Millennium Post

Faceless herds of Sundarbans

Having worked at the grassroots for some years now, what I have often grappled with, is the utter lack of representation of the poor in elite discourse, in a substantial way. In rare moments, when they are, they are collectivised as faceless herds, too numerous and too unimportant, to merit individuation, let alone respectability. My own personal journey of breaking away from this cruel ‘understanding’ has been slow and humanising.

Marjina Bewa can walk barely four steps before her slight frame folds down – she sits down on her haunches to catch her breath because she suffers from asthma. She cannot go out to beg for food anymore, that responsibility has been taken up by her daughter who is a mother of three children, whose husband has summarily abandoned them.

Marjina’s husband was alive last year when we went to visit her at her home, but he had been mentally-ill for five years. He would sit in front of his mud hut and ask for food from anyone who walked by. He would smear feces on his body and sit quietly. Marjina explained that he used to beg in Kolkata for more than a year and that is where he lost his mental balance.

Marjina tearfully recounts an incident from a few years ago when she had gone begging to another village in the heat of April. Some people accused her of being an onion ghost (pyaj bhut), and captured her under a fishing-net. ‘They kept me under the April sun the whole day without water.’ She implored them to let her go. Her home was on the edge of the island, she told them, where she lived with her husband and daughter. Finally, when they let her go at the end of the day, no one even asked her if she wanted a swig of water – and that hurt her the most. ‘No one,’ she said and broke down. There are many like Marjina in our society, who are no-ones, invisible to the government, the NGOs, the political parties and even the main village community. They fight for their existence at the physical and metaphorical periphery of the society. Marjina is not categorised as Below Poverty Line (BPL) because she has no political or social clout and draws only wheat and kerosene from the ration shop.

The relationship of the people of Sunderbans to its rivers is complex. On the one hand, it provides livelihoods and a mode of conveyance, while on the other the semi-saline water is unfit for drinking or bathing and brings snakes and other dangers.

Until recently, the high tide in the river would bring water to the foundation of her home. The homes in Samantapara in the Sunderbans are the mud sentinels of the island braving the first onslaught of floods, cyclones and other calamities.

Recently, when a tiger found its way into the island, these families could not sleep at night because the swamps start right from the edge of their homes. There are people like Hasina Gazi in this neighbourhood, whose husbands were killed by tigers while foraging for wood in the forests. The national animal also tends to find its prey in these marginal communities who take disproportionate risks venturing out to collect wood and honey for their survival. In another area of the Sunderbans where we work on agriculture, there is a widow’s colony where every woman in the neighborhood had their husbands killed by a Royal Bengal Tiger. This painful fact of the Sunderbans has also become an exotic trivia for the urbane to toss around.

As I was going through a few applications filed under the Right to Information (RTI), from this village, I came across a bona fide certificate issued by the panchayat pradhan that is needed to apply for old-age pension. It read, ‘I know so-and-so of so-and-so village. She comes from a poor but respectable family.’

Such mutual-exclusivity of poverty and respectability is an affliction that plagues our society. It is what gives us the ability to think of Royal Bengal Tigers without the humans who co-habit the area; to think of food without a thought about the farmers; to think of the high rises and malls without thinking of the agricultural land on which its foundations rest; to sit in air-conditioned rooms and deliberate on food shortage and blame it on the increasing population of the poor forgetting altogether that the poorest 40 per cent of the world consume less than five per cent of the natural resources. (IPA)
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