'Bathan' or cattle herding, is a seasonal business in Hakaluki Haor, the largest haor in the country. But, the number of 'bathan' has come down to less than half in the last four to five years.
Many are losing interest in the traditional business due to many adversities and crises in the haor, including shortage of cattle feed, problems in marketing of milk, and non-availability of treatment of sick cattle.
In the monsoon, this haor or wetland, spanning about 18,000 hectares with 238 small and big beels or waterbodies, and 10 rivers and canals, becomes a huge reservoir of 23,000 hectares across parts of Moulvibazar and Sylhet districts. But, it becomes dry fallow land in the summer.
When approached, cowboys and bathan owners said Bathan is a popular and lucrative haor herding business during the dry season that requires no capital. Usually, a small bathan has 200 to 400 cows and buffaloes, while a big one has 500-600 heads of cattle.
The bathans create employment for people who depend on the haor for their livelihood in the dry season.
Every year, households close to the Hakaluki Haor belt face cattle feed shortages during the dry season. At that time, they send their cows and buffaloes to the 'Bathans' in the haor where there is fertile, grassy land for cattle. Cattle owners willingly pay Tk500-1,000 per head of cattle to the Bathan cowboys or herders, when they take away their animals.
From October-November to March-April, bathan herders collect milk and dung from these cows and buffaloes in Bathans and sell it. Six to seven cowboys manage the small bathan herds and there are 10 to 12 people managing the big bathans. Depending on their workload, some herders get a monthly salary of Tk10,000 thousand, while some get Tk6,000.
But the business has increasingly become unprofitable owing to shortage of cattle feed, fewer heads of cattle, problems in selling the milk they get, and the lack of veterinarians to treat sick cattle. As a result, many are losing interest in the once lucrative and traditional business.
Kayesh Mia, Tanvir, Majid Ali, Chamar Mia, all bathan cattle herdsmen, said they transport sand and bricks by boat in the rainy season, while others make a living by fishing. In the dry season, they join the bathans to make a living.
Ashok Mia, Hira Mia, Loyesh Ahmed and Tuhin Ali, owner managers of bathans in the Kalapani, Tekuna, and Nagua Beel areas, said people from different villages of Kulaura and Juri send their cows and buffaloes to bathans. Over the last 10 years, the number of herds has declined and the number of cows and buffaloes has also gone down.
There are hardly 50 or so small and big 'Bathans' in the haor. A decade ago, there were 500-600 bathans in the haor, they added.
They said there was a time when there were 300 to 700 cows and buffaloes in each bathan. From 60 or 70 litres to more than a 100 litres of milk could be had every day. The milk from the cattle in each bathan was sold to make Chhana commercially after meeting local demand.
As such, bathan owners turned a good profit in five to six months of the year. Now there are no more than 300 or 400 cows and buffaloes in each big bathan. With a big bathan you can now hardly get 25 to 30 litres of milk every day.
Dr Golam Mohammad Mehedi, in-charge of the Kulaura Upazila Animal Resources Office, said that in the past, veterinarian Raihan Ahmed would treat cattle in the haor and surrounding areas. The post fell vacant when he died.
Due to a manpower crisis and poor road communication, it is not possible to go to the haor wetlands to treat sick cattle in bathans.