In the dense mangrove forests of the Sunderbans, criss-crossed by labyrinthine waterways, there are few livelihood options for its acutely poor residents — subsistence agriculture, fishing or collecting forest produce. And extracting honey from the forests is one of the few traditional avenues of making money. But even this is being literally snatched from them.
In the absence of proper administration, either from the Indian side or the Bangladeshi neighbour, life is a constant struggle for the thousands who depend on the Sunderbans for their survival. On the one hand is the threat from the Royal Bengal Tiger that stalks this Gangetic delta in West Bengal. On the other, river pirates from across the border have made loot and kidnapping for ransom a lucrative business.
In the first week of May, 20 villagers from Kalitola and Hingalgunj block had set out for the Gazikhali Shorshuna area of the Sunderbans in four small boats to collect honey from the interiors of the jungle. It got dark by the time they finished, and as the boats made their way out of an inlet, their path was blocked by two bigger boats parked diagonally across.
What played out next was a scene straight out of Bollywood. More than a dozen armed Bangladeshi pirates jumped on to the smaller boats. Before the terrorised honey collectors could react, five of them were taken prisoner at gun point and the remaining forced to load the catch of the day — 50 kgs of fresh honey — on to the Bangladeshi boats. Within minutes the pirates had vanished with the booty in their motorised boats.Their ordeal however did not end there. The following day, Kalitola panchayat head Shyamal Mondal received a ransom call. The pirates demanded Rs 2 lakh to release the five villagers. The calls were made from two numbers (008801923126022 and 008801721767753). What shocked Mondal further was the instruction to transfer the amount to three accounts in a Bangladeshi hundi bank (A/c Nos: 01952334800; 01925072571 and 01939665844). The hundi banks are like the chit funds, except they also deal in illegal hawala transactions.
Says Santosh Biswas, one of those kidnapped: “It is becoming difficult to live here because of the Bangladeshi pirates. We were thrashed by them several times and they didn’t even give us proper food. They put immense pressure on our families to pay up the ransom.”
This was not an isolated incident. The April-June period is the peak honey gathering season in the Sunderbans, a Unesco World Heritage Site. The honey from these forests is in great demand in both West Bengal and Bangladesh. And given the topography of the Sunderbans, 80% of which lies in Bangladesh, such raids from the other side are frequent.
Only, in this instance, the villagers mustered courage to speak up about the terror of the river pirates. Says Mondal, the panchayat head: “We had no option. They released our men only after we deposited the ransom money in those accounts.” Mondal alleges that the Bangladeshi intruders have also kidnapped and raped several women in the area.
“Women are the easiest target for the Bangladeshi pirates. They kidnap them and send them back after raping them. We are living in a horrible situation here,” says Kamlesh Mondal of Kulpi village.
Villagers blame the absence of law and order on the multiple agencies responsible for the security of this region — the local police, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Bangladesh Rifles (BDR). While locals say the BDR is complicit in the activities of the crime gangs, panchayat pradhan Mondal says the pirates take advantage of the loopholes in the surveillance by the BSF and forest department.
Since the incidents involve criminals from a neighbouring country, senior police officials of the area were reluctant to comment. In desperation, panchayat head Mondal approached the local TMC legislator Nirmal Ghosh with a written complaint. “I will take up the issue with the CM as soon as possible. The state government can talk to the home ministry if necessary. We won’t tolerate any hooliganism from the neighbouring country. We will make our surveillance stricter.” Mondal is hoping that someone someday will wake up and listen to their plight.