A total of 5,142 people were given the corona vaccine over two days. One of them was Gopal Biswas. He lives in Paikgaccha, Khulna. He says he has not turned 18 yet. One of his relatives catches fish in the ocean. He has been working on that relative’s boat for four years.

He comes to Dublar Char in October every year and returns home in March following year. If everything goes fine he will go back in mid-March or in the last week of March. He will return to Dublar Char again in October.

Two days on Dublar Char

Dublar Char is mostly famous for Rash Mela and sea bathing rituals. Devotees of Hindu religion from Khulna, Bagerhat, Satkhira and Jashore go there each year for religious rites. Weaning ceremonies of many infants also are held on this char.

Kojagari Purnima (Laxmi Puja) is celebrated during full moon that comes five days after the Durga Puja Dashami. The Rash Mela takes place on the next full moon of Kojagari Purnima. Usually the date of Rash Mela falls in October or November. Although it is a festival of the Hindu religion, people of all religion comes to the sea at this time. They also visit the Sundarbans then. Earlier people used to come on rowing or sail boats or canoes. Now they come by engine driven boats.

Centering the festival on Dublar Char people from the country’s south-western region get the opportunity to enjoy nature. Through the lush green Sundarbans they reach the edge of the country’s terrain. They get to see spotted deer and monkeys, crocodile and dolphins, kites and storks. Though it can be risky, they also try to catch sight of tigers there. All this has declined now.

Over the last four decades, Dublar Char has been known mostly for its fish trade. The village of the fishermen, who catch fish in the ocean, is on Dublar Char now. The settlement remains on the shoal for six months. Almost 80 per cent of all the dried fish produced in the country comes from this area. No pesticides are used in processing dried fish there.

For ease of management the Sundarbans has been divided into 55 compartments of the forest department. The east and west departments are in-charge of managing the Sundarbans. Dublar char is the southern-most plot under Sarankhola range of the east forest department. The area is in compartment 8. The vast waters of the Bay of Bengal are to the south of this shoal.

Dublar Char consists of several smaller shoals. Alor Kol (Jeffort Point), Meher Ali Char, Makher Kella, Narikelbaria and Shelar Char come under this area. During low tide in Pasur River, it takes four to five hours to reach Dublar Char from Mongla Port on a launch. Nearly all that way is through the Sundarbans.

'Mama' in charge

The word 'mama' or ‘uncle’ denotes Bengal Tiger in the Sundarbans. However, Kamal Uddin Ahmed is the ‘mama’ on Dublar Char. Health Department asked for assistance from ‘Kamal Mama’ to inoculate the non-residential dweller of the shoal. And he provided that.

The vaccination programme started at the office of Messers Bishal Transport, the wholesale fish market owned by Kamal Mama, on 22 February. During the brief inauguration ceremony, Kamal Uddin said everyone has to be vaccinated if they wish to stay on the shoal. Anyone who will not take the jab won’t be allowed to stay. This was his command.

There are two types of fish trade going on the island; shrimps and fresh fish. Kamal Uddin has four depots for shrimps. All the shrimps that are caught in the sea arrive at those depots.

The dried fish trade is the biggest one there. Every fisherman has their respective space for drying fish. After finishing the drying process they sell their produce to some 12 to 15 specific traders. Kamal Uddin is the chief of those traders. These traders have their own transport. They export fish to different districts of the country. Fishermen cannot sell their fish randomly. The prices of shrimp and other fish are also fixed by these traders.

On 22 and 23 February this reporter spoke to more than 20 people of the shoal. Among them there were boat owners, fishermen, labourers, shop owners and fish traders. They said Mama’s word is final. No one catches or sells fish against his will. Even other traders also run business maintaining good relations with him.

There are four cyclone shelters in the area. In time of cyclones and tidal waves people living on the shoal take asylum there. Kamal Uddin lives permanently in one of those shelters. Along with bigger trawlers for transporting fish, he owns several engine powered boats in the area. He moves from one shoal to another himself in his speed boats.

Kamal Uddin is the younger brother of Major Ziauddin Ahmed. Ziauddin was the commander of the Sundarbans subsector under Sector 9 during the Liberation War. After retiring from the armed forces he organised fishermen and launched the fish trade on Dublar Char in the 1980s. Kamal Uddin Ahmed took over from him.

