Vol. 5 Num 215 Fri. December 31, 2004  
Front Page

Fish frenzy roils Sunamganj
Lake lessees guard new waters

Private security guards hired by leaseholders are harassing farmers who traditionally fish in ponds created by seasonal flooding at more than 500 jalmahals in the Sunamganj area.

"Yes, the guards harass and even torture the poor fishermen," said Md Jafar Siddiqui, deputy commissioner of Sunamganj. "The lessees are influential, and they violate many conditions and illegally guard the nearby ponds as well as their leased area."

Floods in Sunamganj this year devastated the boro crops, but such waters also multiply the number of fish, causing the jalmahals to overflow and spawn the haors. This natural event traditionally counterbalances farmers' hardships from flooded crops.

This year competition for fish is feverish. The armed guards employed by leaseholders are illegally preventing peasants from fishing. With no competition for the fish in adjoining ponds, known as vasan pani, the leaseholders will net more profit.

"I cannot fish in the vasan pani," said Raghu Chandra Das of Mohanpur in Sunamganj. "The guards will beat me up, grab my net or may even capsize my boat in the water. "So I work under a leaseholder, or I fish in the river or roadside canals.

Sources estimate the number of hired jalmahal guards at more than 2,000 in Sunamganj Sadar, Biswambharpur, Tahirpur, Dhorompasha, Madhyanagar, Jamalganj, Dirai and Shalla upazilas.

Tahirpur farmers say guards killed one juvenile fisherman, beat five others and capsized several boats. In October, local fishermen demanded the administration protect their rights, when people at the Kharchar haor submitted a memorandum to the district administration.

Asked why the police don't curtail abuses by guards, the Sunamganj deputy commissioner said the region's force of 250 was insufficient. "It is not practically possible to stop it," he said.

Since 1990, 17 fishermen were killed and more than 500 injured by guards. No cases have gone to trial, as the victims all lacked money to pursue them, officials said.

A fisherman in Tahirpur who requested anonymity admitted that this year's abundance of fish has also tempted desperate farmers to seek fish in water bodies protected by guards.

The prime fishing season is December and January. Siddiqui credits local conservation in Tangua with raising regional fish stocks, prompting lake leaseholders to add guards.

"As we started to conserve the Tanguar haor, the mother fishery, as per the Ramsar Convention, the fish stock doubled all over the Sunamganj haor area," said Siddiqui. "And the leaseholders became furious, wanting to grab all the fish.