At first Chaitali Majhi thought her boys were joking. But
after they showed identical symptoms—drowsiness, nausea, stomach and
body-ache—she knew it was serious and immediately rushed her sons to an ojha,
a faith healer of the village. When the shaman’s mantras failed to improve
their conditions, they rushed the boys to the local Raidighi Rural Hospital.
The doctors said the boys were bitten by
a snake—a three-and-half feet long common krait was also recovered from a
corner of their room—and referred them to the sub-divisional hospital at
Diamond Harbour, almost 45 kilometres away. By the time they reached the
hospital, the boys convulsed and died. Bikram was 12 and his brother Pritam was
This was in September last year.
Earlier in July, her next-door neighbour Dipankar Majhi was
woken up by his sister-in-law at 4 a.m. His 17-year-old nephew, Bikash Majhi,
was sick. Something had bitten him, his leg was in pain, and he complained of
nausea and stomach ache. Amid pouring rain, he rushed Bikash on his motorcycle
to the Raidighi hospital. They said it was snakebite and referred the case to
the Diamond Harbour Hospital. The doctors at the sub-divisional hospital said
Bikash would need dialysis and referred him to a bigger hospital in Kolkata.
By the time they reached the SSKM Hospital, 45 kilometres
from there, his nephew was dead.
he shared auto from the Mathurapur railway station drops me off at Kashinagar from where it’s mostly a narrow brick lane through paddy fields and clustered hamlets that takes me to Kautala Junior Basic School in Raidighi in South 24 Parganas district of West Bengal, some 80 kilometres from Kolkata.
With a playground in the front and a pond in the back, the
school is flanked by agricultural land and a cluster of homes. The two-storied
building is one of the few concrete structures around. Classes are over and
some boys, mainly from neighbouring homes, are playing football in the winter
sun in the unfenced playground. All the rooms of the yellow school building are
locked, except that of the headmaster, Dipankar Majhi. He is finishing some
last-minute work when I join him.
“You go to the shaman, you die; you go to the doctor, you
die. Where does one go?” he asks as he shows me pictures of his dead nephew and
the dead brothers from his neighbourhood. “This is Bikash, standing behind the
groom, can you see? He was not really good at studies, but full of life. I’d
bought this laptop for him,” he tells me as his eyes well up behind his
There are a couple of pictures of Bikram and Pritam, lying
dead in front of Raidighi Hospital on September 11. Their bodies were a mark of
protest. Hundreds of villagers had gathered with the boys’ parents; they blamed
the doctors for negligence and failure to provide adequate care which they said
was responsible for the deaths. The hospital authorities denied the allegation
to the local media and also said the boys were brought very late. A couple of
policemen were injured in the scuffle that broke out and the hospital suffered
damage from stone-throwing by some irate protestors. “In the end the security
forces used batons on the villagers to disperse them,” Majhi tells me.
He was one of the protestors. The 33-year-old is a kind of
leader in the area, someone that the neighbourhood looks up to in times of
distress. “Three children around me died in two months. How can I stay at home
and not do anything, knowing full well that all of them could have been saved
if there was timely medical treatment? This is the Sunderbans region. It is not
surprising to find a lot of poisonous snakes here; it is not surprising to get
bitten by them either. What is alarming is that there is no preparedness in our
healthcare system to deal with it. It cannot go on this way!” he says.
Presently, septuagenarian Saraswati Halder drops by the
office on her daily walk. Majhi invites her to join us.
“My grandson, Gautam, died of snakebite too,” she says after
listening to our conversation. “At 18, he was a strapping young man, always
smiling and fun-filled. Nothing could save him. No mantra of the ojhas,
no medicine of the doctors.”
“So, you went to the ojhas first. After his mantras
failed, you went to the doctor, is it?,” I ask.
“What use is it, going to the doctors? Look at him, he went
to the doctors, could he save his nephew?” she says, casting a side-glance at
Majhi. “Some ojhas, I say, are really good; they know a lot of mantras.
These kinds of ojhas are getting rare these days.”
“Dida, oh dida!” Majhi exclaims, shaking his
head. “You are incorrigible!”
