Fish­er­men in West Ben­gal face a stark choice: risk be­ing kid­napped by pi­rates or starve to death.

For the des­per­ate fish­er­men liv­ing in vil­lages around coastal West Ben­gal, the choice is stark – risk be­ing taken hostage while fish­ing in pi­rate-in­fested wa­ters or starve to death. Sanjay Pandey meets the men who have sur­vived but been left pen­ni­less

Friday - - Contents -

It was 10am, but the sky was dark and men­ac­ing thanks to the low rain clouds hang­ing over Gos­aba, a re­mote vil­lage in the east In­dian state of West Ben­gal. Bob­bing in the creek’s choppy wa­ters, as black as the clouds, a 20-me­tre­long wooden boat with seven fish­er­men set sail. It was head­ing into the Bay of Ben­gal, its six­cylin­der out­board mo­tor splut­ter­ing as it chugged away.

The fish­er­men were hop­ing for a good catch de­spite the gloomy weather and sang Ben­gali folk songs as they sailed. But barely 30 min­utes into their trip, they abruptly stopped af­ter one of the men, Subhas Mon­dal, whis­pered: ‘Si­lence.’

The fish­er­men cow­ered, sud­denly glad for the dense cloud cover. ‘No­body make a noise,’ Subhas, 55, or­dered. ‘I think pi­rates are head­ing our way. Turn the boat around. Now.’

But it was too late. Be­fore they could al­ter course, a speed boat raced up to them with four masked men point­ing guns. ‘Don’t move or we’ll shoot,’ one of them threat­ened, in Ben­gali.

The fish­er­men had never seen pi­rates up-close be­fore – they had man­aged to sneak up un­der cover of the fog. Des­per­ate to es­cape, they revved the mo­tor and tried to head back to land, but their boat was no match for the pi­rates’ mod­ern speed­ster, and they were un­armed when the fir­ing be­gan.

Subhas took a bul­let in his right shoul­der be­fore he in­stinc­tively pushed his only son Bapi, 28, down to save him. A few sec­onds later, an­other bul­let hit Subhas’ mouth, knock­ing out a tooth.

As he shrieked in pain and fell on the floor of the boat, he saw that his col­league Hari­pada was hit in the right thigh and bleed­ing pro­fusely.

For­tu­nately for the fish­er­men, at pre­cisely that mo­ment, the pi­rates’ boat stalled af­ter the mo­tor choked, giv­ing the fish­er­men enough time to race to the shore.

Hari­pada, 33, and Subhas were rushed to the hospi­tal, where they spent two weeks get­ting their wounds treated.

Now, nearly five months later, sit­ting by the door of his small hovel, Subhas looks out to the sea, glad to have lived to tell the tale. ‘We were lucky,’ he says. ‘If the pi­rates had caught us, they would have taken us hostage and de­manded a huge ran­som from our fam­i­lies.

‘One of our neigh­bours was taken hostage last month and his wife had to pay Rs200,000 (Dh11,329) for his re­lease. They threat­ened to kill him if she failed to de­liver the money in a fort­night.’

For a fam­ily of four that sub­sists on around Rs300 a day, the ran­som will leave them deb­trid­den for years. ‘She had no op­tion,’ says Subhas. ‘She had to sell every­thing – her house, cat­tle, the lit­tle jew­ellery she had – to buy his re­lease.’ Sadly she is not the only wife to be left pen­ni­less by ruth­less pi­rates who prey on fish­er­men risk­ing their lives to earn a liv­ing in the dan­ger­ous wa­ters off the coast of West Ben­gal.

Ac­cord­ing to news re­ports, in the past year alone, pi­rates have kid­napped more than 20 fish­er­men and ex­tracted around Rs3 mil­lion. In Fe­bru­ary, eight fish­er­men were in­jured af­ter pi­rates shot at them dur­ing an at­tack on their

trawlers. There are no records of when piracy be­gan along the coast­line. But stray in­ci­dents have been re­ported for at least a cen­tury, lo­cals say.

As per gov­ern­ment records, in­ci­dents of piracy spiked in the mid-Sev­en­ties af­ter Bangladesh, which shares its bor­der with West Ben­gal, be­came in­de­pen­dent in 1971. Se­cu­rity agen­cies find the 305km-long river­ine bor­der tough to pa­trol, mak­ing it easy for pi­rates to op­er­ate.

In 1989, a gang of pi­rates cap­tured 20 fish­er­men and de­manded a ran­som of Rs2 mil­lion. In a show­down with coast guards on Ke­dod­weep Is­land, 15 of the 30 pi­rates were killed; the rest fled, and all the fish­er­men were res­cued. Mar­itime Se­cu­rity Re­view, an on­line source of mar­itime se­cu­rity in­for­ma­tion, is­sued a warn­ing early this year that ‘Bay of Ben­gal re­mains highly dan­ger­ous for fish­ing ves­sels’.

