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A Jumpstart for Rangamati's People

Shamim Ahsan

Kaptai Lake at places looks like a sea minus waves. As the tiny speedboat picks speed, its radar ploughs the surface water creating large waves in the process. The white stalks idling away with the lower part of their body underneath the water dance away riding on those advancing waves. Ten to fifteen minutes since we left the shore, the Rangamati town behind us becomes blurry and the small hills lined up on the bank on our right hand that first look liked silhouettes of hills, start to take shape. Around 30 minutes from the town, we come to an area where small hilly islands, each about 20 to 30 feet high from the water, stand. As the speedboat swerves into a water-alley it is welcomed by eager, young children who quickly line up along the bank hearing the loud sound the speedboat is emanating.

Each of these islands with an area of half to one sq kilometre is actually a village. The locals however call them Para. The side of the hill is cut into the shape of stairs and climbing along those dangerously steep stairs needs a lot of courage if not experience. Though most of these Paras which are under Rangamati Sadar are populated by Chakmas there are some where both Chakmas and Bangalis live.

The name of the village, para to be exact, we first arrived is called Kokipara. Home to 23 families with a population of exactly 132, Kokipara still bears the marks of its past identity. Though gradually turned into a human habitat, the place retains much of its original appearance in its myriad of trees, slices of bushes, shrubbery and evergreens. The straw-and-bamboo made houses with thatched roof also go well with the near-forest ambience of the para.

But this is not just a picture-perfect village. The people here, like almost all the paras, are extremely poor. These people and their wretched condition is a testimony that technological advancement sometimes can be as much a curse as it is a blessing. Kaptai dam, built for power generation, has devastated the adivasi dominated Rangamati. Thousands of Chakmas who have been living in this hilly region for several hundred years lost their home and land to the Kaptai Lake, a side-affect of the Kaptai dam.

Heavily dependent on agriculture, these people are now left with little land where they can cultivate. The scraps of hilly land here and there are too little to be their main source of living.

Fishing has since then become the principal source of their earning, but scarcity has hit that area too. "Some people have started catching fish with moshari (mosquito net). They are emptying the lake of fish," Anandalal of Kokipara village laments. On the tiny shreds of land they cultivate rice, ginger, holud etc. They also sell bamboo and wood, which is plentiful in this hilly area. Some of them try to grow bananas or pineapples. But these activities can barely feed them let alone provide access to other basic necessities of life.

In the meetings of the Para Development Committee, the community decides what development enterprises they want to undertake and how

Things however have begun to change for the last one-year or so. Amid the marks of impoverishment that are spread out all over Kokipara, some signs of development also come to notice. The silvery solar panels glittering in the February sun on the rooftops in Kokipara are one such sign.

Thanks to UNDP-supported Preparatory Assistance Project (PAP) that was initiated back in 2003 to help the poorest people of the region. It's a unique programme where the communities themselves plan and implement their own projects. Each of the villages forms a "Para Development Committee (PDC)", which in consultation with the community make all the decisions about what they want to do and how to do it. Over the last two years or so some 1,000 villages or paras have had access to an average of Tk 400,000 from UNDP's "Quick Impact Fund" to finance their various development initiatives.

The solar panels in Kokipara village have been bought from this fund. The success of its PAP has encouraged UNDP to continue and go for larger scale development works in this region. Towards the end of last year United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) signed a project titled "Promotion of Development and Confidence Building in the Chittagong Hill Tracts" worth 50 million US dollars or approximately Tk 300 crore. The project touted as UNDP's largest ever project in Bangladesh is being supported by European Commission, Australia, Japan, Norway and USAID and is expected to benefit some 2,500 communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts .

The solar panels that adorn most of rooftops in Kokipara were not bought by UNDP alone. In fact UNDP provided an initial grant of Tk 9,000 for each of the solar panels while the recipient has been paying a monthly installment of Tk 442 to pay off the rest. "After three years, I will become owner of the panel," Chandrasagar Chakma says. "Their contribution in the purchase will create a sense of ownership among them," Heli Uusikyla, field manager, Chittagong Hill Tracts, explains.

