Hem Nagar, India – A gloomy sky pregnant with rain clouds hung heavy over the placid waters of Raimangal River, mirroring the mood of the villagers.
A group of boatmen in loincloths was busy loading provisions and fishing gear onto small, wooden, charcoal-black boats on the Hem Nagar Islands of the Sundarbans.
The region, located on the porous, riverine border between India and Bangladesh, is characterised by mangrove forests that are a haven for Bangladeshi pirates.
The men’s wary wives stand on a muddy embankment giving the customary farewell to their husbands before they embark on a week-long trip to the “sea of uncertainties”.
Standing at the far end of the queue, Sita Mandal’s dark eyes started welling up again. Suddenly, she ran down the steep stairs, clutching the loose end of her sari between her teeth.
Her husband, Ramesh Mandal, follows her in tow.
“This is the last time I am going to the seas. I will quit this job forever and migrate to Tamil Nadu [to work as a construction labourer],” the 40-year-old told his wife.
His wife’s fears are well-founded: In April, he was kidnapped by Bangladeshi pirates while fishing the creeks and canals of the Sundarbans. More recently, pirates opened fire on another group of fishermen in the Kendo Islands, near the Bay of Bengal.
Unlike those fishermen, Mandal and his crew were not sailing on big trawlers, so they were unable to escape when a group of 14 pirates with weapons swooped down on them in April.
They had gone to collect honey and catch crabs deep in the jungles of the Sundarbans.
“On our way back, the pirates kidnapped us at gunpoint. Then they took us to the Bangladesh side of the Sundarbans,” recalled Mandal.
“They held hostage three people, including me, and sent out a ransom message through three people they released. Our families were asked to pay a ransom of 100,000 rupees [$1,510] each if they wanted to see us alive.”
Through continued pleading, the families managed to bring the ransom amount down to 50,000 rupees ($755) for each person.
“They kept us in captivity for a week until a total of 150,000 rupees [$2,260] was deposited into their accounts through a hawala system [a method of transferring funds]. After confirming that their six accounts had received 25,000 rupees [$375] each from India, they released us,” said Mandal.
Mandal’s wife recalled how difficult it was for her to raise the ransom money.
“I sold off my only ornament – a silver chain – and a goat at a dirt-cheap price. Unable to raise the ransom amount, I took a loan from my neighbours at an exorbitantly high rate. Now, we don’t know how to pay back the debt,” she said.
As it is, going into the jungles is a dangerous affair because of the risk of tiger and crocodile attacks. But recurrent kidnappings by pirates makes it economically unviable, too.
If we don't go to the sea, the hunger pangs will kill us before the tigers, crocodiles or pirates get us.
“What you earn in two years, you end up paying as ransom in one day,” said Mandal’s wife, arguing they should migrate to a big Indian city in search of a better life.
Although Mandal’s work is risky, he said it is necessary to meet their basic needs.
“We have a hand-to-mouth existence here. If we don’t go to the sea, the hunger pangs will kill us before the tigers, crocodiles or pirates get us.”
Their neighbour Nagen Mandal has also been attacked by pirates – three times.
“You can fight against wild animals and shoo them away, but only a fool would think about fighting these armed robbers. A little resistance and a bullet would pierce through your head,” said the 48-year-old.
A dangerous job
The fishing season, which starts in mid-June and lasts until mid-September, sees about 150,000 fishermen set out for the Bay of Bengal.
As the fishermen search for the prized hilsa fish, a Bengali delicacy that sells for 1,200 ($18) a kilogramme, the pirates also become active.
Though most of the pirates are Bangladeshis, experts say they have a support base on the Indian side, too.
“It cannot be possible to carry out such piracy activities without having proper information about the movements of the fishermen,” said Pradip Chatterjee, secretary for the National Fishermen Forum (NFF), adding that “the pirates know about their plans a week in advance”.
In the past year, Bangladeshi pirates have kidnapped at least 20 fishermen, said the NFF.
The Border Security Force (BSF) and coastguards “turn a blind eye to the problem”, alleged Chatterjee, and the pirates intrude as much as 20km into Indian territory to attack the fishermen.
But Manturam Pakhira, West Bengal’s Sundarbans affairs minister, told Al Jazeera despite violent incidents, attacks against fishermen have decreased.
“There have been instances when the pirates take our fishermen to the Bangladesh side at gunpoint… The Indian fishermen have been attacked and even killed by the Bangladeshi pirates… But since the Mamata Banerjee government came to power, we have taken every possible step to ensure the safety of the fishermen,” Pakhira said.
There are about a dozen pirate gangs active in the Sundarbans, according to Baki, leader of the pirate gang Noah Vahini.
Raju Vahini and Jehangir Vahini – each of which includes nearly 100 pirates – are the most dreaded groups.
|The human cost of piracy|
Baki, who only goes by one name, told Al Jazeera on the phone from Bangladesh that the gang does kidnap fisherman for ransom, but the amount they get is “nominal”.
“We don’t snatch away their fishing net or their catch like our rival gangs,” Baki explained.
His aide, Babla, 32, told Al Jazeera in an interview from the Indian side of the Sundarbans he hopes to “eventually settle down here”.
“Acting on the intelligence given by our local contacts, we attack their boats and take them hostage,” Babla said.
NFF and the West Bengal Fishers Association (WBFA) have demanded an immediate crackdown on the pirates, and asked for permission to equip the fishermen to protect them against such attacks. But they allege West Bengal’s government has ignored their proposal for years.
WBFA secretary Joy Krishna Haldar said there are “several loopholes in the surveillance by the BSF and the forest department. The pirates take advantage of the situation [and] cross over to the Indian side”.
Complicating matters, Chatterjee explained it is against the law to enter core areas of the Sundarbans forest, a world heritage site, and as a result, some fishermen prefer not to report incidents because they fear they will get into legal trouble for trespassing.
Back in Hem Nagar, unable to convince his wife he should return to the sea, Mandal finally gives in to her plea to retire.
“I won’t go into the jungle any more. I will be leaving for Tamil Nadu in a few days. You guys carry on. May God bless you,” he told his fishing mates.
Follow Sanjay Pandey on Twitter: @sanjraj