Panelists

  1. Dr. Shamsul Alam, State Minister, Planning Ministry

  2. Md. Abdul Majid, Project Director, M4C Project, Rural Development Academy (RDA), Bogura

  3. Sheldon Yett, Representative to Bangladesh, UNICEF

  4. Onno Van Manen, Country Director, Save The Children in Bangladesh

  5. Luva Nahid Choudhury, Director General, Bengal Foundation

  6. Runa Khan, Founder and Executive Director, Friendship

  7. Kazi Maruful Islam, Professor, Department of Development Studies, University of Dhaka

  8. Ayesha Taasin Khan, Senior Director and Head, Inclusive Citizenship, Friendship

  9. Shahariar Sadat, Director, Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), BRAC University

  10. Mohammad Altaf Hossain, Associate Professor, Department of Anthropology, Rajshahi University

  11. Jahid Rahman, Member Secretary, National Char Alliance

  12. Md Nazrul Gan, Head of Administration, RDRS Bangladesh

  13. Abdul Gafur, Chairman, Jatrapur Union Parishad, Kurigram

  14. Nuri Chowdhury, Community Representative, Gaibandha

Introductory Speech: Abdul Quayum, Associate Editor, Prothom Alo

Moderator: Firoz Choudhury, Assistant Editor, Prothom Alo

Discussion

Abdul Quayum

It is very important to improve the living standard of people in the char areas. It is a national issue. The government and local government are working on this. We, Prothom Alo, are working in the char areas of northern Bangladesh. In Kurigram, there is a char named ‘Prothom Alo Char’ where we have a school. Prothom Alo has been working there since 2009. Besides, many NGOs like Friendship do development work in the char areas. I hope, these issues will come up in today’s discussion.

Kazi Maruful Islam

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There is a need to understand the situation of char dwellers as citizens and consider their potential instead of just seeing them as poor people. There are eight years left to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This effort will go in vain if there is no improvement in the living standard of 10 million char dwellers. “No one is left behind” is the slogan of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Bangladesh will not achieve these goals if we do not improve the living standard of char people.

In contrast to Bangladesh’s success in poverty alleviation, the poverty rate in Rangpur Division speaks of our uneven development. In this division, the poverty rate is more than 80 percent in the remote char areas of Gaibandha and Kurigram districts, while nationally the rate is about 20 percent.

Floods and river erosion are regular threats for the char dwellers. Lack of employment, underdeveloped communication and difficulty in marketing the products are pushing them back from the mainstream of development. Losing schools due to river erosion, poor maintenance, and lack of quality teachers are becoming the key challenges for primary education programme in char areas. Violence against women and children, and child marriage are increasing at an alarming rate in chars.

We need to include the char people in accessing the social safety-net and various government programmes so that they can live as citizens with dignity. The government and non-government organisations need to work together to ensure meaningful development in the lives of char dwellers, to accelerate their social and economic development.

To build a better future for the char people, there is a need for sustainable infrastructure, communication, education, health-nutrition, training on income-generating activities, and create opportunities for new employment. By solving the structural problems, the education and skills of char people should be improved.

Electrification has become a dire need to improve the living standards of char dwellers and renewable energy can be the most viable option in that regard. In the char, the soil fertility should be capitalised and agriculture-based economic initiatives should be encouraged among char people. Overall economic development should be accelerated by ensuring the livability of old chars through planned river management.

Nuri Chowdhury

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During the rainy season in the char area, the condition of pregnant mothers is miserable since they need to rent a boat for about BDT 800 to go to the nearest health centre. Hence, many people cannot go to the hospital on time due to lacks of transportation and money. As a consequence, in most cases, the child dies in the mother's womb. Still, the mother has to go to the hospital while carrying the dead fetus in her womb, because she needs to deliver the dead child. During floods, children, elderly people and persons with disabilities face a devastating situation.

Children do not want to stay in one place, many of them fall into the water and die while running around. Children are often kept on the school grounds where there are cows, goats, dogs, and cats. Sometimes a child cannot be vaccinated if bitten by a dog.

In times of floods, the char people have to stay cornered in their houses where they are helpless. During this time, there is a great scarcity of food for people and cattle. Although young boys and girls can tolerate the hardship of having no food, the elderly and children become unstable. The persons with disabilities are tied with rope so that they do not get lost. During floods, we take shelter on school grounds. However, there is no suitable environment for girls and women to stay there. There is a lack of safe water. Hence, many people suffer from diarrhea. In essence, our people in the char areas have endless suffering.

