It has been thirty years that Abul Farazi has been involved in fisheries. He owns three boats and eight different nets. About five fishermen are working in each of his boats. The mentioned number might portray Farazi as a well-off fisherman in your head, but in reality, he is not. In fact, he has been drowning in debt in the last four years and still needs to repay Tk40lakh loan in instalment.
"It feels like every year, I am drowning a little more. This thing does not let me sleep. I cannot remember when I had a sound sleep in last two years," said an anxious Farazi. Last year, things were pretty static due to pandemic, so like Farazi, many fishers were going through the same. A recent report titled, Impact of novel coronavirus pandemic on aquaculture and fisheries in developing countries and sustainable recovery plans: Case of Bangladesh, helped us get a clear picture of this.
According to the report above, around1.8 crore people involved in the fisheries and aquaculture sector in Bangladesh have been affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, and 35 percent of them reported their debt has increased too. Hence, they were unable to repay the loan instalment on time. To cope with this situation, the female household members of about 70 per cent of fishers and 35 per cent of fish farmers have cut down their food intake from three meals to two meals per day.
In this situation, when they barely have any idea about what they will have in the next meal, climate-induced migration has been added to the platter. A report by the World Bank projected that South Asia region will have 35.7 million climate migrants by 2050 (around 1.6 percent of the total population) and 37 percent of the internal climate migrants will be from Bangladesh.
Now, the fishers who are victim of this both situation, undoubtedly living a tough life. And, they are not willing to leave the place where they believe, they belong. In Patharghata, there are 14,000 registered fishers, and around 3,000 of them do not own a house due to coastal erosion. Yet, they are living there.
Mujibul Haque Munir, Joint Director of COAST Trust, shared his experience of working with fishers and their helplessness saying, "I never found a single fisher saying that they want to leave their home-town. I have witnessed one fisher migrate for fourteen times, finally leave the home district, and then come back when a temporary embankment has been built in Lalua just for a few years. This much interested they are in their profession and living in their hometown."
Naturally, the fishers do not want to migrate or do other jobs as long as they have options for fishing. Because, this is the only thing that they have done for their entire life. But this constant migration has made them so broke that they barely have some money to meet their ends and do their business. As a result, they take loans from shroffs with high interest and get drowned in debt.
"Unofficially, we are 22,000 fishers, and more than 60 percent of us are the victim of debt," stated the president of Barguna District Fishing Trawlers Owners' Association. But why this never-ending loop is going on. It is because for per lakh taka, these helpless fishers are committed to paying interest of Tk30,000 to Tk40,000, which is an impossible target to achieve in one season. And, if the agreement is not like this, then local fishers are bound to sell the fish at the lowest price to the shroff.
Clarifying this scenario, Farazi added, "Those are like the unwritten rules here. Under this situation, when we cannot pay the running debt, so it keeps getting added as due to the following year creating a loop." Also, they cannot take a loan from banks and avoid the shroff as there are no bank or bank services in our country for the fishers. "A farmer can open a bank account in any government bank with ten taka and take a loan against its agricultural field. But, a fisher cannot take a loan against his million taka worthy trawler because banks think if the trawler sinks, it sinks with the capital too. Hence, fishers never get loans from any banks. But now is the time to change this," opined Munir.
To get out of this, many fishers from Patuakhali have migrated to Bandarban recently because they heard there is some available work in hill tracks, shared Farazi."I do not know what those works are, but maybe it is not a bad idea because at least they will not have to suffer in debt like us," he kept on saying. Sometimes to the dadon loan; sometimes to the climate change, these fishermen are tied up. In the last five years, after the government's22 days or 65 days fishing ban, the weather sometimes vandalises their journey. "In the last few years, the frequency of sudden cyclone and storm has increased and is due to climate change. After discounting all those tough days, how many days are left for trawling?" asked Mostafa.
According to the fishers, things could have been manageable if the government had not put this long 65 days fishing ban. "Bangladesh, India, and Myanmar share the same sea. Technically, should not be the fishing ban period same? But strangely, it is not. Our government can align the time with India or Myanmar. Otherwise, we will keep waiting, and they will take away all the fishes leaving us in debt," said Mostafa.
Experts suggested that local and international NGOs have room to work for the fishers, specially on the microfinance level and .Surely, it is impossible to stop migration entirely as climate change is a global issue and is also happening rapidly. But, it is possible to take actions to pull our fishers out of this situation if our government treat their problems fast with enough attention and care.
The writer is a research assistant at Centre for Sustainable Development, ULAB