KOLKATA: Weary faces of Karuna Mandal, Sheela Chowkidar and Saraswati Mandal, all in their late 40s or early 50s, are almost devoid of any expression. Clad in their ordinary cotton sarees, they hail from Sunderbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest in the coastal belt of West Bengal which is also abode of royal Bengal tiger. The three women are among several others who are also known as “Tiger Widows.”
Last week, they travelled to Kolkata to attend the launch of Raja Ram Mohan Roy and Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar Foundation which has taken upon itself to improve the lot of such widows by offering them not only financial assistance but also by offering them vocational training to help in t,heir rehabilitation and facilitate them lead a life of dignity
With the help of an interpretor, the three women, sitting in a conference hall of a hotel, give a glimpse of their impoverished lives and how their husbands were stealthily attacked and killed by tigers in forests of Sunderbans. The men usually go out to collect wood, catch fish and other similar activities in jungles to earn their livelihood and face a real threat of being attacked and killed by tigers. The three women lost their husbands to tigers about seven-eight years ago. They say there are thousands of such widows in villages in Sunderbans whose lives are lonely and impoverished as very little help comes from the government. They are left to fend for themselves. Sunderbans is located at the mouth of the Ganga and Brahmputra rivers between India and Bangladesh. It has also earned the dubious status of being the biggest place for widows.
They were joined by widows from Vrindavan, Navdeep, Uttarakhand and Varanasi where not-for-profit social organization, Sulabh International is working to give a life of dignity to such women who had been living in penury and poor condition. Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak who founded Sulabh International in 1970 has also launched the foundation to campaign for remarriage of widows and their rehabilitation as they are often castigated and literally driven away from their homes.
The workshop, organized by the Raja Ram Mohan Roy-Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar foundation, held discussions on the future course of action on the widows’ issues in Kolkata because of its historic connection with the two legendary social reformers of the 19th century. West Bengal’s Minister for Public Health and Panchayat Subrata Mukherjee urged people to help social organisations engaged in welfare of widows. He said that the State government was ready to join hands with Sulabh International.
Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak recalled the contribution of both the iconic social reformers and said that their contributions would act as source of inspiration for carrying forward the mission of giving a life of dignity to the widows so that they can live in the society with respect and dignity. In fact, Dr. Pathak’s initiative began from Vrindavan, and Sulabh extended the welfare work for widows to Varanasi and Uttarakhand. Sulabh is looking after about 800 widows in Vrindavan, about 200 widows in Varanasi and 154 families, including 32 widows in Deoli-Bhanigram Panchayat of Uttarakhand.
”We strongly feel that all suffering widows should be given stipend and vocational education, so that they could earn their own livelihood and be self-reliant. Above all, they must get respect and all possible help from their own families and the rest of society. Sulabh’s missionary campaign for widows is meant to emancipate them from all kinds of deprivations, restrictions and humiliations. We have lent our widowed sisters and mothers a healing and helping hand, but much more needs to be done,’’ Dr. Pathak points out. The workshop also witnessed participation from academics, social workers and journalists.
Dr. Niladri Banerjee, a descendant of Pandit Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, who teaches Physics in a Cambridge University College in UK also addressed the workshop. He said that common perception about widowhood was still the same as 150 years ago. In his opinion, issue of inheritance was a major problem and women’s education, their skills and jobs would help them evolve and equip them in a better way to face challenges.