Through the Child’s Lens: Understanding State Power in the Forests of Sundarbans
In this piece, Prama shares children's experiences of state power from the Sundarbans. She shares drawings made by children of the fisherfolk families whom she interviewed for her doctoral work.
Image: Participatory drawing exercise with children from grades three and four. Photograph taken by the author.
It was a comfortably cold morning in the Satjelia island of the Sundarbans in West Bengal, and the children of the primary school in Bandhob-pur village bordering the dense impenetrable mangrove forests of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve area seemed to be particularly chirpy. They had been told by their teacher the previous day, that there would be no classes on that day, for someone would be coming to talk to them.
These children, all between the ages of seven and eight were studying in standards three and four. Most of their parents were either fisherfolk, engaged in traditional forest fishing in the nearby rivers, channels and creeks within the complicated deltaic maze of the Sundarbans, while many of the others have recently witnessed their parents migrating to faraway cities in search of alternate livelihood opportunities. The increasing unpredictability of the weather condition, the high frequency of human-animal conflict within the forests, which include deaths caused by the famous Royal Bengal Tiger, a resident of the area with its unique man eating tendencies, along with the coercive, high handed behaviour of the forest guards in charge of ‘protecting’ the forests towards these forest fisherfolks, have forced many to leave their traditional occupation in Bandhob-pur, and migrate to distant unknown cities, to make their both ends meet.
The children in this primary school were thus either from an active fishing family background or were the second generation members of families who have left fishing for other livelihood opportunities. Being a researcher, trying to understand the fisherfolks of the Sundarbans, their lives, and worlds, I was, therefore, keen to understand how shared knowledge about the forest permeated the generational divide. This was my primary objective behind trying to engage with the children of the village, all of whose parents were involved in fishing at some point in their lifetime.
Children as part of the larger society
While many recognised the need to include children’s voices on issues directly related to them, I had felt a pressing need to engage with the children of Bandhob-pur, and understand their ideas about the landscape they lived in; to make sense of the ways the forests and the rivers have affected their mindscape. This is because most of them have seen their parents going inside the forest at some point in their lives, some even witnessing parents never coming back due to fatal human-tiger encounters while many are now being left alone as parents leave children under the supervision of extended family members, migrating in search of newer job opportunities. Such an active engagement with the forest would surely have certain effects on seven and eight-year-olds, for, as Balasundaram has argued, children should not be essentially considered as separate from the society, and be treated as part of the larger society being affected by larger problems that affect everyone in the community. (Balasundaram, 2014) This naturally means that the children of this region too will inherit certain stories and anecdotes about the forest, in its present and its past forms, and will have made sense of the changes that the region has been going through in their own ways.
This will then help one to get an insight about how knowledge gets transmitted across generations and how the newer generations, the ones who have possibly never set foot into the forest yet, have chalked out their own ways to understand their neighbourhood, seeped in some sort of ‘collective consciousness’. For, as Amitav Ghosh had quiet truly remarked in his book Great Derangement, even a child in Sundarbans, “would start a story (here) about his grandmother with the words: ‘in those days the river was not here and the village was not where it is’”. (Ghosh, 2016:11)
The Bandhob-pur children
My own research in Bandhob-pur had also given me a similar sense of how children here almost inadvertently hear and pick up a lot about the landscape in general from their elders, and I thought it would be rather interesting to understand the Sundarbans from their perspectives. This was what primarily made me speak to the headmaster of the local primary school who graciously accepted my request of spending a few hours with children of classes 3 and 4.
The children however had not been forewarned anything about who was coming and for what reason. Most of them, however, had already been familiar with my identity as they had seen me frequenting their parents’ homes talking to the elders of the family about fishing and its perils. Thus when I entered a big classroom of around 20 children on the first floor of the two-storied primary school that day in Bandhob-pur, hoping to make a sense of the kind of transgenerational stories that had possibly been passed down to the children from their elders, in the present-day Sundarbans, I could see them whispering to each other with visible excitement, “Didi is going to interview us”.
