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Shanti Bashfor, like others of her community in Gaibandha city, a northern district headquarter of Bangladesh, has been in a struggle for years to get unfettered from the curse of untouchability. She belongs to the Harijan community who shoulders the responsibility for cleaning up the city every day.

Her eight family members live in two rooms house made of a corrugated iron sheet on the bank of Ghagat lake (Alai River) on the city’s north end. During rainy seasons the members of around 30 families of the community suffer badly from flood, and the unprotected latrine and tubewell along the lake showcase how flawed the sanitation system is, posing a health risk for the community people.

People’s Republic of Bangladesh

Bangladesh is a country in South Asia. It is the eighth-most populous country in the world, with a population exceeding 163 million people, in an area of 148,560 square kilometres. It is one of the most densely populated countries in the world. Bangladesh shares land borders with India to the west, north, and east, Myanmar to the southeast, and the Bay of Bengal to the south. Dhaka, the capital and largest city, is the nation’s economic, political, and cultural hub. Chittagong, the largest seaport is the second-largest city.

Fair payment is a far cry for the community

Shanti Bashfor (45) is working as a cleaner in Pourashava. She has worked there since 1987. She earns Tk. 1000 (USD 11.80) a month. She works for four hours from 5 AM every day. A few years back, her husband died, and since then, she has become the breadwinner for her family. How do you manage your family with this income? She kept silent for a while and replied, “we have to manage somehow. We get support from others, and in most cases, we manage loans from the moneylenders at high-interest rates. When we get a monthly salary, most of it goes for paying loans. In addition, I get widow-allowance of Tk.1500 from the government after every three months.”

Her son visits different villages daily in search of toilet cleaning works, and on a good day, he can earn up to Tk. 300. However, some days he comes back empty-handed. Her daughter Tarjen Bashfor (20) and her two kids got shelter at mum’s home after her husband died in a road accident. Both mother and daughter look sick, and the lack of nutrition is visible in their appearance.

One of the toilets of the community.

Aduri Bashfor (35), the next-door neighbor of Shanti Bashfor, is not much different from others. Her occupation and income are the same as Shanti Bashfor. She is yet to get a widow allowance from the concerned government offices. Aduri, along with her four daughters and two sons, lives with her father and brother. And altogether, around 17 members of these three families share the same premise in three separate rooms. The premises is not spacious enough for a comfortable living. And the lavatory along the lake is unprotected. How do you use it? The family members felt shy and replied, “We are accustomed to the situation. We generally use it in the dark, and during daylight, we use neighbor’s toilet.” A tubewell near the house is the only place to shower and collect water for drinking and other household use.

Aduri Bashfor and her family members.

The community lacks decent living facilities

Water and sanitation are the two significant issues for the residents of the Harijan community. Uttam Bashfor (48) and Alo Rani Bashfor (38), a couple with two children, showed us how their bamboo-made house basement and tubewell were damaged in the flood. They use toilets and tube wells in their neighborhoods, and the experiences are not always good. Alo Rani Bashfor explained, “They get angry with us, and sometimes it results in a quarrel. But what can we do? We don’t have any other options but to use their facilities.

The lack of work has held the community back for centuries. We met Prokash Bashfor (55), who earns from toilet cleaning works outside of the city. He said, “Every day I have to go to the villages for work. If my luck favors, then I can earn up to Tk. 500 on a day. If I cannot earn, we have to eat less, or starve or have to borrow money from others to run the family.” People of the Harijan community are not familiar with alternative income-generating activities, which is very important for a better living.

Harijan community people

The social structure forces them to get stuck in this occupation for centuries. Joy Bashfor (27), the supervisor of the cleaners of Gaibandha Pourashava, explained the situation, “Our issues are not properly reached out to the concerned authorities. School authorities don’t want to admit our children to their schools. They look down on us due to our work. We are not allowed to eat and having tea in restaurants.” Another youth from this community, Jeet Bashfor (22), reflected on other issues, “We don’t have our residential colony. If we had, then latrine, sanitation, health, education, accommodation, and different basic needs would improve. We cannot go to restaurants due to our occupations, but those engaged in the same field outside of our community can easily avail of those facilities.”

Moreover, the environment in and around our residences is not friendly for a decent living. Outsiders come here with liquor and drink here. They make a disturbance to our society. We don’t feel safe, and our girls get married at an early age due to insecurity,” he says.

Exclusion hinders the development

Members of the Rabidas community

We met some members of Rabidas community at Chakmamrojpur village of Kholahati union on the west of Gaibandha city. The community people live on their land but have no cultivable land, and most of them are engaged in shoemaking. Shanti Rabidas (50) and her husband Mirka Rabidas (70) narrated the changes in their society, “We had our houses in the city, but we were uprooted there when they acquired our lands for development purposes. We didn’t get compensation. Our forefathers were not aware enough to claim their rights. Here we have houses on our land, but we don’t have facilities like water and sanitation.” The community’s women sometimes work as day laborers in crop fields and sometimes in employment generation programs under social safety net programs. Bablu Rabidas (40), a shoemaker from this community, explained how untouchability makes their lives difficult, “If we start a new business, like grocery shop, people will not buy from us. We are Rabidas, shoemaking is our ancestral work, and people are habituated to underestimate our profession.”

Social movement brings positive changes

Khilan Rabidas (26), an activist from the Rabidas community, shared some critical insights about their movements on their rights, “We are mobilizing and encouraging our people to claim their rights from the duty bearers and change the mindset of the mainstream community towards us. We have been able, to some extent, to initiate the process. However, we have a lot to do to change the situation, and an integrated approach involving people of all spheres is a must to bring out the results of our movements.”
ABALAMBAN, a local NGO, has been engaged in improving the situation of the excluded communities. Probir Chakraborty, the executive director of ABALAMBAN, mentioned some critical criteria for the communities’ betterment: “These communities have their way of living, different culture, different lifestyle and different food habit. We should acknowledge and respect these identities before taking any development program for them. Many of us lack proper knowledge about these communities. They are not properly documented due to our ignorance. For any development program for them, the three key issues should be properly addressed;

  • Proper identification of the community and their population,
  • Properly identify their needs and,
  • properly design and implementation of location-specific actions.

Mr. Chakraborty added that during the lockdown, the people of these communities were provided with food supports from Local Government Institutions (Pourashava), the Department of social welfare, and the Human Rights Program of UNDP. But they need continuous supports as they are deprived of their basic needs and rights.

Lucubrate Magazine July 2021

The article was first published in The Asian Age: https://dailyasianage.com/news/

All the photos for the article: Shekhar Kanti Ray

Shanti Bashfor and her daughter.

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Ray Kanti Shekhar
Ray Kanti Shekhar

He is based in Dhaka, Bangladesh, is a development professional and researcher. With around 15 years of diverse professional experiences, he has expertise in participatory research, training, investigative reporting and writing in the areas of climate change, natural resource management and rights issues of marginal communities. (shekhar_ray@hotmail.com)

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