Abdul Gafur

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The Jatrapur Union in Kurigram Sadar suffers the most since 8 out of 9 wards are located in the char areas. In chars, there are public and private schools. Other NGOs including Friendship have schools there. But in most educational institutions, schooling is not done properly since there is a lack of teachers. River erosion is a regular phenomenon in the char areas. Hundreds of houses are destroyed every year. If there is no sustainable solution to this, it is not possible to improve the quality of education. There are no high schools in our areas. Therefore, girls are forced into child marriage after primary education. Friendship schools, however, provide teaching up to class eight. During floods, many places including schools go underwater. At that moment, people, their poultry, and livestock have no place to take shelter. As a solution, the place should be raised in such a way that it can be used as a school as well as a shelter during floods. For communication, speedboats and engine-run boats can be arranged here which will enormously benefit pregnant women, teachers, government officials, and NGO personnel.

Ayesha Taasin Khan

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In chars, women have to face more challenges than men. They are lagging behind in terms of both equality and resources. The problems of women and girls are endless.

Since birth, there is a kind of negative mentality toward women. First, we have to unearth the reasons why women and girls are discriminated against. If we can identify the reasons behind discrimination, it will be easier to eradicate the cause of girls dropping out and why they are forced into child marriage.

To develop the char dwellers, both men and women should be engaged in economic activities. Communication in the char areas is difficult. It is even more difficult for women and girls. Economic development will occur if the discrimination between men and women is reduced.

The skillsets of char people should be enriched through different initiatives of the government. They can be economically solvent if they obtain these skills. The government needs to take on some projects which will equally benefit the men and women of char areas.

Marketing the products made by char people is challenging since there is a lack of communication between the buyers and sellers. Hence, it is imperative to take initiatives by the government and private organisations, and civil societies. It is essential to develop infrastructure that is suitable for char areas. To improve the living standard of char people, we have to work in an integrated manner.

Jahid Rahman

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On 6 June 2015, we organised the first char convention in South Asia including Bangladesh at the Krishibid Institute, Dhaka. Parliamentary Speaker, Shirin Sharmin Chaudhury, was present as the chief guest. Approximately, one thousand people were present including public representatives, teachers, researchers, and people from char areas. Our researchers presented 16 papers during this day-long discussion.

We submitted a 14-point demand. Among these were the formulation of a ‘national char development policy’, the formation of a ‘national char development foundation’, inclusion of char people under the social safety-net umbrella as well as special allocations for them, while reducing disparities of social safety-net and others.

There is a need to have a plan on how we want to see the people of chars in the next 20 years so that people can understand these plans have been made for the char dwellers in the near future.

We have also highlighted this before the Planning Commission. On 19th June 2017, for our advocacy, the Prime Minister said that the formation of special funds for char dwellers, infrastructure development, increased production, increased agricultural production, assistance for agricultural expansion, capacity building in climate change, and finally, building a green belt in the char areas are important.

In today’s discussion, our special appeal to the chief guest is that a ‘char development board’ should be formed soon, and char policies should be formulated to improve the living standards of char people. Chars are our assets. The char people will contribute to the country’s economy if their living standards are improved.

Onno Van Manen

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There is a need to build a better future for the children from the chars and ensure their equal rights and opportunities. It is necessary to highlight these issues in any discussion on how the government and non-governmental organisations can reach out to the children, and how they would work as catalysts to make desired changes in their lives. The public and private organisations need to work together in an effort to break the vicious cycle of poverty by ensuring access to education, healthcare, livelihood, nutrition and public services.

Although many organisations work for the children from chars, they are unable to break the vicious cycle of poverty since they are repeatedly experiencing the same challenges year after year. To address their problems, there is a pressing need to identify the lack of resources and work towards sustainable economic development in the long run.

A platform should be created for social contracts among the char people, local elites and the government. To deal with sustainable development goals and climate change, the future generations, in other words, the children, need to be prepared. Every child deserves basic human rights to healthcare, primary education and food security irrespective of the time or place of birth, or identity of the parents or their social status.

Mohammad Altaf Hossain

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I have done a study on chars which I presented at a seminar in Ireland. After realizing the regular struggles and hazardous lives of the char people, the attendees mentioned that the char people are much smarter than the people of Ireland.

Every person is representative of their society. The char people are very skilled. If NGOs like Friendship work on empowerment, their lives can turn around rapidly.

Various development organisations including the government are working on this, but still the problems persist. There are no precise statistics on how many people live in the chars, how many are affected by river erosion, or how many people have migrated to the cities. Due to the lack of statistics, proper planning cannot be done.

The people of chars do not have control over their char lands because of legal complications. The local influential people possess the land. In this case, if there is a char management organisation, then they can look after the matter. When a person goes to the government office to know how much land he or she has, and how much has eroded into the river, in most cases, they are unable to find out anything.

