Fading rituals of the indigenous Munda people

Each cultivator sacrifices a fowl, and after some mysterious rites a wing is stripped of and inserted in the cleft of a bamboo and stuck up in the rice-field and dung-heap. If this is omitted, it is supposed that the rice will not come to maturity.”

The description of Kadleta or Batauli– a major festival of Munda indigenous community–was taken from Census of India 1901.The ritual was usually performed in the commencement of the rainy season.

Although, Munda People are one of the largest indigenous groups in India and makes up most of the population in Jharkand region, the descendants in Bangladesh make up one of the most marginalised ethnic communities in country.

However, even then, such rituals and festivities were an integral part of the lives of the agro-based community in the delta.

But changes in land-use patterns due to increased salinity and sea level rise have led to a sharp decline of such traditional and ritualistic festivities in the members of the communities living in Bangladesh’s coastal districts.

“Those days are gone. When we cultivated rice, we had celebrations and festivities to appease the deities. Now we have no land for rice and so these worships are losing their importance,” said 76-year-old Birenchi Munda, who lives at Tepakhali village of Satkhira’s Koyra sub-district.

According to Banglapedia -the national encyclopedia of Bangladesh – the Munda festivals were mostly related to various seasons related to crop cultivation.

Munda people are performing some of the rituals [image by: Abu Siddique]

Some of these are: Sarhul or Sarjun-Baba-the spring festival in Chaitra (March-April), Kadleta or Batauli in Asar (June-July) at the commencement of the rainy season; Nana or Jom-Nana- the festival of new rice in Aswin (October-November); and Kharia Puja or Magh Parab-the festival of harvesting the winter rice.

“Most of our festivals or worships are closely inter-weaved with agriculture. In most cases, they are to ensure good harvest. But now, most of us are in no way related to agriculture. So, these rituals make little sense,” said Nilkanto Munda, a man in his 60s also living in the same village.

“But, some of us are still trying to hold on to some of the traditions of our fore fathers. But I fear the next generation will not continue as they are already disconnected from our traditional profession,” he added with a frustrated voice.

As per the Banglapedia, Mundas were known as bunos or jungle clearers. They are said to have come to this country about two hundred years ago from Ranchi and Chota Nagpur of the Bihar State of India to help reclaim land for agriculture for Zaminders (Landlords) and dig lakes and ponds for them.

Currently, the population of this ethnic group is around 143,000 in Bangladesh, as per the data of Joshua Project. Most of them are living in Coastal districts of Khulna and Satkhira, as well as Northern district Noagaon and Joypurhat.

What changed?

According to Soil Salinity Report in Bangladesh done by Bangladesh Soil Resources Development Institute, the salt affected area between 1973 and 2009 has increased by 0.223 million hectares(26.7%) during the last four decades.

Of them, 35,440 hectares was affected by various degrees of salinity in the last 9 years of the report’s coverage (2000-2009).

About 50% of the coastal lands face different degrees of inundation, thus limiting their effective use. The situation is expected worsen further due to the adverse effects of climate change according to the report.

The study also said that, the level of salinity in 79,000 hectares of affected land in the Khulna district was identified as S3 – meaning the salinity ranged from 8.1dS/M to 16dS/M.

Similarly, 62,000 hectares in Patuakhali, 99,000 in Satkhira, 62,000 in Bagerhat and 38,000 hectares of salinity-affected lands in Barguna were also tagged S3.

The study also showed that in 1973, some 8.33 lakh hectares of land in 19 coastal districts were salinity-affected. Now, the figure stands at 10.2 lakh hectares.

The ongoing adverse situation was projected by Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in its 5th Assessment report: “Bangladesh is identified as being at specific risk from climate change due to its exposure to sea-level rise and extreme events like salinity intrusion, drought, erratic rainfall and tidal surge which will hamper the country’s food as well as livelihood security and public health.”

Declining trends of rice production

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, production of the major crop-rice-has been on the decline in the southwestern coastal part of Bangladesh.Data said that, in 2000-01, the Boro paddy cultivation in Khulna district was 209,550 acres while the figure in in 2014-15 was 121,130 acres.Same trends showed in other two rice seasons Aman and Aush.

The Aman acreage in 2000-01 was 850,850 acres while the figure down at 247,129 acres in 2014-15

And in case of Aush rice, in 2000-01 the acreage was 31390 acres while in 2014-15 the figure stands at 8392 acres.

Changes in livelihood

To cope with the current situation, the locals including the Munda people are adapting livelihood alternatives like shrimp cultivation, fish and crab farming, or goat rearing.

Many turned to working as seasonal migrating labor across the country, said Marina Juthi, a local development worker engaged with Initiative for Right View (IRV).

But the problem is, the new forms of livelihood options being practiced in the region are not labour-intensive creating massive unemployment.

However, some government and non-government initiatives have been promoting saline tolerant rice varieties in the coastal regions in Bangladesh.

Bangladesh Rice Research Institute (Brri) and Bangladesh Institute of Nuclear Agriculture (Bina) have already introduced more than 10 saline tolerant rice varieties across the coast but they’re not very popular among the farmers.

Pointing out that the Munda community is the most vulnerable and marginalised among the people in the region due to poverty, she also said, “When securing three meals a day is difficult, holding on to traditions that no longer makes sense is a distant dream for them.”

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