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regular-article-logo Thursday, 30 May 2024

Tiger, Tiger burning bride: Pension eludes 'forgotten' widows

The Bengal government spends around Rs 230 crore on the much talked about West Bengal Widow Pension Scheme that gives a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 to each woman, but Rina’s name is not on the list of beneficiaries

Snehamoy Chakraborty Calcutta Published 24.04.24, 06:47 AM
Double whammy: Husband and hope both lost.

Double whammy: Husband and hope both lost. Sourced by the Telegraph

An oar as her only weapon, Sunderbans resident Rina Sarkar fought the magnificent yellow-and-black striped beast to save her husband from its jaws, and lost.

Rina, now 46, recounted how she helplessly watched the Royal Bengal Tiger drag her husband Sripada’s body inside the mangroves. She’d lost the battle in September 2022. And now, she’s losing the war.

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The Bengal government spends around Rs 230 crore on the much talked about West Bengal Widow Pension Scheme that gives a monthly allowance of Rs 1,000 to each woman, but Rina’s name is not on the list of beneficiaries.

She is not recognised as a widow in official records.

“My husband was attacked by a tiger in front of my eyes.... I went to the gram panchayat and block development offices innumerable times in the past two years to get my husband’s death certificate. No one helped me,” said Rina.

According to her, she accompanied her husband to a creek near their village Chargheri on a small boat to catch fish on a September morning in 2022. A tiger jumped on their boat and attacked Sripada, mauling him badly.

In her desperation to save Sripada, Rina used the oar of the boat to repeatedly hit the tiger, but the tiger disappeared with his bloodied body inside the dense mangrove forest, she told The Telegraph.

“I have been told by officials that I won’t get any pension as going to the creeks for fishing is illegal.... It is our forefathers’ profession and fishermen’s families have been going to the creeks to fish for generations,” she said.

“We did not commit any crime.... We had to take the risk as we did not have any other means of livelihood,” added Rina, the mother of three children aged between 18 and 23 years, who now works as a farmhand.

The latest tiger census carried out in 2021-22 reveals that the Sunderbans Tiger Reserve (STR), a Unesco World Heritage site since 1987, has a big cat count of 101, and a significant majority of them are man-eaters.

‘Tiger widows’ Rina Sarkar (left) and Gita Sardar

‘Tiger widows’ Rina Sarkar (left) and Gita Sardar Sourced by The Telegraph

The plight of Rina is the classic example of how human-animal conflict has cast a shadow on the lives of hundreds of families across the Sunderbans, spread over two Lok Sabha seats, Basirhat and Joynagar.

The state government does provide a one-time ex gratia of Rs 5 lakh to the next of kin of a fisherman killed in a tiger attack. However, the financial assistance is limited only
to those who fish with a proper licence. The STR authorities provide the licence. Currently, only 600 people have this licence.

Multiple sources in the district administration said that there is a general reluctance among the authorities to issue fresh licences as their primary aim is to reduce the possibility of human-tiger conflict and deaths arising from it.

“The government does not provide any compensation for tiger victims who enter inside the forest without licence as it will encourage more intrusions into the restricted zone. However, we arrange treatment for those injured in tiger attacks,” said Jones Justin, the deputy field director of the STR.

But as the area is remote and lacks alternative livelihood opportunities, thousands of people, without licences, risk their lives and venture into the creeks to catch crabs and fish.

“Those who lose their lives by illegally venturing into the creeks do not make it to the official list of lives lost in tiger attacks. That’s the reason behind the difference between the actual number of deaths by tiger attacks and the official count,” said a source in the district administration.

Officially, only 11 persons were killed in tiger attacks in the Sunderbans from 2019 to 2021. The number was zero in 2023-24. Unofficially, it is another story.

“Unofficially, 30-35 persons are killed every year in tiger attacks. It is common knowledge.... The government does not keep the record as it does not count the deaths of those who go fishing without a licence,” said Amal Nayek, the director of Save Tiger Affected Family, which works for the welfare of over 400 such tiger widows in Gosaba and Basanti of the Sunderbans.

Olivia Dunlop of the Genesis Educational and Charitable Trust echoed Nayek and said that people in the Sunderbans claim that at least 3,500 families have lost someone or the other in tiger attacks in recent years.

“We take care of 800 widows and their 1,000 children.... There is a genuine need for the government to come forward and do something for the families of the victims as they are in dire need of institutional help,” said Dunlop, who has made an award-winning documentary on tiger victims.

Several state government officials, who had earlier worked in the Sunderbans, said some poor families of so-called “illegal” fishermen do not want to record the deaths of their family members to avoid legal hazards as the forest law is very strict against those who enter the reserve areas without a licence.

“Most of the bodies are not recovered as the tigers take them away inside the mangroves, which is also a reason for the deaths not getting recorded in government portals,” said a state government official, adding that the Centre and the state government should jointly bring a special law to compensate those families.

Gita Sardar, another tiger widow from Bali island in Gosaba, said she had been waiting since 2011 for some government help when her husband was killed in a tiger attack.

“Elections come and go. Every time we are assured that some special provision would be made to help the families of those killed in tiger attacks.... Once the elections are over, all political parties forget us,” rued the 49-year-old woman, who now survives as a farmhand and gets some help from NGOs that work among the tiger widows. Nayek, a retired schoolteacher, said his organisation had been fighting for years for a special pension for the tiger widows.

“We help them in various ways by forming self-help groups. But it would be great for these deprived women if the state and the Centre jointly bring a new pension scheme for them,” he said.

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