Authority needs to be there like the Borendra Development Authority. In this case, a group can be formed involving various people such as anthropologists, sociologists, disaster management authorities, government and NGO representatives, donor agency representatives, real estate lawyers and char representatives. This person will work to improve the living standards of char people. Like today, this type of discussion needs to be continued so that the problems of the chars can be highlighted. All concerned personnel should seriously consider these problems.

Md Abdul Majid

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The Swiss ambassador visited a char. He mentioned that the people of the char are very smart and that they have potential. The main livelihoods in chars are agriculture and cattle-rearing. Under the Char Livelihood Programme (CLP), many houses have been raised in many chars. Those who work in the Northern Bangladeshi chars were part of it. We have arranged a nursery for them. In the chars of Kurigram, 60 people became self-sufficient by making small nurseries. One of them sold around five-hundred thousand trees that are contributing to the green environment in chars as well as preventing soil erosion.

This time, the char people have earned a lot from harvesting corn. Five years ago, 400 kilograms of maize were produced in one 0.33 acres of land. Now, 1600 kilograms are produced there as yield increased by 1200 kilograms. This has been done through everyone’s initiatives. However, they cannot preserve this maize. Hence, six silos have been constructed to protect the maize from the effects of heat and cold.

In chars, electricity should be provided through solar panels. Almost 10 million people from 150,000 households live in chars. There are no families who do not own cattle. CLP has worked on cattle-rearing.

There are 242 households under the government’s Ashrayan Project and there are no job opportunities for them. Projects should be developed for them. The government has taken the initiative of farming local chickens among them. In the chars of Kurigram, there are approximately 300,000 acres of arable land, of which 207,000 acres are under single-crop cultivation. 100,000 acres of land have still not been cultivated. It is possible to earn BDT 32.4 billion if maize can be produced properly in chars.

Md Nazrul Gani

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Since 1993, I visited all the chars in Kurigram district. I stayed there. During that time, we installed high-frequency wireless radios in all the char areas of ​​Kurigram. Afterward, we did a lot of work under the CLP in 2002.

Livestock and poultry were distributed among 50,000 char dwellers. The cattle were vaccinated and solar-powered electricity was arranged. On 5th December 2021, a regional char conference was held in Kurigram titled ‘Charer Shafollo, Shombavona O Agamir Ongikar’ (char’s success, potential, and future promise), where the char people highlighted their challenges. Women, in particular, had a big issue. That is, many pregnant women are at risk of death due to labour pains at night. We have provided services to pregnant mothers through some satellite clinics. Along with everyone, we also agree that special measures need to be taken for the char dwellers.

Shahariar Sadat

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It is an issue whether we talk about the grievances of char people or speak about their dreams and desires. The people of chars have their own power. We have to think about utilising that power. The matter of justice should be brought into our development plan. In Bangladesh, there are two good initiatives – digital union and village court. Digital services and access to justice are at the doorstep. However, there may be many problems with this service. We need to work on making this service more friendly. I went to see the plights of char people with Friendship. While visiting there, I felt that they have a lot of power and that they need to utilise that power.

In 2017 and 2018, a justice audit was performed. It has been observed that marginalised people have to travel one to three hours to get access to justice. It costs BDT 640 for each trip. The amount is even bigger if the value of time is added. Generally, people do not want to travel for more than three kilometers to get justice. The place for getting justice has to be closer to the residence of people. It is even more needed by the char people.

During my visit with Friendship, I realised that there is a big rift between the char dwellers and our development planners. The development of human resources in chars should be emphasised. There are some hotline numbers for health services. We need to find out whether the char people know about these emergency numbers and use those. To get justice, national identification card or birth certificate is required. This creates hindrance for char people. These issues should be considered seriously.

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Development is meaningless if it does not make people benefitted. The issue of training was brought into discussion. We have to think whether the water-land relationship can be considered in a new way. I am thinking about the direction of water from land. We have to think about what we can envisage in a different way.

It is also crucial to think about whether our delta plan has a nexus with the chars. Like cities, there is no cultural diversity in chars. Because among the diversity and variation here, they may have their own culture, which is different from others. We have to accept them and their norms.

Manik Bandopadhyay wanted to create a society in Mayna Island that is free from exploitation. We do not know from the novel whether he was able to make it or not. But we want an establishment of life in the char areas that is beautifully humane.

Sheldon Yett

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In char areas, we have to be conscious about the betterment of children. Working separately will reduce the possibility of being successful in providing assistance to the children of chars. Research needs to be carried out to unearth the causes of malnutrition rates and under-five child mortality in Bangladesh.

