Jambudwip is an uninhabited fishing island in the South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal. The island is located at the southwestern tip of the Sundarbans delta, on the Bay of Bengal. The island remains uninhabited throughout the year, except for the four months when fishermen travel to the island. These four months is the prime fishing season, from October to February. About 10,000 fishermen travel 28 miles from their native villages in and around Kakdwip to Jambudwip for the fishing season.
The main factor that made Jambudwip an ideal spot for dry fish production was the availability of vast, empty spaces on the island for drying fish. The island’s natural topography proved advantageous for the fisherfolk as the presence of mangroves and other plantations provided them safety from cyclones. Next, the presence of a natural creek on the island enabled the fishermen to use either side of the creek as drying grounds. They steer their boats through the creek and deposit the catches on the drying grounds on either side. Finally, the community used the ample open area with grass as drying beds and cut the grass to spread fishing nets to dry the catches.
These traditional fisherfolk practice antique methods of fishing which are highly non-mechanized and sustainable in nature. The island is demarcated based on the different needs and uses of fishing production and processing. The makeshift camps comprise living areas, kitchens, and storage areas. These temporary residential camps are constructed in Jambudwip during the fishing season and are made of Hogla, a type of grass found in Kakdwip. The fishermen also leave some temporary implements back at Jambudwip to reduce recurring costs every season. Traditional skills and thorough knowledge of the island help the fishermen locate the perfect fishing ground. Following this, the nets made of bamboo are pitched in deep sea beds and left undisturbed for acquiring a good catch. The fishing nets characteristic of this fishing community is known as bindi jal, funnel-shaped bag nets that decrease in size from mouth to tip to balance the flow of water. The tip of the net was made of fine mesh is the most significant part of the net as they help trap the fish. The fishermen constantly monitor the pitched nets awaiting the tide to change from high to low or vice versa. In such a situation, the net moves to a sleeping position signaling a haul of catches; 3 to 4 hauls are expected in every 24-hour cycle. While the fishing boats stay in the deep seas to monitor the nets, the carrier boats transport the catches for drying. As mentioned earlier, the boats enter the island through the creek. The boats are anchored beside the camp so the catches can be washed fresh before it is dried. The drying area is covered with dry grass over which nets are spread to keep the catches free from sand dust. Afterward, the fresh catch is laid in single rows to dry under the sun in the drying area.
These tools, methods, and practices have given rise to a sustainable fishing culture practiced by a distinctive fishing community. The fish are cleaned, dried, packed, and sold sustainably without the addition of any preservatives. Therefore, it is evident that the dry fish production process is environment-friendly in nature. Nonetheless, after 50 years of sustainable fish harvest at Jambudwip, the community’s livelihoods were in jeopardy.
On 3rd May 2002, the Ministry of Environment and Forest (MoEF) issued a directive that by 30th September 2002, all illegal encroachments on forest lands across the country were to be evicted. Following the order, the West Bengal Forest Department, which had been issuing passes to the fishermen since the 1950s, stopped issuing entry passes in 2002. The forest department asserted that the fishermen destroyed the mangrove forest, and their unsustainable actions affected the biodiversity. Furthermore, the department argued that the fishermen had settled in the islands while their visit was only transient during the fishing seasons. Hence, to prevent the fishermen’s visit to the island, the forest department burnt down all the temporary hutments claiming the fishermen to be illegal encroachers attempting to cut down the mangrove reserves. In addition, the department blocked the creek with RCC pillars, probating fishermen’s entry into the island. With these checkpoints in place, boats found it difficult to entire the creek during the cyclone resulting in the death of 10 fishermen. In this intermittent period, the socio-economic conditions of fisherfolk declined massively, their income levels halved, and their livelihoods were threatened.
Though the dry fish market in India is considerably tiny, its existence is vital. The industry generated Rs.10 crores per annum at the time; it supplied rich protein food to poor masses and employed numerous ancillary sectors. Therefore, the eviction of fishermen from Jambudwip directly impacts the livelihoods of the transient fishing community and indirectly impacts the other livelihoods supported by the fishing industry. Thus, the Supreme Court stepped in and delegated the Central Empowerment Committee (CEC) in December 2002 to advise on the issue. CEC, alongside the state forest department, stated that the fishing community destroyed the mangrove reserves and should be strictly prohibited from entering the island. Regardless, there was no substantial evidence of what they destroyed. The report also suggested that Haribhanaga can be used as an alternative fishing site. However, it is not as huge as Jambudwip and does not have the space to incorporate the 40+ fishing units of the Jambudwip fishers. Additionally, what made Jambudwip attractive was the creek and its tree cover, which helped dry fish and protected the fishermen. But Haribhanga’s reality was much different – it was full of sand, with no creeks or tree cover. Also, as the island had a high tide level, fishing was often done near the shore. Thus, the quality of dry fish produced at Haribhanga is only suitable for poultry feed, not human consumption. Proving that, in reality, alternative sites are never appropriately selected.
Jambudwip was classified as a reserve forest area protected under the Forest Conservation Act of 1980, which restricts the use of forest land by any entity settled in the region post-1981. Now comes the question: why didn’t the Namkhana forest office issue pass to the fishermen even post the enforcement of the Forest Conservation Act? In addition, Indian anthropologist Bikash Raychaudhuri studied the fishing community across an entire season from 1967-68 and recorded his observation in his 1980 book The Moon And Net. This proves that fishing activity had been happening in the area even before the enforcement of the Forest Conservation Act. This makes one ponder why the fishermen are evicted now and not before. The answer to these questions became apparent when the West Bengal Forest Department signed an MoU with a leading real estate company in the state to convert 750 hectares of the Virgin Islands from the Sundarbans reserve into a global ecotourism hotspot, and Jambudwip – was a part of this expanse. But isn’t it true that tourism could also be detrimental to the mangrove reserves and affect the ecological balance? But that did not matter to the forest department, they declared that ecotourism initiatives without disturbing the area’s ecological balance would always be welcome.
In conclusion, the final issue of Community Conservancy discusses a case of artisanal fishing in Bengal and their plight when decisions are made based on vested interests by a handful of people with no regard for nature and people. It is time that all actors must realize that nature is common to everyone and that all elements of nature must coexist. Moreover, none of the actors involved wanted to understand how the fishing community and the use of their indigenous wisdom helped preserve sea biodiversity. Practices such as fishing during the non-breeding seasons and using simple fishing techniques that are not as destructive as mechanized fishing are examples of how the fisherfolk are users and not violators.