The government as well as social welfare groups have started distributing rice and other materials to ease their sufferings, but many of the adivasis could not be reached
Low crop output in Jhum (slash-and-burn method) cultivation yet again has led to prolonged food crisis in some remote villages of Sajek Valley as the market as well as public relief measures are not functioning properly, thanks to the infallible transportation difficulties there.
Three months into the crisis, the survival of about 2,500 people in 20 villages is still completely depending on the arrival of relief goods. Many had resorted to feeding on alternatives like spuds and gourds.
The government as well as social welfare groups have started distributing rice and other materials to ease their sufferings, but many of the adivasis could not be reached. In one instance, the army used helicopters to visit the areas in helicopter as the people have to walk for two to three days to come to Sajek town through the hilly areas of Banghaichhari in Rangamati hill district.
In recent past, food crisis hit the people of Sajek, Bilaichhari, Jurachhari upazilas of Rangamati; and Thanchi and Ruma upazilas of Bandarban in 2012. Around 6,500 affected families were brought under a relief package for six months at that time.
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But since 2013 until last year, many Jhum farmer families in the hinterland of Thanchi abandoned their ancestral homesteads and went east in search of deliverance from starvation and debt.
In 2007, the rat attack set off by bamboo flowering created a similar situation in Sajek.
During the crisis, price of coarse rice go as high as Tk90-110 a kg from Tk30-35.
No doubt agrarian crisis has a hand in the suffering while a question can be raised if the authorities have the basic preparedness other than sending instantaneous relief goods to the affected areas.
“Food scarcity in Sajek is not something new. But that does not mean it is really inevitable. Many people in Sajek may have taken it for granted. They may think so because of the dire straits they are in. But we cannot …,” said Chief of Chakma Circle Devashish Roy in a recent Facebook post.
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Devashish pointed at overcoming transportation difficulties as one of the areas needing much attention, and also suggested some short-, mid- and long-term interventions to solve the crisis.
He underlined the need for making sure that adequate foods and provisions are sent to the region. The poor and the more vulnerable groups like women, children, disabled and older people should be prioritised during the food distribution.
He also stressed that more active role of the Chittagong Hill Tracts Refugee Affairs Task Force to ensure adequate food allocation, income opportunity, healthcare and drinking water to the region for the next two-five years.
Food crisis is still prevailing in Betlink, New Lankar, Olonkar, Puran Jopui, Notun Jopui, Udolchhari, Puran Thangnong, Notun Thangnong, Tharum, Udaypur, Kamlapur, Nabag, Lakkhichhari, Melachhara hills, according to Bishwajit.
The local government representatives, officials and village chiefs (known as headman, karbari) said that the people of those areas used to collect foods crossing the Bangladesh-India border near Betlink, Shialdai and Olonkar areas.
Barbed wires set along the borderline by the Indian government had put an end to that movement.
On the other hand, the Chakma circle chief observed that improvement of the communications infrastructure and rehabilitation of the indigenous communities from the reserved forest could be the long-term intervention.
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“There still is no road communication network for most of the Sajek villages. Machalong Bazar, which is about 90km off, can only be reached by foot. The price of an item increases three-folds when it is bought and transported from Machalong Bazar,” he said.
Devashish thinks that the Chittagong Hill Tracts Refugee Affairs Task Force should move for the rehabilitation of those indigenous peoples who have been internally displaced in and around the reserve forest in Sajek.
“The land rights of the reserve forest inhabitants must be respected. Farm activities can go on in many environment-friendly ways. Moreover, if the Sajek people are left there in poor condition, the forest cannot be protected in any way,” he observed.
Devashish said that he had drafted his suggestions after consulting Sajek Union Parishad Chairman Nelson Chakma and its Secretary Bishwajit Chakraborty.
The officials and public representatives have suggested that opening Bangladesh-India border haat in those areas might ease the difficulties Sajek people are facing to collect foods.