Standing at the fag-end of a long serpentine queue outside the State Bank of India at Gosaba in the Sunderbans, Saphera Bibi was getting restless with every passing minute. The sun was gradually setting and she must reach home before it gets dark.
The 32-year-old woman had come from Dayapur - a remote village located in the fringes of the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve. Tigers straying in the villages is common here and sightings increase during the winter season, starting from December.
“I need to reach home before darkness sets in. Tigers often swim across the river and stray into our villages. It’s a regular phenomenon but becomes more likely during the winter. I have left my two children back home with my mother-in-law,” she said.
Sunderbans is an archipelago of 104 islands, 54 of which have human settlements. The rest are still dense mangrove forests ruled by tigers. Rivers are infested with crocodiles and sharks. Tigers often cross the rivers and stray into the villages killing cattle and stray dogs.
“Even though fishermen are regularly killed by tigers inside the forest, people rarely get killed or mauled by stray tigers inside the villages. This, however, can’t be a surety. You never know when an accident could happen,” said Sandhya Dolui, a septuagenarian woman from Kakmari village.
Life even at the best of times is difficult in these regions. And now it has got harder amid the cash crunch as villagers are being forced to travel for hours by rickety boats across choppy rivers to reach the banks or the nearest Customer Service Points.
“But unlike other villages and towns where people can afford to reach home even at night, villagers from these remote hamlets located in the fringes of the forest, are forced to complete their outdoor jobs before sunset and get back home before night falls,” said Uttam Saha, former MLA of Gosaba region.
The problem has further aggravated over the years as the male population in these villages has been dwindling. It has decreased after cyclone Aila which hit the Sunderbans in May, 2009 and crippled the rural economy dependent mostly on agriculture.
“In the past, villagers used to get killed by tigers when they entered the forest. Almost every family in these villages has one or two widows whose husbands were killed by tigers. The younger generation is mostly migrating to other states to look for jobs as they don’t want to risk their lives unlike their forefathers,” said Saha.
This has left the women to fend for themselves and their children. Now with cash crisis looming they have an added responsibility. They now have to go to banks almost every week to stand in the queue for long hours to get some cash.
“We form small groups to go to the banks together. We return together before sunset. Gosaba is a long way from here and we need to start early to return home early. We have to cross at least three rivers and change van-rickshaws an equal number of times,” said Putul Dolui, who had lost her husband in a tiger attack years ago. Her son now works as a labourer in Chennai.
But then again there are women like Dolon Halder who dare to stand in the queue since 3 am in the night to get some cash. Her husband works in Chennai as a labourer and her father-in-law was killed by a tiger a few years ago. She now lives with her five-year-old-son, school going brother-in-law and mother-in-law. Her husband sends money through money order.
“I can’t go to Gosaba as it is too far. I have to get some cash from the Customer Service Point of the SBI at Laxbagan bazaar on Satjelia Island. But there, only the first 20 persons get cash, as funds are meager and resources limited. I had to return empty handed at least four times before. So this time I decided to stand in the queue since 3 am,” said Halder, who came with a smile counting the fresh Rs 100 notes.