Red Chillies of the North
An unlikely scenario; images different compared to other char lands of Bangladesh. Farmers using diversified agricultural methods. I marvel at the rare sight of red carpets on sandy lands; red carpets of red chillies.
Istarted from Meghai ghat (wharf), Kazipur to the char land of Natuapara, an area of around 1.33 million hectares, in Sirajganj. For ages, these lands have been treated as non-fertile and fallow. The char land is quite inaccessible. From a distance, they look like red carpets, but in reality I have entered the kingdom of red chillies. I could even get the flame from far and felt great to enter the chilli island.
It was a fruitless land even a few years ago. A farmer named Mohammad Badshah from a nearby char land, “Char Douglas” first started chilli cultivation here, which he brought from Bogra. “I never thought that it would become so huge here, but it actually kept on growing and had spread across the char land”, the surprised and happy farmer Badshah told me. Red chilli is the source of livelihood for more than six thousand farming-families. The major obstacle facing these farmers is transportation.
Farmers used to produce nuts here in the sandy lands. Nowadays, farming has become diversified, including corn, chilli, mustard, rice, jute, etc. The authorities may not even be aware of these recent trends since these inaccessible and remote char land are mostly beyond the line of sight of both government organizations and NGOs. They don't get their right price for their produce due to poor transportation facility, and these are the issues which should be brought to the limelight. If issues such the quality of seeds and the unfair control of the market by middlemen could be addressed, then these farmers could be much better off and farming could expand even further.
The chairman of Natuapara Union, Tozammel Haque Sarkar realizes the possibilities and difficulties here being a farmer's son himself, particularly, when it was a land of fruitless catkin a few years back. “We get about 16 maunds of dry chilli from 1 bigha land and we get about 60 maunds of green chillies. We sell our crops at a low price; however, we have to buy crops from other districts in high price due to bad transportation. A road from Natuapara to Sharishabari would make life much easier for our farmers”, urged the chairman.
“How long would the road be?” I asked.
“About 20 kilometers”, he replied, “Natuapara-Sharishabari is a better route than the Kazipara-Sirajganj in waterway.”
If the road was constructed, farmers would be able to send their crops to Dhaka, Chittagong and other districts easily. According to the local businessmen, they have to spend Tk. 30 per kg for transportation but if they had roads they'd spend only Tk. 2 per kg. Moreover, there is an unfinished road, which blocks the river to maintain its natural course. If it was naturally flown, the land could be filled with slit and the cultivation would have been much smoother.
Another big issue that needs attention is the health condition here. There are no hospitals or clinics where people from this region could get health facilities. There are community hospitals available in every union but unfortunately with no doctors. A few days back, a pregnant woman died on a boat on her way to the hospital. The local inhabitants don't get selected as teachers of primary schools. But the ones who are selected are not present at the schools.
As I roamed the red chilli farmlands, one of the farmers came to me and told me about the pest attacks they face and are really baffled with. “When the plants grow about 3-4 inches, it's attacked by a black pest called 'Ghaira'. This pest is running a great deal of crops”, said the farmer. I was looking around and found some empty places over the field which seemed unfamiliar to me. I was keen to know why those spaces were empty. “Ghaira attacked those places and that's why you don't see crops there”, answered a farmer. Block supervisors came here but they could not provide any solution.
The MP of Natuapara, Zahurul Islam, a farmer as well, faced a huge losses due to Ghaira attacks. “I've tried to cultivate chili in 19 bighas of land but the worms destroyed all of them.” “All of it?” “Yes, and there are many farmers who have suffered like me.” The MP blamed the pest “Ghaira” for which he thinks half of the farmers faced severe loss. I spoke to Mr. Santosh Chandra, the agriculture officer. He clarified some misconceptions that farmers are having. “They locally call it Ghaira but actually its name is Katui.” You can't find it in daylight. They come out from the soil at the evening. So, it will not work if you apply pesticides at daytime”, said the officer.
I wanted to know what else he told the farmers. “We suggested to them to make poison traps. It's really easy to make. The procedure for one bigha is, a mixture of one kg corn powder, half kg molasses and pesticides. They'll have to apply this mixture just before dawn and then the worms will come out and die eating them”, said the officer. I was surprised to know from him that they don't get good number of farmers during the yard discussion, through which these messages are conveyed. This is unprecedented scenerio. These images reflect how a crop can change many people's life-image in a community. I noticed many women, in the hundreds, pluck chillies in a single row. They work the whole day starting from 6 in the morning. A day's work allows them to collect 2-3 sacks, and they get paid Tk. 50 per sack. But it all depends on the production. If production is low, there aren't enough chillies to collect, and their incomes go down.
I was very glad listening to the owner of the field, Abdul Khaleque, where the women were working. He cultivated red chilli on 4 bighas of land, investing Tk. 25,000. When I asked him about how much he's going to make from it, he said, “About Tk. 100,000”. Despite poor transport network and despite not receiving fair prices for their production, farmers are hopeful about making money from their farmlands. They believe this region will shine in success with chilli production. Farmers produce two types of chillies here: “Balujuri”, which is somewhat thinner, and “Bihari”, which is the thicker variety. The farmers dry the chillies over the hot sands, which has many advantages. The colour and size of the chillies remain same and there will be no spots whatsoever. If farmers dry them on a tin-roof, the chillies can be damaged and could develop spots.
Farmers told me that there is a local chilli market, not far from the char land. They also claimed this is the largest chilli market in Bangladesh. When I entered the market, I was amazed to see a sea of chilli…packed in sacks. A wholesaler who travels across the country for chilli also said that this is the largest chilli market in Bangladesh. Char Girish is on the other side of Natuapara and there's a branch of Jamuna river on the western side. A half-kilometre bridge would make it easier to travel to Dhaka via Jamalpur- Sharishabari.
15,000 hectares of cultivable land belongs to the char land of 6 unions out of 25,000 hectares in the whole upazila. Natuapara has the biggest market and so the bridge is an immediate necessity. And the Dhaka crop markets will also be benefited if the crops from here reach quickly. I discuss the issues of infrastructure time and again. So many bridges have been made countrywide since the last political regime, but many of these bridges remain unusable since they construction is half-done. And here, in Natuapara, 250,000 people are motionless due to the lack of a half-kilometer bridge.
Local farmers' have turned fruitless chars into fruitful lands; can't we fulfill their dream of prosperity? With certain infrastructural issues given their due attention, this char land, which is famous for chilli, will illuminate the whole northern region of Bangladesh; that is what I firmly believe.
(R) thedailystar.net 2012