Inclusion in national development during the COVID-19 outbreak

Participants at the virtual roundtable on 'International Indigenous Day: Inclusion in National Development During the Outbreak of COVID' organised by Prothom Alo and ALRD

International Indigenous Day is observed on 9 August every year. To commemorate the day, Prothom Alo and Association for Land Reform and Development (ALRD) held a virtual roundtable on 8 August titled 'International Indigenous Day: Inclusion in National Development During the Outbreak of COVID-19'.

Participants in the rountable:

Fazle Hossain Badsha, MP: Convener, Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples

Rani Yan Yan: Human Rights Activist, Rangamati

Syed Abul Maksud: Researcher and Writer

Sadeka Halim: Professor; Dean, Social Sciences, University of Dhaka

Sanjeeb Drong: General Secretary, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum

Khushi Kabir: Coordinator, Nijera Kori, Chairperson, ALRD

Goutam Dewan: President, Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizens Committee

Shamsul Huda: Executive Director, ALRD

Rabindranath Soren: President, Jatiya Adivasi Parishad

Rowshan Jahan Moni: Deputy Executive Director, ALRD

Abdul Quayum (Introductory presentation): Associate Editor, Prothom Alo

Firoz Choudhury (Moderator): Assistant Editor, Prothom Alo

A summary of the presentations by the participants follows:

Abdul Quayum, associate editor, Prothom Alo: The UN has declared 9 August as 'International Indigenous Day' and we are holding this virtual talk to commemorate this day. Chakma, Marma, and Tripura of the Hill Tracts, Garo, Hajong, Santal including others from the plain land and the other ethnicities have been facing different barriers to the development of their livelihood status. During the outbreak of COVID-19, these problems have increased. We have to think about how to ensure inclusive development where these problems will be duly addressed. That is what the experts will discuss today.

The key point of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is we cannot leave anybody behind. And to achieve that goal, we have to work together, that that includes the marginal ethnicities from both hills and plains.

Rowshan Jahan Moni, deputy executive director, ALRD: As every year, this year too we are observing 9 August ias 'International Indigenous Day'. Our ethnic minorities live with different challenges. COVID-19 has made this situation worse. They are living like marginal people even in the age of globalisation.

Rowshan Jahan Moni

ALRD works for marginal people's land rights. We believe it is our duty to work for those who lag behind in this regard. We work for the whole year, but we try to do something special on such special days. In this way, we can reflect on what we are doing. We can see the lacking we have. I hope that challenges of these marginal people will be duly discussed in this virtual conference today, and there will be some suggestions to improve the status of these people. I hope that ALRD will act on those guidelines. And ALRD will not keep their efforts limited to just observing this day but will work continuously to achieve the rights of the ethnic people.

Sanjeeb Drong, general secretary, Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Forum: We observe the 'International Indigenous Day' each year with many hopes and dreams. We cherish the hope that our country someday will become respectful, humane and sensitive to all its citizens including the ethnic minorities. We hope that the state will be inclusive and no one will be excluded from their rights and from the development plan.

Sanjeeb Drong

The day, 9 August 2020, is the 26th 'International Indigenous Day' since its declaration by the United Nations. UN General Assembly declared 9 August as 'International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples' as per resolution 49/214 in 1994 and invites the nations to observe the day. The 2030 agenda of the UN that promises to 'Leave No One Behind' in the SDGs also addresses the issues of indigenous people.

Our government is taking the SDG seriously. If we leave our ethnic minority behind, then the goals of SDG cannot be achieved. It is very important to have a policy in our country that includes ethnic minorities meaningfully in the decision making process.

According to a gazette (March 2019) of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, there are 50 ethnic minority groups including the Chakma-Marma-Tripura from the hills, Garo-Hajong of Mymensingh, Santal-Orao from the North, Khasia-Manipuri from Sylhet, and Rakhine from the coastal region. They have been mentioned in the national education policy as well.

The government has included ethnic minority issues in the seventh five-year plan and the eighth is under process. I hope that this issue will be included in that plan as well.

During the outbreak of COVID-19, we would like to raise the demands on behalf of the Bangladesh Adivasi Forum:

1. It is the duty of the state to ensure health services for the ethnic minorities of the hills and plains. As they live in remote and hard-to-reach areas, and hardly receive any health services, the state must take care of this issue on priority basis.

2. There should be financial compensation packages for those from the ethnic minority population who have been distressed by the COVID-19 situation.

3. Around 25,000 youth of the ethnic minority people across the country should be employed on temporary basis during present situation so that they can meet the demands of their families.

