Why does Kurigram top the poverty list?


Kurigram has once again ranked highest on the poverty list among the districts in the country. According to the 'Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES)-2016' published by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), 70.87 per cent of the population of this district live below the poverty line. This was 63.67 per cent in 2014. In the district’s Chilmari upazila, 77 per cent of the people live below the poverty line.

Although the poverty rate decreased from 31.5 per cent in 2014 to 24.3 per cent, poverty has intensified in Kurigram. But why is this? Why does a district with more than 20 rivers have a lower fish consumption rate in comparison with other districts? Why is the population of this area deprived of sufficient food and remains so deprived? The morbidity rate is even higher, due to malnutrition, diseases, road accidents, natural disasters, and many other causes.

During the British rule, there were many ‘fakirs’ and ‘sanyasis’ [ascetics] in Zafarganj of Rowmari upazila. Bhurungamari was the battlefield between Ramananda Gosai and British Lt Morison. Rowmari was the only liberated area where the first administration of Bangladesh government functioned. And 65 thousand freedom fighters were trained here. The battles in Chilmari, Ulipur, Bhurungamari, Tagorai Hat, and Teesta were significant during the liberation war. Each and every village faced genocide in 1971. And the rate of poverty remains highest in this district.

The 'Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES)' is based on the upper poverty threshold. If the expenditure of daily food intake equals the minimum food poverty line, this is called the upper poverty threshold. It is calculated by the intake of 2122 kilo calories per day per person in 11 food categories. The food poverty line is estimated by the cost of the food intake.

According to that calculation, Kurigram's food poverty rate is 71 to 77 per cent.

According to HIES-2016, farmers in Bangladesh live lower under the poverty line compared to others. The department of agricultural marketing shows that the average price of food grain in Bangladesh has decreased in the last five years while cultivation costs increased.

The selling price of food grain per tonne decreased from Tk19,191 in 2010 to Tk17,500 in 2014. This is particularly pertinent in Kurigram.

Unemployment is nothing new in Kurigram. According to HIES, this unemployed bracket is the second largest section population living below the poverty threshold in this area.

However, Kurigram has historical and economic significance as well. Rowmari and Sonahat land ports are located in this district. There was a ship building yard in Chilmari. The Assam-Bengal railway headquarters were situated in Lalmonirhat, formerly an upazila under Kurigram.

There are more than 20 rivers in this district. Moreover the 'chars' or river islands of Teesta and Dharla rivers are known rare fishes. The district is rich in spices too.

It is ironic that the railways and gas pipeline could be taken up to Jamalpur's Bakshiganj upazila but Rowmari remains deprived. Despite the prime minister's promise the 'Bhawaiya Railway Express' never reached this area. Rowmari, the 'liberated area' during 1971, is about to be engulfed by the river Brahmaputra. The railway minister also failed to meet the demand of constructing a shortcut route via Rangpur that could bring Kurigram district into the mainstream communication system. 

On the other hand, two local groups are involved with illegal sand collection from Brahmaputra river. Being backed by ministers, they are now preparing to export sand to Singapore and the Maldives. But it would be possible to earn more foreign exchange by extracting different minerals from the sand instead. About 54 kg of minerals can be extracted from one tonne of sand.

Kurigram is full of potential, like mineral extraction, building solar energy power plants and exporting goods to India's 'seven-sister' northeastern states and development of the local market.

What is the solution then? Can Kurigram be saved from poverty? 

 *The article originally published in Prothom Alo print edition has been rewritten in English by Farjana Liakat.