Since the three deaths, Majhi has become an active
campaigner against superstition and helps organise awareness camps on
snakebites in and around Raidighi. He says, “These deaths were eye-opening for
me. I realised how little I knew about snakebite. I need to tell the people
that snakebites do not necessarily mean death; there’s a lot we can do; that
mantras do not work, medical intervention is the only solution.”
I look at the pictures of the dead brothers. They must have looked
no different, I think, on the night when they were bitten by the snake while
they were sleeping side by side in their mud-house.
Majhi and I then go to his house in that neighbourhood, not
very far from his school.
he largest number of snakebites in the world are said to occur in India. However, there are no reliable data because snakebites, which happen almost entirely among the rural poor, do not get reported. Partly due to superstition and partly because of lack of access to healthcare, people in the villages go to traditional faith healers or practitioners of alternative medicine. Those that get reported are deaths in government hospitals, which is said to be only a small fraction.
The latest government data available from the National
Health Profile of India 2012, which is published on the website of the Central
Bureau of Health Intelligence, states that there were 1,375 snakebite deaths,
383 in West Bengal alone, that year. Other states to register high numbers of snakebite
deaths are Orissa (214), Andhra Pradesh (134), Madhya Pradesh (157) and Uttar
Pradesh (104), while there is no entry for Arunachal Pradesh.
The actual figure is said to be more than 30-fold higher.
There are two sets of data available on the World Health Organisation (WHO) website. Quoting the estimates of a PLoS Medicine report of 2008, WHO says on the Neglected Tropical Diseases page that there are at least 4.21 lakh cases of snakebite poisoning and 20,000 deaths worldwide each year, but warns that these figures may be as high as 18.41 lakh cases and 94,000 deaths. The report says India has the highest estimated annual figures: 81,000 cases of envenoming (or poisoning) and 11,000 deaths respectively, making it a major public health problem. The figure was arrived at by a review of scientific literature, county-specific mortality data from databases maintained by United Nations organisations, and unpublished information from ministries of health, National Poison Centres, and inputs from snakebite experts.
According to the 2010 factsheet figures presented by the media centre on the WHO website, 50 lakh snake bites occur in the world each year, resulting in up to 25 lakh poisonings, at least 1 lakh deaths, and around three times as many amputations and other permanent disabilities.
The first-ever direct estimates were made from the national
mortality survey—better known as the Million Death Study— of 1.1 million homes
in 2001-2003 conducted by the Centre for Global Health Research (CGHR) in
collaboration with the Registrar General of India. The study—done using the
verbal autopsy method that was helpful also in cases where there were no
medical records—is said to be scientifically the most robust and accurate
estimate on snakebite in India till date.
WHO has included snakebite as one of the most “neglected conditions” in its list of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
The findings, published in 2011, estimated that 45,900
snakebite deaths occurred annually in India, with the highest rates being in
Uttar Pradesh (8,700), Andhra Pradesh (5,200), and Bihar (4,500).
“Snakebite remains an
underestimated cause of accidental death in modern India, causing about one
death for every two HIV-related deaths,” says a CGHR report on snakebite
mortality in India published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases in
April 2011. “Because a large proportion of global totals of snakebites arise
from India, global snakebite totals might also be underestimated.”
But it remains a neglected and forgotten issue, especially in India. WHO has included snakebite as one of the most “neglected conditions” in its list of Neglected Tropical Diseases.
“Worldwide, snakebite has been neglected and forgotten and
its victims abandoned by medical science and public health systems,” David A.
Warrell, emeritus professor of tropical medicine at the University of Oxford
and one of the researchers involved in the Million Death Study, was quoted as
saying in the BMJ (earlier known as the British Medical Journal).
“This neglect is particularly surprising in India, which has long been regarded
as the country that suffers the worst snakebite problem in the world but whose doctors
have the greatest experience and skill in dealing with this ancient scourge of
ebruary 4 was the day of Saraswati Puja, the festival of Bengal in which the goddess of knowledge and arts is worshipped. Even two days after the occasion, a festive air prevails in Majher Para village. Children and young adults gather at small pandals, temporary structures made of bamboo and cloth, on road corners where loud Bollywood songs are playing, rending the tranquillity of Majherpara village in Raidighi.