‘The Bangladeshi pi­rates are a threat to not just fish­er­men but also na­tional se­cu­rity,’ says Na­tional Fish­work­ers Fo­rum sec­re­tary Pradip Chat­ter­jee.

The pi­rates’ favoured months to strike are June to Septem­ber – the fish­ing sea­son – when around 150,000 fish­er­men, who live on the nu­mer­ous is­lands around the area, set out to fish. ‘On a good day we – a group of say, seven fish­er­men – can net around 50-60kg [of fish]. We can sell a kilo of hilsa for Rs600-Rs800, so it is some­thing that we look for­ward to,’ says Subhas. Sadly for them, this is also the time when pi­rates, mainly from Bangladesh’s Khulna and Jes­sore re­gions, which are close to the In­dian bor­der, get ac­tive.

‘They not only kid­nap the men, but also loot their ves­sels, steal their boats and tor­ture them mer­ci­lessly if their de­mands are not met,’ says Subhas, who is still nurs­ing the bul­let in­jury in his shoul­der.

Te­jen­dralal Das, the head of a lo­cal fish­er­man’s group, con­curs. ‘The Sun­dar­bans [the largest man­grove for­est in the world] is rich in hilsa, a pop­u­lar fish in Kolkata, pom­fret, lob­sters, tiger prawns and crabs,’ he says.

‘Very of­ten, pi­rates at­tack In­dian fish­er­men when they are re­turn­ing with their catch. They loot the boat and kid­nap them for ran­som. Al­though coastal po­lice sta­tions have be­come func­tional, many lack speed boats and other equip­ment to tackle the pi­rates. If they did, such in­ci­dents would surely stop.’

Sita Man­dal agrees. The 36-year-old’s eyes well up as she watches her hus­band Ramesh get ready to set off with four oth­ers in his small mo­tor boat.

‘Please prom­ise me this will be the last time you go to sea,’ the mother-of-one says, bit­ing back tears. ‘I can’t bear to live with the stress un­til you re­turn.’

He nods. ‘I prom­ise, this will be the last time,’ says the 40-year-old. ‘I’ll get a good catch, earn enough so I can quit and mi­grate to the city maybe and do some odd jobs.’

Sita has rea­son to be ter­ri­fied. In April, Ramesh and a group of 12 fish­er­men were kid­napped by pi­rates while fish­ing near the Sun­dar­bans. ‘We were re­turn­ing in our boat af­ter a huge catch of crabs and fish when a gang of 14 armed pi­rates ap­peared from nowhere and at­tacked us,’ Ramesh says. ‘The group kid­napped us at gun­point and took us

The pi­rates’ FAVOURED months to strike are June to Septem­ber – the fish­ing sea­son – when around 150,000 FISH­ER­MEN, who live on the nu­mer­ous IS­LANDS around the area, set out to fish

‘When­ever my hus­band goes to sea, I CAN­NOT SLEEP be­cause I get NIGHT­MARES. I know how dan­ger­ous fish­ing is turn­ing out to be. But if he does not go, we and our two chil­dren will DIE of STAR­VA­TION’

to the Bangladesh side of Sun­dar­bans in Atharo­phanki. They re­leased nine peo­ple and the boats, but held three of us, in­clud­ing me, hostage. They sent a mes­sage through the re­leased men in­form­ing our fam­i­lies to pay a ran­som of Rs100,000 each if they wanted to see us alive.

‘Through­out our week-long cap­tiv­ity, we were con­stantly beaten and tor­tured and given just enough food to sur­vive.’

The fam­i­lies were dev­as­tated when they re­ceived the mes­sage. Too poor to even imag­ine such a huge amount of money, they begged the pi­rates to re­duce the ran­som.

‘Af­ter much plead­ing through in­ter­me­di­aries, the pi­rates agreed to Rs50,000 per per­son,’ says Sita. ‘I didn’t know what to do. We did not have any sav­ings, hav­ing spent every­thing on our daugh­ter’s mar­riage last year.

‘We were also warned not to re­port it to the po­lice and that if we did, we’d never hear from our hus­bands again.

‘I was aware that if they didn’t get the money, the gang wouldn’t hes­i­tate to kill him. I knew of the fate of an­other woman in my vil­lage whose hus­band was shot dead be­cause she was un­able to raise the money for his ran­som.’

Des­per­ate, Sita sold all her valu­ables, ‘in­clud­ing my man­gal­su­tra – wed­ding chain – which was so pre­cious to me, all the brass uten­sils I had and our two cows to raise the amount.’

How­ever, that was still not enough. ‘I had no op­tion but to take a loan of Rs15,000 from a money lender at around 30 per cent in­ter­est.

‘At that time I didn’t think of how I would be able to pay off that amount. All I wanted was to save my hus­band’s life.’

Once the money was handed over to the pi­rates via an in­ter­me­di­ary, they hi­jacked a Bangladeshi boat, put the hostages on it and told them to go back.

‘It takes us around two years of hard work to save Rs50,000,’ she says. ‘But we can lose that and more in a day in the case of a kid­nap­ping. That’s why I’ve been plead­ing with him to stop go­ing to sea and go to a big­ger city in search of a bet­ter life.’

