Fifty years into the country's independence, Khaliajuri upazila of Netrokona remains cut off from the rest of the country most of the time of the year in the absence of road connectivity.
The remote upazila, located in a vast haor area, remains inundated for at least six months of the year when the villages float on the water like islands on the sea. During the period, boats are the only means of communication for the locals to go from one village to another, even from one house to another.
A submersible road runs from Khaliajuri Sadar to the Uchitpur area of neighbouring Madan upazila, through which one can go to the district headquarters during the dry season. But as there is no bridge or ferry service on the River Dhanu in the Rasulpur area of Khaliajuri, no heavy vehicles ply the road.
During the dry season, some CNG-run and battery-run auto-rickshaws run on the road up to the river bank, but people of only one union of the upazila can enjoy the facility because other five unions have no road connection with the upazila sadar.
There is no elevated road for internal communication between the six unions of Khaliajuri. During the dry season, people have to travel two or three submersible roads on foot or by auto-rickshaw to go to the upazila sadar. At places, they have to go mile after mile on foot to go to the upazila sadar. Moreover, in addition to bearing double to triple cost, they suffer immensely to transport goods.
For the first time in their life, people of the upazila recently witnessed the coming of two four-wheeled vehicles to the impenetrable upazila sadar from Netrokona, carrying a consignment of Covid vaccines.
On 12 January this year, standing on both sides of the road, thousands of people rejoiced and clapped welcoming the two cars when the vehicles reached in front of the office of the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO). Many people took pictures standing next to the car to capture the happy moment.
Khaliajuri UNO AHM Ariful Islam said, "This is the first time any four-wheeler has entered the upazila sadar. Vaccines made by Pfizer have to be carried in air-conditioned (AC) vehicles. So, despite tremendous hassles, the vaccines were carried by the two vehicles to the upazila."
"The DGHS wanted to shift the vaccination programme of Khaliajuri to the neighbouring Madan upazila. But, the people of Khaliajuri did not agree to go to Madan for vaccination. So, we took it as a challenge and finally, we succeeded," he added.
Mojibur Rahman, officer-in-charge of Khaliajuri police station, said, "Although some vehicles have been allotted for the UNO, upazila health officer, assistant commissioner (land) and police station, it is not possible to drive those vehicles due to lack of roads. The vehicles are unused and locked in the district headquarters. During any emergency, it takes a long time for the local administration or the police force to reach the spot and if the weather is hostile in the rainy season, it is not possible at all to go there in time."
Detailing the difficulties faced on the way, the UNO said the two vehicles first reached Uchitpur area in Madan upazila from the district headquarters. From Uchitpur, the cars were driven through the submersible road to the River Dhanu at Rasulpur. Since there was no ferry for crossing the river, a spacious steel boat had to be rented from Kishoreganj for Tk15,000.
The boat carried the vehicles to the other side of the river, he said, adding as there was no ferry ghat, the vehicles had to be lifted to and brought down from the boat with the help of excavators. Then the cars were driven to Khaliajuri Sadar through the rest of the submersible road, he continued.
The two vehicles will be sent back to Netrokona town in the same manner before the monsoon, because the road will be submerged totally during the rainy season, he further said.
Mohsin Mia, a youth from Puranhati village in Khaliajuri Sadar, said, "The communication system of Khaliajuri is poorer than in any other upazila of the country. When Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina visited Khaliajuri during the flood in May 2017, it was not possible to bring her car. She came to the upazila town through a helicopter and rode on a rickshaw coming down from the helicopter."
Locals, however, think that the communication system of the upazila can be completely changed through a proper plan, paving the way to exploit the immense potential of paddy and fisheries of the haor upazila.
Iqbal Hasan, a teacher at Krishnapur Government College in Khaliajuri, said Khaliajuri is lagging behind in education, health and economy due to the lack of adequate communication system.
Government doctors and health workers posted to this upazila do not want to stay here, he mentioned, adding, "At the upazila health complex, only one doctor is available on duty as the doctors perform their duties by turns on a weekly basis.
"Most of the government employees do not attend offices most of the time. The senior officials at the district headquarters are informed about the irregularities, but they do not take action considering the backward situation in the upazila."
He also said a huge amount of fish is extracted from the 30-40 water bodies that emerge during the dry season in Khaliajuri. Hundreds of tonnes of fish are also extracted every year during the rainy season. But a huge amount of fish rot on the way while taking to Dhaka or other districts as it takes a lot of time due to the backward communication system, depriving the fishermen of fair prices.
Sumon Chakraborty, vice-chairman of Khaliajuri Upazila Parishad, said, "Khaliajuri is called a granary because of the huge production of boro paddy. But due to lack of transportation system, the boro farmers here never get a fair price as they have to sell their produce cheaply to the middlemen who come to the farmers' home bringing boats. If the road communication was better, they would not have to do that."
"A flyover is going to be constructed from our neighbouring Mohanganj upazila to Sunamganj district. The project has already been approved at the Ecnec meeting. Such a road can also be constructed in Khaliajuri. It would not harm the biodiversity of the haor region," Chakraborty added.
UNO AHM Ariful Islam, said if road connectivity is established with the district headquarters, the education, health and economy of the upazila will totally change.
The upazila will turn into a tourist hub due to the natural beauty of the haor, he mentioned, adding already a huge number of visitors come here every day but due to the lack of communication system, they face various difficulties.
Hamidul Islam, executive engineer of Netrokona Roads and Highways Department, said, "We are considering to construct a road from Uchitpur to Khaliajuri. Feasibility study will be carried out to finalise whether it will be an all-weather road or a flyover. In addition, on 23 January, the Road Transport and Bridges Ministry gave the administrative approval for ferry service on the Dhanu River to make the submersible road suitable for vehicular traffic. Hopefully, the ferry will be launched soon."
According to the locals, the residents of Khaliajuri have also organised human chains at different times demanding construction of all-weather road and launch of a ferry service on the River Dhanu.