Ethos of a sinking space: Fishers in Sundarbans surmount tiger attacks, bureaucracy to earn livelihoods

They also struggle with dwindling fish stocks and unknown fish diseases 

By Raktima Ghosh
Published: Thursday 29 July 2021
Ethos of a sinking space: Fishers in Sunderbans surmount tiger attacks, bureaucracy to sustain livelihoods. Photo: Raktima Ghosh

Material and symbolic associations of humans with nature reveal deep social-ecological assemblages in volatile and vulnerable ecological landscapes. This mutualism has been effective and efficient as people have learned to generously combat or negotiate complexities with support of their situated ecological knowledge. 

A few months ago, I watched Beasts of the Southern Wild, a 2012 American drama directed by Benh Zeitlin and adapted from Lucy Alibar’s one-act-play Juicy and Delicious. It is based on a story of a father-daughter duo who live on the “other side” of a concrete levee over a large river. 

The levee was constructed by the State to control the flow and protect northern lands from rising river waters. Cut off from the “mainland”, they call this low-lying bayou “Bathtub”, which accommodates a small community. 

Here, the dreadfully poor, yet self-reliant dwellers, who are majorly dependent on fishing, thrive in a seemingly apocalyptic industrial world. 

A six-years old kid named Hushpuppy lives with her father in a desolate wilderness of poverty in the Bathtub. With a valiant and compassionate heart, Hushpuppy is on an intimate term with the natural world, where she feeds pigs, fish and crab that she has learned to grab bare-handedly. 

“Daddy says, on the other side of the levee, on the dry side, they are afraid of the water like a bunch of babies,” Hushpuppy says about her father Wink, who is gradually ailing. As a fearsome hurricane is making its way towards Bathtub, Wink teaches his little child the art of survival without deserting their land. Eventually, some of their neighbours leave the place and head towards the city. "Me and my daddy, we stay right here," Hushpuppy asserts. 

Post-hurricane, Bathtub was submerged under water stagnated within the walls of the levee. A handful of inhabitants including Wink and Hushpuppy, who have taken shelter in a floating house, aspire to rebuild the community. 

This made Wink hatch an immediate plan with a small group of friends. They drained the water by blowing a hole in the dam and helped restore the land. 

Meanwhile, administrative officials arrived with a compulsory evacuation order and dislodged the residents of Bathtub to an emergency shelter. In due course, they managed to return to their homes at Bathtub. 

Upon returning, Hushpuppy bids goodbye to her father and stands ablaze for confronting other catastrophes of epic proportions.


Wink, Hushpuppy and the “Bathtub” . Source: bostonartsdiary.com

The contemplative eyes of Hushpuppy unravel a childhood perception of a resilient world until a vicious storm surge conveys her the reality. This vulnerable “sealed world” is her endearing space which has tutored her to live unboundedly with natural entities such as the river, animals and fish. 

The story also draws in the ramifications of global warming with representations of collapsing icebergs. “The whole universe depends on everything fitting together just right,” says Hushpuppy. “If one piece bursts, even the smallest piece, the entire universe will get busted.”

Hushpuppy and the beast. Source: https://vcvoices.org

During my last visit to the Indian Sundarbans on January 29, 2021, I met Arati at Tipligheri on the island of Satjelia. I listened to her story of subsistence within the vulnerable delta, “the Bathtub”. 

Accompanied by her husband, Arati used to fish in the forested river creeks of Sundabrns. People like Arati make a living out of forest fishing, often risking their lives to tigers. 

Their knowledge draws on cultural practices, transmitted orally through generations. The living space of the community in the Sundarbans is shaped by layers of sediments as old as their ancestors, who had once established deep links to the forest.

“We do not go to the forest anymore because of the tigers,” said Sardar, who currently labours on other’s farmland during the monsoon for Rs 300 a day. In the Sundarbans, fishing is restricted within buffer zones, locally known as “khola bada”. 

With continuous risks of being attacked by the Bengal tiger as well as forest officials, fishers from the forest fringe villages venture into the ‘closed’ creeks (bondho bada) that hosts more fish stock. 

Sitting next to Arati, Sulata mentioned that they had to skip fish catch during two consecutive high tides due to frequent tiger attacks. Nonetheless, they regularly sail off with a simple human-pulled country boat and adequate foodstuffs, including rice (20 kilogram), potato (1 kg) and pulses (3 kg) for three persons to stay seven days in the forest. 

They also carry crab foods (Rs 400 per kg) and ample salt for preparing fish foods with initially caught fishes. Not all the fishers are privileged to have their own boats and rent a boat for Rs 6,000. They are allowed to go to the forest only if they have a BLC (Boat Licensing Certificate) permit, which is either issued by the forest department or rented from others. 

“Forest officials are more dangerous than tigers,” Sulata said. Ambiguous management of BLCs and fishers’ identity permits have marginalised small-scale fishing. 

A total of 923 BLCs were issued after the establishment of Sundarban Tiger Reserve in 1973. Over 35 years later, only 706 BLCs are active for around 60,000 fishermen. Financially better-off people, who do not catch fish by themselves, often rent their BLCs to local “khotidars” or fish depot owners. 

The community was ebbed away from the “community forest resource” long before UNESCO announced a formal operation comprising “coordination and integration of diverse activities of conservation”. The prerogative custody of the mangrove forests thus was removed from the commons to the powerful transnational conservationists and bureaucrats. 

Alongside these constraints, Sardar also mentioned the dwindling fish stocks and unknown fish diseases. “We do not get as many fish as we used to before,” she said. A large number of indigenous fish species had faced decline due to trawler-based commercial overfishing, siltation and climate change impacts.  

“Nobody cares for us. Politicians come before elections and makes false promises.” 


Arati Sardar (left) and Sulata Sardar (right). Source: Author

In March, 2021, Kolkata high court passed a verdict further restricting community access. The verdict was premised on grounds of biodiversity conservation and raised questions about the subsistence of the fishers. 

As the looming global markets are captured by large-scale shrimp farms and commercial fisheries, small-scale fishers of Sundarbans are facing legal barriers from the forest bureaucracy to debar their established practices. 

Political disputes and dialogues are craftily obscuring the wider privatisation and marketisation propaganda. Small-scale fishers in the Sundarbans are seeking meaningful collaborative interventions from stakeholders and researchers across disciplines.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.