– “How are you?”
– “Not dead yet! How are you?”
This is how Kulsum Begum (85) – a resident of Datinakhali village of Shyamnagar Upazilla, Satkhira, replied to an otherwise simple question. Although this writer found it a bit uncanny at first, she soon could feel the source of the agony from which the reply befittingly came.
Mrs Kulsum was married to Ziyad Ali Gaji — a low-income worker with no fixed job, when she was only 16. Ziyad was involved with various seasonal works – collected Goran wood, Golpata, honey, caught fish, crab, etc.
On a fateful day in May 1997, Ziyad left home to catch fish with five others and never returned. Later, the forest department found his leftover body, almost half-eaten by a tiger.
Ziayd was gone, but Kulsum Begum was left behind to suffer for eternity. The cruel fortune teller wasn’t satisfied yet. So he made Kulsum’s 16-year-old daughter a tiger’s meal only 6 months after her husband’s demise.
The rest of the story followed suit; Kulsum Begum struggled with her extra-large family of 5 sons and 4 daughters. She had to beg to feed them since she had no significant govt aid. She had some aid from NGOs and other private organisations now and then.
Now in her 80s, she doesn’t have food to feed herself properly, money to treat her physical sufferings, and energy to earn to alleviate the former two problems. There are hundreds of Kulsum Begums living in the surrounding areas of Sundarbans, widowed by tigers. Commonly known as ‘Bagh-bidhoba’ or tiger widow, these women are often subjected to social stigma and abuses, blamed for their husbands’ misfortune, and termed inauspicious.
Sundarbans – the largest mangrove forest in the world and the resident of the mighty and majestic Royal Bengal Tigers- is also a popular tourist destination. With all its greenery and attractive bio-diversity, this forest also accommodates the life and living of around 7.5 million people with food, honey, timber, fuel fish, crab, and other resources.
The lesser-known fact, however, is that this forest also snatches away numerous lives every year and leaves irreparable scars in many, like Kulsum Begum.
Mohon Kumar Mondol, executive director of private organisation LEDARS said that there are 750 tiger widows in Khulna’s Koyra Upazilla. In Shyamnagar, Satkhira, the number is even higher, 1,163. According to their accounts, more than 500 foresters died in 10 years, from 2001 to 2011.
Several organisations like Anirban, Durjoy, Jagrata Bagh Bidhoba, and LEDARS, to name a few, are working to aid the tiger widows of Sundarbans. But this effort is often not enough as they only help the widows of the registered foresters. So a significant proportion is left out.
Fatema Gazi (34) lost her husband, Abdus Samad Gazi, to a tiger attack in 2010. With two daughters of 5 and 7, she had an infant of 5 months to feed. Neither of her in-laws or father’s place allowed her a roof to live under. Since, she has lived by sewing and day labouring, living in a makeshift home made of Golpata.
Fatema Gazi is no more capable of working. She has diabetes, uterine tumour, and many more diseases. Her son now earns for the family by catching fish, which is not enough to ensure proper treatment for his mother.
Fatema Gazi has yet to receive any allowance from the government. She doesn’t even know how to apply for such allowance, and none ever helped in this literacy purpose.
Some NGOs, though, help her financially while she is registered for widow allowance too. However, Tk 1500 allowance every 3 months is next to nothing in today’s inflation-stricken reality.
The writer has talked to another tiger widow Amirun Nisa (50). The wretched woman lost both her husband and son to the Royal Bengal Tiger. How great a financial blow Amirun’s family had to suffer that she was forced to send her son to work in the same place where her husband gave his life was beyond this writer’s imagination.
Amirun’s eyes are now always wet, sometimes in memories of her husband and son, sometimes for life she is living now – full of misery. A meagre amount of widow allowance and day labouring now earns her bread and butter.
MKM Iqbal Hossain, assistant forest preserving officer of Satkhira range in Sundarbans, cited the Wildlife Damage Compensation Policy 2021 to explain why many widows do not get government aid. Foresters with registered passes are given an instant Tk 50 thousand and Tk 3 lakhs in variables, depending on the damage they incur. And those who enter the forest without that pass don’t get compensation. And unfortunately, according to Mr Iqbal, most foresters enter the forest illegally.
There are more offerings for legal tiger widows. A canal named ‘Mayer Khal’ in Khulna’s Koyra Upazilla has been dedicated to tiger widows with registered passes to catch fish. The canal was known as ‘Shonnashi khal’ before; however, the current name emerged as soon as women started to catch fish there.
The UNO of Shyamnagar further promised to help the tiger widows in all possible ways. Upon a registered forester’s death or physical damage, his family can apply for the money. He also assured that he’d take the initiative to ensure the allotment if he came across anyone who hadn’t yet received the compensation after application.
From 2011 to 2022, 62 foresters were killed by tigers while 19 got injured, said Khulna divisional forest officer (Sundarbans West) Dr Abu Nasser. These 82 people’s families have been given Tk 59.5 lakh as compensation to date.
What needs to be done
All the tiger widows need to be brought under a social safety net, whether they have a legal pass or not. They have long been part of a community lagging in basic requirements of life. Government initiatives are required to rehabilitate them. ‘Tiger widow allowance’ can be introduced along with widow allowance.
On the other hand, the forest department needs to strengthen its surveillance of illegal foresters to stop them from entering the forest, which would reduce casualties.
The Sundarbans is the pride of Bangladesh, helping the country both environmentally and economically. While we need to protect the forest at any cost, protecting the human lives who are keeping the forest economy alive is equally important.
The article is translated by Shuvro Saif from the original Bangla version written by Anushka, a Journalism student at DU. Saif is a Journalism graduate and a journalist.