Bangladesh’s indigenous Munda community in the Sundarbans faces hunger as livelihoods dry up

The Munda community, with its roots in India, living in the Sundarbans of Bangladesh is out of work in the COVID-19, buried under debt and in extreme grief.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: September 11th, 2020

A Munda family at Jelekhali village of Munshiganj union in Shyamnagar, Satkhira, Bangladesh. Photo by arrangement.

With anxiety writ all over his face, 26-year-old Somwari Munda, a member of Bangladesh’s indigenous Munda community, stared blankly at the vast expanse of swollen river in the Sundarbans delta where his Datinakhali village is located.

Belonging to a poor and marginalised community, with low literacy rate and no access to most government schemes, life has always been harsh, but more so in the last six months that have brought upon unimaginable miseries. The novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19), along with the Cyclone Amphan that hit the Sundarbans in May this year, has broken the back of Munda community, which has been forced to take loans from private parties at hefty interest rates, to feed their hungry stomachs amid the pandemic.

“I worked on a crab farm where I earned a monthly wage of Taka 7,000 (INR 6,063) on which my family and I survived. The pandemic, followed by the cyclone, has left us with nothing and I am struggling to provide three meals to my family,” Somwari told Gaon Connection.

With no support coming from the government, he was forced to take a loan of Taka 20,000 (approximately INR 17,402). He does not know how long this money will help him survive, or how he will ever repay this loan. 

Munda man at Jelekhali, Munshiganj, Shyamnagar, Satkhira. Photo by arrangement

Of the total 45 indigenous communities in Bangladesh, as per the Sundarbans Indigenous Munda Sangstha, there are about 6,000 people of the Munda community living in the plains and 1,200 families in the six upazilas of Khulna and Satkhira districts in the Sundarbans. These are one of the most vulnerable and marginalised communities in the country.

About 460 families of the Munda community, which traces its roots back to India, live in Datinakhali village of Burigoalini union in Shyamnagar upazila (sub-district) of Satkhira district. It lies around 352 kilometers away from the national capital of Dhaka. All of them are struggling to make ends meet.

Living as they do on the western coast of Sundarbans, the world’s largest mangrove forest, their survival depends on wages they earn working in shrimp and crab farms, in paddy fields, or in brick kilns. Work they must, as without work, they will have no money and therefore no food.

And, at present, they neither have work, nor much food.

“The economic condition of the people living in this area is grim,” Nirapada Munda, a member of the Koira Upazila Climate Council told Gaon Connection.

Even in normal times, the Munda community members are barely able to make ends meet. Now, with crab farming and agriculture work drying up, they have no work, he added.

“The women who are usually paid Taka 250 (INR 216) a day, and the men who earn Taka 300 (INR 259) a day, are earning next to nothing now,” he reiterated.  

The Munda women are usually paid Taka 250 (INR 216) a day, and the men earn Taka 300 (INR 259) a day​​ in Munshiganj Union in Shyamnagar, Satkhira. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Roots in India 

According to the elders in the Munda community and sources of history, the Munda people moved to Bangladesh, as agricultural labourers a couple of centuries ago. They were brought here from Bihar, Jharkhand, and Chhota Nagpur areas of India by the British to cultivate lands in the Sundarbans, and they have been living here ever since.

At one time this community owned land in Bangladesh but lost it bit by bit and now almost all the Munda families are entirely landless. These families live on khas land that is land controlled by the government.

Apart from the Munda community, there are 44 more indigenous communities in the plains and hills of Bangladesh. The Munda community is the largest in the Sundarbans. Other communities include Mahato, Bagdi, Urao and Rajbangshi. They are scattered in different places of Shyamnagar, Asashuni, Tala, Debhata, Kaliganj of Satkhira district and Koyra upazila of Khulna district. All these indigenous communities are struggling in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I have never seen a disaster of this magnitude,” lamented 60-year-old Ruma Munda, from Jelekhali village in Munshiganj union of Shyamnagar upazila. “I can’t get out of the house and what little food we had is now over. What do we eat now,” he asked. 

