Indigenous People of the North: In the Chain of Acute Poverty

September 27, 2007 | By admin | Reply More
Indigenous People of the NorthAuthor: A H M Abdul Hai

Considering the history, 152 years is not a short time. Ups and downs, extinction or rebirth of several nations or generations-all this is possible in this period. But no changes happened in the fate of the nation in 152 years. All the changes happened only in the appearance of the tyrants. Though Bangladesh became independent, the indigenous communities living in the north-west region did not have the taste of freedom, instead they have become prey to torture, oppression and harassment intermittently. Even after 152 years of the Saontal Revolution, the life, land house and honour of the housewives of the indigenous communities are still snatched away like the colonial age. There lies the difference only in the type of oppressor, previously it was the foreign invaders but presently they are the hooligans of home.

The indigenous people have lost their rights on land. They do not possess even a Sal forest now as their own. Much mystification relating to different plants and animal varieties prevail in the Saontal community, but their soul, wealth, forest, Sal tree, hills and pools have been disowned. They turned into refugee. In the name of coal mining, the indigenous community has been evicted from Parbatipur of Dinajpur district. Saontal leader Alfred Soren had to sacrifice his life to save his community.

The indigenous communities are also neglected in our national budget. Most of them do not know what a budget is. They only know that if new budget comes out, the price of the essentials grows up and their sufferings rise too. There is petty allocation for them in the budget. Sometimes there are few projects for the welfare and poverty reduction of the indigenous people in the budget, but these are very less than need. The issue of the indigenous people’s interest was left in the primary draft of Poverty Reduction Strategy Paper (PRSP) which was included at last in the final issue of the national PRSP.

The Indigenous people could not become economically self-reliant till now. They are gradually becoming chained by the shackle of poverty, due to the lack of work, safety and security in socio-economic perspective. Though their main occupation is agricultural farming, they cannot harvest now independently. The Government and land grabbers are acquiring and invading their agricultural lands in different excuses. For the purpose of overcoming paucity, they are taking loan from some dishonest merchants and consequently losing their last piece of home-plot. No syllabus or education system has been prepared in their mother language. As a result, many of them are remaining illiterate not understanding Bangla language properly. Most of them remained deprived of different Government facilities due to their ignorance. The number of the indigenous people is very few who can avail themselves of the Government facilities such as elderly pension. Many of them are becoming converted to Christianity just to get rid of severe sufferings of poverty. Thus they are losing their own religion, culture and practice, which is a serious threat to their existence.

About 20 lakh indigenous people live in the northern region of the country. About 30 indigenous communities live in the districts of the northern region including Chapai Nawabgonj, Rajshahi, Naogaon, Joypurhat, Rangpur and Dinajpur. Among them, Saontal, Oraon, Mustari, Mahato, Rajoar, Karmakar and Mahali communities are mentionable. They are considered indigenous as they have typical and separate religious, cultural and social identity. Most of them are passing their days in acute poverty and sufferings at Nachol, Rahanpur, Gomostapur, Amnura, Volahat in Chapai Nawabgonj, at Tanore, Godagarhi, Kakonhat, Mundumala, Damkurhahat in Rajshahi, at Manda, Niamatpur, Sapahar, Mohadebpur, Hapania, Khidirpur in Naogaon, at Panchbibi in Joypurhat, at Atoari and Ranigonj in Panchagarh, at Raigonj, Tarhash, Sonaparha, Soyaghati, Josaiparha in Sirajgonj, in Rangpur, Thakurgaon and Bogra area. As their color, mother tongue and religious practice are different, despite being the citizen of the same country, they are treated differently. They are considered untouchable and so they have no access to any public gathering and socials. They are not allowed in hotel-restaurant. Majority people, administration or none of the law-enforcing agencies stand beside them. They are the most neglected minority among the minorities, the most deprived among the deprived and the poorest among the poor.

After the division in 1947, the incident of evicting the indigenous people from their land The indigenous people have lost their rights on land. They do not possess even a Sal forest now as their own.increased largely. This time, a large number of Muslim refugees came from West Bengal, Bihar and border area of Purnia of India to the northern region and to fulfill their demand of land, they grabbed the land of the indigenous people. Moreover, the indigenous people were evicted during different movement and demonstration in the Pakistan period. The indigenous people, who left their land and country during the communal riot in 1964-66, during the war between Pakistan and India and during the liberation war in 1971, did not get their land back after returning home. Due to their frequent eviction, their right to land has been weak and neglected. 85% of them have no cultivable land as their own. Land grabbers, local merchants and terrorists invaded and are still occupying the land by evicting the indigenous people from their own property. In all weal and owe, dream and endeavors of the indigenous people are surrounding their land. Rather their graveyard is being captured by local land plunderers. Such an incident occurred at Kittoli under Manda Upazila in Naogaon. Here the graveyard of the indigenous people has been occupied in the name of Ashroin Project. It was not protected even by the prohibition issued by the High Court.

