Since childhood, Himangshu Jana has fought the vagaries of nature in the inhospitable Sundarban Islands in the Bay of Bengal, which include 10,000 square kilometers of estuarine mangrove forest that straddle the borders of India and Bangladesh. Surviving as a fisherman in the world's largest delta, declared a world heritage site by the United Nations, has never been easy.
But there was a time when Himangshu and his forefathers had only the elements and predatory animals as enemies in the criss-crossing Sundarban Islands, The huge catch in their fishing nets would then make up for natural perils like the Royal Bengal tiger and crocodiles. But the rapidly diminishing catch in this fragile ecosystem -- some say it has fallen by 50 to 70 percent - is a phenomenon that Himangshu does not know how to handle. He also does not have the means to ward off increasing armed intrusions by trawlers from neighboring countries, especially Thailand, that undercut their trade by destroying the small fish and shrinking the catch. Experts and environmentalists say the mangrove gene pool of the Sundarbans is in danger and so are a variety of fish as indiscriminate spawn collection, clandestine tree cutting and lack of planning are taking a toll.
A dispute over fishing activities on an island called Jambudwip, which has the fisheries and forest departments of West Bengal quarreling, highlights the tensions in the area. While the state forest department is keen to take action on an Indian Supreme Court directive that curbs fishing activities in Jambudwip -- a 'char' island with shore and thus fit for fish drying -- the fisheries department thinks otherwise. Meantime, the fishing community suffers. "Look at this area. This is a dead place now," says Prasenjit Das of the Kakdwip Sundarbans fishing community. He speaks angrily of the forest department's move to clear Jambudwip of fishermen, which stems from the Supreme Court-imposed restrictions on fishing and drying of fish there.
"Stopping fish drying in Jambudwip has killed us. Earlier, people from other states used to teem here for work during this season," he argues. "They are restricting us from fishing activities and saying that the gas generated by the drying of fishes is harmful, but what about the intrusion of foreign trawlers which kills the small fish? They cannot stop that." "We can only draw their attention if we go for some kind of militant agitation," he says. Kakdwip Fishermen's Association president Gangadhar Das says the 25,000 people employed by 34 fish traders in the fishing and drying businesses on the island would end up jobless.
He says the court directive is being used to clamp down on the fishermen, but sustainable fishing can be promoted only by stopping fishing with trawl nets near the shore. "Thai intrusion should be stopped as well as overfishing by vessels from Andhra Pradesh and Orissa and foreign countries," Debnath says. The fisherfolk, however, have an ally in West Bengal fisheries minister Kiranmoy Nanda. "The Supreme Court has never said that fishing cannot be done or fish cannot be dried in Jambudwip. The ban is on construction of permanent structures," he says. He also disputes charges that the fishermen cut trees, saying they "know well that during cyclones the trees only protect them." "The catch is reducing because of entry of big trawlers and the trawl nets which destroys spawning. Now trawling is banned from April to August when the spawning is on," he says, adding that the Coast Guard has stepped up surveillance.
But West Bengal forest minister Jogesh Burman takes pride in clearing the island and starting afforestation there, adding: I knew that there would be pressure if we try to stop fishing activities in Jambudwip." Tushar Kanjilal, author of the book 'Who Killed the Sundarbans' and secretary of the Tagore Society for Rural Development, says what is turning the Sundarbans into an ecological disaster is the trend that began 20 years ago of poor people fishing 'bagda' (tiger) spawns that come from the sea and take shelter under the roots of mangroves.
"Since in places like Japan there is a huge demand for such seedlings as a delicacy, indiscriminate fishing of 'bagda' spawns started," he says. The superfine nets that catch 'bagda' spawns net all types of fish too. But these are discarded, a practice that means the destruction of other types of fish on an increasing scale, depleting fish stocks and smaller catches. Due to indiscriminate fishing, fewer spawns are going back to sea and this means less shrimps coming back year after year. More than 60,000 families dependent on spawn fishing face an uncertain future, Kanjilal says.
As fish diversity dwindles, "it is now totally uneconomical to venture with a trawler incurring a big expenditure and coming back with a catch worth less," adds Timirbaran Das, member of the Sundarbans Fishermen's Union He adds that the catch has fallen by almost 70 percent due to trawling by Thai fishermen, who spread nets of 300 to 400 feet against the tide and trace fish on their electronic screens. "They catch the big fish and throw away the small ones," Das alleges.