For the best experience, open
on your mobile browser or Download our App.

Tiger Widows of Sundarbans: Judiciary Shows the Way, but Executive Loath to Follow

Two recent Calcutta high court judgments outline the struggles faced by the family members of tiger-attack victims in securing their legal rights.
Some tiger widows from the Gosaba block in front of the ‘Tiger Widows Community Centre’ at Satjelia, with the SBS-banner, after a legal awareness camp on 25.07.2023. Photo: Special arrangement.

On October 17, 2019, at around 3:30 pm, Sambhu Mondal and Radhakanta Auliya, two fishermen from the Rajat Jubilee village of the Gosaba block of the Sundarbans, fell to a tiger attack. They were fishing in the waters of the Panchamukhani-II forest compartment, opposite Kalirchar, when the tiger attacked Sambhu. After Radhakanta rushed out to help him, the tiger let go of Sambhu, caught hold of Radhakanta and dragged him deep into the forests.  

The surviving members of the fishing team carried Sambhu to the nearest primary health centre in Chhotomollakhali where he was declared dead. The remains of Radhakanta were never found. In the dense forests of the Sundarban delta, all signs of wildlife-depredation wash away into the sea when the high tides recede. 

Ferry-boats on the Bidyadhari river, Gosaba block. Photo: Special arrangement.   

Thus began the struggles of their wives – Sarojini Mondal and Saraswati Auliya – to obtain compensation. The death certificates, Panchayat-certifications, and police-investigation reports for both Sambhu and Radhakanta confirm that they died in a tiger-attack. The autopsy-report for Sambhu also states the same.

As per the Wildlife Protection Act (WLPA), 1972, deaths caused by wildlife ought to be compensated. There have been several legal orders issued over the years by the forest department of West Bengal, specifying the amounts payable to wildlife-depredation victims. 

The first of such orders was passed in 1979, when the amount payable to legal heirs in case of death due to animal attack was as little as Rs 2,500. However, the amount has increased over time. In 2015 it was Rs 2.5 lakhs. In the latest Government Orders passed in 2021, the state forest department has increased the compensation amount to Rs. 5 lakhs

In January 2020, Sarojini and Saraswati applied for compensation. During this period, they wrote to various forest authorities – the Range Officer, Sajnekhali, the Field Director, Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR), and even to the Principal Chief Conservator of Forests (PCCF), who helms the state Forest Division. 

They were given paralegal-assistance by the Sundarban Byaghrobidhoba Samiti (SBS) – a tiger-widows’ collective from the Sundarbans. In popular Bengali parlance, wives of tiger-victims from the Sundarbans are called byaghro-bidhoba which translates to ‘tiger-widow’. 

This collective, operating since 2015, was formed under the guidance of the Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DMF) – a trade union of small-scale fish-workers from southern West Bengal. SBS provides paralegal-support and livelihood-training to wildlife-depredation-affected families from the Sundarbans. 

It organises legal awareness camps, legal aid clinics as well as assists people in writing letters to relevant authorities and facilitates meetings.   

I myself am, an advocate by profession, has engaged extensively with the legal aid activities of the SBS Assisted by Kolkata-based lawyers, trade union-leaders of the DMF, and community-activists from places like Diamond Harbour, Gosaba, Lahiripur etc., the SBS continues to provide paralegal services to wildlife-depredation affected people from the Sundarbans. 

Some tiger widows from the Gosaba block in front of the ‘Tiger Widows Community Centre’ at Satjelia, with the SBS-banner, after a legal awareness camp on 25.07.2023. Photo: Special arrangement.

During March-April 2023, SBS helped Sarojini, Saraswati and 23 other tiger-widows from the Sundarbans to initiate proceedings before the West Bengal Commission for Women. 

The commission forwarded their applications to the forest department. The subsequent departmental response was limited to the cases of Sambhu, Radhakanta, and four others who had lost their lives to tiger-attack between 2011 and 2019. It stated that all those victims had illegally entered the forest when the attacks occurred. 

In October, 2023, Sarojini and Saraswati, assisted by SBS, sent individual letters to the said forest authorities, once again requesting settlement of their claims. In response, the forest department denied their claims altogether on account of their husbands’ alleged ‘illegal’ forest-entry. Such reasoning is unsound. 