Getting “used to” living with snakes never happens in the serpent-rich Sunderbans. Mystery and fear still abound in the deltaic region.
Barring one or two concrete homes, the village is mostly of
mud-houses connected by narrow, kutcha brick lanes. Paddy fields are empty but
for the stubble from the last harvest. Ponds that dot the village are murky and
winter vegetables grow on meticulously-laid beds. In some places the empty
spaces have thrown up untamed vegetation, dry now because of winter. It seems
like a perfect setting for human beings and snakes to coexist, albeit driven by
hostility and fear of each other. The realisation that snakes must be
hibernating this time of the year is reassuring.
With evening setting in, armies of mosquitoes raid Dipankar Majhi’s house with complete disdain for the mosquito repellent. Anjali, his sister-in-law and Bikash’s mother, gives me a solution to soothe the bites. I notice that none of them uses it. “Oh, we are used to it,” Anjali says.
It is getting “used to” living with snakes that never
happens despite always being in the serpent-rich Sunderbans. Mystery and fear
still abound in the deltaic region, home to over three million people, the
Royal Bengal tiger, and some of the deadliest snakes.
“We did not get to see the snake. I still wonder how it
could have entered our house and left without anyone noticing it. Or could it
have bitten my nephew when he went out of the house late in the night to
urinate?” Majhi asks, with the desperation of someone cheated by fate.
Both the Majhi families, who live a stone’s throw from each
other, live in joint structures with three generations living in the same
“This is where their bed was,” Shakuntala, the grandmother
of Bikram and Pritham, shows me when I go to meet the two bereaved families.
The bed has since been removed from the side of the window, whose bars are made
of bamboo. It was conjectured that the snake found its way through that window,
outside which is a heap of domestic rubbish. There are gaping cracks all over
the mud walls of the house which pictures of gods and goddesses are unable to
“We found the snake there,” the grandmother points at the
corner. The snake was killed by villagers and burnt.
The boys’ parents, Chaitali and Brindaban, were sleeping on
the floor not too far away on that fateful night. “It’s mysterious that the
snake bites the boys on the bed and parents sleeping on the floor escape
miraculously,” Shakuntala says.
India is one of the few countries that manufacture anti-snake venom (ASV), something it has been doing for the past 100 years.
“Strange are the ways of snakes! See, from what we knew the
same snake cannot envenom twice in quick succession. Look, how it took away my
grandsons almost at the same time. I’d never heard of such a thing in my whole
life,” she adds as Chaitali looks on, making no effort to join in. “Well, what
could have been done? When a poisonous snake bites, death is inevitable. We
have to accept what is fated,” Shakuntala says.
Chaitali’s eyes well up. She does not agree. She knows the
truth. Soon after the news of her sons’ deaths spread, members of the Juktibadi
Sanskritik Sanstha, a voluntary organisation working in the field of creating
awareness on snakebites, had come to the village from Canning, the nearest
railhead to the Sunderbans. They’d shown a video of a boy bitten by a common
krait undergoing treatment at the Canning hospital. He was almost unconscious
when he reached hospital. Chaitali saw in the video how the boy regained his strength,
She had burst out crying. “So, people survive being poisoned
by a snake. My sons could have recovered too.”
lexander the Great, who invaded India in 326 BC, is said to have been hugely impressed by the skill of Indian physicians in dealing with snakebites. India is one of the few countries that manufacture anti-snake venom (ASV), something it has been doing for the past 100 years.
Currently, at least seven laboratories are involved in the
production of ASVs, the only treatment for snakebite. India produces polyvalent
ASV raised from venom of the “Big Four” snakes: cobra, krait, saw-scaled viper,
and the Russell’s viper. The same ASV can be used to neutralise envenoming by
any of these snakes.
The life-saving ASVs are supplied free in government-run
hospitals, though their availability is irregular. They can be procured in the
open market and cost as much as ₹500 per 10 ml vial, but a severe supply crunch
has hit the availability of ASVs in the open market.
While most rural hospitals are stocked with ASVs, it is not
the same at the public health centres (PHCs) which are generally the first port
of call when a patient seeks medical care in the rural areas. According to V.
