Rising from the ashes | The Daily Star

Rising from the ashes | The Daily Star



Olivia Hembrom, 33, was left wanting for food and work in March when coronavirus and a nationwide shutdown hit Bangladesh.

On April 1, Olivia had told this newspaper that she was enduring hardship, with no work and so no food for her husband and three children who live in the Sahebganj-Bagda farm area of Gaibandha’s Gobindaganj upazila.

Her husband, 39-year-old Dijen Tudu, had lost sight in his left eye four years ago, when police, local administration, and Rangpur Sugar Mill authorities, with the help of local politicians and goons, evicted 2,500 Santal and Bangalee families from the farm area.

In that eviction drive on November 6, 2016, three Santals were killed and 20 others, including nine policemen, were injured.

Dijen still bears some splinters of rubber bullets in his body and cannot tolerate much exposure to sunlight or the cold in winter.

Olivia has had to add farming and providing for the family to her duties since then. But her desperate circumstances have changed in the last six months.

These correspondents, who visited the farm area on November 1, found many Santals as well as Bangalees busy harvesting crops from Kuamara Beel in the area they were evicted from back in 2016.

This year, Olivia cultivated bitter gourd on 30 decimals of land, pumpkin on 40 decimals of land, and Ropa Aman paddy on 100 decimals in the Sahebganj-Bagda farm area.

Olivia has taken a Tk 20,000 loan from a local cooperative to plant the paddy crop and vegetables.

Olivia’s family has already harvested the bitter gourd and sold it twice for Tk 10,000, and their pumpkin field looks set to give a good harvest — she is hopeful of selling the pumpkins for over Tk 13,000. Their one acre of Aman paddy has already ripened and is ready to be harvested.

“It’s like a dream comes true. These past months, our family has managed with the help of relief goods from others,” Olivia told The Daily Star.

“Now, we have plenty of crops in the field and are earning extra money after taking care of our own needs.”

She is hoping to get 50 maunds of rice from her paddy crop which will suffice for the family’s needs for a year, and a further 30 maunds which she can sell for cash.

A NEW LIFE

Santal women like her are growing their own food and cultivating paddy, meaning they no longer have to venture out of their area to earn a living, Olivia said.

“If we can continue this cultivation, we can be self-reliant and will not suffer from hunger.”

However, the fear of being evicted a second time remains for the 1,300 Santal families of the area who have set up shacks and cultivated crops on small parcels of land once again, with the attacks of four years ago fresh in their memories.

Back in 2016, Olivia and her husband had also cultivated pumpkins on 15 decimals of land near their village of Madarpur.

“We had harvested some pumpkins on November 5 that year, but the next day local goons looted all the pumpkins from our field during that eviction,” she recalled.

Sabina Hasda, 38, and her daughter Sima Mormu, 14, of Madarpur village were seen harvesting Aman paddy on their one acre of land.

Sabina said they have already harvested Aman on 33 decimals of land and got 11 maunds of paddy. They are set to get 37 more maunds of paddy — which, she said, will provide the family with enough food for a year for their family of six.

“After the eviction, we were in dire straits due to the lack of steady income and hunger,” she said.

Budrai Soren, 65, of Joypurpara village, said he cultivated Aman paddy on five bighas of land and got 60 maunds.

At the current price of Tk 950 per maund of Aman paddy, he is set to get a good price for the 30 maunds he will sell after putting the rest aside for his family’s needs over the next six months.

“If we get our forefather’s lands back, we will be free from forced labour and won’t need to go to other’s homes to seek work,” said Kartik Soren, 30, another Joypurpara farmer.

At least 1,200 Santals and Bangalee families have cultivated crops on around 800 acres of land in the farm area this winter — Aman paddy on around 680 acres and winter vegetables in the remaining 120 acres, according to a local leader.

“We already harvested two percent of the Aman paddy and everyone is hopeful of getting a good harvest,” said Philimon Baske, president of the Sahebganj-Bagda Farm Bhumi Uddhar Sangram Committee. 

Khaledur Rahman, Gobindaganj upazila agriculture officer, estimated a harvest of 1,872 tonnes of Ropa Aman paddy from the land cultivated by these families.

The farm area is elevated, and thus usually sees drought during the Ropa Aman season, but the continuous rains this year meant the farmers there are getting good harvests now, Khaledur added.

Contacted, UNO of Gobindaganj upazila Ramkrishna Barman said, “This area actually belongs to the Rangpur Sugar Mill area legally. We don’t know whether they cultivated crops in the area.”

The UNO was reluctant to talk about the issue, still a matter of contention between local authorities and the Santal community, and a case over the attack ongoing.

Philimon Baske told The Daily Star they urged the government to return the Santal families’ ancestral land so that they can earn a livelihood with dignity among their own people and be able to afford to educate their children.

‘CONTENTIOUS LAND’

In 1962, the then government had acquired 1842.30 acres of land from these families’ forefathers to cultivate sugarcane for the Rangpur Sugar Mill under certain conditions over its use.

When the mill authorities later violated these conditions, the Santals and Bangalees who had traditionally farmed these lands, returned in mid-2016.

However, police, local administration, and mill authorities launched an eviction drive on November 6, 2016 with the police opening fire on the Santals, leaving three dead and several others seriously injured.

Houses of Santal families were looted and burnt in the aftermath.

Every year, protests are carried out on the day, calling for justice, rehabilitation and compensation for the attack.