Tragedy struck this widow twice in the Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest. First, she watched her husband die of snakebite. Then, her young son was mauled to death by a Royal Bengal tiger….writes Vishal Gulati
This is the heart-rending tale of 60-year-old Panchami Naya of Durgapur – a remote island located in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal – who was living a life of abject penury.
Like her, a majority of the 4.5 million people of the region eke out a living daily in the traditional way — fishing, hunting for crabs, collecting of honey and subsistence farming along the fringes of the Sundarbans — a Unesco World Heritage site that is home to one of the largest populations of the protected Royal Bengal tiger.
Although it’s illegal, fishermen go into the wildlife protected areas for hunting. Tigers and crocodiles often attack them.
According a World Bank report, the Sundarbans, spread over 10,000 sq km of land and water, more than half of it in India, has a high population density of about 1,000 people per sq km.
A Kerala-based charity, Believers Church, is working in human settlements along the Sundarbans — the delta spreads across India and Bangladesh — to ease the plight of the “tiger widows” by equipping them with income-generating skills.
It also helps them overcome the trauma of losing their partners, mostly the breadwinners.
At present, social workers are deployed in 33 islands of South 24 Parganas to provide service to more than 700 widows to enable them to become self-reliant.
In June 2015, two workers met Panchami, five years after the death of her son Mangal Naya, 20, and found her in distress, facing social ostracisation too.
“While our ‘sisters of compassion’ gently asked about her situation, she was moved with their love and she shared all that had happened to her family. Since then they have completely taken care of her day-to-day needs,” Believers Church’s Metropolitan Bishop K.P. Yohannan said.
“There are several thousand widows living in the islands and we have identified 194 of them who are in dire need of food and shelter. Others may need help and care from time to time,” he said.
Ferries are the only mode of transport to reach the islands and this is risky as it depends on the waves of the Bay of Bengal.
According to Believers Church, the places most populated with widows include Moipit, Gangasagar, Pathorpratima and Gosaba, a gateway to the Sundarbans, some 200 km from West Bengal capital Kolkata.
In Moipit, there are 250 widows whose husbands were largely killed by tigers.
Apart from South 24 Parganas, the widow care service, launched in 2011, has also been provided in North 24 Parganas, Hooghly, Murshidabad, Bardhaman, Malda and Purulia districts.
“We have identified 8,700 widows in West Bengal, out of them 5,700 are living on the islands. On a daily basis, we assist 2,323 in the state, 1,516 of whom are settled on islands,” Bishop Yohannan added.
Like Panchami Naya, the charity is taking care of 65-year-old widow Swarnamayee Ghosh of Moipit island. Fourteen years ago her husband died in tiger attack while collecting firewood.
Similar is the horrific tale of Dipti Das, 56, also from Moipit, whose husband died of a tiger attack 20 years ago.
The “tiger widows” are often blamed for the deaths of their husbands by the community, says a study ‘Ecopsychosocial Aspects of Human-Tiger Conflict: An Ethnographic Study of Tiger Widows of Sundarban Delta, India’, published by the journal Environmental Health Insights last year.
It says 90 per cent of the widows have been accused of causing their husband’s death by their family in-laws, especially by the mothers-in-law, while being branded as “swami-khego” or husband-eater.