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After an hour’s motorbike journey, we reached Kapasia union Parishad (Local Government Institution) headquarter in Sundarganj Upazila (subdistrict) in Gaibandha, a northern district of Bangladesh. Another twenty minutes’ walk through the earthen road took us to the Kheya ghat (ferry terminal in rural areas) on the bank of river Teesta.
We were lucky to get the engine (ferry) boat to cross the river. If we didn’t get the ferry boat timely, we had to wait for almost an hour to get the next one. The river in the mid of May looked vibrant with a strong current and whirlpool in the water. The marks of erosion of land along the river were easily noticeable. Erosion and formation of lands along the river happen simultaneously forcing the river erosion victims to settle down on the newly formed lands, commonly known as Char land. “Major part of our union is in the Char, on the other side of the river, and we are known as char people” narrated Nabab Ali (90), a co-passenger of the ferry boat.
is an important river in the northern region of Bangladesh. According to Hindu mythology, it originated from the breast of Devi Parvati (Goddess Parvati). The river originates in Chitamu Lake in the Sikkim Himalayas at an altitude of about 7,200 m and comes down first to the Darjeeling plain and then to the Duar plain of West Bengal (India). It flows through a magnificent gorge known as Sivok Gola in Darjeeling.
Landlessness binds the destiny
The jute plants field welcomed us to the char. The char in this part is called Kajiarchar and it is within the village Vatykapasia. With an area of 33 square kilometers, Kapasia union has a population of around 19,000 in 12 villages and Vatykapasia is one of them. We followed Nabab Ali through the alley in the young jute plants field. Sometimes the alley went down to low land which gets flooded during the rainy season. His life story was unfolding the ever-changing features of the char. “My forefathers came here from Tangail, a district at the downstream and far distance from here. They came here due to poverty and to try their destiny. But rivers erosion didn’t make them happy and for me, it was more than 30 times that I had to change my residence due to river erosion,” told Nabab Ali.
We reached Rajar char Adarsho bazaar (Ahmednagar Adarsho bazaar), the only marketplace in the char. We met people of different ages from different villages. All of them are landless and have settled down here after getting displaced by rivers erosion from their lands. The presence of fewer numbers of trees around the villages is enough to understand how vulnerable the community is to storms and other disasters. The villages get cut off from each other during the rainy season.
Raja Miah (38), a shopkeeper of the market and a victim of river erosion for more than ten times described the lives and livelihoods of the Char, “Most of the people of this char are landless and wage earners. A few are sharecroppers. Agriculture is our main livelihood. Earnings from agriculture last for six months. We get waterlogged for almost five months (June-October) due to floods in the rainy season but in case of flash floods, waterlogging starts from April and May. During this period our people become jobless. They have to largely depend on money lenders for their survival. Some people go outside of the area for earning.”
The innovation lacks proper supports
The situation has little been improved in the last ten to twelve years with the introduction of Boro paddy cultivation in the months of February to April. Now they can harvest paddy before the early or flash flood. They also cultivate maize, jute, peanut which also bring them a good profit. However, the villagers complain that they are not provided with the necessary supports by the concerned authorities and institutions.
Abdul Jalil (75), an elderly person of this locality explained how difficult it is to manage loans for Boro cultivation. “Boro cultivation requires a good investment at various stages ranging from tilling of land to the harvesting of crops. But we are not eligible for a bank loan since we are landless and we are likely to change our residence frequently due to river erosion. We don’t have many NGO activities here. We have to depend on moneylenders for loans at a high-interest rate. A major portion of our profit from Boro Paddy and other cultivations goes to money lenders’ pockets.”
We visited Kajiarchar Abashon Prokolpo (rehabilitation project for landless people and river erosion victims) village, very close to the marketplace. Around 160 families have been living in this government-sponsored housing project. We found mostly female members in the village and came to know that male members were outside of the village for earning.
Ayesha Begum (40), a resident of this village explained how they pass their lives here, “We live on wage-earning. Both male and female members of our village work in the crop fields and with the income from this work we can manage our family expenditure for at best six months. We are also engaged in rearing cows and goats which we get from the well-off people mostly from the mainland on the condition of profit sharing. But when water starts flooding our area, our earnings also start declining. We pass a very hard time during floods every year. We usually borrow money from moneylenders to survive the flood.”
Women and children lack better living and self-development facilities
The female members and children whom we came across in the char were not in good health. Their daily food intake includes rice, vegetable, mashed potato, and eggs sometimes, and they can seldom have fish in their meals let alone meat. But another key reason behind the poor health of women is to give birth to more children, as Nurunnahar Begum (32), a female member of this community explained, “Here child death is a big concern for us and that is why we have to give birth to more children. Moreover, the expectation of a son also leads to the increase of family members.”
Getting proper medical treatment is a big challenge for the villagers. “We have a community clinic here but we don’t get our expected services from it. And for any emergency health situation and improved medical treatment we have to go far—at Upazila and district headquarter, which is very expensive for us,” narrated Nurunnahar Begum.
Children are also deprived of a congenial environment for their childhood development. Md. Razzak(45) of this village described the situation, “Here our children can only avail primary level education. But that is not adequate for them. And after primary level education children pass unproductive times. Some of them get engaged in income-generating activities and the girls are in most cases got married at early ages.” This situation only suggests a poor literacy rate (30%) of the Kapasia union which is much lower than the national average.
Institutional and coordinated supports are must for the betterment of Char people
Mr. Zillur Rahman Khandker, executive director of Udyog Foundation, a local NGO which has been engaged in development programs and micro-credit operations in this locality explained the challenges and prospects of the char people, “We need more accountable and functional role from our concerned government departments as well as development partners for the betterment of these people. The local people are taking some innovative steps in crop diversification, livestock, and livelihood development on their own but a coordinated and effective monitoring system involving all actors is essential to sustain these efforts.”
Md. Jalaluddin, chairman of Kapasia Union gave emphasis on increasing resource allocation, social safety net programs, and special programs from government and NGOs for the people of his union. He said, “My union is highly exposed to river erosion, flood, and storm. Around 90% of the area of this union is in the char land. And the people need more supports for their overall development. We need more quality educational institutions. Community clinics need to be improved with good services including an adequate supply of medicine and regular visit of doctors. Moreover, lack of occupational diversity holds back the people in poverty. Concerned government departments, as well as NGOs, should come up with skill development training and material supports for these people.”
Lucubrate Magazine, October 2021
The picture at the top of the article: Shekhar Kanti Ray
The article was first published in The Asian Age, https://dailyasianage.com/news/182921/inclusive-development-and-the-victims-of-river-erosion. The article is modified.