Into the World of Aquatic Plants
Rice, river and canal- these three compose the abundance of agricultural and livelihood diversity and of course, Barisal. All the areas are ornamented with diverse features. Sometimes, the adornment represents the ancient look of Bengal, and many a times, we see miseries of thousands of people, behind the curtain. The sad stories are not stored from a day or months…it goes beyond time. For many years, it seems, only despairs are being compiled at this part of the civilization, but a touch of hope can revolutionize everything.
Uttor Shatla is a village 60 km away from Barisal Sadar, situated in Ujirpur upazila. Where the village is intertwined with river and canals, the Uttor Shatla Beel (wetland) takes root. Of the 4,977 hectares of cultivable land, a large portion falls in the beel. The beel is surrounded by part of Bagda union and Khajura. Locals say the area of the beel is 100 hectares. Some say, 10000 bigha and some others say it's over 10000 acres. Dilemma regarding the exact figure exists. There have been no development plans taken here. The local community never received any message of river-based livelihood system focused towards development. Their only means of livelihood is based on water lily farming, which they do for about six to seven months a year. Local farmers take their little boats to fetch water lily and sell those at the market.
It's a beautiful landscape on water. However, people living here; don't see the same charm in the beauty as outside onlookers do. They don't see any path towards progress. During one season in a year, when the entire area is dried up, the whole place becomes an ocean of paddies; turning it into a sea of greenery. Once the Boro season is gone, farming just slips away from the hands of farmers. The prolonged wait starts- when will the water lilies come out? When will the entire beel be filled with water lilies? The battle for survival starts. Women and children are worst sufferers. Many women fetch water lily to feed their family and stay financially stable. Above all, regularly, they have to eat only water lilies. I was talking to a group of women in the region regarding their regular intake of water lily. They said the prime concern is their stomach, which they have to satisfy at any cost. “Don't you feel bad, eating it regularly?” I asked. “Stomach comes first,” they replied. “We just put a bit of salt in it and eat it.” This often causes them to suffer from dysentery.
'Alien' is the word that came to mind when I visited the farmers of Uttor Shatla. In today's world of advancements, it really is surprising to see people so backward and pushed back towards the wall. This community is unnoticed and overlooked. Long ago, the southern region of Bangladesh was the storage of abundant crops. Ample food resource of the south ensured food security for the rest of Bangladesh. This is why, policy makers concentrated more on the comparatively backward northern region and the south went beyond their spotlight for many years. Now is the time to bring the concentration back on the south - a region which has been shattered by two devastating cyclones (Sidr and Aila) and a region where both waterlogging and salinity persists.
The tedious process of finding and picking water Lily
While I was interviewing the locals, one came up with a strong voice. “I grew up with water lilies. So did my ancestors”, he said. “We can't make that much money. It's quite tough to fetch the water lily and then it's tougher to ride the boat for almost two days to reach the market”, the local farmer added. Naturally, a question popped up. How many of them are actually living on water lilies? 'Thousands' was the answer. The market price for the water lily is quite poor. Per bundle is Tk. 3 to Tk. 5. If they can sell a hundred bundles, they can earn Tk. 500 and that's the best earning for any farmer. According to local people, the water lilies are now being sent to saline regions of Barisal, Gopalganj, Pirojpur, Swarupkathi, Inderhaat, Kaukhali, Najirpur, Patuakhali and Jhilanbari, where vegetable is produced at a low rate.
There are big Mahajans (landowners) who own lands where they can't cultivate during the dry season. Apart from these problems, they don't have teachers at the schools, the roads are not fit for communication in the entire region, and doctors and medicine are not available either. These people have to go to Barisal to see a doctor. “We need a sluice gate”, one farmer urged. A rather informed farmer said they need development projects which should focus on fisheries and poultry.
A bundle of water lily fetches 3 to 5 tk
I also spoke to the SAAO (Sub Assistant Agriculture Officer) regarding the hybrid rice people cultivate here during the one season. “We came here and motivated farmers and now they're very interested about hybrid rice. We have given them demonstrations and they are getting one chance to do this in a year”, said the officer. Almost all the cultivable land here is filled with hybrid rice during one season. Now the agriculture officers are ready to train the farmers how to make seedlings over floating beds. How will they nurture and preserve those? From where can they buy quality seeds which are free from pest attacks?
If they can get loans at a reduced (e.g. 2%) interest during the Boro season, it'll be easier for them to sow paddies. They have to take loan from others to cultivate and finally the landowner takes all their produce. If farmers are assisted with loan facility during the Boro season, then farmers will certainly be benefited.
Governmental, non-governmental as well as international organizations are planning to make a comprehensive food safety net in the southern part of Bangladesh at the moment. I also believe that if the plans are executed at the field level, thousands of people will find hope and be able to improve their lives. I strongly believe, there is a great promise flowing through the region's rivers into its fields, its food, and the spirit of its people. It is a promise of success, a paradise of plenty.
||Shykh Seraj is an Agriculture Development and Media Activist. He is Director and the Head of News at Channel i and also the Director, Planner and Presenter of the popular Agro-Documentary “Hridoye Mati O Manush”.
(R) thedailystar.net 2012