Natural disasters have been a constant companion for people in Sunamganj, causing multifarious obstacles to a sustainable livelihood for them.
Inadequate agricultural subsidies, less budgetary allocation than required, inadequacy of relief, sale of paddy at low prices and a lack of alternative income sources during fishing bans in "jalmohals" (fish sanctuaries) are said to be the major reasons behind the economic backwardness of the people of this region.
Research conducted by the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) under a project entitled "Enhancing the Participation of Community Based Organisations (CBOs) and Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) in Democratic Governance in Bangladesh", funded by the European Union, has found that the path to achieving sustainable livelihoods for people in Sunamganj is very difficult.
Due to natural hazards, low number of actual beneficiaries of natural resources, lack of emphasis on increasing land productivity, low use of cultivable fallow land and a serious lack of initiative and enthusiasm on the part of both service providers and beneficiaries in making fallow land cultivable, most of the locals are still dependent on fishing in jalmohals and various open water bodies, and paddy cultivation in one season a year.
Nonetheless, ordinary fishermen cannot afford to rent a jalmohal for fishing. Therefore, wealthy and influential people take these water bodies on lease.
Biswajit Sarkar, chairman of Tahirpur union in Sunamganj, told The Business Standard that there are not many means to make a living outside of rice and fish-centric employment. Even though there are some coal- or sand-related jobs, those are seasonal, he added.
"To improve the living standards of the people of the area, importance needs to be attached to establishing mills and factories in the region and creating ecotourism-based employment," he observed.
According to the CPD research, although paddy cultivation only in the Boro season is the main source of income for locals, subsidies on fertilizers, seeds and other agricultural inputs are always inadequate.
Moreover, farmers are often forced to buy fertilizers at prices higher than the government-fixed rates, researchers have found.
In the case of paddy, however, farmers have to sell their produce at rates lower than that fixed by the government.
In the distribution of incentives or subsidies, there is no special policy of beneficiary selection except for a categorisation based on cultivable land.
Low-income people face the hardest times between the planting and harvesting of Boro paddy and the period when fishing is prohibited.
Speaking to locals, it has been learned that ordinary farmers or fish farmers do not get much institutional loan facility despite having demand.
Women's participation in various skills and income-generating training and credit activities is also very low, they said.
Araf Ahmed, a resident of Bishambharpur upazila of the district, said, "We are cultivating fish on a small scale. Many are trying. But the chances of obtaining a loan or government assistance are very limited."
The CPD research has found that women's participation in skills development training was 27% in 2018, which came down to 15% in the following year. The participation of women in income generating training was 24% in 2018, which came down to 21% in 2019.
It is learnt that in the matter of participation in various developmental schemes implemented by the government at the local level, the beneficiaries often do not have a clear idea about the implementation policies. At the same time, many cannot participate in them despite being eligible due to lack of adequate savings.
As the daily wages paid under the social security programme are much lower than the market price, the scheme has proved to be ineffective in having the expected impact on people's livelihoods.
A lack of coordination among government service providers related to sustainable livelihoods as well as policy and structural complexities are major reasons behind the lack of training and shortage of field-level manpower in credit service providing agencies.
According to the CPD research, loan disbursements decreased by 4.5% in the non-agricultural sector and by 22.6% in agriculture in 2018. Women's participation in loan activities is less than one-third that of men.
Even though scheduled government banks provide loans to farmers at interest as low as 2-4%, most farmers borrow money from usurers, finds the research.
Against such a backdrop, to ensure sustainable livelihood in Sunamganj, the CPD has put forward several recommendations in light of the 8th Five Year Plan, Haor Master Plan and other policies and considering the local context.
The CPD has called for effective measures to make sure farmers can sell their paddy and rice to the government at the government-fixed price. To this end, the participation of the members of CBOs consisting of local deputy commissioner, representatives from the Department of Agricultural Extension, the Department of Agricultural Marketing, NGOs and actual farmers must be ensured, the organisation recommends, adding that training can be arranged for farmers to help them acquire the capacity to produce quality paddy.
Keeping in view the rising prices of fertilizers globally, arrangements have to be made to deliver fertilizers to more farmers at fixed prices, the CPD suggests, adding that measures must be taken to make sure really affected farmers get government incentives announced in the distribution of agricultural machinery.
A committee may be formed with representatives from the Department of Agricultural Extension, Department of Agricultural Marketing and NGOs, and CBO members to regularly monitor these issues, the CPD continues.
It also recommends that measures be taken to reduce complexities in the process of borrowing and repaying loans from various scheduled banks, including Krishi Bank, provide low-interest loans through the Department of Fisheries and create alternative income sources during fishing bans, and increase transparency in leasing jalmohals.
Md Jahangir Hossain, deputy commissioner and district magistrate of Sunamganj, told TBS that the government has been giving importance to the communication infrastructure to create employment opportunities for the people of the district. "Inter-road communication is being made with all the upazilas. Work is underway to connect Sunamganj with Netrokona by rail."
He added that work is underway to innovate alternative crops to improve the living standards of farmers of the region. "Since most of the land remains underwater for 6-7 months, creating alternative employment opportunities is a big challenge."
Notably, 50% of the crop damage caused by flooding and excess rainfall in haor areas of the country takes place in Sunamganj.
The cropping intensity here is much lower than the national average. Here, 73.5% of the total cropland remains cultivable in one season a year where Boro paddy is cultivated. The yield is also quite low.
There are altogether 423 haors in the country. District-wise, Sunamganj has the highest, 133, (31.4% of the national total) haors, which is 16.4% of the total haor area in the country.
According to data obtained from the Agricultural Statistics Yearbook-2018, of the total land in Sunamganj, 50% is cultivable, 11% is fallow land, 32% is non-arable 32%, 2% forest, and 5% is cultivable fallow land.
Some 68% of family income in the district comes from self-employment in the agricultural sector.
At present, there are 1.2 lakh fishermen in Sunamganj, of whom 92,000 are registered fishermen and about 76,000 are cardholders.
Disclaimer: This article has been produced in collaboration with Oxfam.