payment was Rs 135. The girls at the jetty happily told us their names, Shuma, Abida, Mungli, Anamika Sinha. They were all students of Class 4 at the Government Primary School, Bartola. After classes finished, they would run here, cast their nets and do their bit to supplement the family income. Dipti Haldar, a six-year-old wearing a red-and-black frock with a white necklace, was in Class 2. ‘There are twenty-five to twenty-six students in my class. We have three teachers but only one comes to my class.’

‘Do you get anything to eat at school?’

‘Yes, didi – eggs and khichdi.’

By now, we had attracted a group of villagers. From them we learnt that there were a hundred houses in this village. Almost three-quarters of the 2,000 people here were Hindus; the rest were Muslims. Prashant was a young man dressed in well-pressed trousers and shirt. He had passed Class 10 from the village high school, where he was now a ‘tuition teacher’. He told us about life in this riverine village. ‘Fishing is the main occupation but we also cultivate paddy. Our agriculture is rain fed and we have one crop a year. Drinking water is a major problem and we have to rely on tubewells. Earlier, we had a higher secondary school in the village, but now we only have till Class 10.

‘What about NREGA?’ we were curious to see if the rural employment scheme had reached these remote islands.

A young man in a light-blue shirt and dhoti spoke up. ‘I am Nazrul Islam. So far, I have got ten days’ work this year at a daily wage of Rs 75. We were making side embankments and check-dams. There are six people in my family, I have no boat or land, just one fishing net. NREGA would have solved my problems but finding work in spite of the job card is difficult,’ he complained.

Walking with us on a brick-lined pathway into the village were a few women. We asked them about anganwadi and health facilities. ‘There are two anganwadis in this village. The children get some khichadi and a doctor visits to check on pregnant women. The nearest hospital is at Basanti, one hour by boat and eight kilometres by road. Recently, an ASHA (Accredited Social Health Activist) worker has been appointed,’ explained Chopala Haldar, in her early forties, dressed in a simple taat sari hitched to her knees.

By now, we had reached a cluster of huts. In the middle of the muddle sat a large house. It belonged to Ruby Naiyya, a member of the local panchayat samiti and a Communist Party of India (CPI) cadre. Dressed in a green tangail sari with a prominent line of sindoor and a bindi, Ruby told us that this was her second term as panchayat member. ‘And in between my two terms, my son Ashok was also elected. We represent the three villages of Dakshin Bartola, Ramkrishnapur and Masjidbatti,’ she informed us with pride. Then in a more subdued voice she continued, ‘But we have so little government suvidha (amenities) – 7,000 people in my three village, and one dawakhana (dispensary) in Ramkrishnapur, with a male health worker. Sister (the Auxiliary Nurse Midwife) visits twice a month. Almost all deliveries take place at home with the help of our local dai (mid-wife). There is a hospital at Basanti, but no doctor. Shishu mrityu (Infant Mortality Rate) and mata mrityu (Maternal Mortality Rate) is too much, didi. Fifteen out of hundred of our women die during child birth.’

‘You mean 15 per cent?’ we asked incredulously.

‘Yes, didi. In the last one year, eight women and thirty newborns died in our three villages alone. And look at the children, how thin they are.’ She pushed a few young boys and girls forward. ‘Garibi, didi, ghor garibi (poverty, acute poverty).’

‘And tiger attacks?’ we questioned.

‘Not here. In these villages there have been none though a few instances were reported earlier from Gosaba. But when our men go into the Reserve Forests, we are very afraid.’

It has been said that the Sundarbans represent one of the final frontiers between humans and nature. This is a story of the constant tussle between people and animals, a story of human tenacity in the face of great adversity and of human greed and its consequences; a story that is often lost in the silence of the winding creeks and marshy forests that unite the two.

(Excerpted from Beautiful Country – Stories From Another India By Syeda Hameed and Gunjan Veda; Published by Harper Collins; Pp: 365; Price: Rs 399)

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