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 nine.

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 photo-chromatic glasses.

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 mankind.”



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 house.

“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 hide.

“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, his life.

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.

 While the ASVs are efficacious against the Big Four snakes, India’s list of poisonous snakes extends beyond that. “There are so many other medically important venomous snakes apart from the Big Four and we do not know about the efficacy of the Indian ASV in these snakes. Nor do we know much about the distribution of these snakes in various parts of the nation,” said Soumyadeep Bhaumik, senior researcher at the South Asian Cochrane Network and Centre at CMC, Vellore.

“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 resort.”

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, 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.

 “We would like to set up a snakebite research network for supporting good quality clinical research in snake bite in peripheral hospitals,” Anand Zachariah, the CMC professor, told Fountain Ink in an email interview.

 Zachariah and his colleagues are trying to map the correlation of clinical syndromes of envenoming with snake species and also understand the geographic variability of clinical syndromes and ASV requirements in different parts of the country. This apart, they are trying to develop a bedside test to help identify the snake species that have bitten a patient based on a DNA PCR (polymerase chain reaction) assay from the swab of the bite site and venom protein detection from the serum and urine.

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 envenomation).”

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 it.”

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.