I could sense a feeling of eagerness already, as they cheekily enquired if I am going to ask them any questions like I had been asking their parents. I had however decided to adopt a Participatory Drawing Method with them because of its co-constructive nature and the lack of dependence on communicative skills. This technique is argued to be ideally suited for children of this age where they start developing the capability of perceiving but mostly do not have enough vocabulary to express what they feel. This method then gives them enough time to contemplate and think without the pressure of instant reply. (Literat, 2013)
Each child was therefore provided with a blank sheet and other identical drawing gears. They were then explained the objective of the exercise.
“You want us to draw ‘this’ forest”? They enquired.
The eagerness that I had noticed earlier seemed to die down a bit with this proposition.
“Our forest”, many of them asked, with a sort of disbelief?
It appeared as if they had never considered drawing something as close and mundane to them, as the forests in their drawing books.
After the initial hesitation and a bit of unsettled discussion among friends, children started giving shape to their imagination. At the end of almost an hour and a half, when most children had managed to finish whatever they wished to portray, they were individually asked to explain what they had drawn.
Fishing boats amidst lush green forests were the most common sort of elicitation. The black and yellow stripes of the tiger being visible from behind the dense foliage bordering blue pristine rivers was the second most common thematic trend that was portrayed. Some had also marked the nearby river, and labelled names of local trees, and drawn the neighbouring villages across the river. That nature dominated the mindscape of these young individuals was clear from all the images drawn. 3 out of the 20 children however drew forest guards (the field-level forest department officials) with some sort of arms interacting with the forest fisher-folks.
Nisha Mollah, daughter of Munna and Bula Mollah was 7 years old. She had an older sister and younger brother. Nisha was asked to explain what she had drawn. This was when she told me about her father, who had been working as a migrant labourer in Delhi.
“Abba (father) used to be here till last year. But then he had a terrible accident. Not tiger accident. An accident that happened to him due to the Forester babus. He had been inside the forest and then they did something to him. He had to be taken to the hospital and treated for 3 days before he could come home. Later I got to know, that my father was thrashed by them. I do not know why. My elder sister used to stay with him in the hospital those days. Amma (mother) had to stay here with me and bhai (brother). That was when Amma told us how abba would never go again inside the forest. Abba left for the city (meaning Delhi) a few months later.
Aziz Hossain Mondol, the other 7-year-old who had drawn a similar figure of interaction with people in a boat (appearing to be a fishing boat) amidst the green bushes had a different way of explaining his art work.
“This is the forester babu, you know those men who run the forest. They are the ones who give the fisher people their documents. Without these documents you cannot go into fishing”. Aziz said. Aziz is the son of Rahaman and Seema Mondol. Rahaman is a crab collector while Seema often goes to collect tiger prawn seeds.
“Baba says that these foresters are like the tigers of our forest; they are equally dangerous. It is very difficult to escape from them, he says. Once they had found him taking Gol-Pata from the forest and that made them take away all the fish that my father had caught. They had even taken away his mobile phone, you know!”
Raheema was the third girl of the group whose art-work showed the image of a forester once again in conversation with another meek-looking fisherman. Raheema was 8 years old and was the daughter of Samirul bhai and Zarina, two of my primary contacts in the field. Asked what she had tried to express through her drawing, Raheema said she wanted to draw the forester babus who took a lot of money from fishermen like her father.
“You know, last year, just before Eid, father had to give away all the money he had saved, and we could not buy any new clothes. These people are like dacoits, mother says they are evil. And says that the forest is full of them. I think they are more threatening than the tigers of the forest”.
State power through the child’s eyes
What these children were essentially talking about is the high handed attitude of the forest guards that has been a new menace in the lives of the fisherfolks in the Sundarbans.
“We had known how to live with the vagaries of the weather and wildlife, but now we have a third eye in the forest, from whom we need to save ourselves”, several fishers had said while I was talking with them for my doctoral dissertation.