V. Pillay, chief of Kochi’s Poison Control Centre and head of Analytical
Toxicology and Forensic Biotechnology department at the Amrita Institute of
Medical Sciences and Research, this is not possible because ASVs must be kept
under refrigeration and administered by trained staff only, both either absent
or inadequate at the PHCs.
The efficacy of the serum varies across the country because the composition of snake venom is found to differ from place to place, sometimes even within the same species.
On the one hand, there is an acute shortage of ASVs in the
open market and on the other, the public sector companies and institutes
earlier producing the bulk of ASV have stopped producing them due to commercial
non-viability, Anand Zachariah, professor of medicine, Christian Medical
College (CMC), Vellore, said in an email. He termed the lack of ASV
availability violation of human rights—the right to life.
Also, government restrictions on procurement of snake venom
for manufacture of the antidote are seen as doing a lot of harm. Venoms are
mainly (80 per cent) sourced from the Irula cooperative authorised to extract venom
from the Big Four snakes from the Mamallapuram region of Tamil Nadu. A 2012
study by herpetologists Romulus Whitaker and Samir Whitaker hints at the
possibility of illegal and irregular procurement of venom to meet demand.
This apart, the efficacy of the serum varies across the
country because the composition of snake venom is found to differ from place to
place, sometimes even within the same species. “It is not clear if the ASV
produced from venom from the Irula cooperative has uniform efficacy for snake
bites across the country,” Zachariah said.
“Inadequate attention to these long-understood geographic
variations in venoms is one of the reasons for the increasingly common reports
from clinicians about the ineffectiveness of commercially available ASVs,” the
Whitakers said in their report.
“They do not cover the venoms of any of the Indian pit
vipers and may not be effective for bites by monocellate cobras (in the east),
the Oxus cobra (in the north), several other species of krait, and the king
cobra,” David A. Warrell was quoted as saying in the BMJ.
However, the production, pharmaceutical and research issues
concerning ASVs are just part of a problem that makes snakebite a neglected and
forgotten health condition. According to toxicologist Pillay, the supply and
quality of ASV in India is not a big issue at the moment. “The reason for the
large number of deaths is that people are still ignorant and rely on faith
healers and alternative treatment. They go to the hospital as a second or final
Despite increasing awareness, most villagers still prefer
their village ojhas, who are readily accessible and cheap. Also, they
believe that the success rate of shamans is “better” than doctors! The ojhas
or shamans are the first port of call for most rural snakebite patients. They
are successful in “treating” more than 90 per cent of the cases with just the
chanting of a few mantras, sprinkling of holy water or a gentle blow. This is
because only 10 per cent of snakes are poisonous and even the venomous snakes
at times plant a dry or poison-less bite. On the other hand, a doctor gets
patients mostly in serious stage or in moribund condition, when all else has
failed. Obviously a doctor’s success rate cannot match that of the shaman’s!
The bigger worry is what happens after snakebite patients go
to the hospital. “There are issues with the medical fraternity itself,” Pillay,
a former president of Indian Society of Toxicology, told Fountain Ink
over the telephone, ruing how patients are at the mercy of the “whims and
fancies” of attending doctors in the absence of a standard management protocol.
“There is no clarity on the dosage of the ASV because no one follows a standard
protocol. Doctors have not shown any keenness to adopt new ideas.”
In spite of managing snakebites for at least a century, there is still no evidence about how best to treat them.
In 2006, the Indian Society of Toxicology and the World
Health Organisation organised a national snakebite conference. “At the
conference, which was attended by experts from India and abroad, we drew up an
elaborate National Snakebite Protocol which gave step-by-step guidelines as to
what is to be done and what should be the dosage of ASVs across three
categories—mild, moderate and severe. It was submitted to the health ministry
in order for it to be adopted and disseminated throughout the country. Little seems
to have come of it,” Pillay said.
In 2009, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare published the National Snakebite Management Protocol, largely followed in government hospitals—a chart on snakebite management, for example, is displayed at the emergency ward of the Canning Sub-divisional hospital in West Bengal—but awareness is not uniform among medical practitioners.
