A lacklustre town of misery and despair
It was drizzling with gusty winds and the sky was overcast with black clouds. The Kirtankhola river was flowing full to the brim due to the tidal surge. The engine-powered boats were struggling against the force of the strong current and waves. I saw rows of houses as I proceeded south after reaching Charcowa from Barishal, crossing the Kirtankhola river.
These almost broken tin-shed houses are built on wood and bamboo frames. About 300 families live there. It looks like a ghost town beside a city bustling city of bright lights. The residents here are completely deprived of the joy of life. Their lives are full of struggles for survival. There was not even a semi-pucca building in the vicinity, let alone high-rises. This is Hiran Nagar.
Natural disasters like cyclones, drought and heavy rain are omnipresent companions of the residents of Hiran Nagar. Their ability to earn a livelihood is on decline due to the impact of climate change. The crises of food, accommodation, communication, health and employment are also evident.
The plight of the people in this area due to climate change-driven natural disasters came up in a recent study. According to the study, some 28.9 per cent people in the rural and slum areas of Barishal cannot afford three meals a day. At the same time, some 44.5 per cent of the people cannot afford stocking up food and some 91.6 per cent do not have any income-generating training.
These figures came up in a survey conducted on 6,000 people in two villages of Sadar upazila and a slum in the city corporation, by Coastal Development Partnership, a non-government organisation. Hiran Nagar is one of those three surveyed places.
According to the survey results, the residents in these areas are lagging far behind in terms of education. Some 17.1 per cent of the total residents are illiterate. Some 62.5 per cent are day labourers by profession and 26.2 per cent are landless. They have become quite vulnerable in terms of living standards due to the impact of climate change.
The study predicts that in the future, the communication system of 98.2 per cent of these households will be disrupted, some 97.6 per cent will face health crisis, 92 per cent households will not have access to safe drinking water and 91.7 per cent will lose their livelihood.
The residents of Bhatar Khal slum in ward no.10 of the city were rehabilitated to Charcowa in 2012. Late mayor Shawkat Hossain alias Hiran established a colony there named Hiran Nagar. At least 1,500 people from 350 families live there. Everybody there lives from hand to mouth.
Babul Mia, 53, and his wife Ema Begum, 42, were trying hard to save themselves from the rain. Rain water was dripping down through holes of their dilapidated tin shed. The room was muddy and teeming with water. Even their oven could not be saved. They covered the roof with an old canvas. But it did not seem to be working.
Babul’s left eye was damaged in an injury seven years ago. He married off his two daughters and took shelter at Charcowa. He earns his living by calling passengers on the transport routes in the char area. He earns Tk 150 per day for this. He was somehow surviving with this income. However, now he is in real trouble due to the rise in the prices of daily commodities.
Babul had a house in Talukdar Hat area nearby which was submerged in Kirtankhola due to river erosion. In the end he had to resort to the slum in Hiran Nagar. Although he got shelter, he could not afford a room for them.
The floor of Babul’s room was full of water and mud. The bed over the stool in the room was messy.
Asked whether they had cooked their meal, Babul, with a smile, said, “Do the poor have the ability to arrange meals? I earn Tk 150 after working hard all day. You might understand how I manage with this income. It’s better to die than enduring such pain in life.”
Ema Begum reiterated her husband saying, “We cannot even afford rice now. I can’t remember the last time I had any fish or meat.”
Babul is not the only one who is struggling to survive. All the residents of the slum are in the same trouble. The marks of poverty are evident everywhere in the slum.
Harun Mia and Dulu Begum live in a hut near Babul’s room. They used to live in Bhatar Khal slum like Babul. After the eviction drive, they came to Hiran Nagar. There are three members in his family. He used to peddle cucumbers and earn around Tk 400 a day. But it too stopped due to the outbreak of coronavirus. He is unemployed at the moment. The family lives on the income of his wife.
Dulu works as a housemaid at a house in the Barishal city and earns Tk 5,000 per month. Asked how they are managing with this income, Harun replied after a while with a sigh, “Is there any other option? I can’t even remember the last time we had any fish or meat.”
The day almost passed while I was listening to the miseries of Bilkis Begum, Shahnaz, Abdul Hakim and many others. It was almost dark by the time I finished with Harun Mia. As if the shadow of the dusk, the monsoon cloud and the miseries of the people in this are mingling in the darkness of nature.
*This report appeared on the online version of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ashish Basu