I first met Sanu Sardar, head of a floating fisher community on the Island of Bhola, Bangladesh, in October 2016. Last month, I returned to where he lives. The 57-year-old saw me and immediately waved from his boat. He rushed over to show me his national identity card, smiling widely.
He was elated to finally receive the national identity card, which only six people from his community have been fortunate enough to get. This means they are now eligible to cast their vote in elections and access government health and education services.
Sanu Sardar and 200 people live on wooden boats in Tutatoli ghat on the banks of the mighty Meghna River – which flows down from the Himalayas and pours into the sea, a few miles away from the district headquarters of Bhola.
Bhola is the largest island in Bangladesh, situated at the mouth of the Bay of Bengal, some 200 kilometres from Dhaka. The floating fisher communities have been living here for many years, but have been completely ignored by the government.
There are an estimated 30,000 people living on boats in Bhola – but they are not included in national statistics or the census. They do not have a permanent address and so they are not eligible for a national ID card and do not get any government support. In the Tulatoli ghat we found only two children going to normal school, though others go to the local madrassa (an Islamic school which is often unregulated).
Low lying Bhola is one of the places most vulnerable to climate change in Bangladesh – a country experiencing some of highest rates of sea level rise in the world. A one metre sea level rise will submerge an estimated one third of Bangladesh, uprooting 20-25 million people. Bhola – with a population of 1.7 million – has seen numerous devastating cyclones and life for people here is becoming more and more precarious.
Many people in Bangladesh lose their homes because of river erosion, with 10,000 hectares of land lost every year. The displaced are forced to either find space on chars (river islands) and along embankments, or they migrate to Dhaka and other big cities and live in slums.
But the people living on boats across Bhola are among the most vulnerable to climate impacts.
Fighting a false identity
Moreover, they are caught in a never ending struggle to be recognised as a fishing community. In Bhola, these people are known as ‘Bede’ (snake charmers). But Sanu Sardar and many others in his community say they are a fishing community and have been in this profession for generations.
The Bede are a nomadic ethnic group of Bangladesh. They traditionally live, travel and earn their livelihood on the river, and never stay in one place very long. The majority of Bedes live by trading snakes and herbal medicines. Many people believe that Bedes practise black magic. They are one of the most marginalised groups in Bangladesh. The ‘snake charmers’ or ‘Bedes’ are considered “low caste” and people look upon them negatively.
I talked to Shabina Easmin, a woman who had also received her national ID card. Her card clearly states that she belongs to the ‘Bede’ community, and her address is ‘Nadir Ghat’ (riverbank), Bhola Sadar. All the people from this community who received national ID cards have been given the same identity and address.
But the people living in Tulatoli ghat are far from the ‘Bede’ culture, at least by profession. Sanu Sardar told me the heart wrenching story of his community’s fight for an identity. “We have been catching fish in the river for generations,” he said. He was born on a boat in 1962 and his family has always lived by fishing. His father told him they had once had a house on the mainland. Older generations had lived in houses by the riverbank in Patarhat in Barisal, a neighbouring district of Bhola. But they lost their home due to floods, river erosion and other natural disasters and they had no choice but to start living on boats.
He was not the only one with such a story. Shabina’s mother, Tarujan Begum, who is now in her 80s, said she was born into a fishing family who lived in a house in Patarhat. By the time she was 13 or 14, her family lost their house and they started living on boat. She was married to a fisherman who lived on a boat.
Because they are not recognised as “fishermen” members of the community are not eligible to get the Fisherman Identity Card (FIC) and the support and facilities meant for fishermen, explained Sanu Sardar. After a lot of hardship, only eight FICs have been issued among the 90 families.
FIC holders are entitled to government support during the fishing ban period in Bangladesh. (The government has implemented a seasonal fishing ban help the number of Hilsa fish revive, a hugely popular but dwindling fish). This includes 40 kilogrammes of rice and some cash to support their families during the ban period.
At the same time fishing people living in the mainland do not accept the boat communities, considering them low caste Bedes. Conflict often breaks out between these two groups.
“We are not Bedes,” Tarujan said. “But the government says we are Bedes on our national id cards. It is a stigma for us as local people do not accept us.”
On top of this, the boat community are not entitled to education and health facilities and are not involved in any government development plan.
Shabina said that last year her six year daughter got typhoid and lost one of her hands because she could not afford proper treatment. She also said that almost every year a number of women die during their pregnancy.
The community are also stigmatised for their appearance. “People on the mainland sometimes find our attire a bit different. For example, we are fishermen, we normally catch Hilsa. When we make some money, we immediately buy some gold jewellery to wear. If you look at the women of our community, you will see most of the women wear at least two nose pins and more than two or three earrings. We might look a bit strange but we have to do it because we are not familiar with the banking system. We buy jewellery and in our boat we also can’t afford to have safe place to keep this stuff. That’s why we wear it whatever we have. When there is a crisis in our family, we sell them. Now because of our use of jewellery, people look at us in a different way.”
When asked about the identity crisis of this poor community, the Upazila Nirbahi Officer of Bhola Sadar, Kamal Hossain, said, “The government is aware of their situation. In recent times, the government has declared them ‘Nouka Bashi Jele’ (Boat Living Fishermen or Floating Fishermen Community). We are undertaking a number of awareness programmes along with different non-government organisations”. He hopes that the issue will be solved soon.
Sanu Sardar does not hold out much hope, though. He said that they hear all sorts of fine words about their lives from government and politicians, but the journey, for them, towards securing an identity as a fishing community seems never-ending.