M Abul Kalam Azad
back from Lalmonirhat
Ten-year old Salma Akther has no respite even at school. She attends classes and plays amid tobacco dust: one of the largest tobacco markets of the districts sits on her school field. The stench of tobacco leaves is so severe that it is very hard to stay in and around the bazaar.
However, Salma, a student of Class IV of Saptibari Govt. Primary School, does not complain as she was born in a family of a tobacco farmer and grew up with tobacco. But she and all the 300 students of the school have to accept the hazards associated with this trade. Her father, Mokbul Hossain cultivates tobacco on as eight bigha land. “I cultivate tobacco but I want my kids be free from it at school,” Mokbul says as he to processes tobacco leaves at his Saptibari village under Aditmari upazila.
His other daughter, Rita Akhter, 7, is a Class II student of the school and faces the same situation.
The field is shared by Saptibari High School with 700 students. There is also a school for the blind adjacent to the tobacco market. Students of 11 other schools and colleges face the same situation due to tobacco bazaars that have invaded the school fields.
Mohishashahar High School, Namuri High School, Baniargidhi Primary School and Mohishkhocha Bahumuti School and College are some of the educational institutes that are being used as tobacco sale centres.
During a recent visit to Lalmonirhat, it has been known that local influentials are behind the setting up of the bazaars. For this, they pay a small amount of money collected as toll from the bazaars to the welfare fund of the educational institutions. Although the teachers are against such bazaars, the management committees of the educational institutes dominated by local politicians, are least bothered.
Saptibari union parishad chairman and local BNP leader Abdus Sohrab is the chairman of Saptibari High School management committee. He is also the leaseholder of the tobacco bazaar that sits at the school ground. The leasee gets Tk 4.5 lakh every year from the bazar from which Tk 20,000 is donated to the high school welfarefund.
Sohrab is not available but his deputy Shamsul Alam Bakul, a member of the school management committee, gets furious and asks the photographer not to take photos.
“We will stop the bazar if we get complaints from school,” says Bakul, also a member of Saptibari union parishad.
Headmistress Khadiza Begum of Saptibari Primary School and headmaster of Saptibari High School Abu Syed Tayez Uddin have been complaining about the bazar as it creates hampers classes.
“We don’t support the tobacco bazaar as it harmful for our students,” says Tayez. Echoing this view, the headmistress says. “It is very difficult to concentrate in classes due to severe stench of tobacco and dust,” she says.
They add that the environment worsens when farmers bring the tobacco leaves to the school verandas during the rains.
A tobacco factory, Mian Leaf Factory, is being constructed besides the primary school despite protests from teachers. Once the company goes for production it will cause serious health hazards to everyone, fear many teachers.
The tobacco business has been thriving so much that temple premises have also been used as trading centres. This malpractice was stopped last year following strong protests from the community.
District Primary Education Office Nobez Uddin says they are yet to take up the matter seriously although it adversely affects the health of students and teachers. Deputy Commissioner of Lalmonirhat Habibur Rahman blames the teachers for allowing tobacco bazaars inside schools by taking funds from the leasers.
“We are going to fix designated spaces for tobacco bazaars shifting those from school grounds to ensure a hazard-free atmosphere,” he promises.
The writer is Senior Reporter, The Daily Star.