Home Dalit For Honey collectors, few rewards for risking life in Jungles

For Honey collectors, few rewards for risking life in Jungles

In the third of the four-part series, we look at how the Honey collectors of Sunderbans are feeling the pinch of change in weather patterns and low returns for working in a life-threatening environment

By Amit Kumar for Twocircles.net

Read part one here
Read part two here

“Have you heard all the woes of the fishermen?” Will you listen to me too?” asks Batukrishna Mandal, a 63-year-old resident of Chotto Mollah Khali.

Mandal is a honey collector, the second most common profession among Sunderbans residents, and a profession in which a number of locals take a lot of pride; it is not easy, after all, to run for cover from angry bees while worrying, simultaneously, whether a Royal Bengal Tiger is eying you. Mandal knows the threat too well; he has been collecting honey from the jungles of Sunderbans for the past 43 years and witnessed attacks from both the Tiger and the bees.

“I am too old to do anything else now. This is the only way I can feed my family,” says Mandal as he welcomes us to his house.

Avoiding the stings of the bees, which can be upto an inch long, and the claws of the tiger to ensure that he can put food on his family’s plate, has been Mandal’s life. Like almost all the Sunderbans residents, he too has been feeling the pinch because of the irregular weather. “Last year, we got little honey. It rained in February, just before the season for honey collecting, which is always a bad sign. For good honey, the bees must get good sunlight and clear weather, but unexpected rains meant our yield was very low,” he said. He added that this had often with worrying regularity in the past few years.
What is he expecting this harvest season?

“Not much,” he simply answers before taking a sip of the Liquor tea his wife had served him. “I will be lucky to get anything, to be honest. I am not fast anymore, and it is increasingly difficult to find honey now,” he added.
“I am sure the fishermen have told you about their issues with BLCs, right?” he asked.
“Unlike fishermen, there are no restrictions on collecting honey,” said Mandal, adding, “Around February end, you can simply go the Forest Office and get a honey-collecting permit. In fact, unlike fishermen, we can also enter the Core areas of the Reserve, along with the Buffer zone,” he said.

But why are the government policies so different in nature when it comes to fishing and honey collection?
“One, the licenses for honey collection is seasonal. Second, it is issued only for a period of 15-20 days. That is why we suffered last year. The rains in February meant that good honey wouldn’t have been available until April, but since we went in March, we got little,” he adds. “Third,” he said, almost grinning, “and most important, is that unlike fishermen, who can sell their catch in the open market, we have to sell all our produce to the government, to the last drop,” he said. “As you have seen, fishing is no longer a sustainable job for many people, so you will now find a number of fishermen too who go to collect honey,” he says, sipping his second cup of tea. “Now, not everyone can enter the Core areas and many prefer to go to the Buffer zones, where the chances of tiger attacks are much lower, but honey is lesser in quantity too,” Mandal said.

Batukrishna Mandal, a honeycollector for the past 40 years, says change in weather patterns has greatly affected their livelihoods

The other reason why many avoid the Core areas is because all honey collectors and fisherman have an insurance cover of Rs 1 lakh in case something untoward happens to them, which is invalid if the incident happens in the Core areas. “So, if you want honey, you often have to go to the Core areas, but that also means you go hoping that nothing will happen to you,” Mandal adds.

And how much do they earn out of all this?

“These days, we get Rs 110 per kilo for honey from the government,” he says, adding that the same honey if sold in the open market would fetch them at least Rs 300-400 per kilo. “The Government is getting richer even as we barely make ends meet. How can they have different policies for fishermen and honey collectors? Why aren’t we allowed to sell in the open market?” he asks.
In fact, the point of Government monopolising the purchase of honey was raised in the Public Hearing too, where the panel had opined that “There is a total violation of the rights of the communities in terms of the monopoly exercised by the Forest Corporations in the trade of minor forest produces (MFPs), particularly, honey. The state government should facilitate the forest dependent community towards the formation of co-operatives/federations which should be allowed full freedom to sell such MFPs on profit.”
If you want to make profit through honey collection, you had no option but to either bribe the officials or ensure that you can smuggle it out, says Mandal.

By now, the clock had ticked on to 8 pm. Before leaving, I asked Mandal if I could get to taste the world’s most dangerous, if not the tastiest, honey. “I don’t have a drop of it at home. When I went last, I tried to smuggle a small portion for my family, they took away even that,” he said, laughing loudly.
“Maybe I will stop going to the jungle in a couple of years. But what will I do after that?” he asks.
It is a question that has become the focal point of honey collectors of Sunderbans. For long, they have loved their work and taken pride in it; but given the recent changes, both natural and man-made, Mandal believes the profession is on its last legs. Pointing at his grandchild, who is about eight years old, he says, “He will go to school and study so that he can avoid this profession,” he says.