Last year, the South Asian Cochrane Network and the Indian
Council of Medical Research centre of CMC, Vellore, organised a protocol
development workshop. “As was evident from the data and protocols presented by
15 centres from across India, there are wide variations in ASV dosage and
administrations, their indications for usage, their adverse effect profile, and
even the standards of care adopted,” Bhaumik, who was one of the participants,
wrote on the BMJ blog.
The situation is best summed up in his lines: “In spite of
managing snakebites for at least a century, there is still no evidence about
how best to treat them.”
n August 7, 2007, Dayal Bandhu Majumdar, a medical doctor and a sworn crusader against snakebites, made a presentation at the Habra State General Hospital in the North 24 Parganas in West Bengal. He presented a series of slides aimed at doctors on how to identify snakebite victims and how to treat them.
A general physician confessed that he’d issued many death certificates as cases of cerebro-vascular failure. Now, having understood snakebite symptoms, he wonders if some of those cases were snakebites.
“After that presentation, a senior doctor told me that he
suspected that one of his patients, who had died 20 years ago, could have been
bitten by a snake,” Majumdar tells me as we chat after his shift at the out-patient
department of the Calcutta National Medical College and Hospital (CNMCH). “Like
many doctors, he did not know that victims of the common krait often may not
realise that they’ve been bitten by a snake. The doctor said he suspected the
case to be a cerebro-vascular accident and treated accordingly. Looking back,
he feels it could have been snakebite.”
Majumdar has had interesting, and alarming, experiences since he began organising awareness campaigns on snakebites. “In 2009, at another seminar I organised at Mecheda, a general physician came to me and confessed that he’d issued many death certificates as cases of cerebro-vascular failure. Now, having understood snakebite symptoms, he looks back and wonders if some of those cases were snakebites,” he tells me, stopping in between to answer question of patients’ relatives.
“Many doctors do not know that the common krait bites
painlessly when the patient is asleep. Often there is no visible mark on the
body and the patient lands in hospital, complaining of something as commonplace
as pain in the abdomen or throat-ache, which then gradually lead to serious
symptoms as respiratory problems and convulsions,” he adds.
Early in the morning of August 14, 2011, Pintu Naskar of
Mousal Village near Kolkata went to the emergency ward of a hospital
complaining of stomach ache. After observation for some time, he was released
at 10 a.m., Dr Majumdar writes in his blog, kalachkrait.webs.com. Naskar
then came to Calcutta National Medical College Hospital, where he was first
treated for abdominal pain and then later, when he complained of difficulty in
swallowing and drooping eyelids, it was diagnosed to be a case of neurotoxic
snakebite. Naskar was given 10 vials of Indian polyvalent ASV and was cured.
Sometimes, even when a doctor knows it’s a snake bite, he is
clueless what to do next. “A couple of years ago, a doctor shared with me how
he wasted a good deal of time trying to find out how to administer the
anti-snake venom and in what quantities. By the time he had figured it out, the
patient died,” he says showing a slide from his training module in which a
nurse is shown administering ASV by injecting it into the saline drip.
“But you are an ophthalmologist by training,” I say. “How
did you get involved in training doctors on snakebites?”
My question takes Majumdar back to his days as junior doctor
at the emergency section of a second-tier hospital in Habra where he got to
deal with all kinds of cases, including snakebite. “It was there that I first
understood the enormity of the snakebite problem—patients would come in droves,
especially in the monsoons—and the utter lack of knowledge and experience on
the part of doctors. It baffled me how little we knew. The lack of awareness
among rural, uneducated people is understandable, but what do you say about the
ignorance of doctors? I thought doctors should be the first people who need to
be trained to handle snakebites and developed a training module.”
Majumdar was a resource person in a modular programme targeted
at training medical officers and chief medical officers to become trainers—a
pilot project of the National Rural Health Mission carried out in five
districts of West Bengal in 2012. He is now writing—in vain—to authorities for
the essential training to be conducted in the remaining 14 districts. “I’ve
been told lack of funding is the reason,” he says.
Anand Zachariah, CMC professor, and his colleagues are trying to map the correlation of syndromes of envenoming with snake species, trying to develop a bedside test to identify the species that have bitten a patient.
