Bangladesh's River Gypsies Forced onto Dry Land

Manila Bulletin, September 18, 2009 | Go to article overview

Bangladesh's River Gypsies Forced onto Dry Land


KHURIA, Bangladesh, September 18, 2009 (AFP) - At the end of every year, after the monsoon rains, Noor Hossain dismantles his houseboat on the Bangladeshi delta and heads to the mainland. This time he will not be coming back.Hossain is one of about 800,000 river gypsies, known locally as bedey, who for generations have lived on the nation's waterways between May and December, and on land for the rest of the year.But now he has decided to give up his nomadic lifestyle because he says the rivers are increasingly erratic and impossible to navigate -- which experts attribute to effects of climate change and upstream development.For Hossain, who wears only a "lunghi" cloth wrapped around his waist, it means an end of the eight-month season during which he and the families of his four children paddled two rickety bamboo houseboats across the vast delta."Many rivers, canals and streams are drying up. We can no longer get to remote areas and without that, we can't make a living," said Hossain, 48, who earns some income diving for jewellery lost by women bathing.He also catches fish, mainly for his own family's consumption, while his wife and two daughters-in-law are the biggest income earners, selling ornaments and offering herbal treatments for toothache. Although there is no caste-system in Bangladesh, bedeys are on the bottom rung of society and almost all are illiterate and desperately poor.They mostly survive by being skilled snake charmers or by selling ornaments, traditional medicine and cosmetics in villages. Some Bangladeshis believe they also have secret healing powers.But, according to Grambangla Unnayan Committee, a Dhaka-based charity, Bangladesh's bedey community could disappear within a few decades as they abandon their annual migration between land and water."The shift to the mainland is happening at a speedy rate. Just 15 years ago, all bedeys were based on water. Pretty soon we may not have any gypsies on our rivers," said A.K.M Maksud, the charity's head.He said that in the past decade alone 250,000 bedeys had been forced off the water and predicted that within two years 90 percent of gypsies would have to live on land permanently.Retired history professor Jainal Abedin Khan, who has written books about bedeys, said that they arrived in Bangladesh in the 17th century when the region was part of the Mughal empire."They originally hail from what is now Myanmar but they moved across into the delta," he said. …

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