The Invisible Victims of “Development” | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, June 08, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 12:00 AM, June 08, 2018

The Invisible Victims of “Development”

During every high tide, thousands of people from different parts of Mongla Upazila rush to the Pashur River with dinghies and fishing nets. Those who cannot afford dinghies, wade through the river as far as they can with handheld fish traps. Even women, children and elderly people join this race to secure a place in the river or a foothold on its shallow shore. This race is not to catch fish but to catch the shrimp hatchlings which enter the river from the sea during high tides. Thousands of people of all the villages on both banks of the Pashur River depend on this tiny creature for their survival. By selling the shrimp hatchlings to the local shrimp farms at nominal price, they can hardly earn a square meal.  Nevertheless, no matter what the price is, these poor people have no other choice of livelihood except braving the fast flowing Pashur River in high tide.

However, just two decades ago, these villages were home to well-off fishermen and farmers. At that time Pashur River and its channels crisscrossing the Sundarbans used to teem with a variety of fish. “Just using handheld fish traps, we could catch as much as 20 kgs of fish at one go. There was so much fish in this river that we used to throw away some fishes from our nets which were not tasty enough,” says Ahmed Haji, a sexagenarian fisherman who lives in a fishing village near Joimonir Gol area. Currently, according to these fishermen, the river has now turned into a watery desert. “Even after spending an entire day, you will not get more than five kgs of fish. In the last four or five years, we never found any fish in this river that is more than one kilogram,” says Ahmed.

While fishermen of the Pashur River have resorted to collecting shrimp fries for a living, the farmers of the villages on the banks of the river are in no better condition. Soil salinity is so high in Mongla that the farmers cannot grow even the most salt tolerant breeds of rice. Again, most of the fertile lands which are still not affected by salination have already been acquired for big industries and shrimp farms. As a result, large numbers of jobless farmers and homeless people have also become shrimp fry collectors.

As more and more people are being forced to leave their ancestral professions shrimp fry collectors, they are becoming vulnerable to a new element of oppression. During high tides, when huge gathering of shrimp fry collectors fill every corner of the river, armed coast guards and police with their hi-tech speedboats, start combing operations against these destitute people to keep the shipping channel to Mongla port free of traffic. Very often their boats and catches are seized and their fishing nets are destroyed by the patrolmen. Sometimes, policemen also allegedly take huge bribes from the shrimp fry collectors.

“There is no demarcation at the river which would indicate the shipping channel. Such demarcations could also indicate various submerged islands at Pashur River which cause frequent shipping accidents in this area. Instead of setting demarcation buoys, the coast guards and river police oppress us and take bribe from us,” says Bashir Ahmed Sheikh, a neighbour of Ahmed Haji. In this regard, Mohammad Waliullah, Harbour Master of Mongla Port says, “We received allegations that police take bribes from the shrimp fry collectors. Therefore, we appointed coast guards to protect the shipping channel.”

“The number of shrimp fry collectors has recently increased significantly. Usually, patrolling by the coast guards is enough to protect the shipping channel. If necessary, we shall install the demarcation buoys along the shipping channel,” he adds.      

Nevertheless, losing boat, catches and fishing nets, which most of these people purchase by borrowing money from the usurers at a high interest rate, these people have only one means to earn their daily bread; infiltrating the forest. They go deep inside the forest for catching crabs, collecting nipa palm, firewood and honey. However, venturing into the forest involves fatal risks. Living harmoniously with the Sundarbans for generations from time immemorial, they are not that afraid of tigers or crocodiles. In fact, they are afraid of humans; to be precise—pirates and  corrupt officials of the forest department. As Ahmed Haji says, “No tiger is more powerful and dangerous than the forest officials. They know all the pirates and if we disobey them, they will hand over us to the pirates who will seize all our boats, catches and instruments and then kill us.”

According to the forest gatherers, corrupt forest officials demand huge amounts of money as bribes for issuing permits for them to enter the jungle. If they don't satisfy their demand, the forest officials seize their harvest, file false charges against them and even sometimes hand them over to the pirates. “From forest guards to the highest-ranking officials, everybody in this department takes bribe from us. Those who still go to the forest for catching fish or collecting honey and nipa palm, they cannot make much profit due to increasing demand of bribe. Then there is risk of getting robbed,” says Bashir Ahmed Sheikh.