The causes of malnutrition and under-five child mortality in an urban slum may be different from a char area. Overall, the root cause of one problem may differ from place to place. In the past, the government and UNICEF have jointly conducted a number of research studies that have taken into account different sectors, regions and communities.

To the char dwellers, especially for the development of char children, it is indispensable to increase cooperation between multidimensional organisations like civil societies and educational institutions. It is necessary to ensure support from all the stakeholders in development activities. However, ultimately the leadership must come from the government. For the success of sustainable development efforts, it is vital to consider the use of limited resources, knowledge and information sharing and the risks of climate change.

Runa Khan

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Over the past 27 years, my life has been deeply involved with the people of char and their development. The char people are far from the mainstream. I know about a woman whose husband was sick. She walked for three days to go to Dhaka and worked for 15 days to collect food for her family, before she could treat her husband. Such is the challenge of a woman from the chars.

To bring the changes in the living condition of these people, we have to work holistically. We have to work together in the society. Changes will not come about if we work separately. 50 to 60 students from the chars study at the University of Dhaka. Many of them work in the city. An NGO cannot solve the problem alone, no matter how much work it does. At the end of the day, the government should come forward as well as the society.

The legal system of our country is excellent. But how many people know about it? There is no one who would go to the court and not get a lawyer since the government has made that arrangement for assistance. All we need is the people’s awareness.

We can only create opportunities for the people of chars. They will have to build their lives by themselves. Friendship has been working over the past 20 years with such char women as Nuri, who is present in today’s discussion. At this time, the national coverage of the Extended Programme on Immunization (EPI) has reached 98 percent, from 72 percent previously. Friendship floating hospitals, satellite clinics and paramedics are providing the full assistance of government vaccination programme to children of chars.

We see the results of our work in the changing awareness of people. Today, people from the chars speak at seminars, climate conferences, and certainly students from the chars will study at Oxford one day. If the government and we work together change will come to the living standards of char dwellers. A few years ago, I talked with the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina about chars. She listened about our work for 45 minutes. She gets updates herself of char people and asked us to work for them.

Shamsul Alam

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Today’s discussion is very relevant. In the remote areas, the people are underprivileged in one way or the other. Chars are almost everywhere across the country. It would have been great to bring out issues in the discussion about the chars of all parts of the country not only the northern Bangladesh. In the Sustainable Development Goals, it is mentioned that no one will be left behind. Hence, today’s discussion is crucial.

The good thing is that different NGOs are working in the char areas. They come up with innovations as many challenges are coming forward. Besides, the Prime Minister knows about these issues. I have heard many positive things about chars. There is an allocation for chars in the budget. But unfortunately, most of the time the allocated fund remains unspent. For the health sector, BDT 10 million was allocated for conducting research but it was unspent. On the other hand, the allocation was kept for the development of chars but it was also unspent. It is important to dig down to where the problem lies.

In the sixth and seventh five-year plans, we have kept special allocation for poor regions. At that time, the finance minister mentioned that these funds remain unspent. I was so surprised as to why it would not be spent. Later, it has been observed that there are many sectors in which the funds remain unspent. In the char areas, there are problems with sanitation and clean water. On the other hand, the problems of all chars are not the same. Therefore, it is not true that one foundation or arrangement will bring benefits. We need to think of how to make the existing facilities worthwhile.

Every char is involved with thana (police station) or upazilla (sub-district) authority. We have to think on how to provide more assistance in agriculture, education, sanitation, social security etc. In char areas, there are more opportunities for cattle-rearing and poultry. Watermelon, potato and chili mostly come from char lands.

Char areas need to become more developed which will eventually improve the living standards of char people as well as enrich the country’s economy.

Firoz Choudhury

The potentials of the chars are massive. If utilised properly, the living standards of char people will develop. Therefore, it is important to take the necessary steps from the policy-making phase of the government. On behalf of Prothom Alo, I express my gratitude and thank you all.

Recommendations

  • Prevention of death from drowning and taking a holistic plan for the development of char areas.

  • Enhance the skillsets through different public-private initiatives.

  • Ensure participation of char dwellers in social safety-net and different governmental initiatives.

  • Sustainable development of communication system.

  • Establish sustainable and portable infrastructure where educational facilities can be provided during normal times and they can take shelter during floods.

  • Eradicate the problem of lacking qualified teachers at schools in char areas.

  • Conduct a survey on how many people reside in char areas.

  • Ensure special safety for women and children during floods.

  • Facilitation of affordable healthcare and nutrition for char dwellers.

  • Create opportunities for income-generating activity training and employment.

  • Formation of a separate ministry for char people or a ‘national char board’.

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