No one, nowhere, should go hungry or die without care
The coronavirus has affected us all—rich and poor alike. Yet, giving attention and care to communities considered excluded, marginalised and invisible should be a priority for the state and well-to-dos. The majority of these communities are not only poor or extreme poor, they also face the triple challenges of poverty, vulnerability and exclusion. Many may go hungry or starve. Snapshots of how these communities are doing during the current lockdown may be useful.
The tea workers in 163 tea gardens in Sylhet and Chattogram divisions have continued to work as usual to the great satisfaction of the owners. Like the garment workers, they also demanded holidays with the payment of wages and fringe benefits (ration). But the government and the owners decided that these "tied" workers must work because they assume the tea workers live in safe enclaves and that there is no harm if they work to keep the tea gardens operational. Needless to say, the tea gardens are not yet included in the government's stimulus packages meant to address the impacts of the coronavirus on the country's economy and health.
There is another serious issue in the tea gardens with half a million people. Generally, a tea worker's family has one worker earning a daily cash pay of Tk 102, plus some ration. This is not sufficient for a family of five to survive on. At least one person from each tea worker's family goes out of the tea garden every day to work as day labourer in agriculture, brick kilns, orchards, houses and so on. "The number of people who explore daily work through contractors or themselves far exceeds the total number of tea workers," says Nripen Pal, joint secretary of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (BCSU), the lone union of around 100,000 registered tea workers. These extra workers continued to explore work outside the tea gardens even after the countrywide lockdown had begun. "But most have eventually stopped going out to sell labour, which has pushed the tea workers and their families in great difficulties," says Rambhahjan Kairi, general secretary of BCSU.
The tea workers still want holidays covered by the government's recovery package plan. As regards the surplus and unemployed labour forces, it is time for the government, owners and BCSU to quickly list these people and bring to them adequate relief support and safety that are reportedly lacking at workplaces and the labour lines.
A non-Bangalee occupational community, Harijan, also known as sweepers and cleaners, live in congested Harijan pallis (colonies) under the city corporations and municipalities. Most of the Harijan pallis that shelter around 100,000 souls are located in the dirtiest places of the cities. The supplies of relief and safety materials are reported to be very inadequate in these colonies. "The city corporations in Dhaka gave us some soap and bleaching powder just once," says Krishnalal, president of Bangladesh Horijan Yokkha Parishad (BHYP), an organisation of the Harijans.
Like in the tea gardens, those from among the Harijans that are not registered workers work in government and non-government offices and respond to calls for cleaning. Now at this time of lockdown, these "social outcasts" or "Dalit" do not have work. They need special care from the state.
The life of the Bede community, a floating people with a population of 75,702 (according to the Department of Social Services—the Bedes estimate their population at up to half a million), has been hit hard by the coronavirus. Most of them living in tiny tents and roaming around the country are caught in the fields or roadside. They are not members of local communities when in the fields and are unlikely to get proper care from the local administration and elected bodies. The government with a directive to local administration can take better care of the Bede community.
Of the nearly 100,000 female sex workers, only around 4,000 are based in 11 brothels in the country that have been literally locked. What the brothel-based sex workers have been getting from the government sources is reported to be just nominal. The situation of 36,593 street-based sex workers, many of them lacking even accommodation, is appalling. There are another 36,539 sex workers working from residences and 15,960 are hotel-based.
The 10,000 Hijras or transgender individuals (government account) are no better than the street-based sex workers because streets and bazars are basically places where they beg and collect alms from. A big percentage of them are also sex workers. At this time of crisis, sex workers and Hijras are crying for helping hands.
A seafaring Hindu fishing community, the Jaladas, with a population of 150,000 in Cox's Bazar and Chattogram districts, have been restricted from fishing in the sea. Dr Harishankar Jaladas, noted educationist and writer from the Jaladas community, reports, "Relief materials are not reaching many Jaladas in coastal villages." The local administration should look into the allegation and scale up assistance to the fishers of the Jaladas community.
Approximately 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis, living in inhuman condition in 70 camps in 13 districts, are getting almost no attention. Of these camps, 33 are in Dhaka. "No government relief has reached any of the Bihari camps yet," reported (on April 9) M Shoukat Ali, general secretary of Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC). "We are confined to the camps. We need food aid and safety materials."
A tiny community of around 12,000 people, the Kaiputras (who rear pig in the open space)—inhabiting 41 villages in the southwestern districts of Jashore, Khulna and Satkhira—are also in trouble. The Kaiputra rakhals (who live with pigs to feed them in the open fields) and their pigs are going through unimaginable hardships at this time of coronavirus pandemic.
Dilip Mondol, a pig trader from Jashore, was in Shariatpur recently with his herd of 600 pigs and 15 rakhals. "The people of Shariatpur pointed their fingers at us as if we are criminals," says Mondol, "and asked us to leave the area immediately. I walked the pigs to Narail." The Kaiputras cannot market their pig during the lockdown at all.
Rishis (cobblers and leather workers), also identified in derogatory terms such as muchi, chamar and charmokar, are being equally affected. Although their main concentration is in Jashore, Satkhira and Khulna, they are found in all districts. Those who repair and polish shoes around the country and make bamboo produces have no work now. "Rishis of the southwestern districts are hardly getting any government relief materials," reports Milon Das, director of Parittran, a Satkhira-based organisation working for the Rishis and Dalits.
Of at least two million ethnic populations, those in the Chittagong Hill Tracts that are dependent on jum (shifting cultivation), living in remote areas, and dependent on subsistence economic activities (selling agricultural produces) are faced with a very difficult time. "Scarcity of food is evident in the CHT, already in the crisis months of the year," says Han Han, a development consultant.
The district and local administrations are aware of the situation. "It is difficult to reach food in some remote areas," said Prakash Kanti Chowdhury, member of the CHT Development Board (CHTDB). "In reaching the needy during the food crisis, we are following the lists prepared by the UNOs and Union Parishads."
In the plains and outside the tea gardens, the ethnic communities, particularly the farmers, day labourers and those who work in rail stations and live in slums, need extra care from the government.
There are a number of other excluded and marginalised communities who need special care at this time of crisis. The disabled, Napit (barber), Dhopa (washer-man), Tati (weaver), Darji (tailor), Hajam (unqualified doctors for circumcision), Kasai (butcher), blacksmiths, and so on are among these affected communities. Let us also not forget the people who beg and live on the streets.
The entire country along with the whole world is in deep grief. We do not know exactly how long the pandemic will continue. However, in the fight against the coronavirus, the government and the well-to-dos in society should be caring to the estimated seven million people of these already excluded and marginalised communities. It should be our pledge that no one, nowhere, will go hungry or die without care.
Philip Gain is a researcher and director of Society for Environment and Human Development (SEHD). Email: email@example.com