Sita is not alone. Her 28-year-old neigh­bour Moumita looks sullen, seated at the door of her small, one-room house. Her 34-year-old hus­band Ni­may Jot­dar is on a seven-day trip at sea. ‘When­ever my hus­band goes to sea, I can­not sleep prop­erly be­cause I get night­mares about him in some un­to­ward in­ci­dent. In des­per­a­tion, I ob­serve a fast and pray that he will be fine.

‘I know how dan­ger­ous fish­ing is turn­ing out to be. But if he does not go to work, we and our two chil­dren will die of star­va­tion. I guess we can only pray that our hus­bands will re­turn safe from what has now be­come a dan­ger­ous mis­sion.’

So se­ri­ous is the piracy threat that hun­dreds of peo­ple liv­ing on the is­lands in and around the Sun­dar­bans have mi­grated to ci­ties. Sev­eral more are pre­par­ing to leave. ‘It is a bat­tle of sur­vival here in the Sun­dar­bans,’ says Subhas. ‘If you don’t go to sea fear­ing pi­rate at­tacks, you

‘The sea is our only HOPE of sur­vival; I don’t know any­thing ex­cept fish­ing. I can take on CROC­O­DILES or stormy seas... But if you’re kid­napped, the pi­rates will BREAK your financial BACK­BONE’

will starve to death. And if you do go, there is a huge risk of be­com­ing bank­rupt. I can­not see my fam­ily dy­ing in front of my eyes. That’s why I re­turned to sea within a month of be­ing shot by pi­rates. My only son ac­com­pa­nies me but I keep pray­ing that noth­ing hap­pens to him.’

An­other fish­er­man, Na­gen Man­dal, 48, who has been at­tacked by pi­rates three times, says, ‘The sea is our only hope of sur­vival. I’m ready to take on croc­o­diles or stormy seas... But if you’re kid­napped, the pi­rates will break your financial back­bone.’

His last en­counter was in 2011. The pi­rates snatched every­thing he and his team had – ra­tions, fuel, net and the day’s catch. ‘I was hit on the head with the butt of a ri­fle be­cause I tried to at­tack them,’ he says. ‘They also took away my mo­torised boat.

‘In all, I lost around Rs100,000 in­clud­ing the boat, which had cost me Rs60,000. Two years of my earn­ings gone in a flash.

‘I had to start from scratch to re­build my life. Last year, I bought a new boat with a loan; I don’t know how to do any­thing ex­cept fish.

‘I’ve two sons – 25 and 28 – and I don’t want them to in­herit this busi­ness. It’s just too dan­ger­ous. It’s not worth it.’

Pradip says there are a dozen pi­rate gangs ac­tive in the Sun­dar­bans. Three – Raju Vahini, Noah Vahini and Jehangir Vahini – are the most dreaded ones, each hav­ing around 100 pi­rates in their ranks.

‘We do in­dulge in oc­ca­sional gang wars over ter­ri­to­rial is­sues,’ says Baki, the leader of Noah Vahini, by tele­phone from Bangladesh. His group is ac­tive in the West Ben­gal bor­der ar­eas. ‘Yes, we in­ter­cept In­dian boats and kid­nap fish­er­men [for ran­som]. But we never snatch away their boats or fish­ing nets. It’s only the ri­val gangs who do that.’

Baki claims his group has sources in In­dia who pass on in­for­ma­tion about fish­er­men’s move­ments. ‘Act­ing on the in­for­ma­tion, we at­tack their boats and take them hostage,’ says the 32-year-old. ‘See, it is a bat­tle of sur­vival. If we don’t loot them, we won’t be able to sur­vive.’

The fish­er­men’s fo­rum has been de­mand­ing an im­me­di­ate crack­down on the pi­rates and per­mis­sion to equip fish­er­men to cope with such at­tacks. But the West Ben­gal gov­ern­ment is yet to take ac­tion.

‘In many in­stances, the fish­er­men pre­fer not re­port­ing kid­nap­ping cases to the po­lice as they could be booked for tres­pass­ing into the core area of the pro­tected for­est,’ says Pradip.

Mean­while, for the fish­er­men, ev­ery day is a strug­gle and filled with risks. Two months af­ter the at­tack on his boat, Subhas and his crew are back at sea. ‘As our boat inched closer to the area where we en­coun­tered the pi­rates, we said a silent prayer and sped past,’ he says.

Thank­fully, there were no pi­rates chas­ing them. ‘I guess one has to live a day at a time.’

In April, Ramesh Man­dal was kid­napped by pi­rates and taken to Bangladesh. His wife, Sita, had to sell all that they had to se­cure his re­lease

For the hun­dreds of fish­er­men and their fam­i­lies who live on Rs300 a day, cough­ing up ran­som of Rs100,000 and more is ru­inous

Subhas Mon­dal (left) took a bul­let in the shoul­der when he and six other fish­er­men were at­tacked at sea around five months ago

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