The Financial Express

Rehabilitating Sundarbans pirates

Rehabilitating Sundarbans pirates

Between 2016 and 2018, 326 robbers, or what they say, pirates, operating in the Sundarbans, surrendered to the Rapid Action Battalion (RAB), informed the elite anti-crime and anti-terror police of Bangladesh. The pirates quit their criminal activities of holding people dependent on the Sundarbans and rivers criss-crossing it for their livelihood to ransom. They gave up their profession of banditry to return to normal life in response to an amnesty the government offered to the brigands. The government also assured the pirates of financial and legal assistance to help them begin a normal life.

The government move came after a large number of these bandits were killed in police encounters as well as skirmishes between rival gangs. The government objective has no doubt its merit. For who wants to be forever on the run to avoid the bullets of both the law-enforcers and rival gangs? As such, the lure of a secure, anxiety-free life as offered by the government should be able to persuade the pirates to see reason. Against this backdrop, the government move appears to have borne fruit seeing that so many forest bandits have laid down their arms. However, some reports have highlighted the frustrations of the erstwhile forest pirates and their family members about the life they are living at the moment. Their grievances range from paltriness of the government grants they have received to the burden of meeting the cost of the lawyers who look after the long-running court cases against them. What is of concern here is their disappointment about the life they have now chosen to live. For their previous jungle life though fraught with danger was also highly rewarding. In fact, their earnings from holding fishermen, woodcutters and honey-collectors to ransom was to the tune of millions of taka. Obviously, some of them might again be pining for the adventuresome though perilous and savage old days in the deep forests of the Sundarbans. So, the issue of freeing the Sundarbans of pirates is just not a matter of catching or even killing all the robbers operating there. It is more complicated than that. At this point, one needs to delve deeper into the socio-economic reasons behind those pirates' choosing such a dangerous career for a living. It is observed that most of these pirates are from the localities close to the Sundarbans. But throughout the ages, people of the localities adjacent to the Sundarbans were farmers, fishermen, honey gatherers, crab collectors and woodcutters.

And they have been living that life without much complaints. But what happened in recent times that drove these otherwise peace-loving, law-abiding village people into the life of an outlaw? Worse, their numbers had been increasing over the years rather than declining! And these brigands were not just preying on the fishermen on the rivers or honey collectors in the deep forests, they were also poaching Bengal Tigers, deer and other denizens of the Sundarbans. No doubt, they sold the animals or their body parts to rackets operating from the cities and beyond the international borders.

Evidently, there is a big network of illicit dealers in rare animals and their body parts who these Sundarbans pirates also served in exchange for big money. Most importantly, these robbers, mostly from the poor, village backgrounds, must have been recruited by powerful people who have always been remaining behind the scene. Actually, these behind-the-scene masterminds supplied them with arms and weapons and, perhaps, also, protection. But in the face of continued police operation in the forest, their (pirates') godfathers might have gone into hiding for the time being and have been waiting for the opportune moment to come back with their offers of easy money and arms to the fresh recruits from the nearby villages. The villagers are best recruits because they are familiar with topography of the expansive Sundarbans mangrove forests. But the main question has still remained unanswered. Why are some villagers from the areas adjacent to the Sundarbans willing recruits as robbers? The authorities that have extended their helping hand to the Sundarbans pirates need to look into the driving force behind the 'villagers turning to banditry'. It is that their ancestral occupations like farming and fishing have become unrewarding. Since long past, they have been living their precarious lives without complaints despite the onslaughts of the occasional cyclones, tidal surges and all kinds of seaborne calamities-you name it. But now with the rise of sea level as an outcome of the climate change, their farmlands have been turning barren. With increasing salinity level, their crop yields are shrinking. As the number of fresh water fishes is dwindling, fishermen have been switching profession in ever greater numbers. As the forest is getting thinner, many honey collectors and woodcutters are looking for other ways to survive. Small wonder that these remote south-western human settlements have gradually become a fertile ground for the criminal godfathers to operate.

The government would be required first to ferret out the godfathers who recruit these pirate foot soldiers from localities near the Sundarbans. Second, climate adaptation measures have to be taken to rehabilitate the families getting uprooted from their ancestral abodes due to the devastating effect of climate change.


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