Experiences of Mukti as narrated to Team LV
On the banks of a river in the hinterlands of Sunderbans, we witnessed the most unlikely sight. A woman releasing crabs and fishes in the water. We were surprised. Walking up to her, we couldn’t help but enquire.
The woman introduced herself as Debika Mondal. She informed us that the fishes and crabs were her catch for the day. But with lockdown, she could not find a buyer or a market to sell her products. She did not have the appetite or intention to kill and cook a meal out of her livelihood. Debika decided to release the fishes and crabs back in the river.
Debika is among the thousands of women in the Sunderbans who are dependent on the rivers for livelihood, but avoid its unnecessary exploitation.
It was around one in the afternoon during the lockdown. We were at Purba Jata Raidighi, Sunderbans. Out in the sultry heat, doing our survey, to check if there were people without food. It was then that we came across Phalguni Sil in her crumbling mud house. She was married to a migrant labourer Ramesh Sil. Sitting quietly like a shy bride, she seldom made eye contact with us as we spoke.
On prodding, Phalguni shared that she had been begging door to door for food. She was doing this for the past two weeks, as her husband could not send money and she had run out of food. Phalguni’s husband worked in Kolkata and was stuck there due to the lockdown. She was alone with her two year old daughter. That morning, Phalguni had received a call from Ramesh and learnt that his food stock was also over. After getting to know that her husband had nothing to eat, she decided not to step out to beg that day. But Phalguni could not manage her hungry, crying child. She had dropped the child at her sister’s place.
As Phalguni sat quietly, we went into her kitchen. It was empty with empty vessels. A heartbreaking sight! Before rushing to get some rice and dal, we asked the details of her husband and promised to get back soon. Later in the day, again we visited Phalguni’s hut with some ration. We saw her in the same place. This time her daughter sat chuckling on her lap.
Immediately after Amphan, we were again in the same village doing our relief work. We wanted to check on Phalguni. The team tried to find her hut. But it was in shambles. Phalguni and her daughter were not there. Nobody knew their whereabouts.
A week ago, we visited again to look for Phalguni. She stood proudly with her husband posing in front of the under-repair mud hut. Her husband had managed to get back home with our Kolkata volunteers. On the day of the Amphan, they had left home to be in one of the Govt. shelters. They had come back to turn a new leaf.
Phalguni and many like her are victims of high tide, low tide and often hungry tide.
Manasi Halder recollects the afternoon when super cyclone Amphan hit Sunderbans. She had gone to Nagendrapur Uchhavidyalaya for refuge with her 2 boys – 10 years and 6 months old. The elders had stayed back home. They had to keep their eyes on the rising waters of Mani river in case it broke into the house. She had never seen anything as fierce as Amphan in 30 years of her life.
During COVID-19, Manasi and her women team had distributed masks, created awareness about social distancing in the 8 blocks of Sunderbans. They had taken care and quarantined the migrant labourers who managed to return home during the lockdown. She had continued her work of sensitising the local people about the upcoming Amphan. Manasi had stood by them through thick and thin.
Eight years ago, Manasi Halder who had passed high school, formed her own self-help group and joined Mukti Community Development Fund (MCDF). Through MCDF, Manasi provides women entrepreneurs with start- up capital, skill development training and micro-financing (in many villages banking is virtually non- existent). She looks into the training of women in soft toy, agarbatti and dry-flower decoration making. Today, she leads 8000 women across 8 blocks of Sunderbans.
Amphan did not spare Manasi’s home, but that did not deter her. Once she was assured of her family’s safety, Manasi was out with her team focussed on relief work. She helped in distribution of food and drinking water. This continues today for the homeless and migrant workers in quarantine. Her routine begins at 8 in the morning. She comes home for a little while to take care of her infant and cook a meal for her family. Again, she is out with her women groups working till the evening and taking calls at night.
Manasi and the women of Sunderbans are no less than the fierce Royal Bengal tigers that roam these dense mangroves.
Cover Image: Untitled painting by Jamini Roy
Story images : Mukti. Last image representational.
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