But hasn’t a lot of money already gone into the making of
these doctors? Did they not have snakebite in their MBBS syllabus? I later ask
other doctors, some of them my friends, about what lessons on snakebites they
were taught when they were studying to become doctors. None could remember
having had any classes; some said “we glossed over” the chapter.
“All textbooks we used were by foreign authors, with just
about two pages on snakebite,” said a young doctor who graduated in 2011. “We
would be asked to prepare a clinical chart of some emergency conditions for the
viva voce exams which included snakebites. All that required was memorising 10
points or so.”
anning Sub-divisional Hospital is gearing up to house the state’s first snakebite training and research centre. “Plans are on to set up a modern facility exclusively for snakebite cases,” hospital superintendent Indranil Sarkar said. “It will have coronary care and high dependency. It will have ventilator support for serious patients bitten by neurotoxic snakes and dialysis unit for patients bitten by haemotoxic snakes.”
“We are in talks with CMC, Vellore, for collaboration in
research and study of snakebites,” Sarkar said.
At CMC, a pioneering initiative on clinical research in
snakebite is on which could prove path-breaking, experts said, in checking
India’s snakebite mortality through improved diagnostics and developing a more
efficacious and less toxic ASV.
The findings will help develop a clinical algorithm to
identify the species that caused the bite, based on the clinical features
particular for different parts of the country. This will be key in identifying
species outside the Big Four, including those for which ASVs are not available.
“If the ASV is not so effective against species in particular parts of the
country, then this would indicate the need for geographically specific ASV,”
Zachariah said. “The availability of a test to identify the species that has
bitten can pave the way for developing monovalent anti-venom (against one
species) or bivalent (against two species causing one clinical syndrome of
Apart from some piecemeal initiatives here and there, a
holistic intervention from the government is lacking, experts said. The
government must provide free or subsidised ASVs to the private and
non-government sectors too and revive ASV production in public sector companies
which were formerly the main producers, Zachariah said. An online registry for
venomous snakebites and deaths and a helpline to identify ASV shortage are some
of his other suggestions.
However to begin with, the first big step is to declare
snakebite a “notifiable disease”, according to Kochi’s Pillay. “Making it a
notifiable disease will make it mandatory for any doctor to report a case of
snakebite to the authorities when he comes across it. This will help us get
more reliable data.”
Pillay said he’s approached the government a number of times
with the proposal but nothing has come of it. The list of “notifiable” diseases
in India includes rabies, leprosy, malaria and dengue fever.
nlike most tourists and like Kanai in Amitava Ghosh’s The Hungry Tide, I take the early morning Canning Local to go to the tide country, the Sunderbans. I’m jostled out of my compartment and Canning station by a river of humanity in a hurry to catch the bus to Gosaba or a shared auto-rickshaw to Chunakhali. It’s still winter but feels hot already. The dusty surroundings of the station are chock-a-block with small shops and stalls. The air is full of the noise of hawkers seeking customers and loudspeakers blaring the speech of a local Trinamool Congress leader live from a blood-donation camp nearby.
It does not take much to locate the office of the Juktibadi
Sanskritik Sanstha (JSS), set up in an unused shop flanked by a book-shop and a
tour agency. Where else will you have dead snakes to welcome you at the
entrance? A common krait, a monocled cobra, and a cat snake in formaldehyde
solutions make the passing schoolchildren stop and wonder.
“Are they alive?” they ask, afraid of coming too close to
the glass jars.
“No, they’re dead,” says Bijan Bhattacharya, the
organisation’s founder-secretary who spends his mornings and evenings there.
The children are not told that there are live snakes, too.
Snakes that have been rescued from different places are tucked away in the
backroom. They will be taken to the villages and shown to the people as part of
JSS’s awareness drive before being released in the forests.
“I was on my way to Gosaba one morning in 1986 when I saw a
mother going to the hospital, holding a four-year-old kid in her arms. The boy
was bitten by a snake. When I was returning, I saw her walk back with the dead
child in her arms,” Bhattacharya says. “That incident made me start this
organisation aimed at eradicating superstition and promoting awareness onsnakebites.”