Five months in exile

The Sundarbans is a protected forest. One needs the permission of forest department to enter or visit the forest. Special permission or pass is required to collect wood, fish, crab, honey and golpata (nipa palm leaves) from the forest. Just as individuals need pass, separate pass are necessary for boats as well.

People of the shoal say Kamal Mama and his associates help them to get passes from the forest department. They also decide who will set up their hut where after arriving on the island.

Fishermen of Dublar Char catch fish in the sea. Although the sea does not come under the jurisdiction of the forest department, they issue permit for fishing for the fishermen.

The suitable season for fishing in the Bay of Bengal is from the last week of October to mid-March. The ocean remains less turbulent during this time. In October, fishermen collect passes to stay in the forest along with individual and boat passes.

When asked about residing on forest land, Md Belayet Hossain, divisional forest officer of Sundarbans East Forest Division said fishermen are provided passes to build makeshift shelters for living on forest land for five months. After five months they demolish and bring back those huts.

People of the shoal say Kamal Mama and his associates help them to get passes from the forest department. They also decide who will set up their hut where after arriving on the island.

Kamal Uddin, better known as mama, is the president of Dubla Fishermen Group as well. He said, "We negotiate the issues of where they will set up their huts, shops or where they will dry their fish to avoid arguments and clashes. We move forward to help if a fisherman faces problems on forest department of administration related issues."

About the allegation of occupying the cyclone shelter he claimed, "That cyclone shelter is dilapidated and not suitable for residing."

New Market

There is a big bazaar in Alor Kol area. Local people have named it New Market. Several shop owners have said, there are only permits of 90 shops but there are as much as 200 shops there. Visiting the bazaar it was found that almost all the daily necessities are available there.

Apart from vast grocery shops there are restaurants, confectioneries, pharmacies, clothing stores, winter clothing stores, fruit shops and vegetable shops. There are some workshops and chicken stores as well. But there are no fish shops there. Many people said everything is pricy there, only the sweet 'jilapi' sells cheap.

Only Teletalk mobile network is available on the island. Teletalk SIM cards can be bought there. Several young men were seen working on computers at three shops at least. They sell Teletalk SIM cards as well.

One of the shop owners said he got a pass to stay on the shoal for Tk 500. Later, the bazaar committee collected Tk 500 more. Besides, he gave Tk 500 to another party. Owners of both authorised and unauthorised shops had to provide money like this.

A vegetable seller said, vegetables come from Khulna town. The bazaar committee has trawlers to transport this. Besides, the trawlers that go to Khulna carrying fish come back with goods. One of the shopkeepers said he has his own trawler. However, where someone will set up their shop is decided by the ‘Mamas’. Even the number of people working at a shop has to be accounted for.

Boat owners or fishermen coming to the shoal have nowhere to take their problems. No one has the courage to unite. One has to take permission beforehand from the forest department if they wish to eat beef or mutton there

Fishermen work under contract

Health department officials claimed about 20,000 people are involved in fishing at Dublar Char area. Kamal Uddin told this reporter as much as 10,000 people live on the shoal. People of the island say they are way more than 10,000 in number.

People who are expert in fishing earn Tk 80,000 to 140,000 for five months. Others get a salary of total Tk 30,000 to 70,000. Before the season begins they get half of their wages and after they return home the remaining half is paid.

Boat owners usually borrow money from bigger merchants before sending the boats to sea. These boats travel 40 to 50 nautical miles into the sea and catch fish there. The fish caught from the ocean are sold only to certain traders. What will be the price of fish on a particular day is fixed by the traders. None can fish in the area going out of this system.

An Organisation for Socio-Economic Development (AOSED), a Khulna based non-government organization, is working with fishermen for more than a decade. Executive director of AOSED Shameem Arefin while talking to Prothom Alo said, "Along with arrangements for pure drinking water, a health camp is needed in Dublar Char. The government can also provide bank loans to boat owners."

Boat owners or fishermen coming to the shoal have nowhere to take their problems. No one has the courage to unite. One has to take permission beforehand from the forest department if they wish to eat beef or mutton there. A youth of Khulna’s Koyra upazila told Prothom Alo, he has been brought under a contract of five months. Until now, he has received half of his salary, Tk 35,000. He will have to work an additional 15 days after completing his contractual five months. He won’t be getting any extra money for that overtime. But, he cannot return home without working those extra days.

* This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten for the English edition by Nourin Ahmed Monisha

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