A land that stays submerged in rainwater for more than five months a year in Sirajganj emerges as a meadow in winter – a perfect grazing land for cattle. Small canals and rivers gracefully flow through and near this meadow while herds of cattle munch on the green delicacies.
Situated in the Shahjadpur upazila of Sirajganj city, the meadowland "Bathanbhumi" is considered the largest grazing land in the country and many compare the vast evergreen grassland to the famous pastures of Australia and New Zealand.
So, the Bathanbhumi in Shahjadpur is often referred to as "The New Zealand of Bangladesh." The name "Bathanbhumi" comes from the word "Bathan" which is a special type of habitat built for raising and maintaining cattle in the rural areas of the country.
The majority of the Bathanbhumi is situated in Sirajganj but some of it is situated in Pabna. Even though it was originally situated in a 1600-acre area, it has lost around 500 to 600 acres to land grabbers over the years.
The Bathanbhumi in Shahjadpur started its journey in 1896 (Bangla year 1302) when Girishchandra Ghosh, a prominent member of the Ghosh community that played a significant role in establishing a prosperous dairy town in Potajia in Shahjadpur during the time, sought some tax-free land from Rabindranath Tagore, who was the landlord of the area back then.
Girishchandra asked for the land to use as a pasture and, Tagore, granted him the land. To get a good start, Rabindranath Tagore provided some good quality cows to Girishchandra as well.
Ever since its establishment, the Bathanbhumi has been the source of employment, opportunities, and happiness for many. The pastures do not only help those involved in the dairy business but it holds immense importance when it comes to agriculture as well, thanks to the fertile soil.
In 1983, the Bangladeshi government decided to lease the land of the Bathanbhumi to the farmers of the dairy cooperative through Bangladesh Milk Producers' Cooperative Union Limited (Milk Vita). The farmers pay annual rent to the government for using the land, according to the director of Milk Vita Abdus Samad Fakir.
The rent farmers have to pay for land in the Bathanbhumi is Tk3,000 per annum, according to farmer Nazrul Islam. He believes it is affordable and a reasonable sum.
The local farming community sow various types of lentils, including maskalai and khesari, in the fertile soil of the Bathanbhumi once the rainy season ends which later becomes the food for some 20,000 cows.
The cows live in temporary sheds and have beautiful names including Ahladi, Shurma, Shabana, and Sonia and they immediately respond when they are called.
The cows are taken care of by shepherds, who are locally known as "hailya" and "moishyal". Many of the hailya and moishyal people have spent their entire lives doing what they do – taking care of the pastures and the cattle.
In the past, the payment for these workers was meals thrice a day but times have improved now. Now, the salary of an adult shepherd is Tk12,000-Tk15,000. Those who have basic veterinary knowledge are paid a little more.
According to the Milk Vita authority, the regional office of the organisation in Shahjadpur receives some 70,000 to 80,000 litres of milk every day, the majority of which comes from different Bathans in the area.
Abdus Samad Fakir from Milk Vita said the good quality of cows has contributed to the increased milk production. "We once used to get only two to three litres of milk from local cows daily which now stands at some 15 to 20 litres," he added.
However, dairy farmers are frustrated with the price of the milk. Abdul Malek Khan, vice-president of Tetiarkanda Primary Dairy Cooperative Society, said the price of bran and the price of milk is almost the same.
"The price of one kilogram of bran is Tk38 and the price of one litre of milk is Tk37.50," he said.
The price of milk has not increased even though the price of cattle feed has, which has forced many dairy farmers to change their profession, Khan added. He also said the number of cows has reduced significantly over the past few years.
"As we do not get enough price for milk, farmers here sell their cows to other dairy farmers from around the country for a profit," he added.
Some dairy farmers also blamed the prolonged annual submergence period of the Bathanbhumi for the decreasing popularity of cattle rearing in the area. Every year, the government takes initiative to build or repair embankments in the area to protect the meadowland.
Mohammad Imtiaz, the deputy assistant engineer of Shahjadpur Power Branch, Bangladesh Water Development Board, said, "The government will float a tender for embankment in Rautora area this month [January 2022]. Work will begin in February and should take around two to three months to complete."
He hopes the project will help the Bathanbhumi from getting submerged during the monsoon.