As the bus leaves Kolkata and trundles along bumpy roads dotted on either side with fish-breeding water ponds, small hand-made dams, and makeshift chai shops, you can sense a large water body ahead. Later, as our vessel chugs over the vast blue sheet, memories of the din of the ‘city of joy’ are easy to drown as you approach Bali island in the Sundarbans, in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal.
Unemployment and poverty were driving the youth on the island to poaching tigers, deer and other animals, and to illegally felling trees. But over the years, community-based tourism has helped mitigate this – many young people who might have become poachers have become protectors. Alternative means of making a living have reduced their dependence on forests. Some locals have become tour guides, others have made their boats available for tourists, while some have found employment as hotel staff. Although the salaries are modest, for some it’s a matter of pride to be associated with the tourism industry.
Images from a recent visit to the island:
The day’s work begins: the boats are readied to ferry goods, people, animals and tourists along the watery, labyrinthine freeways of the Sundarbans
Such long stretches of mangroves are sometimes fenced in to protect humans and wildlife from each other, making it mutually safer to conduct the business of living
Bali island’s dock is very much the village square; all the coming and going takes place here. Humans, goods, goats, calves and fish pass every day through this portal
Fish cultivation: small and large plots of land dotting the landscape are dammed and filled with water to breed fish for sale and consumption
Net-working: for many in the Sundarbans, a day at the office is a completely different kettle of fish
Shepherd and sheep (left): the winding streets of Bali island are narrow but clean. While plastic garbage cans are not a pretty sight (right), the locals use them to keep their streets spotless
A jeweller waits for business in the village’s shopping area
Tigers are not a common sight. A story visitors will hear often is about the tiger who swam across a five-plus kilometre stretch to meet and mate with a tigress who had been brought over to the village by a circus. But the tiger population has dwindled over a period of time
Monitor lizards, deer, wild boars, crocodiles and kingfishers are a common sight
The HELP foundation has revived the local theatre group. The group enacts the tale of the goddess Bonbibi. Legend has it that Dukhe, a young lad, was to be fed to a tiger in exchange for honey and wood, but the goddess intervened on hearing his appeals and saved his life
The tigers of the Sundarbans, like all other tigers, are secular and devour members of all communities without discrimination. Hence, members of both Hindu and Muslim communities seek the protection of Bonbibi. Here, the goddess has overpowered the tiger
A steady traffic of men, women and children keeps the dock buzzing with activity. Some trickle down in the morning to brush their teeth and greet the sun, while others congregate to chat, reflect, play cards, and watch the boats go by
The day’s work is over and it’s time to head home