Tuesday, 29 November 2011

POVERTY: BANGLADESH: Boom brings few benefits to islanders

KURIGRAM, 29 November 2011 (IRIN)

 Photo: Maher Sattar/IRIN
Cattle-smuggling bonanza -- but where?

While a recent boost in income for thousands of islanders living near Bangladesh's northern border district of Kurigram has transformed mud huts into concrete homes, overall conditions are still dangerously precarious for most, say locals and aid workers.
"People still die because of lack of care all the time," Mohammad Hashem Ali, 65, of Baalerhaat village, told IRIN. "There are too many to count. The people of Baalerhaat village stopped counting a long time ago."
The cattle-smuggling business between India - where cows are regarded as sacred among Hindus - and Bangladesh has increased at the border near Narayanpur union, a community of 32,000 people.
As the Indian government has increased security elsewhere along the 4,000km border to tackle crime, Narayanpur farmers - spared the increased vigilance until now - have seen an increase in cattle smuggling, doubling their typical monthly income in only one night of business, said locals.
When sold in Bangladesh, a cow can fetch up to four times its price in India.
More than half the villagers are involved in the cattle trade, either as buyers or looking after the cows, said local researcher, Liton Chowdhury, who has examined the impact of smuggling on lives and livelihoods in the north.
Traders earn on average about US$400 a month, while labourers earn about $100 - more than twice what they earned before smuggling activities peaked, he added.
"The impact of this [boon] has been felt. Before there were never any concrete houses on the chars [islands] but now the ones who have made the most money have built [houses]... Some are sending their children to Nageshwari [town] to study. There has been a general improvement in their lifestyle, but not in the actual [quality of life]," said Chowdhury.
Accessing the nearest hospital still means a four-hour journey for many villagers, most of it via slow dinghies to the nearest mainland pier dozens of kilometres away.
"My nephew Sirajul died on the boat on his way to the hospital. He only had appendicitis. He started complaining about stomach pains at night, but it's easier to get a boat in the morning so we waited until then," said Mohammad Nojor Ali, also of Baalerhaat. "He was only 13."

Out of reach
The union of Narayanpur is a collection of temporary river islands formed by deposits of sand and silt from Himalayan rivers meandering towards the Bay of Bengal.
Farmers say the land is difficult to farm, prone to erosion and routinely submerged by flooding.
Unlike ordinary islands, this land is not connected to the earth's crust. Based on weather and erosion upstream, the islands can disappear completely within a few years, displacing entire hamlets.
There are an estimated 600,000 people living on such islands throughout Bangladesh.
Based on the most recent Global Hunger Index, nationwide 5 percent of children die before they reach five years old, while another 41 percent in this age group are underweight, giving rise to the country's "alarming" status.
It is even worse in the islands, say health and aid workers.
According to a 2010 survey by one of the few NGOs working in the islands, Chars Livelihood Programme (CLP), 14 percent of children under five suffered from acute malnutrition, close to the emergency threshold of 15 percent as set by the World Health Organization.
In recent years, the rate of diarrhoea in the chars has been more than double that of the mainland, according to the local NGO, Bangladesh Rural Advancement Committee.

 Photo: Maher Sattar/IRIN
Islanders enriched by cattle smuggling trade straw for tin in Narayanpur union

There is no functional government or NGO health facility on the islands. A government clinic was built two years ago but remains unstaffed, according to CLP.
It sends a mobile clinic by boat to the islands once every 15 days with a paramedic and health workers.
"Malnutrition is the biggest problem here. It's not that the people [of Narayanpur] don't have the money to change this, but there are no education centres or health workers here, so their knowledge of diet, hygiene, and sanitation is really poor," said Moqsudur Rahman Ronju, a doctor at the nearest public health centre in Nageshwari town, about 30km from the mainland pier.

From the mainland pier it takes almost three hours by boat to reach the island where Mohammad Hanif, chairman of the local administrative authority, lives. It takes another hour's walk to reach his house.
"About 20, 25 days ago, a woman died here giving birth," Hanif said. "After the birth there was a leakage in her placenta. The [untrained] midwife tried to help her but couldn't. They were trying to take her to the hospital but while waiting for the boat she died."
Boats ferry people between selected drop-off points on the islands and the mainland regularly during the day for Bangladeshi Taka 25 (35 US cents).
At night the process gets more complicated.
A boat-owner must first be found, and prices up to $17 - the equivalent of a month's income for the poorer residents of Narayanpur - must be negotiated for the emergency ride. The passenger then must still get from the pier to the hospital or health centre, another 30km.
When IRIN made the return trip from Hanif's island, the boat's motor gave out several times; according to the boatman, this is common.

An uncertain future
Connecting the island to the mainland will be a huge undertaking, said Hanif. But meanwhile, he is looking for a solution closer to home.
"There is space to build a mini-hospital in Narayanpur," he said. "This would benefit 60,000-65,000 people, not just people of my union but also neighbouring chars, which are even worse off."
However, the supply of cows from India recently has dried up, according to local traders, and the new houses are the only sign of Narayanpur's recent border boon.

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