4. Financial aid and other measures should be taken to ensure regular schooling of their children.

5. People from the ethnic minorities should be included to ensure the achievement of SDGs.

6. 'Bangladesh Indigenous Peoples Rights Act' devised by the Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples should be passed soon.

Sadeka Halim, professor, dean of social sciences, Dhaka University: Bangladesh is a land of multi dimensions and many communities or races. Those who live in the CHT, plain land or in other regions believe in traditional land system and have been practicing this since long. Their rights have been violated. Their lands are being confiscated through reserve forests, development projects, tourism, etc. Hills and plains have different problems that need to be addressed simultaneously as a whole and also separately.

Sadeka Halim

The peace accord of 1997 provided the ethnic people with the rights to protect their wellbeing. There might be some lacking in its application, but I would like to praise the goodwill of the honorable prime minister. We know that the status of the promised autonomy at the regional council does not go with the reality. The lands that they have lost cannot be regained because there are no regulations for that. They have got a ministry because of the accord, but the indigenous people of the plain land also demand one of their own.

In a report of the Daily Prothom Alo, it was claimed that there are less COVID-19 cases among these peoples. The reason behind it, as the report mentioned, is that they are used to a hard-work. But they do not receive the proper nutrition as per their hard labour. I can share an example: I directed a study recently on livelihood in CHT, Rajshahi and Naogaon regions. They said that they are farmers, but most of them are day-laborers. They do different types of jobs for living. They want modernisation in the agricultural sector. And 76% of them want modernisation of technology. They complained about low wages and discrimination against women.

Many women from the plain land ethnic minorities used to work in the beauty parlours, factories, in households and in other such services. They have lost their jobs because of the COVID-19 situation. We should take this into account otherwise they will be further marginalised.

We use the development discourse of the mainstream for the ethnic minorities also. In this regard, I would like to draw the attention of our policy makers to the fact that diversity strengthens a country. The more we will be able to bring that diversity into our development plans, the stronger economy we will be able to establish.

We do not know for how long we will have to deal with coronavirus. If the ethnic minorities from both hills and plains are not brought under compensation packages, their survival will be difficult. They receive the least healthcare benefits. But they need this. Food and healthcare assistance must be taken care of for them and on an urgent basis.

Syed Abul Maksud, researcher and writer: The COVID-19 situation has added new a dimension to the 'International Indigenous Day'. People from ethnic minorities live in hills as well as in the plains. They are already troubled with many problems and the coronavirus outbreak has added more to those. More than 100,000 have lost their jobs, and many have become poor. These people are much less affected by coronavirus, but they are now affected by unemployment.

Syed Abul Maksud

Article 14 of the Bangladesh constitution clearly states it is the fundamental responsibility of the state to emancipate the backward sections of the people from all forms of exploitation. Many problems are naturally solved if the state performs its duties accordingly. But many of these people are managing their livelihoods of their own without favour from the state, engaging themselves in jobs like driving, or in beauty parlours and garment factories. Due the present situation, they are losing their jobs. Many of them are almost starving. The government is providing stimulus packages. These people should be included in such packages and with special provisions.

The Peace Accord was possible due to the sincere and laborious effort by the prime minister Sheikh Hasina. When a treaty is made, it is obvious that it would be implemented. But many parts of this accord have not been implemented in over two decades. Civil society, ALRD and others are advocating for long for this to happen. The state should make it clear, why this could not be implemented in full. The remaining conditions of the CHT peace accord must be addressed soon. Today, when we are observing this day, it will be our duty to take these people into account and assist them to bring their problems to light.

Rani Yan Yan, human rights activist, Rangamati: I greet you all on the occasion of the 'International Indigenous Day'. There is socio-economic division in this country and the intensity of this division has been clearly seen during the COVID-19 situation. This discrimination is structural. This will keep going on if we cannot bring changes to this. Differences and diversities in races and identities are the root causes for this discrimination and are responsible for poor socio-economic conditions.

Rani Yan Yan

People's rights are an important issue in development. Real progress cannot be achieved by ignoring or violating these rights. In our country, we are using the neo-liberal development strategy since the '80s and '90s that does not take the issues of people's rights into account. Understanding this fact, global leaders have shifted from Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to Sustainable Development Goals (SDG).

We have agreed to achieve SDGs. The key promise of it is that no one will be left behind. We have to work on development issues including those who are left behind. But this is not happening. We have to identify the reasons for this backwardness. And we will need stratified information for that: especially based on ethnicity and gender. This is a priority to achieve the SDGs. But this has not been done yet. If we depend on average statistics in measuring development, we will be able to claim that we have become a nation of medium income, but 'No one will be left behind' - this promise will not be possible to keep.

