Sorry tale of haor people | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 17, 2015 / LAST MODIFIED: 02:36 AM, October 17, 2015

Sorry tale of haor people in Bangladesh

Thousands living in areas surrounded by water, disconnected from their districts, upazila headquarters; little sign of development

"Borshakale nao ar shuknakale pao" is a popular saying among the people living in the haor regions. It means "boats during the monsoon and feet during the dry season" -- a fitting description of the modes of communication in most areas of the vast wetlands of the country's north-eastern part.

Though the country has made significant progress over the past few years, very little of that is visible in these areas, home to some two crore people.

The haor region falls in 47 upazilas of seven districts. And at least 11 of the upazilas, inhabited by well over two million people, virtually have no road network and remain under water for over six months of a year, this correspondent found while visiting a number of villages of Kishoreganj, Netrakona and Habiganj districts between September 29 and October 3.

"This place is detached from the rest of the world. No sign of the country's development can be found here. We don't even have a proper road network," said Zahirul Islam of Kumarhati in Kishoreganj's Itna upazila.

"If we want to catch a bus, we have to travel by trawlers for at least two hours to reach the nearest road or bus stop," he said.

After passing the Secondary School Certificate examinations a few years ago, Zahirul stopped studying as he would have to spend five-six hours every day to commute to and from the nearest college. Now a jobless youth, he blames his situation on the poor communication infrastructure there.

As per the government's Haor Master Plan of 2012, there's no road network in 11 upazilas including Aushtagram, Itna and Mithamain of Kishoreganj; Kalmakanda and Khaliajuri of Netrakona; and Dowarabazar, Jamalganj, Sulla and Tahirpur of Sunamganj.

If people in these areas want to go somewhere, they either have to walk over miles of lowlands during the dry season or take a boat during the monsoon that turns the villages into tiny islands.

School going children are one of the worst sufferers during the monsoon.

"We can go to markets or towns by big trawlers. But children face immense problems in going to school as they have to rely solely on boats. And it's not easy for them to get a boat when they need. So, they have to go to school either too early or too late," said Kalpana Rani Barman, mother of two school going children, of Keshtopur village in Khaliajuri.

"Then again, small boats often capsize and the kids lose their books. So, they are unwilling to go to school during the monsoon," she said.

"The picture is the same in all haor areas," said Itna Upazila Education Officer Parvin Akter.

"Most children do not go to school for around six months a year. We have been sending proposals to the government for the past several years to arrange school boats for the kids. But we are yet to get any response," she said.

The number of educational institutions in the haor region is very poor as well, she said.

For example, there are only 68 primary schools, 10 high schools, five madrasas and only one college for 1.64 lakh people of Itna upazila that has an area of 503 square kilometers, said Parvin Akhter.

A research publication -- "Parliamentarians Can Make the Difference: Neglected Haor Livelihoods" -- shows that the rate of primary school enrollment in haor areas was 71 percent last year, far lower than the national average of 97.7 percent.

The report, published by the All Party Parliamentary Groups in October 2014, also says the school dropout rate in those areas was 44 percent, more than double the national average of 20.9 percent.

Things are worse when it comes to the haor people's access to emergency medical care.

"Can you imagine what happens when someone gets sick?" Rahela Begum of Ulua village in Mithamain said.

"During the rainy season, if a pregnant woman faces any complications, we need to find an engine boat first and then take her to a hospital. And the nearest hospital is 12 kilometers from here," she said.

The government authorities say the situation will soon improve as the government has already taken some initiatives to bring positive changes in the life and livelihoods of the haor people.

Afroza Moazzem, director general of Bangladesh Haor and Wetland Development Board, said her department had submitted a total of 15 development projects to the government and two of them had already been passed.

"Once these projects are implemented, it will bring significant changes in the lives of the haor people," she claimed.

Kamrul Hasan Chowdhury, chairman of Itna upazila parishad, said, "Sufferings of the people would end soon as the current government has taken steps to build roads in these areas."

"Once the roads are constructed, it will change people's life," he added.

The upazila nirbahi officer of Itna, however, thinks something more sustainable should be done.

"It would be better if the government could arrange some alternative livelihoods for these people. Also, the social safety net coverage for the haor people should be increased," Md Abdullah said.

However, experts think the problems of haor are so many that mere development projects would not bring about much changes unless the government includes the haor issues in its Seventh Five-Year Plan and implements the Haor Master Plan. 

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