In their otherwise primitive lifestyle, the solar panels have brought in a touch of modernisation in the form of electric bulbs. They no more have to remain in the half darkness after the dusk descends. Electricity has proven to be financially viable too. "We had to spend more on kerosene that we now pay as the monthly instalment for the solar panel," Anandalal Chakma, the President of Kokipara PDC, shows the benefit mathematically. There are other benefits too. Children can now study under electric light. "We don't have to worry anymore about the expenses of burning oil," Neela Chakma, a woman in her mid thirties, says. "Besides we can sew clothes and Kanthas (thin blanket) at night," Neela hastens to add.

The PDC of Kokipara has also bought an engine boat and rice grinding machine with UNDP's financial assistance. Assets like engine boat and rice mill not owned by any individual or a group of people but by the entire community and the whole community enjoys their service. Locked by water all around the engine boat has been like a blessing. Apart from going to market in Rangamati town for selling and buying, sending their children to school and other regular activities, they no more have to worry about emergency situations like taking one to a doctor.

Both the boat and rice grinding machine are owned by the community and everyone has to pay to use them. The money thus collected from boat fare and grinding machine's service is used for purchasing oil and the rest is saved in a bank account held by the community.

Fattening cows is one of many development activities the indigenous people are engaged in using UNDP grant

Chittagong Hill Tracts comprising three districts Rangamati, Bandarban and Khagrachhari district are the most deprived and disadvantageous area in the entire country. The 25-year long bitter fight over land and resource management issues left most of its 1.3 million people stranded in extreme poverty. Peace was restored in 1997 with the signing of a peace treaty, but the condition of these hilly people has improved little. More than 40 percent of the population is unemployed, three quarters live below the poverty line and 50 percent of children drop out of school sometimes during their primary education. Thankfully, the government and the international development agencies have started working here.

The UNDP-provided "Quick Impact Fund" or QIF is used in different enterprise by different paras. The 35 families of which 15 are Bangali in Marma Para have bought 20 cows with the UNDP fund. The cows will be fattened and by the time they are sold off they will give birth to some more. "We feed them khar, khail, bhushi mixed with urea fertiliser," Kio Thoi Proue, president of Marma Para PDC says. UNDP arranged training for a five members team of this para at the Upazila Livestock (Pashupalan) Office, who in turn trained others in the Para. "We have bought the cows for Tk 5,000-6,000 each and hope to sell at tk 10,000-15,000," 54-year old Abul Kalam, says. Kalam, the general secretary of PDC, who happens to be a Bangali, also points out that they have been earning out of these cows for a while: "For the last several months we get about 10-12 litres of milk which we sell at Tk 30 per litre."

Some 180 people of 29 families in Jibtoli Headman Para, which is about 45 minutes away by speedboat from Rangamati town, got involved with UNDP in December 2004. There had been a primary school in this para called Jibtoli Headman Para Primary School that closed down due to financial crisis about three years ago. Coming under UNDP programme the first thing the people of this area wanted was revival of the school which UNDP readily complied with. The (konchi) bamboo-walled four-room school may be very humble in appearance but the people of this village, most of whom never went to a school, are hopeful of a better future centring this school where their children, their next generation are learning. "Our children will one day stand on their own feet, then we will have no want," Mangal Kumar Chakma, the 42-year old President of Jibtali PDC says.

UNDP has not only raised the structure but has also been paying the three teachers' salary. The people here are cultivating fish too. Last September they left more than 25,000 fries of Katol, Mrigel, Kalibaus in the part of Kaptai Lake just in front of their village. They bought two huge nets for Tk 48,000 and fries for Tk 50,000 with UNDP grant. They have fenced a large area with the nets where they are cultivating fish. "We will be catching fish towards late April or early May," Jagatlal Chakma, a member of PDC as well as the Headmaster of Jibtali Headman Para Primary School, says.

For years the people in these hill areas have lived through conflict and unrest. The PDC President Mangal Kumar Chakma, an ex-combatant, says, "War is not good, we want peace," Chakma says. But peace without food does not work. UNDP has come forward and along with it other international donor communities to build trust and confidence among this people and if the government's sincere endeavour is added with it the day may not be far away when these people will have both peace and prosperity.

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