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Sundarban Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, India


The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve is a mangrove protected forest located in the West Bengal Delta, and declared as a Tiger Reserve in 1973. The districts of North and South 24 Parganas within which lies the Sundarban Biosphere Reserve (SBR), comprises 102 islands, of which 54 are inhabited and the rest forested. The inhabited islands house a majority of forest-dependent people, especially concentrated in the lower island villages bordering the fringes of the forest. These people are integrally dependent on the forest resources for their livelihood, the most common forest-based activities being forest fishing (fishing in the narrowest river creeks and estuaries surrounded by forest areas), prawn seed collection, crab fishing, honey and wax collection.

 In the last 50 years, the population has grown and since 1973, just after the declaration of the Tiger Reserves, new regulations have been imposed on the people, mostly in relation to their fishing rights. In 1973, the Forest Department (FD) issued a number of 923 Boat License Certificate (BLC) to regulate fishing activities on the buffer zone of the Sundarban Tiger Reserve (STR) - but not in the core area [7]. However, the families living out of fishing were about 5000. Veteran fishers say that the period for application for the BLC was only one month. This was too short for many to apply and many fishers could not register both for the remoteness of places of their residence and for the low level of awareness on restrictions. This is the reason why only a small number of BLCs were issued in an area where almost every family fishes for subsistence. This deprived the majority to access their forest resources for their livelihood, which does also represent their main source of income. 

Because many fishermen have no other option but to continue fishing for their survival they get into conflicts with the current restrictions imposed by the forest department [7,10, 11].  


The local communities believe that it is their right to use their natural resources for their livelihood, a right which should also be legally implemented under the Forest Rights Act (FRA), 2006, an important law which recognizes both individual and community rights of tribal and forest dwellers communities in forest areas. However, in the Sundarbans, the FRA has not been considered valid, because the communities do not live within the forest but on its fringes. The reason specified is that the forest dwellers living in the district do not reside in the forest area, and hence not recognized as eligible to benefit from the law. This argument is not justified as per section 3 (1) of the Forest Rights Act “For the purposes of this Act, the following rights, which secure individual or community tenure or both, shall be the forest rights of forest-dwelling Scheduled Tribes and other traditional forest dwellers on all forest lands, namely: [...] other community rights of uses or entitlements such as fish and other products of water bodies”. The majority of the people engaged in fishing activities in Sundarban are from tribal or other backward castes (OBC) and according to several civil society organizations, it is unjustified that the FRA does not apply to them [10, 5]. 

 The implementation of the Forest Rights Act has been a very controversial issue in the Sundarbans, and not yet implemented in any of the districts. For almost 5000 people inhabiting this difficult terrain, the forest resources represent the only sources of sustainability.  For this reason, the local communities have been asking for its implementation. One of the major local political organization campaign for its recognition in the Sundaraban is the Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch, with president Mr. Pabitra Mandal. Another organization, based in Kolkata, which is supporting the struggle of the people of Sundarban is the Dakshingamba Matsyajibi Forum (DFM). However, besides these political and civil societies advocacy work, the majority of people in Sundarban are still not aware of the FRA. One of the first public hearings to discuss the issue was held in February 2017 in the Rangabelia villa, Gosaba island by Sundarbans Jansramik Union, an affiliate of All Indian Union of Forest Working People (AIUFWP), participated by Medha Patkar (HR activist) and Ashok Chowdary (AIUFWP). In the meeting for the first time was publicly shared the injustice meted out by the people by the forest department institution and the need for their rights to be immediately recognized [4]. 

 In fact, since the limits of the tiger core area got expanded, fishing restrictions and debates between the local communities and the forest rangers have further increased. The numerous restrictions imposed on the communities are becoming a real harden for the low-income fishing families, who are subjected to high fines of minimum 1000 rupees per boat if fishing in the restricted area. Moreover, If fishing while not being in possession of any BLC, the fisherman could also be charged and incriminated under the WLPA (notes form field). Such is the case of 8 fishermen arrested in January 2017 to fish on the tiger reserved as reported in the “Daily Star” [3].  Because of this, in order to escape the forest department, the majority of fishermen enter into the small forest creek, a dangerous area for the presence of the Bengal tigers. In the last decades, the number of tigers has also increased due to the conservation measures applied in the area; this is surely a positive sign for conservation, however, the expansion of local communities in this area have also increased, generating a  human-animal conflict which leaves the poor fisher communities as victims of tiger killings [7, 10]. 