For the past 27 years, the organisation—with its motto of
“No deaths due to snakebites”—has been working incessantly to make people aware
of snakebites. There are 75 members from different walks of life, from doctors
to rickshaw-van pullers. They’ve been working at creating awareness through
music and drama, as well as organising awareness workshops for doctors, forest
staff and paramilitary forces and helping people get medical assistance in case
of snakebites. They run 24/7 help lines, basically the cell phone numbers of
the senior members of the group.
“The phone never stops ringing in the monsoon,” Niranjan
Sardar, the joint secretary, tells me.
JSS has also published awareness material, including charts, books and videos. Rescuing snakes and fostering a better human-snake relationship is one of their aims. “A large number of innocent snakes get killed because many people are still not aware that only a fraction of them are venomous,” says Sardar.
Soon, some members gather at the office and seven of us
leave in an auto-rickshaw for Boria village in Chunakhali area of the
Sunderbans. We are led by Niranjan Sardar and carry 12 snakes— four of them
venomous—in containers inside innocuous traveller’s bags.
A motley crowd gathers as Probir Ghosh begins to place the
transparent snake containers on the table of the stall at the annual Birsa
Munda tribal fair. Others put up charts and posters on the types of snakes and
first-aid practices. Bimal Bratya begins telling people how snakes are friendly
creatures and takes a cat snake in his hand. The people step back.
Ghosh works for a seeds company and Bratya pulls a rickshaw
van for a living—his cart has a placard in front that says “No dying because of
snakebites”. They’ve been involved with JSS for many years now, touring
villages on awareness camps in winters and helping snakebite patients in
summers and monsoons.
“Take this in your hand. I will take your picture with it,”
Ghosh tells me, a common sand boa in his hands.
“No,” I cringe.
“It won’t do you any harm. It is not poisonous. Come, touch
My snake-phobia notwithstanding, I run my fingers over the
reptile and feel it slither.
A group of children and village elders are waiting for the “snake show” that will take place on stage after the tarja (Bengali folk poetry duel) is over. Huge crowds gather by the time the show starts with our “rockstar” Niranjan Sardar singing Jiboner janye, bhalobashar janyo amader ei gaan gawa (We sing for the sake of life, love). His long, curly hair sits like a halo on his head.
The audience inch closer with every snake that is displayed
on the stage, the non-poisonous ones going first. Wielding a stick, ringmaster
Sardar announces the appearances of the poisonous snakes. A collective gasp
fills the air as a monocled cobra, a Russell’s viper, a banded krait, and a
common krait are paraded, one by one.
Sardar and two other experienced snake handlers hold each
one by its tail, while the upper body of the reptile rests on his long stick.
He shows off the fangs of the Russell’s viper, locally called chandrabora.
Last year he was bit ten by a chandrabora during an awareness show
organised for the jawans of a paramilitary force, but he does not betray any
sign of fear.
“Cobra, krait, saw-scaled viper, and the Russell’s viper
make the Big Four, responsible for the largest number of deaths in India,” he
explains to a shocked audience. “But they only bite to defend themselves. Take
care to avoid encounters with them, carry a torch in the dark. And, if a snake
bites, go to the doctor immediately and not the ojha.”
“Will this interview help us get the compensation?” Noor Mohammed Mollah of Chunakhali asks me. His courtyard slowly fills with family members and neighbours. Women and children, some of them holding babies almost their size, surround us.
In October last year, during the harvest season, Mollah’s
brother Lutfar (45) was returning from the paddy field after a hard day’s work
when a monocellete cobra bit him. Mollah and his friends took him to a faith
healer and then to a charitable hospital in Sorberia where they “treat”
snakebites with black stones. By the time they decided to go to the hospital,
Lutfar was dead.
Some states in India, including West Bengal, Punjab and Maharashtra, offer compensation of up to ₹1 lakh to the next of kin. Mollah has written to the local panchayat office seeking compensation. “He (Lutfar) has left behind two little children to his wife, who has no source of income,” he says, unsuccessfully trying to hide his disappointment that I was not who he was expecting. “So you are not sent by the government to look into our case? You are interviewing us to just write about us?”
Lutfar, Bikash, Bikram and Pritam—poverty is the common
thread running through their stories. “Snakebite is the problem of the rural
poor. Would it have been so neglected if it concerned the rich city people?”
Dipankar Majhi knows the answer.