As increased soil salinity in the Aila-hit southwest coastal area has destroyed agriculture and shrimp farming, a large number of people there have relied for their livelihood on the Sundarbans.
But some new robber gangs will allow them into the forest only after extracting tolls. Those unable or unwilling to pay the tolls would be kidnapped by the crooks and must pay ransoms to survive, said locals.
River robbers have put pressure on the mangrove forest as people are looking for extra resources from it to cover the tolls or ransoms, locally known as “dacoit expenses”. Poaching and illegal logging have shot up in the forest due to the robbers' activities.
At least four new robber groups -- Jahangir bahini, Alim bahini, Khoka Babu Bahini and Rabiul Bahini -- emerged in Gabura and Munshiganj unions of Shyamnagar, Satkhira after cyclone Aila hit the area in 2009, locals told this correspondent on his recent visit there.
As the local administration has no control over a big part of the forest, the bandit gangs of 40 to 50 members each have developed strong networks of contacts across the area for collecting information, mainly over the phone.
The thugs even designate their men as “cashier”, “accountant”, “agent”, or “money collectors”. They dominate part of the forest near the Burigoalini forest beat office and, like the government, issues “forest permits” to local residents.
Be it honey collectors, fishermen, crab catchers, loggers and poachers in the forest, they must have to pay tolls to bandits through bKash and other electronic cash transfer platforms at a fixed rate for collecting pass codes, generally a serial number of a two-taka, five-taka or ten-taka note.
Some locals said anyone entering the forest without paying tolls to the thugs would face dire consequences.
“I had to pay Tk 40,500 as tolls to three robber groups led by Alim, Rabiul and Khoka Babu at Tk 13,500 for each of them before going to collect honey,” said the leader of a honey collector team from Gabura, seeking anonymity.
This rate is fixed by head count. Each person on a boat has to pay a toll of Tk 1,500.
Talking to this newspaper at Chawk Bera Ghat of Gabura, he showed three notes of different denominations from as many robber gangs -- a 10-taka note from Alim Bahini, a two-taka note from Rabiul Bahini and a five-taka note from Khoka Babu Bahini. Supplied by robbers' agents, all the notes are signed by “cashiers” of the gangs.
The honey collectors will always have to preserve those notes as the river robbers will check those in the jungle as to whether any of them skipped tolls.
The team leader of the honey collectors said his team stayed in the forest for 22 days and collected 24 maunds of honey worth Tk 1.44 lakh.
“We spent around Tk 30,000 for food, fuels and others and Tk 40,500 as dacoits expenses. After paying back to our lender, each of us earned Tk 9,700,” he mentioned.
Returning from the forest, another group of honey collectors told this newspaper that Alim bahini robbed two maunds of honey from their boat, kidnapped one of their fellows from Dingimari area and asked for a ransom of Tk 6,000.
“We paid the tolls beforehand and showed them the slips. But the river robbers said the slips were not theirs and so we have to pay them again,” said the group leader.
Though the robbers stay in the forest, they are from villages under Gabura and Munshiganj unions. They collect all information from their agents.
Masudul Alam, chairman of Gabura union parishad, admitted that robbers were causing lots of troubles to the poor people, but he denied making any further comments.
With the help of a local journalist, this correspondent talked to a deer poacher at Neeldumur bazar under Burigoalini forest beat. He said poachers generally trap deer and slaughter them other than hunting the animals with guns.
Usually they kill two or three deer a day to get around 100 kg of venison. They receive advance orders for venison, which they deliver after poaching. Sometimes the poachers contact previously known buyers over the phone and sell venison to them at Tk 350 a kilogram.
Though Neeldumur bazar is a small market of around 15 shops at the edge of the Sundarbans, four bKash agents are running their businesses there.
About their transactions, agent Mizanur Rahman said on an average he sends around Tk 20,000 to Tk 30,000 daily, while it jumps to Tk 2 lakh to Tk 3 lakh for two to three days in every month. But he does not receive more than Tk 2,000 to Tk 3,000 a day.
Asked about robber groups, Sagir Mia, officer-in-charge of Shyamnagar Police Station, said it was not his duty to eliminate bandits from the forest. “But even then, I caught two robbers after joining here in last November,” he added.
Contacted, Zahir Uddin, divisional forest officer of Sundarbans (west division), said Bangladesh Coast Guard were active to wipe out robbery groups.
“But I think the government should conduct an all out drive against the robbers. Otherwise, it would be difficult to control them,” he mentioned.
Md Farukh Hossain, petty officer at Koira coast guard station, said they receive information about movements of bandits and hear about kidnapping of fishermen. But they find it hard to nab the thugs as they frequently change locations.
“Robbers are very much active here. Every day fishermen call and tip us off about location of robbers in different canals and rivers of the Sundarbans. But we don't get them when we reach the spots,” he noted.
Posted at the coast guard station just a month ago, he is yet to nab any bandits. “But we've recovered some Sundari trees which were felled by some loggers allegedly in connivance with bandits,” added Farukh.