Prioritizing animal conservation over human life is having repercussions for locals in the Sundarbans. An illustrated report by Harriet Paintin and Sachin Gupta.
From Kolkata to the bustling market town of Canning: an hour-long train journey in the women’s carriage. It is so cramped that no daylight makes it past the bodies pushed up against the windows. The screeching of women’s voices as they fight for an extra inch becomes almost deafening.
Then, a perilous roof-top bus ride to Godkhali, the point where the roads end. There are no bridges across the wide expanse of river to Gosaba, the next island. Instead, local ferries transport people across. From here onwards there are only rivers and islands, and lives lived in a delicate balance between water and land,
For a Sundarbans villager, the experience of seeing a tiger is far from the thrill experienced by tourists
The Sundarbans, the delta of three rivers – the Yamuna, the Brahmaputra and the Ganga – is a vast expanse of mud and mangroves which stretches approximately 10,000 kilometres across India and Bangladesh. Inhabited and uninhabited islands of various sizes are interspersed with rivers. Some are small channels that disappear in low tide; others are so wide that the opposite bank stretches beyond the horizon. The majority of these islands have no cars, electricity or roads, and nearly all the buildings are made from mud.
A change of rhythm
In recent years, there has been exponential growth in tourism in this region. The Sundarbans Tiger Reserve attracts nearly 200,000 tourists a year, all hopeful for a glimpse of the famous Bengal Tiger. Ten years ago, the only way to visit the Sundarbans was by local transport and the only accommodation available was one or two small, basic guesthouses. Today, new resorts are springing up left, right and centre, and more and more villagers are working in the tourism industry. The traditional rhythms of village life, which used to be centred around farming and fishing, have swiftly undergone many changes.
After the local ferry crossing, a long rickshaw ride takes us across the island. We pass vibrant green paddy fields and smooth mud homes with thatched roofs, each with a small pond which serves as a water supply for all household purposes – bathing, washing dishes, breeding fish. The litter scattered between the lush vegetation decreases as the distance from Gosaba, the last town, increases. Previously, only cycle rickshaws served this route, but now motorized vehicles have become common. The newly tarmacked road is far from smooth and each rickshaw driver has his own technique for avoiding the bumpiest sections of the road. Occasionally the rickshaw malfunctions, and the driver hops down to jiggle a part back into place.
Jotirampur, and the long journey is almost over. From here, one more local ferry crossing to Satjelia. In comparison to the crossing from Godkhali to Gosaba, it is quiet. A few local villagers sip sweet tea at Sukhdev’s chai stall while they wait for the single boat that makes this crossing.
‘One day, the Forest Department came and told everyone to go. Some ran away, those that stayed were slaughtered. Tourists don’t know about this, though’
Once on the boat, I took off my sandals and packed them in my bag. I remembered from my last visit in 2014 that the muddy path from the ferry port was so soft underfoot that walking barefoot was pleasurable. However, government development programmes have since arrived on this island – in the form of a road, consisting of small sharp rocks which spike underfoot, in place of the soft, muddy path.
On Satjelia island is a village that I have visited several times during the past four years. During this time, the villagers who live and work here have experienced a great deal of change. Bhola, a young man who has worked in the tourism industry for 10 years, is sceptical of the change in his village. ‘Before, the road was good. It was slippery in the rainy season, but it was fun to walk on! Now, it’s full of rocks and so many more vehicles are coming. They don’t fit in here on our island.’
Previously Bhola made his living, as many continue to do so, from collecting honey and fishing deep in the jungle. ‘I used to pay for permission from the Forest Department to go into the Reserved Forest to collect honey and catch fish. You can only catch enough fish to make good money in the Reserved Forest, and you have to go deep into the jungle to find honey.’
Sachin Gupta/Brush & Bow
Fear of the tiger
But the reason why tourists flock to the National Park is the very same reason why it is so dangerous for men like Bhola to travel deep into the jungle. The Bengal Tiger is the only species of tiger known to actively hunt humans; approximately 60 people are killed every year (although this is hard to verify as many deaths are unrecorded). This is not limited to the Reserved Forest areas, as tigers are also known to attack villages. For a Sundarbans villager, the experience of seeing a tiger is far from the thrill experienced by tourists; the fear of the tiger is so strong that the animal has reached an almost mythical status in local imagination. Stories and experiences of tiger sightings are passed between villages, and every village has lost young men to a tiger attack.
‘Once, my friend was killed in front of me, by a tiger.’ Anand paused in his work as he recounted the story. He was replacing the flat wooden floor of his handcrafted boat. Anand’s existence is framed by the rhythms of the river. In the Sundarbans, the change in the tide is so drastic that entire islands disappear under high tide. The tides follow the cycle of the moon, and by the position of the moon and the water Anand knows intuitively when and where to cast his net.
‘We went into the jungle to fish, and we ran out of firewood. When we go to the jungle we stay for several days at a time, so we often have to go ashore to stock up on wood to cook our food. This is when my friend was attacked, on the shore. I saw the tiger coming but it was so fast. I was screaming as he carried my friend away.’ Now Anand refuses to go to the jungle, ‘I make less money but it’s better to be alive!’
