Tara Bibi, was playing with her three children— Masud Rana, 7, Tasnur Begum, 5, and Tasnim, 4— on their boat while other children were going to school. This was a typical scenario on the banks of the mighty Meghnaat Tulatoli of Bhola district at 8:45am on March 9.
While Bangladesh’s literacy stands at 72 percent people like Tara Bibi, remain averse to the idea of sending her children to school.
She belongs to Sardar community, a lower caste minority that lives on boats. The Sardars are primarily fisherfolk and catch fish in the Padma and Meghna and live mainly in Bhola, Barisal and Chandpur districts.
There were over 90 boats in two rows in a canal anchored on the banks of Meghna as the government has slapped a two-month (March 1, to April 30, 2019) ban on catching fish to help fish spawn properly.
This single community has at least 180 children— who never go to school.
They have little idea about their rights to education, housing and healthcare. They think education is costly and they cannot afford it. Since the Sardars lack education, the entire community inherit the one and only profession they know — fishing.
Tara Bibi and her husband said as much. They were poor and lived on boats. “If we send our children to school where would they go after school?” they wondered.
Asked about government education programmes, Tara said, “We don’t know about any such facilities.”
Sabina Begum—another Sardarmother said, “No one has ever come to us about education. The almighty gives us children, and we depend on the almighty.”
They are also called river gipsy, as they do not possess any land or have a fixed address. The Sardars travel across the rivers on small boats which are their houses.
Education and healthcare facilities are a nightmare for them while a piece of land remains elusive as ever.
[Images by:Shamsuddin Illius]
How far are the Sustainable Development Goals
The government made primary education compulsory for all through the Obligation to Primary Education Act, 1990. However, children of this community are not going to. Not a single one has evencompleted primary education.
On the other hand, the government pledges to leave no one behind, according to the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) but there is no health or housing facilities for these nomadic people.
Transparency International Bangladesh (TIB) conducted a research to identify the risks of inclusive development in light of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the ‘inclusive development’ manifesto of the ruling Awami League published on March 10 this year said that the indigenous people and Dalits in Bangladesh face discrimination and deprivation in their rights to basic amenities.
Experts say it is a formidable challenge for the government to bring them under an education programme as they are living on boats.
“These children help their parents in fishing, so the parents believe they are earning money,” said Pavel Partha, a researcher who has been studying the river gypsy for a long time.
“In this case government should pay them to come to school first,” he said.
“It is our responsibility to ensure safety net programmes for these people. To bring forward this community, we have to build a bridge between them and the mainstream,” said Pavel.
“This community is lagging behind from our entire development programme. So, how could we achieve the SDGs ?” he asked.
“They are not just socially marginalised, this group is entirely untouched. They don’t go to schools or government offices as they don’t have any idea about the government programmes. So there is also a huge knowledge gap,” he said.
Contacted, Kamal Hossain, Upazila Nirbahai Officer (UNO) Bhola Sadar Upazila said, “There is no government or private school for the education of these children. It is true that they are lagging behind from all basic services. On the other hand, they are keener on catching fish as it appears to be more profitable. Hence, we are not being able to bring them under the education umbrella.”
“They live in unhygienic conditions as there are no sanitation facilities. We are encouraging NGOs for working on the community,” he said.
The Bhola district administration and the upazila administration are working to relocate them in to a cluster village permanently where they will get education, healthcare and other civic amenities, said the Bhola Sadar UNO.
According to the Department of Social Services, there are around 800,000 river gypsies in Bangladesh including the Sardar community.