Around 3,000 sampan majhis (boatmen) have become unemployed as the passenger transportation service in the Karnaphuli River in Chattogram has come to halt amid the nationwide shutdown put in force to stem the spread of Covid-19.
One Babul Majhi who has been providing transport by sampan in the Karnaphuli for the past 30 years usually earns Tk300-400 a day. But, the lone bread earner for his six-member family at Ichanagar area under Karnaphuli police station could not earn a single penny in the past one week.
Babul said he has never faced such a disaster.
Mentioning that they are struggling to keep up their ancestors' profession as the number of passengers is decreasing day by day he said the current coronavirus crisis has added to their misery as he can't find any other job due to the shutdown.
He also said they are yet to receive any relief or financial assistance from the government or any other social organisation.
Karnaphuli Nodi Sampan Majhi Kalyan Samiti Federation said 3,000 small and large sampans carry the passengers through 12 ghats on the Karnaphuli River daily.
These 3,000 boatmen have plunged into the same crisis like Babul as passenger transport through all 12 ghats in the river has been stopped due to the shutdown.
President of Bangla Bazar Ghat Majhi Kalyan Samiti Md Lokman Majhi said every day 300 sampans were carrying 4,000 passengers in this ghat. Families of many boatmen are not having two meals a day, he added.
Payer Ali, president of the Karnaphuli Nodi Sampan Majhi Kalyan Samiti Federation said the boatmen have become unemployed due to halt of passenger transport. The government or no social organisation has yet provided any assistance to the boatmen. We have to starve with our families in absence of government assistance.
In Chattogram, the government has distributed food items including rice and lentils among around 17,500 people in the district and cities in the first phase.
District Relief and Rehabilitation Officer Sajeev Kumar Chakraborty said they have instructed the authorities concerned to make a list of affected families and distribute relief materials among them.
"The upazila administrations and the city corporation are distributing relief at their respective areas. We took separate initiatives to provide relief materials among sampan majhis. Besides, their association can collect relief by contacting the local administration," he added.
Meanwhile, business activities in Khatunganj have remained stalled due to the shutdown. Trade has decreased. Therefore, the sampans involved in transporting goods are lying idle in the ghats.
Khatunganj Trade and Industries Association General Secretary Syed Sagir Ahmad said more than three hundred sampans and vessels transport goods from Khatunganj to different Island upazilas, including Hatia, Maheshkhali, Kutubdia and Sandwip. The transportation of goods has diminished as the business has declined due to the coronavirus. That is why the sampan majhis have become unemployed.
Sampans were once used for the Chattogram port-centric trade alongside the transport of passengers. Sampans used to transport goods from the port to other parts of the country.
Besides, Khatunganj, a large wholesale market in the country, was entirely dependent on sampans for the business.
The demand for sampans has gradually dropped due to the arrival of the engine-run boats and vessels.
As Chattogram is located on the seashore, the people here invented the environment-friendly sampans more than 1200 years ago.
The smallest size sampan is approximately 20 feet and the width is at least feet. A small sampan can carry 15 to 18 passengers while large ones can carry 35 to 40 passengers. Each sampan can transport goods weighing between 30 and 80 tonnes.