The Munda people moved to Bangladesh from India, as agricultural labourers a couple of centuries ago. Location: Kadamtala village, Shyamnagar, Satkhira. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

The burden of loan 

The Covid-19 and Cyclone Amphan have left the Munda community staring at hunger and starvation.

There has been no employment for nearly five months now. Due to Cyclone Amphan, cultivation of the aman paddy is held up in many places this year. So, the agricultural workers are out of work.

The pandemic has also seen a drastic decrease in demand for shrimp and crab, and therefore the workers in the shrimp and crab farms have been laid off too.

“How do I feed my family of five,” lamented 52-year-old Narayan Munda of Datinakhali village, Satkhira district.  “There has been no work for five months. I could not work in the paddy fields, nor could I catch fish or crabs, because of the restrictions imposed in the Sundarbans. We are people who can eat only if we work. Now all avenues of earning money are closed to us,” he said.

The indigenous Munda community of Sundarbans in Bangladesh is facing hunger due to the impacts of COVID-19 and Cyclone Amphan. Photo by arrangement

As if the COVID-19 had not hit the Munda community in the Nalpara village of Koyra upazila Sadar hard enough, the Cyclone Amphan made matters worse for it. Because of the impacts of the cyclone, their homes are either completely submerged or badly damaged.  

“I have taken a loan of Taka 15,000 (approximately INR 13, 000) in order to survive,” Ramchandra Munda, a  59-year-old senior resident of Nalpara village, where around 35 Munda families live, told Gaon Connection.  “This was to have been the season for agricultural work for us. But the crops are submerged. I can’t go to the Sundarbans either because of the fishing ban. If I don’t get work, how will I repay my loan,” he asked. 

While the lockdown in Bangladesh began around mid-March, the ban on fishing in the sea came into effect from May 20, for 65 days. As a result, work in the Sundarbans stopped. The ban continued until July 23. But fishing could not resume because it is the breeding season in the Sundarbans for fish in July and August, and therefore fishing is prohibited for those two months every year. 

Ahe Munda community has lost its livelihood of crab and shrimp catching. Photo Location: Mathurapur, Harinagar, Shyamnagar, Satkhira. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Victims of social discrimination

Biswajit Kumar Mandal, a youth from Ghatakhali village in Koyra upazila, said the  names of members of the Munda community are rarely on the government’s aid list. Very little public-private aid reaches them. The government has allocated aid to five million extremely poor people across the country who lost their jobs in the pandemic. There are a hundred families living in the Burigolini Union, all of them very poor, but only 10 families have made it to the aid list.  

The Munda community of Bangladesh is also socially backward. “Barely anyone is literate, and not more than 40 -50 can read or write,”  73-year-old Father Luigi Pazzi told Gaon Connection. He has lived amongst the Munda community in Shrifalkati, Ishwaripur Union, Shyamnagar upzila, for nearly 50 years. 

According to him, demands had been made to the government to make available education to the indigenous communities, but nothing much has come out of it. “The number of people making the demands is only five to six thousand. Maybe if there were four to five lakh voices, the government would pay attention,” he said. And things have only worsened since the pandemic and Cyclone Amphan, he added. 

The COVID-19 took away livelihoods of the Munda community. Cyclone Amphan flattened their houses. Location: Munshiganj Bazar, Shyamnagar, Satkhira. Photo: Rafiqul Montu

Special needs, special response

The Munda people need sustained support and help, not temporary doles, Krishnapad Munda, executive director of the Sundarbans Indigenous Munda Organization, told Gaon Connection. “They need economic packages, work projects and skill sets for which they need training, and they have to have permanent employment,” he said. 

He also emphasised the need to protect the lands of the indigenous communities and enforcing land laws that stated indigenous land cannot be sold without the permission of the deputy commissioner. While the Munda community at one time owned lands,they were forced to sell in order to pay back loans, because they could not pay the land taxes, or just to survive.  

“The community has been neglected since time immemorial. Illiteracy has kept them from getting better employment opportunities. Most of them live on daily wages.  If they don’t find work for a day, they have nothing to eat the following day,” said Krishnapad, adding, “The pandemic and Cyclone Amphan have made survival even more impossible for them.”