I had a very quick field trip over the last three days – made a visit to a char (pronounced chore), which is like a temporary island in some rivers in this part of the world.
The people who live on chars are essentially landless who have no where else to go. Because the islands are temporary, the people are also, in a sense, semi-nomadic – they stay on an island until they lose either their land or their island to the river (it gets washed away) and then they have to go and negotiate a place to stay on another char somewhere (if they can – often it takes a number of attempts to find somewhere else to rent an agricultural field). Of course, this means the new arrivals are not always able to access productive land because it has already been taken.
So as you could guess, these people are incredibly poor and their livelihoods are at best finely-balanced. Not only do they have very little income, but they have minimal access to health care, education and assorted other things. It’s often a precarious existence.
Enter an NGO called ‘Friendship’. Friendship (http://www.friendship-bd.org) works in the chars in education, health care and livelihood options for the char inhabitants. There are some times when you visit the field and it’s amazing to see what’s happening. And my few days in the chars was one of those times. I stayed on one of ‘Friendships’ three floating hospitals. These hospitals, along with speed boats which are decked out as ambulances go from area to area along the chars, staying at places for two or three months. The one I stayed at has two operating theatres, a pediatric centre, eye surgery, a dental clinic and a women’s health clinic.
In the morning I watched as the patients, who had stayed the night in a tin shed (that can be dismantled in a couple of hours so it can be moved to different ground, just like the schools Friendship builds) were led back to their homes by family.
This visit was a reminder of the point of intersection of people, ecosystems and livelihoods – the mighty rivers of India and Bangladesh, the dependence on these rivers by a range of people, including the char inhabitants, and the always delicate balance between people and ecosystems.
And one final image from the trip to the chars. Fishers make their way back to their char home.