For a country which happens to one of the world's most important inland fishing nations, fishermen and fisheries get little to no attention from the government authorities.
Like their counterparts in other parts of the country, the fishermen in the Sundarbans have remained neglected for years despite the higher socio-economic progress of the country as a whole.
The fishing villages in and around the Sundarbans mangrove forests are characterised by poverty and deprivation, and lack of access to basic amenities such as drinking water, sanitation and health facilities, all due to the apathy of the authorities.
And those who are involved in dry fish processing have not been able to turn the wheel of their fortune due to various adversities, including the problem of pirates, harassment by forest guards and fear of attacks by tigers or crocodiles.
In Dublar Char, for instance, which is known as the ‘shutki palli’, the fishermen are struggling to earn two quare meals a day as their livelihoods have been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic.
While many fishermen have already switched professions after losing cash, nets and boats, others are struggling to repay loans taken from private money lenders at a high rate of interest.
In the dry season, fishermen Mokhles and Kawsar said, many people from Sandwip and coastal areas of Chattogram come to Dublar Char to catch fish. But many of them have now stopped coming.
According to the Sundarbans Forest Department office, Tk 2.46 crore was collected from 7,325 fishermen as revenue in the 2018-2019 fiscal. In the last financial year, the revenue shot up to Tk 2.73 crore from 7,787 fishermen.
The authorities claimed that the government’s initiative to free the Sundarbans from pirates by strengthening monitoring systems "is the main reason behind the increasing revenue from the region".
According to sources, some 500 fishermen in Rampal, Mongla, Sharankhola and Morelganj of Bagerhat district are involved in catching fish from the Sundarbans. Similarly, hundreds of people in Satkhira, Khulna and Pirojpur districts are dependent on fishing in the Sundarbans.
Each farmer used to take Tk 5 lakh to Tk 15 lakh as loan from mahajans and the moneylender had to provide Tk 50 crore to 500 fishermen. Against the loan, the fishermen would count Tk 25,000-30,000 as interest.
Experts said if the fishermen would take loans from the banks, then they would have to pay low interest.
Syed Shukur Ali, a member of Sea-bound Matshyajibi Shamity, of Gilatala in Rampal upazila of Bagerhat, said he has been involved in fishing for the past 34 years. “I have to go to the Sundarbans for fishing with six nets, three trawlers and 28 fishermen, for which I would need Tk 20 lakh."
Another fisherman, Farhad Sheikh of Rampal Sadar, said, “I have taken preparations to go to the sea for fishing after arranging Tk 28 lakh. Tk 9.5 lakh was taken from my own fund while the remaining was taken as loan from a mahajan. I am paying Tk 25,000 per lakh as interest."
Expressing dissatisfaction, Shahjahan Shikdar, Zulfiker, Joynal Sheikh, Ansar Shikdar, Akkas Ali Sheikh, Yusuf Ali Sheikh and Jabbar Sheikh of Rampal upazila in Bagerhat, asked why the government has not been taking any steps for their upliftment.
Shahid Mallik, President of Sea-bound Fishermen Association, said “Every year, we go to the sea to catch fish after taking loans. We do not receive any financial assistance from the government. No steps have been taken by the government yet to ensure a sanitation system, medical facilities and pure drinking water."
When contacted, Mohammad Belayet Hossain, Divisional Forest Officer of Sundarbans East Zone, said, “The Sundarbans forest has been brought under surveillance. State-of-the-art patrolling has been arranged in the entire Sundarbans."