There are many places in the CHT regions where we do not have any health complexes. In some cases, we have no healthcare providers in those area having health complexes and others have care providers but they do not have medicine and equipment. Backward areas must have special allocations but this is not what the reality is.

Development programmes will not be the same for hills and plains as they have differing realities. We need different plans from those who have land and for those who do not have any. Those whose lands have been taken away, they must be taken into the social safety net proposed for the ultra poor.

We are talking about inclusion because they can tell their needs best. And not only taking development plans, we have to ensure these plans are executed partnering with them and only by that we can achieve true development. I am using the word 'partnership' rather than 'participating'; these two are significantly different. We have neither partnership nor participation in crucial budget like national development. There are allocations for the CHT regions but how much of that are expend and where it is spent - we do not know anything of that. If we had partnership in it, the budget could be utilised efficiently.

COVID-19 is a national and a global crisis. But this is a recent phenomenon. These people are the victims of structural discrimination for long. We should overcome this discrimination so that we can remain prepared to deal with such crisis in future. What we have been saying, we have to say this during this crisis and also in normal situation. That is the promise on the occasion of this 'International Indigenous Day'.

Rabindranath Soren, president, Jatiya Adivasi Parishad: We will be celebrating the 50th anniversary of our independence. If we look closely, we will see that much of the people's land have been snatched away. Many people do not have much land left for them. Among the people of the plain regions, only 8% people have some land in their hands.

Rabindranath Soren

We were not city-goers at the beginning. People have been shifting to cities for the past 15 to 20 years for employment. Around 15 to 20 thousand of them have returned from cities, losing their jobs during coronavirus outbreak. They are unemployed now. They can be employed in agriculture. But they do not have any work now. We do not get government relief. We live in village areas. Local influential persons confiscate the relief. How many of us, the Santals, or the Oraos, have received relief? How many widows have received the government allowance? None. If special care is not taken, we will not be able to survive. We are giving taxes to the government. But what are we getting in return? What institutions have been there for us - we know nothing of that. Thus, I am saying it again on the occasion of this 'International Indigenous Day', we have to keep speaking of our rights.

Shamsul Huda, executive director, ALRD: The key focus of today's discussion on 'International Indigenous Day' is COVID-19 calamity. Coronavirus has become a global crisis today. Our country is also suffering from this crisis. The marginal people without having lands of their own have been facing a huge disaster during this time.

Shamsul Huda

Awami League, currently in power, has always been in support of the indigenous populations of the Hill Tracts and the plain regions. We can see that in the 2008 election manifesto of this party. They have followed that manifesto for many years. Our current prime minister took many bold and historic decisions. They made the historic CHT peace accord possible in 1997. The whole world praised that strong stand. The withdrawal of the Vested Property Act is also a significant decision. It has not been implemented even after long. Overcoming the weaknesses for why this act could not be implemented by amending it, was also a strong decision, we believe.

The Bangladesh Constitution declares that all powers in the republic belong to the people. Are the people from the CHT regions and marginal people of the plain lands not a part of the people? Of course, they are. This government has promised to do good for them. This government can realise this promise. On this occasion, let's hope that they will evaluate this issue.

Coronavirus is a global catastrophe and a big disaster for us. We may have to deal with it for much longer. BIDS and others have predicted that around 20 million more people will become poor. Marginal people living in the hills, plain lands and in other backward places are much more vulnerable in this regard. We have to take special stimulus packages for these people. These packages are not charity, these are their rights.

We are celebrating the 100th anniversary of the Father of the Nation. It will be the 50th anniversary of our independence in the next year. But we have to consider what we are achieving. We have to shed light on where it is darkest. We have to bring those who are left behind forward in regard to education, employment and healthcare. We hope that the fate of these marginalized peoples of different regions will change on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Father of the Nation and the 50th anniversary of our independence. Greetings for you all on the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples.

Goutam Dewan, president, Chittagong Hill Tracts Citizens Committee: COVID-19 is a global concern. We who are living in the plain lands or in the hills are in a much more vulnerable position because we much more marginalised than the marginalised. Rabindra Soren has spoken of the people of the plains. I want to speak of the people living in the hilly regions. We have done a survey on the relief programme of the government during coronavirus situation. We believe that our prime minister is sincere in this regard but the problem is, we have not been able to make our problems clear enough.

Goutam Dewan

We have a very tough transportation system. We cannot be compared to other regions of the country. If the decision is to give 15 kgs of rice per family, we are being excluded from the list or getting less than 15 kgs to adjust the transportation cost against it. We came to know that people of 5 villages from Rangamati received only 2 kgs of rice per person. Many of them came a long way for this petty amount of rice.