The Sundarban forests have been brought under the forest and wildlife conservancy regime on a piecemeal basis – starting from the 19th century and running up to the 21st

Severe entry-restrictions imposed on the local fishers have harmed their livelihood prospects. Their rights have not been settled under the Indian Forest Act, 1927. No Gram Sabha consent was ever obtained, no livelihood-protection accorded and no settlement of forest rights was made under the WLPA, 1972, despite the 2006 amendment which made such steps mandatory. 

To fish in the Sundarban-waters, fishers need a Boat License Certificate (a heritable and non-transferable document renewable annually) and a forest permit, which usually has a 42-day validity period. The dubious nature of these documents, and administrative arbitrariness that prevails in this regard have been highlighted in the past.  

There are only 709 BLCs operational in the tiger reserve area, according to information revealed by the field director of the reserve in response to an RTI filed by DMF. Other than these, there are 3,700 BLCs active for the reserve forest areas of the Sundarban. 

This is an insignificant number when compared with the 2011 census-data that points to fishing as a source of livelihood for 2-5 lakh people in the Indian Sundarbans. 

Professor Pranabes Sanyal, former FD, STR, had mentioned in an interview that the BLCs originate from boat registrations done between 1928 and 1943. 

For the wives and dependants of wildlife-attack victims of the Sundarbans, this absurdity of the BLC-regime manifests patently. 

The Calcutta high court, in Shantibala Naskar vs. the State of West Bengal and Others, held that compensation cannot be denied to the family-members of wildlife-attack victims on account of illegal forest-entry. 

The court directed the authorities to pay Rs 5 lakhs as compensation to the petitioner – a tiger-widow from the Sundarban-adjacent Kultali Gram Panchayat area. The forest authority tendered her the amount on October 13, 2023. Ironically, Sarojini and Saraswati’s rejection letters are also dated the same. 

Assisted by SBS, they wrote to the state-level forest, police and magisterial officers, highlighting this denial and discrimination. They also wrote to the state commission for women, before which they had filed individual proceedings earlier on. They visited the commission’s office in Kolkata personally in November 2023, seeking, in vain, counselling through its Pre-Litigation Counselling Cell. All subsequent efforts to contact the commission through phone-calls and  emails have not yielded any results. 

[L-R] Saraswati Auliya and Sarojini Mondal at the WB Commission for Women office, 02.11.2023. Photo: Special arrangement.

On November 17, 2023, Sarojini and Saraswati moved the court with their writ petitions. The Calcutta high court heard their cases and directed the authorities to pay Rs 5 lakhs to both of them, reiterating its earlier position that illegal forest-entry cannot be used as a ground for denial of compensation. 

After further rounds of scrutiny by the reserve authorities and the bank, they received the money on February 7, 2024.

It cannot be said that the legal injuries faced by Sarojini and Saraswati have all been aptly addressed. Both Sambhu and Radhakanta were policy-holders with the publicly owned United India Insurance Company (UII), with their wives as nominees. 

However, UII continues to deny their insurance claims till date on grounds of alleged illegal forest-entry. The forest permit of the fishing team had expired by 3 days on the date of the tiger-attack. But the team leader – Jagabandhu Bauliya – had subsequently paid the necessary fine to the forest department. 

In May 2022, nearly two years after Jagabandhu passed away, Sarojini requested the forest department in writing for a copy of this receipt. The department is yet to respond. 

Sarojini and Saraswati were never opaque about this predicament. They have written to UII as well as all the relevant forest, police and civil-administration authorities. Yet, they continue to be denied their rightful insurance claims. 

Even the Postmaster of the Sadhupur post office had initially refused to give Sarojini the money that her husband had in his postal account at the time of his death, saying that when someone dies, the money in their account becomes the government’s.

Most tiger-widows, unlike Sarojini and Saraswati, do not possess documents that establish tiger-attack as the cause of their husbands’ deaths. Efforts to procure the same are resisted by the forest, police and civic authorities, often through downright hostility. 

An S.B.S. delegation of tiger widows and activists at the block administrative office of Gosaba, 21.08.2023. Photo: Special arrangement

Compensation and insurance are not the only ex-gratia rights available to family-members of wildlife attack victims in West Bengal. As per the West Bengal Scheme for Rehabilitation by Providing Employment Assistance, 2023, one member from each such family is also entitled to contractual employment with the forest department. 

However, as ground-level experiences from the Sundarbans reveal, these laws remain scantly implemented. Despite these mounting odds, SBS, as a community-based collective, continues to fight for the legal rights of human-wildlife conflict-victims from the Sundarbans.          



Make a contribution to Independent Journalism
facebook twitter