In Bangladesh, a fishing neighborhood lives in a ship village separated from the mainland with state help

By Md Abdus Salam

This river is our life, ”said 38-year-old Jobeda Khatun as she gazed at the vast body of water known as the Meghna River. Their boat is also their home, as it floats on a canal connected to the river in an area called Sluice Gate, about seven kilometers south of the Bhola district headquarters in southern Bangladesh. 50 families live in around 40 boats on this canal – around 200 people in total.

The locals call these fishermen “Babaija”, but they call themselves “Sardar”. Many mistake these fishermen for the Bede nomadic community, a marginalized community that makes a living catching snakes. However, these boaters from Bhola are mostly fishermen. You have no other job. With the exception of a few special cases, they have no other relationship with the mainland people. More than a thousand such families live in boats across the Bhola district. Most of them are victims of river erosion. After losing their houses to the river, the boats have become their last refuge.


With the exception of trade with peasants, the Sardar are alien to the land. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

Women, the keepers of wealth

Jobeda, who lost her home to river erosion in another southern district, Shariatpur, joined the fleet when she was only seven years old. Here she grew up, married and gave birth. Jobeda’s husband is also a fisherman.

Fishing is the job of men while most of the women are housewives. But even if they do not have a formal profession, women in these families are quite capable as they carry the wealth of the community. During the peak fishing season, the swimming people of these villages buy gold with the excess cash as they do not have bank accounts – an activity largely carried out by women. Most of these ornaments are found in more than one piercing in the nose and ears of women who have multiple piercings.


The women of the Sardar community carry the wealth of the community in their gold ornaments. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

Rani Begum offers many gold earrings. “Gold is very useful in difficult times. Since the valuables are in our hands, the men obey us. We are responsible for protecting our assets. Maybe that’s why we enjoy more freedom in our society, ”she said with a smile.

In fact, all men and women of the Sardar community are fairly independent and self-reliant. All the family needs is in the boat floating in the water. They are poor, but their belongings – which include cooking utensils, pillows, beds, chairs, and even small shelves – are kept in the boat.


The Sardar boathouses house all of their supplies, from food to medicines. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

Foreign country dwellers

The locals consider them to be lower caste people. The rural dwellers are the main customers of these fishermen as they do business with the ‘Babaija’. It is a relationship of money transactions, not a relationship. The boatmen cannot develop a marital relationship with the mainstream people.

“I understand that mainstream people look down on us. But to be honest, we have no enmity with them, ”said Alif, head of the boat village. The sardars buy rice, legumes, salt and other daily necessities in the local shops of the rural people and sell fish. This is their relationship.


The boats are the pride and joy of the Sardar, and no one steps on one with shoes on. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

The people of this boating village decorate their only refuge – the boats – with great care. They carve the wood on the bodies of the boats to draw various colorful designs. Many others draw Alpona or colorful motifs on the walls of the boat. They take off their shoes before entering the boats.


Small solar panels on boats help with cell phone charging. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

Recently, an NGO gave the boatmen solar panels. Alif, the school principal, said this helped charge their phones.

While it is impossible to raise animals on the small boats, almost every boat has a shelter for pigeons, a poignant symbol of peace and freedom.


Almost every boat has a dovecote. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

Voters, but without support

Every adult boatswain has a national identity card. They also vote. Without a permanent address or permanent residence, one cannot normally become a voter. But the local politically influential people have recruited the boat people as voters for their own interests. “When an election comes, the boaters get to know all of these ‘important’ people. We can do our citizenship voting, but no one steps forward to protect our rights later. Nobody comes to us after the elections, ”said Mohammad Yunus.

No effort is made to provide health, educational or sanitary facilities to the Sardar. About 50 children of different ages were found in this “boat village”. None of them had a chance to go to school.

Salam Mia, a fisherman, said, “When boys grow up, they become fishermen like their fathers. And the girls are married. That is the fate of our children. “


From birth to marriage to death, everything happens on the boat. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

16-year-old Rupsha Begum bathed her child in this fishing fleet. She was married at the age of 14. Rupsha said that child marriages are the order of the day here. Every married couple has three to four children.

“If our boys and girls had access to education, child marriage would not have been so widespread,” said Rupsha.

In addition to education, they also have no access to health and sanitary facilities. You yourself try to cure illnesses with home remedies. However, they do have some emergency medication for a fever or stomach upset on board. You can buy these in the nearest pharmacy. Most people do not use contraception. Almost all children are born in the boats.


Without access to health and sanitation infrastructure, women give birth to children on boats and raise them. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

The women of the boat village suffer most from the lack of toilets. “Men can go to the bathroom wherever they want. We can’t do that. The women here go to the bathroom very early in the morning to protect privacy. We cannot go to the toilet during the day, ”said Josna Begum, a housewife. “We use old rags during menstruation.”

No help when the storm comes

For this community, natural disasters add insult to injury. Bangladesh has weathered major cyclones like Sidr, Aila and Amphan in the past decade and a half. Many of the boats were destroyed in the last cyclone Amphan. The land fishermen received a lot of help, but the sardar were ignored.

Rustam Sardar said, “If there is a cyclone we go to a nearby shelter. It saves our life. But our boats, the source of our livelihood, are damaged. After the storm we have to rebuild the boats. Nobody comes to help us. “


Boats are damaged by storms and no help comes. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam

Microfinance is an important part of the Bangladesh economy. But nobody comes to this community to give them credit.

Bhola is the only island district in Bangladesh. It is 200 kilometers from Dhaka on the river. But it seems that the boatmen are from another planet. Any possibility of government is elusive for them. You only have a national identity card.

When Mosharaf Sardar, a boatman, was asked to show his NID card, he ran to get it. “I take good care of it. It gave us an identity. Maybe I won’t get the chance now, but one day I will definitely do it, ”said Mosharaf. As with many identity projects in South Asia, his name is spelled slightly differently in English on his ID card.

The colorful, if tense, conditions of the Sardar are now being further negatively impacted by the effects of climate change. The salinity in the coastal areas of Bangladesh increases as the sea rises. The district of Bhola – home to these fishermen – is one of the country’s 19 coastal districts. The Meghna River, where the fishermen live, flows into the Bay of Bengal. The fishermen said the fish were slowly disappearing.

“Before you could catch fish for most of the year. Now there is no longer any fish like before, ”complained Rustam Sardar. “The change has happened so quickly that it is shocking.”


Banner image: A woman from the Sardar fishing community in the Bhola district of Bangladesh. Image about the third pole / Md. Abdus Salam


The Third Pole is a multilingual platform for promoting information and discussion about the Himalayan watershed and the rivers that develop there. This report was originally published on and reproduced here with permission.

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