Local residents have no control over what aspects of development and modernity arrive in their region and their voices are unheard in national and global discourse
The many young men who have lost their lives to the tiger are not mentioned by the media. These deaths are more common than the Forest Department will admit, and nothing is being done to improve the safety of villages at risk of tiger attacks.
Huge amounts of money for the tiger have been pouring into the region for years, through conservation agencies and, now, tourism, but the local people have seen little benefit from the National Park. Money does not go towards protecting villages from tiger attacks, nor does it provide them with any employment opportunities. Instead, this money is spent on patrol boats to catch fisherfolk who have strayed into the National Park without paying for permission.
After the creation of the National Park in 1984, villagers’ access to the forest resources they depended on was restricted. ‘My parents came and settled the village; they made fields and built houses,’ explained Basant Da, one of the older men on Satjelia island. ‘When the National Park was created, the Forest Department made us start paying to go to the jungle, where we used to go freely to catch fish for ourselves.’
The top-down control and ‘management’ of people in the region is not a new phenomenon, nor is the prioritizing the maintenance of a pristine environment and animal conservation over human life. In previous decades, countless villages were quietly but brutally relocated from the National Park. Government records of these state sanctioned massacres were quietly filed away, or destroyed, and the nameless victims disappear without any outside notice. But the local residents remember them, and their stories are whispered among villages and communities.
In 1975 a group of refugees from Bangladesh, having fled the dusty barren land and downright oppression of their refugee camp in central India, settled one of the uninhabited islands in the Sundarbans. They built huts and started to fish and farm the land. Very quickly, an order of eviction was issued by the Forest Department. They resisted, and invited intellectuals and journalists from Kolkata to support their self-sufficient community. The state government quickly banned any mention of Marichjhapi in the media, and implemented an embargo on the island, to ‘starve’ the people out. Eventually the island was ‘cleared’ by state-sponsored goons who raped and murdered those who refused to flee their homes, before disposing of the bodies in the river.
Bhola remembers these stories. ‘The same thing happened on a lot of islands. It happened to my uncle – one day, the Forest Department came and told everyone to go. Some ran away, those that stayed were slaughtered. Tourists don’t know about this, though.’
One evening Bhola and I were returning to Satjelia from Gosaba by boat. On the way, we passed a village called Pakirala. The port was surrounded by large tourist boats, and the usual mangrove-tree and thatched-roof skyline was interrupted by taller, colourful, concrete buildings. ‘Sunshine tiger resort’ and ‘Ajay’s eco-tourist lodge’ proclaimed the large plastic signs. Bhola gestured towards the boats and the hotels in disgust. ‘It used to just be a village here. Now there’s countless resorts, all for tourists. It didn’t used to be like this. We don’t want our village to become like this place.’
Bhola frowned as he looked at the fleet of tackily painted boats. ‘You know, some of these boats have televisions. They go into the middle of the river, drop anchor, and the guests watch a film. Why do they come to the jungle if they want to watch a film? Why don’t they just stay at home? I don’t understand.’
The Sundarbans is a jungle, and yet visitors seem to expect all of the conveniences of the urban lifestyle. Rather than experiencing the environment in the way that the local inhabitants do, by living so closely to nature that the rhythms of the day are shaped by the pull of the tide, visitors from the city bring with them the expectations of city life. Not only this, but they bring the city’s disapproval of the village into the village, which affects the way that the local residents perceive their own existence in comparison with a lifestyle that understands itself as superior.
Living in the shadow of a predator
In comparison to the ‘city people’, who bring with them expensive technology and designer clothes ill-suited for the environment, and who view the village lifestyle as a photogenic novelty, many local residents now perceive themselves as inferior. Bhola’s wife discredits the highly skilled, physically intensive work with which he supports the family, insisting instead that he should go to the city and work in an office. She criticizes his comfortable, practical local clothing and forces him to wear smart shirts and shoes when they go to the market together.
There is much that tourists, on their brief visits to the Sundarbans, are unaware of. The reality of living in the shadow of a predator is undiscovered by those taking a once-in-a-lifetime photograph from the safety of a large motorboat. Massacres are quietly filed away and traditional forms of livelihood are restricted in order to preserve a pristine environment to be marketed for tourists’ enjoyment. The rich and nuanced lives of the local people, their stories, their music, the unique way that they experience the world around them is not conveyed through the tribal dances performed in air-conditioned dining rooms.
While none of this is the fault of individual tourists, by visiting the region they are complicit. Conservation and tourism work side by side to justify the control, management and displacement of local populations at the hands of the state, by creating a lobby for government policies that place a new value on the area.
The Sundarbans, previously a mostly uninhabited wetland suitable for settlement, has instead become a marketable commodity. Local residents have no control over what aspects of development and modernity arrive in their region and their voices are unheard in national and global discourse. As the industry shows no sign of abating and climate change threatens the delicate balance of life in the region, the local population can expect to experience exponential change in the way that their lives are lived, in a delicate balance of water and land.