Milon and his wife Pari Begum catch shrimp fry in the Baleswar river. The photo was taken from the bank of Baleshwar river near the village Padma on 23 April.

Milon Talukdar along with wife Pari Begum catch shrimp fry in the Baleshwar river. Someday they earn Tk 100-150 selling the shrimp fry. Some days they earn nothing.

In 2007 the devastating cyclone Sidr started from the Baleshwar river near the village Padma of Patharghata upazila in Barguna. This village is 12 kilometers away from Patharghata upazila sadar. While visiting the area on 23 April, it was evident from the ravaged embankment and uprooted kewra trees that the scar inflicted by Sidr has not yet healed.

Milon Talukdar, nearly 50 years old, was sitting on the banks of the river. He is a boatman of a trawler used for fishing in the deep sea, but he has not fishing in the sea for one and half months.

He said, "The condition of the sea is not good. Storms start brewing all of a sudden. I am afraid."

Milon took a 66-decimal plot of land on lease for Tk 20,000 a year. He harvested only ten maunds of paddy as saline water entered the land last Aman season. His losses led him to take a loan of Tk 60,000 from an NGO.

Milon and his wife Pari Begum catch shrimp fry in the Baleswar river.

They lost their children during cyclone Sidr.

She said, "There is no work. How can our family survive? We are in a crisis."

According to the district administration, about 900,000 people live in Barguna. Paddy and fish are the main source of income of the people of this locality. Locals said there is hardly any alternative employment. The government is not paying any attention to this. The livelihood crisis has gripped the coastal district. Poverty is increasing.

Fishermen, day labourers, NGO workers and government officials in Barguna sadar, Amtali and Patharghata speak of a livelihood crisis in the locality.

In 2020, the National Institute of Population Research and Training and icddr,b, in a joint study said the rate of poverty in Barguna increased to 54.5 per cent.

According to the study, the highest rate of poverty in the country is in Patuakhali district near Barguna. Kurigram is in the second position while Barguna in the third.

In the study, alongside household income, the condition of homes, electricity connections, types of latrine, television and cell phones ownership, were taken into consideration to assess the level of poverty.

According to household income and expenditure survey of 2016 by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, about 26 people out of 100 live under the poverty line.

After this 2017 data, there has been no official survey over the Barguna poverty.

Barguna deputy commissioner Habibur Rahman, however, is unwilling to accept that 54 per cent of people of the district are poor.

Speaking to Prothom Alo, he said, "This is true that the agriculture sector in the coastal belt is affected if a natural calamity hits. Sufficient alternative employment opportunities for the fishermen have not been created during the ban of the fishing in the sea and to protect mother hilsa. Despite that, the poverty is not so intense."

He said a social safety net programme is being implemented for the poor people in the district. Being the coastal district, the allocation is higher.

General people in the district said there are irregularities in the social safety net programme and inadequate allocation.

In the Dalbhanga village of Sadar upazila, Monir Hossain said he was supposed to receive 80 kg of rice in two months as jatka (small hilsa) fishing is banned for four months. But he got only 64 kg. On the contrary, resident of ward No. 1 of Badarkhali union, Yunus Mia, said he did not get any food assistance although he is a registered fisherman.

Sadar upazila's Baliatali union chairman Nazmul Islam said they could not provide food assistance to all as the allocation was less against the number of fishermen.

Poverty on the rise

Residents in the district said many cyclones and tidal surges including Sidr, Aila and Amphan occurred in the recent years.

These calamities wreaked havoc especially on the coastal belt. Saline water is increasingly entering the farm land due to weak embankments and mismanagement.

Local farmers said the boro crop, vegetables and other fruits grow little due to salinity. The salinity comes down during the rainy season. At the time Amon paddy is cultivated. Beside salinity, crops are affected due to drought. Alam Sikder in the Amtali municipality area said moong dal (a variety of lentils) and watermelons did not grow well due to the scarcity of rain this season.

However, the district agriculture department said the production of moong dal and watermelon has increased in the last several years. District agriculture extension department deputy director Abu Sayed Mohammad Jubaidul Alam said they are encouraging the farmers to produce saline-tolerant crops.

The general people in Barguna are more interested in fishing in the rivers and sea and fish trading than agriculture. According to the fisheries department, the number of registered fishermen is 50,000.

However, local residents and NGO officials said the number would actual be double.

Amtali upazila's local NGO official Nazrul Sriti Samsad executive director Shahbuddin Panna said fishing in the sea remains banned for 65 days. At the time, the livelihoods of the fishermen becomes difficult. As a result, the fishermen are become steeped in debts and fall below the poverty line.

After talking to 25 families in Barguna Sadar, Amtali and Patharghata, it is learnt that every fishing family is in debt. Some have taken loans from more than one NGO.

During the 22-day ban of the hilsa breeding season, the fishermen don't have any work. Local fisherman Babul Howlader said, "The government provides 30 kg of rice to each fisherman. But how long does this rice last for a five-member family?"

Local residents said except for microcredit, other programmes of most of the NGOs are shut. There is no development project except a private power plant in Amtali upazila.

'We need work'

On 22 April, this correspondent talked to 15 people in Nayabangali village of Amtali upazila.

Farida Akhtar is one of them.

Her husband Salman is a day labourer. Her two daughters go to school. He at times works for others. Farida cannot say when she last cooked meat.

Residents at Noyabangali village said they cannot manage their daily lives due to high prices of commodities.

Boatman Imran said, "Everybody says that our income has increased. Don't they see what we buy in the market."

Patharghata Padma village residents said they cannot spend cash most of the time. They have to purchase commodities on credit. So the cost of commodities goes up.

While moving along the embankment of Baleshwar river in Patharghata, some unemployed fishermen were passing an idle time in the shops. Fatima Begum at Pachim Charlathimara embankment, said, "We need work. How can we survive without work?"

In the Barguna municipal bazar, Swarna variety fine rice was being sold at Tk 60 to 68 while coarse rice at Tk 45. Beside, masur dal (lentils) is being sold at Tk 100, moong dal at Tk 140, unpackages brown flour (atta) at Tk 32, gram at Tk 75 and green chilli at Tk 80.

As elsewhere in the country, two litres of soybean oil, two litres of sugar and two kg of dal have been sold at affordable prices in two phases among 63,265 families in Barguna. The price of entire package is Tk 450. When asked about buying TCB commodities, several women said they could not manage money to buy TCB commodities.

Conscious Citizens' Committee's district unit president Anisur Rahman said steps have to be taken to create employment opportunities to prevent the trend of increasing poverty.

He also said steps have to be taken for agro and fisheries based industries. Simultaneously sustainable embankment has to be constructed.

Anisur Rahman said the upward trend of poverty can be tackled by increasing economic activities and fighting against the negative impact of climate change.

*Mohammad Rafique in Barguna and Amin Sohel in Patharghata assisted in filing the report.

*This report, originally published in Prothom Alo print and online version, has been rewritten in English by Rabiul Islam.