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A tall and lean fisherwoman with a strong face stares at the evening sun fading into the still waters running through Kultali, an island in the Sunderbans forest; Anima Mandal is angry. She hasn’t eaten since morning.
She was there for a meeting that the Kultali Forest Range beat officer had fixed for 2 pm on February 14, 2015 at the forest range compound in a corner of Kultali, across a river. Nearly 50 women, and a few men, had turned up for this crucial meeting to make two pressing demands – the return of their confiscated fishing canoes (dongas) and for the women to be recognized as traditional small-scale fishworkers, with a right to fish for their livelihood.
The women, organized under the Kultali Mahila Donga Matsyajibi Samity, had travelled a long way from Madhya Gurguria village – on foot, on cycles fitted with wooden planks and by boat – to make it to their appointment.
It is already past 5 pm. A number of women begin tracing their steps back towards a dinghy headed homeward: some hurry back to feed and care for the children they’ve left at home and others return home for fear of husbands who could turn violent. Anima and a few others choose to stay back at Kultali and represent the group, determined to get a response from the Forest Department.They walk around the compound, to the edge of a murky green pond, where their confiscated canoes of palm trunk lie stacked. The women are appalled; debris and wood bits from the canoes have started to peel off and mingle with the water. “Our canoes have been broken into pieces and thrown into the water. There must be lakhs of rupees (floating) in this river, ” says Geeta Sahu, a fisherwoman speaking softly. Her indignation, however, is unmistakable, shared by the workers standing beside her, still waiting.