At the same time, numerous are the tourist boats that every day circulate within the river of the mangrove Sundarban protected forest to spot the Bengal Tiger. Moreover, as documented in a report, transportation activities such as Barges and ships carrying cargo are not yet regulated in the Sundarbans, contributing to pollution and disturbing the tiger corridors [12]. According to the local people the Forest Department, with their aggressive policies only based on restrictions, are contributing in harming the territory and creating a very bad environment between its inhabitants, at the cost of the environmental care.

 Human rights violation and case of harassment are often registered in the area. For example, a case registered on 16th March 2017, when a patrol boat of Chandanpuri bit officers dangerously chased and collided with a small fishing boat with onboard 28 tribals fishers including men, women and minors. The boat was overturned and the people fell into the river water and while desperately struggling for survival, the men tried to rescue both women and children. The officers were just enjoying this scene from afar. The day after 100 tribals fishers approached the Chandapiri Forest Beat Officer demanding the cost of medical treatment, compensation for the damage and punishment for the beat officer (story shared by DMFWestBengal).

Such stories of harassment and cruelty are of ordinary circumstances in the Sundarbans.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Sundarban Tiger Reserve, West Bengal, India
State or province:West Bengal
Location of conflict:24 Parganas
Accuracy of locationHIGH (Local level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Biodiversity conservation conflicts
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Establishment of reserves/national parks
Wetlands and coastal zone management
Aquaculture and fisheries
Specific commodities:Land
Tourism services

Project Details and Actors

Project details

The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve covers a vast area of 4,262 sq. km. in India alone, with a larger portion in Bangladesh. The area had been under Sundarban reserve forest established under Notification No. 15340-FOR, dt.09.08.1928. The Sundarban Reserve was declared as a Sundarban Tiger Reserve in 1973, a Wildlife Sanctuary in 1977, and as a Biosphere reserve in 1989. The Sundarbans National Park, declared a World Heritage Site by the UNESCO, falls within the core area of the tiger reserve and is a protected zone where no human activity is permitted under the West Bengal state government policy.

In December 2007, the limits of the core area extended up to an area of 1,699.62 sq. km. notified as the Critical Tiger Habitat (CTH), which comprise Chamta, Netidhopani, Matla, Chhoto Hardi, Goashaba, Mayadwip, Gona, Baghmara and Chandkhali. The rest of the area of 885.27 sq. km has been designated as the buffer zone, for a total of 2548 sqkm. Within the buffer zone, Sajnekhali Wildlife Sanctuary covers an area of 362.335 sq. km. Apart from this, Halliday Island Wildlife Sanctuary covers 5.8 sq km and the Lothian Wildlife Sanctuary 38.9 sq km. They all fall within the reserved forest area outside the Tiger Reserve.

The notification of 18 December 2007, incorporated four new forested islands within the cluster of ‘core’ or ‘inviolate’ areas. These four blocks with their subsequent compartments include Chamta (1-3), Baghmara (1), Netidhopani (1-3) and Chandkhali (1-4), covering total 369.53 km², in addition to the previous 1330.12 sq. km². Since the chapter in which the passage occurs has been written by a noted forester and Sundarbans forest expert, Pranabes Sanyal, one assumes that this proposed zone demarcation was done on the basis of necessary scientific study pertaining to the needs of tiger conservation. Yet, the chapter does not refer to any such study, though Section 38V of the WLPA, on which this demarcation depends, requires such habitat to be established not by mere fiat, but “on the basis of scientific and objective criteria”.

According to a 2015 study on the Economic Valuation of Tiger Reserve in India, it is estimated that the Sundarban Tiger Reserve provides flow benefit worth benefit of INR 12.8 billion ( EUR 158 million euro) annually. These important ecosystem services include nursery function (INR 5.17 billion – EUR 64.05 million), gene-pool protection (INR 2.87 billion year – EUR 35.55 million), provisioning of fish (INR 1.6 billion year – EUR 19.82 million) and waste assimilation services (INR 1.5 billion year – EUR 18.5 million). Other important services emanating from Sundarbans include generation of employment for local communities (INR 36 million year – EUR 446 thousand), moderation of cyclonic storms (INR 275 million year – EUR 3 million), provision of habitat and refugia for wildlife (INR 360 million year – EUR 4.4 million) and sequestration of carbon (INR 462 million year- EUR 5.7 million). These valuable services get distributed for the 44 per cent to the global society, 39 per cent goes to the national income and only 16 per cent of this services remains to the local people.

