When you venture to the east of India, you reach the confluence of the mighty Brahmaputra and the holy Ganga. The biggest delta of its kind in the world, which gives rise to the dense and marshy Sundarbans. This happens to be one of the most densely populated areas in terms of human settlements. The fauna and culture in this area give rise to a new classification of a group of women, the Bagh Bidhobaas.
The Sunderbans National Park is home to over 400 exotic Bengal Tigers, according to the latest figures. Sundarbans is one of the last few places remaining where these giant cats and mankind live in such proximity, thus making it a hot spot for numerous human deaths as a result of tiger attacks. The primary means of human survival in the area is heavily dependent on forest works, with collecting wood, honey or any other forestry products, etc.
A body from the tiger attack is often hard to find—what’s even more difficult is to trace the victim’s identity. A huge number of men go deep into the jungle on a daily basis to provide for their families. Their encounter with tigers is not a rare occurrence, and deaths are often witnessed due to the same. The widows of the men who are killed or assumed to be killed by a tiger are known as Baagh Bidhobaas or Tiger Widows.
These women are treated as outcasts and referred to as ‘Swami Khego’ (women who ate their husbands). Losing the breadwinner of their family, they are often left to fend for themselves. Being illiterate and poverty-stricken, without community support, life becomes extremely difficult for them. Some of them are lucky enough to get re-married, but most are left to look after themselves and their kids.
One such story is of Rizia Begum of Golakhali area. Her husband, Ameer Ali Molla, passed away due to an attack by a man-eater tiger. In the year 2000, he went to the forest to collect honey. A tiger attacked him in the Dibilkhal area. The tiger bit his throat. His respiratory tract was removed, and the man died a gruesome death.
Rizia Begum is living a life of difficulty now. She has two daughters to take care of and resorts to fishing in a nearby tributary and tries to sell whatever she can. Life has been difficult for them—as more days go by without the basic two-time meal for the family, with days when they all sleep hungry.
Tiger widows have existed for years, but there has been a rapid increase in the number of such widows since the last few years. As of 2017, there were estimated to be more than 3000 such women. One of the most important contributor to the rise of this phenomenon is climate change.
In the last 20 years, the sea-levels have increased by 3% in Sundarbans, which, in turn, has made water more saline, submerged islands and decreased the overall forest land. As a result, the villagers have to go deeper into the forested areas, intruding the tiger inhabited parts of the forest, for fishing, crabs, etc. Adding to the problem, this has also adversely affected the mangroves present there.
In the past two decades, a decrease in freshwater has affected agriculture in the area. According to the West Bengal government, the agricultural area has shrunk between 2002–2009 from 2,149.615 square kilometers to 1691.246 kilometers. Furthermore, massive deforestation has reduced the distance between tiger inhabited areas and the human-occupied land, thus making humans more vulnerable to tiger attacks.
It has been observed that 5% of the forest cover was lost between 1989–2009, and it has further depleted in the past decade. Lastly, due to the heavy siltation and disposal of solid waste from adjacent cities, the rivers in Sundarbans do not get water from upstream Ganga and are primarily tidal fed. A massive ecological change has evolved in the delta due to huge discharge of untreated domestic and industrial effluents carried by tributary rivers and disposal of contaminated mud from the harbor. This has caused a disastrous impact on the biodiversity harbored by the mangroves.
Any patriarchal custom in the modern world must be challenged and sought to get rid of. However, the rapid increase in practice is clearly attributed more to the changing climate. Climate Change is a phenomenon with visible symptoms around the world. In the Sundarbans, it further affects human society in ways such as the ostracizing of ‘tiger widows’. It’s high time that the government takes notice of this issue and further implements policies that can help these women combat climate change—whilst preserving nature and the tiger.
Note: When forests are cleared or burnt, stored carbon is released into the atmosphere, mainly as carbon dioxide. Averaged over 2015 – 2017, global loss of tropical forests contributed about 4.8 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide per year (or about 8-10% of annual human emissions of carbon dioxide) (WRI 2018).