From birth to death: Bangladesh’s landless Manta community survives on boats

The Manta community of Bangladesh has been living on boats for over 100 years. They spend all their lives – from birth to death – on boats. These people live the most unusual life.

Rafiqul Islam Montu
| Updated: Last updated on July 30th, 2020,

A Manta family returning to the shore after fishing in the Meghna river. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Akilma Begum, 45, of Motirhat Ghat in Kamalnagar upazila of Bangladesh’s Laxmipur district, was born on a boat. “I was born on a boat, grew up in it. That’s how we live. I got married on a boat. My children were born on one and live with us now,” she told Gaon Connection as if it was normal. A life on boats is unusual for most of the human population, but not for Bangladesh’s Manta community.  

Privilege is almost always taken for granted. A roof over one’s head, food to eat when hungry, clothes depending on the weather, education for children, proper sanitation system, medical facilities when needed, knowledge of and access to the Internet! The distance between the haves and the have-nots is too much.

The Manta community, one of the most backward communities in the country are landless, literally. They have been so for over three generations. Some say they had land years ago, but it was lost due to erosion. They now live without access to shelter, sanitation, education, and often, food. Their lives, like the boats they live on, float in uncertainty.

Economic crisis looms over every family in the Manta community. Location: Kalabadar River, Laharhat, Barisal. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Saleha Begum, 60, was born on a boat. Her parents were born on boats too. Married at the age of fifteen, she moved from her parents’ boat to her husband’s. The boats were docked on the bank of a river for the wedding. Lighting was decoration, and songs were played to create a festive mood. Saleh has spent 45 years with her husband and kids on boats. She may die on a boat. In the event of death, her family will have to depend on someone who has land, for burial.

Hundreds of such families, at least 50,000 people, are floating on their 18-feet-long, six-feet-wide boats. Cooking is done on one side of the boat. Fishing equipment is kept on the other side. The family sleeps in the space between this.

A family chit-chatting in their spare time. Location: Meghna River, Ilisha Ghat, Bhola Sadar, Bhola. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

They are neglected by the government and the more privileged alike. They have no access to government ‘social safety net’ programs. In fact, many of them neither have national identity cards nor their names on the voter’s list. The government’s ‘family planning program’ does not reach them.

The boats of this community are mostly seen in Sadar, Tajumuddin, Charfassion, Monpura Upazila of Bhola District, Rangabali, Galachipa Upazila of Patuakhali District, Kamalnagar of Laxmipur District and Sadar Upazila of Barisal. They do not stay in the same place for more than three months.

They fish but are not fishermen

Despite being a community that earns a living through fishing, the Manta community is not identified as ‘fishermen’. Families go fishing in the river together. After fishing, they move back to the designated place on the river bank. They live in groups in different areas.

“The river keeps us alive. I pick up the net I throw into it with high hopes every time. If I manage to catch fish, I can buy daily essentials. We can eat and feed the children. Debt increases if I don’t fish,” said 42-year-old Siddiqur Rahman of Motirhat Ghat. He has also spent his whole life on boats and is now father to three children.

In the Ilisha ghat area of ​​Bhola Sadar, the Gaon Connection team spoke a few people. They fish all-day-long in the Meghna river. They use `current nets’, `sandi nets’ and `poya nets’ to fish. They catch Hilsa, poya, pangas species of fish among others.

However, they seldom get a fair price for the fish they catch in the market. The middlemen make more profit. Many are forced to take loans from moneylenders at high interest.

Jamal Sardar, 31, head of the `Manta’ community, said he had to take a boat trip across the river, all day, hoping to catch fish. “I get fish worth 1,000 to 1,500 Taka (Rs 1,300) if I throw nets all-day long. Excluding oil costs, there is little money left. It is difficult to meet expenses with this money,” he said.

Women and children share the burden

The one and possibly the only common factor between the Manta community and others, who are supposedly leading normal lives, is the fact that women work more than men.

The women of the Manta community sail, they engage in fishing. They don’t have time for leisure. Women cook for the family and take care of the children.

Manta women engage in fishing too, to support the family. Location: Kalabadar River, Laharhat, Barisal. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Even natural disasters do not deter these women. “If I stay back saying I am scared of natural disasters, what will eat? We have to go to the river to save lives,” said Begum.

Children of the community work as hard as the adults. Since they do not go to school, children have a lot of time in their hands. However, they can’t play during this time because there is no space for it. Hence, they join their parents at work.

Teenagers of Manta community have no time for leisure. Location: Meghna River, Ilisha Ghat, Bhola Sadar, Bhola. Photo: Rafiqul Islam Montu

Rehabilitation of the Manta community

Representatives of local civil society have demanded necessary steps be taken to rehabilitate the `Manta’ community. They observe people of this community are not treated fairly or equally. They are rarely on the list of government aids allocated to marginalised people, and are deprived of the help they deserve.

“We have been observing that the people of Manta community are leading difficult lives for many years. Even in this modern age, they are living on boats. Their suffering manifolds during natural disasters,” said Md Monirul Islam, a social worker, and journalist from Bhola district headquarters. “The government should take special measures to rehabilitate them. If they are housed in khas land, they can leave their boats. This will give them some sort of security in life,” he added.

“There is no security in their lives. As citizens of this country, they have the right to live safely. The government has the responsibility to fulfill their basic rights as recognised in the Constitution,” said Abdus Sattar Paloyan, a social worker and advocate from Laxmipur’s Kamalnagar upazila.

Nasiruddin Nannu, Chairman of Madanpur union in Daulatkhan upazila of Bhola, said the floating life of the people of the Manta community made it difficult for the government to provide assistance. “They do not stay in one place. Everyone in the family goes fishing. This is the biggest problem,” he said. “We do not want to exclude anyone from government assistance,” he added.