Project area:258,489
Type of populationRural
Affected Population:4.426.000
Start of the conflict:18/02/2007
Relevant government actors:West Bengal Forest Department; Minister of Environment and Forest;
International and Finance InstitutionsUNESCO - United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) from France
World Wildlife Fund (WWF) from Switzerland
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:All Indian Uion of Forest Working People (AIFWP),
Dakshinbanga Matsyajibi Forum (DFM).
International Collective in Support of Fisher workers,;
Direct Initiative for Social and Health Action (DISHA),
Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch (SJSM)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Social movements
Trade unions
Fisher people
Forms of mobilization:Official complaint letters and petitions
Street protest/marches


Environmental ImpactsVisible: Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Floods (river, coastal, mudflow), Food insecurity (crop damage)
Potential: Loss of landscape/aesthetic degradation
Health ImpactsVisible: Malnutrition
Potential: Health problems related to alcoholism, prostitution
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Lack of work security, labour absenteeism, firings, unemployment, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Violations of human rights
Potential: Displacement, Increase in violence and crime, Specific impacts on women, Loss of landscape/sense of place


Project StatusIn operation
Conflict outcome / response:Criminalization of activists
Violent targeting of activists
Development of alternatives:The proposal brought forward by the local activists and leaders lays in the full implementation of the Forest Rights Act in the area, in order to get their fishing community rights legally recognized.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:People's rights continue to be denied and the voice of people not taken into consideration by the authorities. In this territory, the FRA has not been applied on the base that the forest dwellers do not live within the forest area. Total unrecognition of the law and people's rights by the local and state government.

Sources & Materials

Juridical relevant texts related to the conflict (laws, legislations, EIAs, etc)

The Scheduled Tribes and Other Traditional Forest Dwellers Act, 2006

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[7] DISHA (2009) "Traditional Fishers in the Sundarban Tiger Reserve". A study on livelihood practice under protected area. Study supported by International Collective in Support of Fishworkers (ICSF)

[10] Santanu Chacraverti (2014) "THE SUNDARBANS FISHERS: Coping in an Overly Stressed Mangrove Estuary", a Report by International Collective in Support of Fishworkers.

[8] Amrita Sen, Sarmistha Pattanaik (2017) "Community-based Natural Resource Management in the Sundarbans".

Implications of Customary Rights, Law and Practices. Economic & Political Weekly (EPW) july 22, 2017 vol liI no 29

[11] Priyanka Ghosh (2015) 'Conservation And Conflicts In The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, India.

[9] Priyanka Ghosh (2015) "Conservation And Conflicts In The Sundarban Biosphere Reserve, India". Geographocal Review

[3] 8 fishermen arrested in Sundarban

[1] Fishermen and tigers struggle for survival in India's Sundarbans – in pictures

[2] Sundarbans: Fishing Struggle in time of Conservation

[4] Breaking the Chains of ‘Historical Injustice’ Dalits and Adivasis assert their rights over the Sundarban Forest

[5] Report: people’s hearing on Sundarban forest

[6] 5 fishermen held for catching fish illegally

[12] Hindustan Times "India, Bangladesh to use Sundarbans-waterways carefully so as not to disturb movement of tigers: Report". Author: Joydeep Thakur. July 29, 2020.

Other comments:We are thankful for the information shared by Tapas Mandal and Pabitra Mandal of Sundarban Jana Sramajibi Manch.

Meta information

Contributor:Eleonora Fanari, ICTA, [email protected]
Last update11/01/2019



Sundarban shore


BLC copy

A copy of the BLC with all the fees given by the FD.

Satjelia island

Village in the Satjelia island, Sundarban 2017. Credit: Eleonora Fanari

Fishing family

The small boat of a fisherman and his wife, Sundarban 2017. Credit: Eleonora Fanari

Sundarban map

Map of the south 24 Parganas, Sundarbans.