Volume 5 Issue 32| October 08, 2011|


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Cover Story

Candles in the Wind
Life at Jamuna's Chars

The picturesque and colourful habitat of people living at Jamuna's Chars (also known as sandbars, riverine islands, silt islands) say very little about how fickle their livelihoods are. Chars are land masses that are at the mercy of the river they are situated in. One such char of the Jamuna river, Tangrakandi char, is home to about 22 thousand people; it is the largest char in Gaibandha. People living here are constantly forced by the hand of nature to relocate their houses from one place to another and even from one char to another before the Jamuna claims the land on which their houses are built.
Zahidul Naim Zakaria

I was lucky enough to witness one family stripping their house down, taking it apart piece by piece in time to avoid the land being eroded. They were moving to Khanchapara, another char nearby that had emerged in recent years. That's just how it is with chars, new ones form as land of existing ones are eroded away. People living in these chars consider themselves lucky if they have to move less than ten times in their lives. Shafiqul Islam, Union Parishad Member at the Tangrakandi char, moved 8 times due to river erosion in the last twenty years, and he says he is lucky to do so as he knows many others his age who have moved 20 times in their life. Since chars are not rife with state-built infrastructure, people living here depend on one another a lot. They have a strong sense of community ownership which helps families survive. People who relocate know that others will be on their way soon, and mark lands beside their own occupied land for those that are soon to relocate. Neighbours help those on the move to take down houses and rebuild them elsewhere. But moving away from a home around which they have built a livelihood is always difficult: is it costly and makes life even less secure. The land around their new home may not be equally fertile or they might even be attacked by dacoits.

"This screw doesn't want to come off!" But he must unscrew it, the Jamuna will not wait much longer.

The silent roar of the Jamuna is heard only in the landmasses breaking off and splashing on the water. Standing on the banks of Tangrakandi char, the head of the household who was being forced to move looked upon the river with mixed feelings. The Jamuna brings them both curses and blessings. The people have a love-hate relationship with the river as it simultaneously inundates their land seasonally making the land fertile, and breaks away their land at the periphery of the chars. The only madrasah in the area and the marketplace is roughly half a kilometer from the edge of the land now, which was four kilometres from the edge five years ago, according to Golam Sarwar, a Director of the SKS Foundation. Anecdotal evidence revealed that the pace of river erosion picked up after the flood in 1988. The locales are grateful to the Chars Livelihood Programme implemented by the SKS Foundation, which has been working to support the char people with infrastructure development and to diversify sources of family income.

Jute cultivation is a major source of livelihood for the people of the chars

The Tangrakandi M. A. Sabur Dakhil Madrasah is the only institution in the chars beyond primary education. There is no high school for the thousands of children at the chars; the nearest one being at Gaibandha near the Fulchori harbour. The Dakhil Madrasah in Tangrakandi was set up in 1983 by Abdus Sobur, a senior in the society and the current Chairman of the Union Parishad. The madrasah is the best one in Gaibandha with the brightest Dakhil results in the area. The institution currently has 1200 students.

The land of the char is quite fertile. Roughly half the population is involved in fishing while the rest is involved in producing various agricultural crops such as paddy, jute, green chilli, bringel and corn. Land fertility and low cost of agricultural production are two of the major reasons why people do not relocate to the mainland despite living a life of uncertainty. Cash constraints also limit their entry to the mainland. “Allah amader dekhe rakhbe” (“God will look after us”), says the seniors of the community at Maddhya Kholabari char. A strong trust in God keeps them going, a trait common to many people whose lives depend closely on nature.

Jute is the second-most common agricultural output at the chars, next to paddy. Jute is cultivated almost exclusively in developing countries while Bangladesh, India and Thailand account for over 90 percent of world production. Jute processing is labour-intensive and therefore provides a livelihood for many farmers and their families in the chars, such as in the Tangrakandi, Gabgachi and Maddhya Kholabari chars of the Jamuna. In 2010, one maund (40 kilograms) of jute was sold at around Tk. 2500 which motivated many farmers to produce jute. But increased supply has lowered prices this year and jute is now sold between Tk. 1000 and Tk. 1100 per maund in the local markets. Price uncertainty and instability is a common cause of concern for agricultural produce, which adds to farmers' sufferings.

This was my home, it was 4 kilometers away from the edge of the water only 5 years ago.
Now the Jamuna is about to claim the land below it. My home will break apart from the
rest of the Char any day now. But I will make a new home.

Natural Resource Economist Dr. A.K. Enamul Haque (also a Professor of Economics at UIU) thinks that the future holds even more uncertainty for people living in the chars of the Jamuna. He expects the water level to be lower in the future as other countries siphon off water at the upstream of the river, thus reducing water flow gradually in the next decade. He is currently involved in an academic study investigating the diverse and intimate relationship the char people have with the Jamuna river.

Lives of people living at Jamuna's chars are like candles in the wind. But somehow these people always find a way to keep their heads above water and keep their candles burning. The way they have adjusted to the whims of the capricious Jamuna is a testament to not only how adaptive human beings can be, but to also their will to survive.



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