These forest guards are the ground-level foot soldiers of the state’s fortress-style conservation efforts that have been in place right from the colonial times, as it continues even today. The laws have however become more stringent with the Sundarbans becoming a Tiger Reserve under the Project Tiger implemented by the Central Government in the 1970s. Ever since then, fishers are only allowed to fish in a certain limited ‘Buffer region’, while the rest of the ‘Core Area’ is to remain untouched by human activities. This rule however also comes with certain other conditions: for instance, the fishers need to possess documents like the Dry Fuel Wood Cost Certificate and Boat License Certificate while fishing in the forests. These documents are however not given to all fishers and require renewal from time to time. Obviously, a lot of fisherfolks find it extremely difficult to abide by all such laws in force, often, too ambiguous and cryptic in their intonation, almost as if purposely to enjoy instant authority by maintaining an ‘official linguistic code’, which seems to be opaque to the local understanding. (Scott, 1998)
Such situations however push the fisherfolks to a new kind of vulnerability, one where they are at the beck and call of the forest guards, which if challenged lead to instant untoward consequences like confiscation of boats and licenses and the imposition of hefty fines.
The images that these children had drawn were the most vivid imageries of such atrocities, which their parents have faced time and again, leaving a deep impact on their imagination.
There is often a tendency to infantilize children in South Asian culture and while children, as acutely aware individuals, have now been recognized by academics and practitioners of childhood studies, not many outside this specific domain consider the need to hear their voices, even less when it comes to issues not directly related to them. There is a tendency to essentialise them, as the ‘clean slate’ adapting and learning whatever they are taught. Thus, not many expect them to have independent opinions, even less if it is about issues like politics and economy, subjects that are typically the domain of ‘grown-ups’.
Accordingly, not many in the field of political ecology have tried to hear the voices of the children either, while trying to fight for environmental justice for the most vulnerable ones. However, in a region where the fragile ecology is intrinsically liked with the everyday lives of the islanders, it is only natural that nature would have a strong impact on the child’s mind. Unfortunately, not many researchers working in the deltaic region of the Sundarbans have recognized this need to hear the voices of the children, to understand their perception of the environment that they live in while advocating a need to be more attentive to the local ways of understanding nature. Local ways have almost become synonymous with the ‘grown-up’s ways’ and children have mostly remained mute spectators in previous research endeavours. Ironically, it needs to be realised that it is this generation that is most vulnerable facing the impending climate crisis that knocks on our doors, and it is high time to complement their disciplinary studies of ‘environmental education’ with such real-life understandings of ecology and the politics that surrounds it. My research can possibly be seen in this context as it highlights the need of taking this extremely rich scholarly journey in the days to come.
1. The name of the village and all other individuals in this essay, have been changed to maintain anonymity of the respondents and to maintain continuity with my doctoral dissertation.
2. Gol-pata is a local variety of mangrove tree, growing in the Sundarban region. Its leaves are often used to thatch the roof of mud made houses.
1. Balasundaram, Sasikumar. (2014). Children matter: including camp children’s perspective in refugee research. Practicing Anthropology, 36(3):38-42.
2. Ghosh, Amitava. (2016). Great derangement: climate change and the unthinkable. India: Penguin Books.
3. Literat, I. (2013). A pencil for your thoughts: participatory drawing as a visual research method with children and youth. International journal of Qualitative Methods, 84-98.
4. Scott, J.C. (1998). Seeing like a state: how certain schemes to improve the human condition fails. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.
Prama Mukhopadhyay is an ICSSR doctoral fellow working in the Department of Sociology, Delhi School of Economics, India. Her research interest is in the field of environmental sociology as she has been studying the ecological ethics of the fishing community residing in the deltaic Sundarbans of West Bengal for over 5 years now. Conducting extensive ethnographic field work in a fishing village near the Sundarban Tiger Reserve area, she has carefully documented the fisherfolk’s ways of life. Prama has presented her work in several conferences and has authored chapters in books and written quite a few academic and non academic articles in journals and newspapers in the recent years.