Lack of strong social and personal networks in these ethnic communities make them more susceptible to exclusion and hunger
Sursuni para, located in Godagari upazila of Rajshahi district, is a village inhabited by the Mahali people – one of around a hundred little known ethnic communities living in Bangladesh.
Mostly known for their bamboo and cane craft, the people of Sursuni para used to sell their products at the Kakonpur haat, a weekly open-air market for traders who come from faraway localities.
But the countrywide shutdown has disrupted this tradition, leaving the Mahalis with enough products, but nowhere to sell.
"Bamboo-made winnowing fans are in high demand ahead of the Boro harvesting season, but marketing channels are just not working the way they did before," said Sylvester Tudu, a Mahali youth from Sursuni para.
So, 35 families living in the para are undergoing hardships now. Although 25 households each received 10kg handout from the government, these people are still finding it difficult to put food on the plate amid the prolonged shutdown.
Other ethnic communities living in different areas of the country are also in a somewhat similar situation. The Santals living in Godagari – mostly agricultural day-labourers – are barred from going to work because of infection risks.
"Although the harvesting season will create work opportunities, Santals are living in complete uncertainty as to whether they will be allowed to work," said Josef Hasda, a development worker who belongs to the community.
The communities living in remote villages in the hill districts of Khagrachhari, Rangamati and Bandarban are to some extent self-reliant, but a food shortage is common in the dry season. This year is no different.
However, for the Chak people who lost their lands to rubber and other commercial plantations and started living in Baisheri, Naikhyangchhari upazila under Bandarban district, things are much worse.
Detached from their traditional jhum cultivation, most of them now rely on day-labour. The ongoing shutdown is hitting them hard, Naikhyangchhari upazila vice-chairman Mong La told the Business Standard.
"There is an acute food shortage for the Chaks and the Marmas living in this area," he said, adding, "The CHT ministry has provided food support to some 40 families living in different paras [neighbourhood], but poor families are still in distress due to the inadequacy of support and continued lack of work opportunities."
More than sixty little known ethnic communities have been living and working in the tea gardens of Bangladesh for more than 150 years. Although the gardens' regular activities are continuing, the countrywide shutdown has found its ways to affect the tea worker families. Since all the family members are not employed by the industry, and even the permanent workers get a meagre wage of Tk102 per day, many of the unemployed members usually find work outside the garden.
But the shutdown has deprived them of that work.
"Temporary tea workers are in a worse situation, because they do not even get that Tk102, nor do they get food ration," said Silas Gaddi, who lives in Karimpur tea garden in Moulvibazar.
Silas also mentioned that the new bazaar time has also impacted the worker families. According to shutdown regulations, the bazars are now open from 6am to 2pm, but the tea workers are engaged in work from 8am-5pm. "Since bazars are located at a good distance from where the workers live, it has created further inconveniences," Silas explained.
The worst affected are the workers of Rema Tea Garden in Chunarughat, Habiganj. In early March, the workers agitated to press home some demands and had a dispute with the garden authority which led to a scuffle. The authority closed the garden on March 6. Now the workers are not getting paid.
"The 450 families living in that garden are in an indescribable situation," Rambhajan Kairi, general secretary of Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union (Bangladesh Tea Labourers' Union) said.
Kairi said that the concerned district administrations have started distributing 10kg relief packs for 100 selected families in each of the tea gardens. Kairi welcomed the relief effort, but added that this was quite inadequate. "There are 1,500 families in Shamsernagar garden alone, so 1,400 of them will not get the food support. Besides, 10kg of rice will last only three days."
Dr Mohammad Tanzimuddin Khan, convener of Corona-Durgoto Sohojogita Kendra (Coronavirus Victim Support Centre), stressed the importance of paying special attention to the needs of ethnic communities during this shutdown. He observed, "Most of the ethnic communities are more vulnerable compared to the people from majority communities, because in most cases, the former's communities are not affluent enough to be able to help each other."
The Dhaka University-based relief platform has distributed food and money to 582 families around the country, some of whom belong to the ethnic communities living both in the hills and the plains.
Dr Khan, who is a professor of International Relations at Dhaka University, pointed out that the ethnic communities who received donations from the Sohojogita Kendra were contacted and surveyed by Bengali members, not by one of their own. He sees it as a weakness of the communities' social and personal networks that makes them more susceptible to exclusion and hunger.