There are more than 3000 'tiger widows' - women whose husbands have been killed by the ferocious animal - in India's West Bengal state. Neglected by the administration and shunned by society, there is a new ray of hope in their dark lives as a leading Non Governmental Organisation (NGO), Sulabh International, has launched a timely programme to rescue and rehabilitate them.
It is ironical that while the government spends millions of Rupees annually to protect and increase the population of the Royal Bengal Tiger in the famed Sundarbans - the largest mangrove forest on earth in the world's biggest river delta straddling West Bengal and Bangladesh - its victims and their dependants are invariably left to fend for themselves on the plea that villagers have no business venturing into the tiger habitat where there is every likelihood of them falling prey to the king of the jungle.
Defying regulations, impoverished locals regularly sneak into the tiger reserve to fish, collect honey and wood or catch crabs for a living. When the men venture into the dangerous mangrove forest in groups, their wives spend long hours praying for their safe return. But many of them are inevitably killed by man-eaters and their widows are branded 'Bag Bidhoba' or tiger widows.
Superstitious villagers hold the widows responsible for their husband's fate and shun them without remorse. Ostracised by society, the widows find it difficult to feed themselves and their children. There is no question of their remarriage because of the popular notion that their second husband would meet the same fate as the first. They have no option but to beg for a living or migrate to a city where they live in pitiable conditions.
Sulabh International Chairman Bindeshwari Pathak announced in Calcutta, capital of West Bengal, this month that his NGO would pull out all stops to change people's mindset to clear the decks for remarriage of young tiger widows. He also advocated vocational training in tailoring, knitting, embroidery and incense-stick making for widows of all ages to make them economically independent and bring sunshine into their gloomy lives.
Plan of action
Pathak declared his plan of action in the presence of dozens of tiger widows and two key West Bengal ministers: Subrata Mukherjee, Minister for Public Health Engineering and Panchayat and Sashi Panja, Minister for Women and Child Development. The ministers promised full government backing for Pathak's blueprint to help Sundarbans' hapless women. Panja lamented that their pathetic existence was a blot on society and the government which did nothing for decades to ameliorate their suffering.
Pathak's intervention has raised hopes because of his track record of coming to the aid of widows in Varanasi and Vrindavan - two of India's holiest cities where many Indians banish their womenfolk after their husbands' death so that they can appropriate their properties and wealth. As Sulabh International has consistently fought for widows' rights, it has the right credentials to restore the dignity of Sunderbans' wronged women.