Prashanta Mondal of Chargheri village in Sunderban's Gosaba went into the dense mangrove forests on Sunday (Aug 2) to catch fish and crabs with other villagers. He was a migrant labourer working in the construction sector in southern India but was forced to return home before the Covid-19 lockdown.
Prashanta and his associates went to Marichjhapi's Bantala forest area when he was attacked by a tiger. His friends somehow managed to save themselves, leaving the country boat behind in a narrow creek. But Prasanta failed to escape. He was dragged 4 km inside the mangrove forest by the man-eater. Later his mutilated and beheaded body was recovered by his companions from inside the core area.
His friend Alok Mondal, who is also a migrant worker, said that they had no other option but to venture into the deadly forests of Sunderbans in search of livelihood.
"Crab and fish is a lucrative catch if we can sell them in the market. The ongoing lockdown due to the Covid pandemic has crippled everything. We have practically zero income now. We have come back from different states, but we also have to run our families," he said.
At least 12 people were killed in different tiger attacks in the Sunderbans in the past three months, of which about six were migrant labourers, official sources said.
The helplessness of the rural folks in the Sunderbans has forced them to risk their lives amid the Covid-19 ourbreak. As a result, they are easily falling prey to tiger attacks.
The devastation caused by the Cyclone Amphan has also forced the marooned residents to depend more on forest products like honey and timber. This apart, people also go into the forest area to catch crab and fish in the creeks in the restricted areas. Lack of livelihood resources has increased incidents of poaching in the Sundarbans as people are left with only a few options.
"This is a real cause of concern. It is true that there is no livelihood. We, on behalf of the state forest department, are mulling over this issue. We have already decided to provide them with honey box so that they can collect honey easily. That will churn out an option for them to sustain during the lockdown phase," West Bengal Forest Minister Rajib Banerjee said.
The minister said that a meeting has also been convened to take a call on the issue.
"We will try to work out something to rehabilitate the villagers, especially the migrant workers who had to hum back home owing to the lockdown and have zero income currently," he said.
The alluvial archipelago called the Sundarbans, formed by 56 riverine islands, has been declared a World Heritage site by the UNESCO for its rich biodiversity and is home to the famous Royal Bengal Tiger.
Located in South 24 Parganas and North 24 Parganas districts, it is a vast area covering 4,262 sq km, including a mangrove cover of 2,125 sq km in India alone, and a larger portion falling in Bangladesh.
Considered to be one of the richest but most fragile ecosystems on earth, the Sundarbans delta, formed by the myriad branches of the Ganga, has forest tracts that reach 130-km inland from the coastline.
"If we study the region, people from north-eastern side of Sunderbans are usually prone to fish and crab catching activities. They venture deep inside the core area for better availability. The more they take risks; the better is their economic returns when they sell it in the market. And at this time, people are helpless. Hunger is a dominating factor," said Ashim Mondal, an expert on the region.
He said that people from Sagar Island, Hingalganj, Kalindi and the adjoining areas of Raimangal and Gosaba often go into the forests for livelihood adventures. Sometimes they flout forest department's restrictions and go into the core belts.
"The local trains are not operational now. As a result, the female members who used to work as domestic helps in Kolkata and its adjoining areas are not being able to commute. So their economic condition has collapsed completely. After Amphan, saline water entered into the agricultural land and destroyed the cultivation also," Mondal said.
Gopal Mondal, a migrant labourer who came back from Andaman, said: "The forest is our only source of income now. I used to work in a betel nut garden in Andaman and Nicobar Islands and used to send money back home every month. But now I am here and have no income as such. If we have to live, we will have to depend on the forests only," he said, adding that Amphan had devastated the entire region really badly.
Joydeep Kundu, a conservationist and wildlife activist, said: "We have to remember that humans are entering into the tiger territory because of livelihood. It is not the tiger that is sneaking inside the human habitation. There is a popular saying in the Sunderbans -- 'those who are greedy, become easy victims of tiger attacks'."
Earlier, the Centre and the Mamata Banerjee-led state government locked horns over the issue of a job scheme for migrant labourers -- the 'Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan'.
Criticising the Trinamool Congress for allegedly opposing the pro-people policies of the Centre, Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman had said in June that the state could not be made a beneficiary of the 'Garib Kalyan Rojgar Abhiyaan', as it had not provided any data on migrant labourers.
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