The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve is a mangrove protected forest located in the West Bengal Delta, and declared as a Tiger Reserve in 1973. The districts of North and South 24 Parganas within which lies the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR), comprises 102 islands, of which 54 are inhabited and the rest forested. The inhabited islands house a majority of forest-dependent people, especially concentrated in the lower island villages bordering the fringes of the forest. These people are integrally dependent on the forest resources for their livelihood, the most common forest-based activities being forest fishing (fishing in the narrowest river creeks and estuaries surrounded by forest areas), prawn seed collection, crab fishing, honey and wax collection.
In the last 50 years, the population has grown and since 1973, just after the declaration of the Tiger Reserves, new regulations have been imposed on the people, mostly in relation to their fishing rights. In 1973, the Forest Department (FD) issued a number of 923 Boat License Certificate (BLC) to regulate fishing activities on the buffer zone of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR) - but not in the core area . However, the families living out of fishing were about 5000. Veteran fishers say that the period for application for the BLC was only one month. This was too short for many to apply and many fishers could not register both for the remoteness of places of their residence and for the low level of awareness on restrictions. This is the reason why only a small number of BLCs were issued in an area where almost every family fishes for subsistence. This deprived the majority to access their forest resources for their livelihood, which does also represent their main source of income.
Because many fishermen have no other option but to continue fishing for their survival they get into conflicts with the current restrictions imposed by the forest department [7,10, 11].
The local communities believe that it is their right to use their natural resources for their livelihood, a right which should also be legally implemented under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, an important law which recognizes both individual and community rights of tribal and forest dwellers communities in forest areas. However, in the Sundarbans, the FRA has not been considered valid, because the communities do not live within the forest but on its fringes. The reason specified is that the forest dwellers living in the district do not reside in the forest area, and hence not recognized as eligible to benefit from the law. This argument is not justified as per section 3 (1) of the Forest Rights Act “For the purposes of this Act, the following rights, which secure individual or community tenure or both, shall be the forest rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers on all forest lands, namely: [...] other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies”. The majority of the people engaged in fishing activities in Sundarban are from tribal or other backward castes (OBC) and according to several civil society organizations, it is unjustified that the FRA does not apply to them [10, 5].
The implementation of the Forest Rights Act has been a very controversial issue in the Sundarbans, and not yet implemented in any of the districts. For almost 5000 people inhabiting this difficult terrain, the forest resources represent the only sources of sustainability. For this reason, the local communities have been asking for its implementation. One of the major local political organization campaign for its recognition in the Sundaraban is the Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch, with president Mr. Pabitra Mandal. Another organization, based in Kolkata, which is supporting the struggle of the people of Sundarban is the Dakshingamba Matsyajibi Forum (DFM). However, besides these political and civil societies advocacy work, the majority of people in Sundarban are still not aware of the FRA. One of the first public hearings to discuss the issue was held in February 2017 in the Rangabelia villa, Gosaba island by Sundarbans Jansramik Union, an affiliate of All Indian Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), participated by Medha Patkar (HR activist) and Ashok Chowdary (AIUFWP). In the meeting for the first time was publicly shared the injustice meted out by the people by the forest department institution and the need for their rights to be immediately recognized .
In fact, since the limits of the tiger core area got expanded, fishing restrictions and debates between the local communities and the forest rangers have further increased. The numerous restrictions imposed on the communities are becoming a real harden for the low-income fishing families, who are subjected to high fines of minimum 1000 rupees per boat if fishing in the restricted area. Moreover, If fishing while not being in possession of any BLC, the fisherman could also be charged and incriminated under the WLPA (notes form field). Such is the case of 8 fishermen arrested in January 2017 to fish on the tiger reserved as reported in the “Daily Star” . Because of this, in order to escape the forest department, the majority of fishermen enter into the small forest creek, a dangerous area for the presence of the Bengal tigers. In the last decades, the number of tigers has also increased due to the conservation measures applied in the area; this is surely a positive sign for conservation, however, the expansion of local communities in this area have also increased, generating a human-animal conflict which leaves the poor fisher communities as victims of tiger killings [7, 10].
At the same time, numerous are the tourist boats that every day circulate within the river of the mangrove Sundarban protected forest to spot the Bengal Tiger. Moreover, as documented in a report, transportation activities such as Barges and ships carrying cargo are not yet regulated in the Sundarbans, contributing to pollution and disturbing the tiger corridors . According to the local people the Forest Department, with their aggressive policies only based on restrictions, are contributing in harming the territory and creating a very bad environment between its inhabitants, at the cost of the environmental care.
Human rights violation and case of harassment are often registered in the area. For example, a case registered on 16th March 2017, when a patrol boat of Chandanpuri bit officers dangerously chased and collided with a small fishing boat with onboard 28 tribals fishers including men, women and minors. The boat was overturned and the people fell into the river water and while desperately struggling for survival, the men tried to rescue both women and children. The officers were just enjoying this scene from afar. The day after 100 tribals fishers approached the Chandapiri Forest Beat Officer demanding the cost of medical treatment, compensation for the damage and punishment for the beat officer (story shared by DMFWestBengal).
Such stories of harassment and cruelty are of ordinary circumstances in the Sundarbans.