WHEN another misty dawn breaks over the placid waters of Thakuran in the Sundarbans these days, there is frenzied activity among the fishermen of Jata island. The sturdy charcoal-black trawlers and smoky mechanised boats are loaded with provisions, the large tapered fishing nets are spanked into shape, and the families are given the customary farewells. It's time to sail the rivers which zigzag through luxuriant mangrove forests into the Bay of Bengal for another fortnight-long fishing trip.
A balmy winter is now fast fading into another hot and sticky summer in the Sundarbans, but the sea is still beckoning with its embarrassment of riches. Some 1.5 lakh fishermen of the world's largest estuarine delta dotted with 110 islands are seizing the moment and sharing the spoils. "The fish catch is maximum during this time of the year. This is the fishing season," says Dr Kumudranjan Naskar, a scientist at the Calcutta-based Central Inland Fisheries Research Institute (CIFRI).
For Tapas Kumar Mondal of Jata's Nagendrapur village, however, this has been a winter of discontent. Last July, the strapping fisherman had sailed the rivers to fish in the deep sea when the pirates struck. Mondal soon found himself in the middle of the biggest river heists in recent times: pirates had intercepted seven boats carrying 52 fishermen on the Bidyadhari river, whisked them away into the narrow Chingrimari canal near the dense Benifeli forest, and demanded ransom of Rs 2 lakh.
When the pirates demanded a Rs 20,000 ransom from Mondal, the landless villager pleaded that he could not afford the money. Then they beat him up and took his majhi (boatman) hostage. Finally, when Mondal went down on his knees and begged for their lives, the pirates asked him to return with Rs 5,000. Next morning, Mondal sailed back to his village and pawned his mechanised boat costing Rs 26,000 and Rs 11,000 worth of nets to a neighbour. The ransom money was delivered, and Mondal and his majhi returned safely. But six months on, Mondal's livelihood is in peril: he has still not been able to raise the money to get back his boat and nets; and his brother has left the island in search of work to pay off the debt. "I am ruined. Who is going to look after my family of 12?" he wonders.
Mondal is not alone. His neighbour Raghunath Das, a swarthy young fisherman who was kidnapped along with his brother Biswanath in the same heist, does not even own a boat. They pawned off a fishing net, their only possession, to a village elder and raised a Rs 3,000 ransom. Now the out-of-work Das brothers are desperately trying to repay the debt and get back their net.
And Ram Chandra Kayal from Purba Sridharpur village, who also paid up a Rs 3,000 ransom, has simply stopped fishing—out of fear. "The nightmare returns to haunt me even today. How they dragged me out of my boat and beat me up till I cried! I have never felt so afraid in my life. Now I am scared to even go out into the river," says Kayal.
The Bidyadhari river heist and the five-day-long hostage drama that followed in the Benifeli forest climaxed with the police rescuing the fishermen, recovering the nine boats and eventually nabbing the pirates.
THIS is cold comfort for fishermen like Mondal, Das and Kayal. For in the Sundarbans—home to 60 per cent of India's mangrove forests, some 100 varieties of fish and 1,000 species ofbirds, reptiles and animals, including the fabled Royal Bengal Tiger—pirates continue to stalk the waters, ambush fishermen, loot and pillage their belongings, hold them hostage for ransom, and demand money for "safe passage" through the seven rivers of the delta. And pirates like Bachu Sardar and Sundar Mollah are part of the folklore of the 54 inhabited islands.
"Fishermen here have lived with the threat of river pirates for a long time. In the beginning, pirates looted the fish and belongings. Now, most worryingly, kidnapping for ransom is reducing fishermen to paupers," says Gobindo Pradhan, joint secretary of the Raidighi-based Sundarbans Fisheries and Fish Workers Union. Though police records reveal 15 major river piracies in the delta since 1987, Pradhan estimates some 2,000 heists in the last 12 years where pirates made off with ransom monies amounting to over Rs 1 crore. "A number of cases are actually never reported to the police. One major reason is the sheer inaccessibility of the police. The stations in the region are all far-flung," says B.D. Sharma, superintendent of police, South 24-Parganas district, under which the Sundarbans fall.
