Courtesy ‘Bonphool’, bitter story of Sundarbans honey hunters now changing for the better

For long they have been easy preys for the Royal Bengal Tiger lurking in the mangroves and in the creeks. Attacked, mauled, mutilated, crippled and killed more often than not leaving behind impoverished families, scarred forever.

And a living testimony to the ordeal of people living here have to go through every single day are the 3,000-odd “Bagh Bidhoba’ or tiger widows who are left to fend for themselves without any social security cover.

All for a few hundred rupees.

One of the largest mangrove forests in the world, Sundarbans is home to some of the poorest communities living in India. Who, in quest of livelihood, have little option but to venture into into rivers for fishing and frequent the swampy forest beds to collect honey from the beehives.

Knowing full well that the Royal Bengal Tiger may be hiding just round the corner or for that matter the crocodile might just be below the water surface level. “We are poor, what do we do. This is the only thing we know. I have lost my grand father and my father to tiger attacks, my uncle was badly injured. But life has to go on,” says Moidul.

Before the Forest Department hands over permits to honey collectors, villagers get together – irrespective of religious beliefs – to seek blessings of Bonbibi, the Goddess of the Jungle. Worshiped alongside her is Dokhin Ray who as the saying goes rules over beasts and demons. He is regarded as the overall ruler of the Sundarbans.

“She is our protector. Honey collection is the most difficult task since we have to go deep inside the mangrove forests to follow the movement of bees to be able to locate the hives. We have to keep looking continuously and trawl deep. The risks are high and when we leave home, somewhere there is that feeling….what if…what if we don’t return home again,” says Bhrigu Halder.

But the bitter story of honey hunters of Sundarbans is now changing for the better.

“Sundarbans honey is also known as blood honey as many people have had to pay with their lives in the process of honey collection. Tiger attacks are so common but in search of livelihood people are forced to venture deep inside the dangerous terrain. We discussed this internally and thought of starting cooperatives for villagers which could help in their earnings as well,” says Dr M V Rao, West Bengal’s Additional Chief Secretary, Panchayat and Rural Development Department.

Nearly 5,000 villagers spread across four different cluster of villages were brought under the ambit of the cooperatives and we provided them Rs 30 lakh loan to set up bee boxes near the villages so that they do not have to risk their lives further.

“Am happy to share that in the last six months, honey worth Rs 2 crore has been produced. Villagers are now working in a safe and secure environment and have been trained in quality control, branding and marketing. We will start selling this honey under the brand name of Bonphool, which means flower of the forest, and it would be available through e-commerce platforms like Amazon, Big Bazaar besides our Biswa Bangla stores,” he adds.

West Bengal Government has already placed a bulk order for Rs 4 lakh through the panchayat department to help bee-keepers during this pandemic.

“Our DFO Santhosha Gubbi has also been instrumental in ensuring that this project takes shape. He has worked tirelessly to make this happen,” says Rao.

With ‘Bonphool’ bringing cheer to the villagers in the back of beyond and Government of West Bengal extending a helping hand, this may soon become one of the biggest game changers for the Amphan ravaged economy of the Sundarbans.

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