Almost all regions of the Rangamati and Bandarban are hilly. Plain land here is close to none. People living here depend on jhum cultivation. They do not have any food at home during the rainy season. And now we are facing corona-situation. And this has become disastrous for us. They need two more months to reap the paddy. We have an economy based on agriculture. We do not have any employment opportunities here, so many of these people move to the EPZ to find work. According to our data, around 50,000 youth are not being able to go to work now. A great number of youth are now sitting idle at home, unemployed.

It has been 23 years of the CHT Peace Accord, but it has not been implemented in full yet. The Land Commission was formed in 2001, but it was faulty. It was reformed because of our demands. Now 2020 is half over, and we have not seen any guidelines for it yet. And for that this commission is not being able to work.

It seems that the COVID-19 situation will be prolonged. We are hopeful that the government will take necessary measures for us. We demand to be included in the government initiatives. Only then it will work for us.

Fazle Hossain Badsha, MP, convener, Parliamentary Caucus on Indigenous Peoples: On the occasion of the International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples, I want to raise the demand first: we have to ensure safety and security of all the ethnic minority population in Bangladesh.

Fazle Hossain Badsha

In the month of August, Bangabandhu, the Father of the Nation, sacrificed his life along with most of his family members. Bangabandhu said that our constitution has been established on four principles. Explaining that, he declared to eliminate all sorts of discrimination and exploitation. He wanted to make the society equal for all. We all have to work to achieve this equality.

Many of you have spoken about the CHT peace accord. Why are we talking now about how much of this accord have been implemented? Why will it not be implemented in full? A budget is allocated because there is a ministry for the Chittagong Hill Tracts Affairs. But there is no allocation for the ethnic minorities of the plain lands because they do not have a ministry for them. There should be a separate ministry for them or else they will not be able to survive. The Land Commission of the CHT regions should be strengthened and a separate commission should be formed for the plain lands.

I proposed a bill regarding 'Adivasi Rights Act' in the last parliament but it has not been in effect yet. I will raise it again.

Education in mother language is very important. We drew attention to this issue by trying hard. Pre-primary students of the ethnic minority population could have had the chance to learn in their own language. But unfortunately, this has not been implemented in even 10 years. There should be a separate institution to facilitate education of the children from the ethnic minority peoples. This institution will take necessary steps to publish books for the ethnic groups like Santal, Munda, Garo, Chakma and others in their own languages. It will be an entity separate from the National Curriculum and Textbook Board (NCTB). This institute will not only publish books but also preserve the ethnic languages.

The government has fixed a fee of Tk 200 for testing COVID-19, and it will add up to Tk 500 including travel costs. But a person from the marginal groups cannot afford this expense. We have to consider healthcare issues for those people on humanitarian grounds. I hope that the government will take care of that. Social safety net is very important for the poor during crisis situations. But what we see is the lion's share of this budget is spent for the pension of retired government employees and welfare funds for them. Allocation for the ultra poor is very small. We should evaluate the faults we have in our safety net programs.

Khushi Kabir, coordinator, Nijera Kori and chairperson, ALRD: The key points of our discussion today on the occasion of the 'International Indigenous Day' are national development, COVID-19 situation and the inclusion of the marginal people of the ethnic minority peoples. COVID-19 is not only a local problem, it is a global crisis. The UN is evaluating the condition of the ethnic minority groups across the globe during COVID-19. How to deal with it is the key focus of their interest.

Khushi Kabir

The four principles of our independence were assassinated along with Bangabandhu on 15 August 1975. Soon after begun the process of killings our ideals and distorting the history. We have to return to the four principles when we celebrate the 50th anniversary of our independence. And to do so, we have to include all the backward populations into the mainstream. Who will determine the development process? How will be they included? We have to ask these questions. If the marginalized people cannot be included into the mainstream, then democracy or rule of law - nothing will be realized. They have lost their lands; they are now day-laborers. They do not have much working opportunities in agriculture either. Many of them are barely making their daily means to live by. They have to do whatever they find to keep living.

If we can ensure partnership of all on the advent of the 50th anniversary of our independence, then we will be able to overcome the fear of the disasters happening due to the outbreak of COVID-19. On this occasion, I want to say that the inclusion should be wider. We have to change our mentality and learn to respect them. Then we will be able to include these marginal populations of the hills and plain lands. If we can do this, then we will be able to deal with any disaster including coronavirus.

Firoz Choudhury, assistant editor, Prothom Alo: On behalf of Prothom Alo, I would like to express our gratitude and thank you all for participating in the virtual roundtable organised to celebrate 'International Indigenous Day'.