Sharma is right. At Raidighi, one of Sundarbans' biggest fishing harbours, Pradhan reels off a number of cases which never found their way into police records. Take Farid Sheikh and Gosto Samanta of Jata's Nagendrapur village who were kidnapped by pirates near Kendo island last October, and had to part with their boat and nets worth nearly Rs 80,000, after they failed to pay up a Rs 50,000 ransom. Or the case of a group of fishermen who were given a hot chase by a large gang of pirates near Kendo last November. The pirates were beaten back by strong winds. Or the fisherman who paid up Rs 5,000 to pirates after his boat was captured and his majhi held hostage for a day near Benifeli forest just last month.
In the thickly inhabited delta of 31 lakh people where waterways—tidal rivers connected by innumerable creeks and canals—comprise 45 per cent of 4,263 sq km of mangrove forest area, river pirates have never found the going tough. And the spoils are handsome, either way. For one, the delta is one of the most fertile fishing regions in India—tiger prawns, mullet, bhetki and hilsa are some of the prominent catches: fish 'landing' from the Sundarbans coast during 1994-95 was an impressive 38,189 tonnes, up from the previous year's figure of 33,540 tonnes. The delta also contributes 65 per cent of West Bengal's prawn exports of 12,000 metric tonnes.
And then there are some 6,000-odd mechanised boats and a few thousand trawlers plying in the region to reap this rich harvest. Each trawler sailing on a fortnight-long fishing expedition usually carries two nylon nets costing Rs 2 lakh, stores 2,500 litres of diesel to power the engine, stocks provisions worth Rs 5,000 and could bring back up to 20,000 kg of fish worth nearly Rs 3 lakh. The trawler itself could cost anything between Rs 5 lakh and Rs 12 lakh. "All this adds up to big money and is enough to lure the pirates," says Pradhan.
In the end, the small fishermen end up the worst losers. Most of them do not own trawlers and share just 40 per cent of their catch sales, while the rest is pocketed by the trawler owner. No wonder this fishing paradise remains mired in abject poverty: Sundarbans is actually one of the most backward areas of West Bengal where the majority of the population barely survives on an entirely saline landmass. They also wage a relentless battle with the whims of nature—more than 20 lakh people have perished in at least four cyclones, two earthquakes, a hurricane and floods which have ravaged the delta since 1688.
There is enough provocation to turn to a life of crime too: a paltry 30 per cent of the population is productively employed and the pressure on land is high, thanks to a disturbingly high population growth rate of 28 per cent (1981-91), way above West Bengal's average of 24.55 per cent. A 305-km long riverine border with Bangladesh does not make things easier for law-abiding locals: infiltrators and pirates have virtually unfettered access to Indian waters.
NOT surprisingly, second generation fishermen like Rakhal Das and Bipul Das of Kulpi are sending their children to school to ensure that they do not grow up to take their father's vocation. "The rivers are unsafe, and there is very little we can do to counter the pirates," says Bipul Das. Now experts have also begun fearing the worst: an imminent decline in fish catch in the Sundarbans rivers spurred by indiscriminate prawn seed collection, which erodes river dykes and leads to flooding, and an increasing pollutant load in the estuary, currently estimated at 20,000 kg a day. "All this severely threatens the existence of mangroves. No mangroves will mean no fish," warns CIFRI's Naskar.
For the moment, however, inspiring some confidence among the fishermen will require beefing up resources of the region's eight undermanned police stations, equipped with just four wooden launches. SP Sharma says the force needs "technically superior vessels" for patrolling as its wooden launches can't operate in the delta during summers and monsoons. He also plans a floating outpost to patrol the piracy prone points on the rivers. For its part, the West Bengal government, which earned Rs 450 crore from fish exports last year—the state accounts for a third of the country's fish production—also needs to combat the problem before it is too late. "The Sundarbans is very important for us. It's the richest grazing ground for marine fish. And the problem of piracy is extremely worrisome," admits state fisheries minister Kiranmoy Nanda.
For the moment, however, these breathtakingly beautiful mangroves will continue to remain a deceptive exterior to the terror within. Riding the choppy rivers and surviving the savage sea to earn a harsh living takes a heavy physical and mental toll on fish-ermen. They are left with no strength now to take on the pirates. "I would retire to the mountains if I could," says Rakhal Das, a day before setting out unsurely on another arduous fishing trip. "Rivers and seas don't draw me nowadays."