It was observed at Deshigram, Talom, Gurhpipul, Soyaghati, Dholparha, Josaiparha, Chotraparha and Nimgachi villages under Raigonj and Tarash Upazila in Sirajgonj that a number of dishonest merchants are running their money lending business offering loan to about five thousand indigenous families at a high rate of interest. If any borrower fails to return the money in time, he or she is to pay 300/- Taka interest for one Thousand Taka each. The dishonest merchants hung lock in the house of Shachin Oraon at Soyaghati village just not for returning loan in time. Eventually, Sachin Oraon as well as his wife and children took shelter in his parents’ house at Mohishagarhi village. Meanwhile, Rajen Sing and Johorlal Sing have been compelled to quit their house failing to pay the loan. Odhir Chandra Oraon of Soyaghati village complained, ‘I took only 500/- Taka loan on the eve of last Durga Puja by giving a signature on a blank stamp of 50/- Taka. I returned the loan in the month of Magh, but still they are demanding more 5,000/- Taka to me.’ His wife Jogdhari Oraon complained, ‘The dishonest money lenders are offering me bad proposal of sex, as they claimed, we could not pay the loan.’ Rural Physician of Dholaparha village Dr Omullay Chandra Bosak said, ‘the poor indigenous people of this area become workless in the period of Falgun-Choitra, then they are to borrow loan from the local merchants for the sake of living. The dishonest merchants avail themselves of the opportunity by taking higher rate of interest or occupying their land or houses forcefully’.

The indigenous people of this region usually live on fishing, digging, paddling rickshaw or vans, by day-labour etc., but the majority people hate them so much that many of them do not even appoint them for work. An indigenous man gets half of the wages what a Bengali labourer receives by working a day. The wage of working indigenous women is much lower than indigenous male worker. The least humanistic value is not paid to them, in spite of being man. Local Bengali people often call them wild, savage, uncivilized, Santal, coolie etc. and sneer at them. They are to bear everything silently.
Moreover, there is no touch of infrastructural development including communication facilities in the indigenous areas. They live in a remote impassable area. They cannot think of pure drinking water, electricity or sanitation facilities in their area. They are all along deprived of the light of education. There is no initiative of educating them as they are a backward community. Nobody has any attention to make them aware of sanitation or health care system of these unprivileged people living in a untidy and unhealthy environment. The indigenous dominating area seems not to have any touch of civilization there.

It was observed in a survey titled ‘Life Style of the Indigenous in the North-Western Region-2004′ jointly conducted by CARE Bangladesh and Gram Bikash Kendro (GBK), ‘7% of the indigenous women have been raped in last one year. The number of school in the indigenous area is very less and they have less interest to education as schools are situated at a long distance from their houses and there is a barrier of language ‘Bangla’, not being their mother-tongue, used in the schools. There is no school in six indigenous villages brought under the survey. It was also found that they suffer from insecurity of food during five months in a year. 61% of the families have no agricultural land and 33% of them have no house as their own. The survey was conducted on 400 indigenous families living in Panchagarh, Thakurgaon, Dinajpur and Joypurhat districts.

The indigenous people especially the Saontal community living in Panchagarh, Thakurgaon and Dinajpur are perpetually becoming harassed and neglected in the society. At the same time they are they are becoming deprived of almost all the Government facilities. Through producing fake documents, the local powerful god-fathers illegally occupied the land of most of the indigenous people living at Ranishankoil, Baliadanga, Pirgonj and Horipur Upazila in Thakurgaon, at Debigonj, Atoary, Boda in Panchagarh and Fulbarhi, Parbotipur, Birgonj, Birampur, Nababgonj, Hakimpur in Dinajpur districts. The Khas land has yet to be allotted among the indigenous. They are still deprived of the elderly pension there. There lived several hundred indigenous families at Bitodighi, Eluarhi, Aladipur and Shibnagar area under Phulbarhi Upazila. They had land and houses, but they lost their land and are evicted from the area. Local powerful godfathers occupied their land and ponds where they used to fish to survive. Another new anxiety has added salt to their injury. As a result of lofting coal from Phulbarhi coal mine, the life and family of about one lakh indigenous people of 67 villages in the area has been left in the depth of uncertainty.

Among all the despair, a thin ray of hope is seen at Mohadebpur upazila in Naogaon. A local NGO set up 25 pre-primary schools in this Upazila to educate the indigenous in their own mother tongue. The educated women having efficiency both in Bangla and indigenous language have been appointed there as teacher. Visiting some of these schools, it was observed, there is an indigenous female teacher to teach about 30 children in a school. Kumari Rutli Rani, one of these teachers, said, ‘No indigenous baby would go to school before establishing this one. They started going to school regularly now.

The dream and expectation what Sidhu and Kanu, two pioneers of historical Saontal Revolution, dreamt has been untouched and unachieved till now. The Government and policy makers including the civil society are preparing five-year plan, Millennium Development Goal (MDG), Poverty Reduction Strategy Papers (PRSP) and many other development plans, but doing nothing for the fulfillment of the least basic needs of the indigenous people, though they too belong to this nation. It seems that the Government has no responsibility to change their lot. The indigenous leaders demanded, some seats should be preserved in National Parliament for the indigenous candidates, reformation of land related acts and rules, their land should not be treated as enemy property, they should be compensated for land and quota system must be followed in education and job sector.

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Photography: Md. Arafatul Islam

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Category: Opinion

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