In fact, allegation of corruption among forest officials stationed in the Sundarbans region is nothing new. According to a 2011 study conducted by Transparency International Bangladesh, every year, timber worth of BDT 135 crore is smuggled from the Sundarbans; forest officials take at least BDT six crore from the honey collectors and at least BDT 23 crore from the fishermen as bribes every year. According to the statements of the fishermen and forest gatherers we interviewed, this situation has not improved at all yet. However, the forest officials blamed the fishermen and other forest gatherers for the malpractices. Md Bashirul Al Mamun, Divisional Forest Officer, Khulna says, “We have specific points for tax collection from the forest gatherers. We instruct them to maintain a specific route and pay the taxes at the specific points. Nevertheless, these people try to avoid these points to evade taxes. At that time, they are often fined and their catches are seized and some dishonest officials get the chance of taking bribes.”

“If the forest gatherers obey the law, there will be no instances of taking bribe,” he argues. In face of such oppression, the desperate villagers sometimes choose the shady path to piracy and poaching. In Joymonir Gol area, we came across a village; many of whose inhabitants were and still are associated with Sundarbans based piracy and poaching industry in addition to shrimp fry collection. Abdur Rahman Sheikh, a cousin of Bashir Ahmed Sheikh was a key figure of one of the most feared pirate gangs of Sundarbans called the “Don Gang.” He shares why and how he got involved in piracy and poaching.

Abdur originally was a fisherman. He used to catch fish in Pashur River and sometimes he used to go inside the forest for catching fish and crabs. “As fish in the rivers died out and the law enforcement agencies imposed stricter restrictions and increased taxes for issuing forest permits, our lives became difficult. Forest officials and police seized my boat and fishing nets several times for evading tax, however, most of us were not at all familiar with the new tax and tax collection points,” he says.

Abdur's belongings were spent to pay the bribe and debt of his mohajons (usurers). “What will you do if your three-year-old son dies of hunger and disease in front of you? Will you still be interviewing people and write wise words like intellectuals? When such situation comes, you will take any means to save your life and the lives of your family members. This is what we had done.” Abdur contacted with the pirate gang leader Mehedi Hasan Don in 2012. Don provided him with fishing boats and nets and arranged forest permits for him. Under the guise of a fisherman, Abdur used to infiltrate into the forest to set deer trap and left poisoned animals for killing deer and tiger.

Besides poaching, Abdur's gang used to rob tourists and forest gatherers. “Usually we didn't rob forest gatherers from Mongla area. We used to go to other parts of Sundarbans for robbing,” he comments. However, soon Abdur and his comrades realised the intensity of the government's wrath against them. “We felt like the government had declared war against us. One by one, our members were hunted down and killed by RAB. They hardly arrested us. They just shot us on sight. We were never a given a chance to explain why we became pirates and poachers,” says Abdur.

On January 9, 2018, one of Abdur's relatives Farid Sheikh was killed by the police at a “gunfight.” According to Abdur, he was actually arrested and after interrogation, Farid Sheikh divulged the hideouts of two Sundarbans-based gangs called Chhoto Jahangir Gang and Don Gang. From that day until April 1st, Abdur and his team were fully on the run. “For these two months we could not stay in a place more than five or six hours. We rarely had the time to eat and sleep. Whenever I got time, I used to pray to Allah for my life.” Finally, the three pirate gangs of the Sundarbans were given the chance to surrender their arms on April 1, 2018. And on that day, Abdur's pirate life came to an end. Seeing no alternative, he again started to collect shrimp fries like most of his neighbours.

During the formal surrender ceremony where 27 pirates surrendered their arms before the Minister of Home Affairs, Abdur and his fellow gangsters were given an amount of 20,000 taka in cash and a mobile set. However, no measure of sustainable rehabilitation has been taken yet. On the other hand, according to Abdur and his neighbours, these former pirates have to live under constant surveillance of the law enforcement agencies. And, due to lack of jobs and livelihood, Abdur apprehends that more and more people get involved in piracy and poaching in the near future. Several of his relatives are still involved in piracy who have refused to surrender their arms as they have no better alternatives.

Adjacent to Abdur's village, a huge grain silo with the capacity of 50,000 metric tonnes has been established. However, this gigantic symbol of growth and development could do nothing to save Abdur's starving son. In the last decade, thousands of poverty stricken desperate people like Abdur Rahman Sheikh, Bashir Ahmed Sheikh and Ahmed Haji have witnessed enormous industrial development in Mongla area. LNG terminals, massive shrimp farms, power plants, oil refineries have been established on both sides of the Pashur River.

Nevertheless, these unplanned developments brought only poverty, hunger and homelessness for the native villages as they have never been adequately compensated and rehabilitated. And, the constant pollution caused by these industries is further diminishing the last resort for survival of these people—the Sundarbans and its rivers. In fact, like the flora and fauna of the Sundarbans, these destitute, jobless and homeless inhabitants of the villages bordering the Sundarbans in Mongla are some of the worst and invisible victims of unplanned and hazardous industrial development in the region.

The writer can be contacted at shahnawaz.khan@thedailystar.net

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