Members of Uttaran Juba Sangathan after receiving the Joy Bangla Youth Award 2020. (Photo supplied)
A Catholic youth group has won a prestigious national award for outstanding contributions to community development in remote and poverty-stricken tea estate villages for more than a decade.
Uttaran Juba Sangathan, based in Barmachhera tea estate village in the Srimangal area of Moulvibazar district, is one of 30 youth organizations from across Bangladesh to receive the Joy Bangla Youth Award 2020.
The village is covered by St. Joseph Catholic Church of Srimangal under Sylhet Diocese in a region known for its dozens of tea estates.
The award is sponsored by Young Bangla, a youth forum of the Center for Research and Information (CRI), the research wing of the ruling Awami League party. It aims to acknowledge outstanding contributions of youth-led organizations.
The fourth edition of the award ceremony was held virtually on Nov. 17 due to Covid-19. Sajeeb Wazed, chairman of CRI and son of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, announced the names of the winners from more than 700 applicants. Prizes include a crest, certificate and laptop.
“These young people moved forward to help others without complaining about their situations and limitations and waiting for others to start. They are sources of great inspiration for us,” Wazed said.
Pius Nanuar, an ethnic Kharia Catholic and development worker, founded Uttaran Juba Sangathan with support from volunteers of Barmachhera village in 2009. It now has 110 active members and 330 volunteers based in 20 villages.
Nanuar said the award is a big honor and inspiration for the organization to do even better for communities.
“We dream of a society where all people, regardless of religion or caste, will live in rights and dignity with justice, peace and loving human values. A united struggle against all injustices and backwardness for education, service, unity and peace by utilizing the good nature of the youth,” Nanuar told UCA News.
The group has supported extremely poor tea workers and their children through a range of activities including education, scholarships, road construction, tree plantation, cultural programs and sports events, a language school, cooperative, library and reading habits, vocational skills, supporting the poor and sick, networking with other organizations and leadership enhancement.
Thanks to lobbying and networking, dozens of poor children from tea estate villages have received scholarships to study in renowned universities.
During the Covid-19 pandemic, the organization collected donations and supported 110 poor families with cash and food aid. It also distributed leaflets for building awareness and provided masks and sanitation facilities for hundreds of villagers. Volunteers also made home visits to offer lessons to poor children who were unable to attend online classes as schools remained shut.
Oblate Father Valentine Talang, convener of the Youth Commission in Sylhet Diocese, said the Church is proud of the organization.
“Uttaran Juba Sangathan is our inspiration and a good example to Christian youth. They work for tea workers’ human rights, education, health, social activism, environmental issues and much more. Our Christian youth organizations should follow it,” Father Talang told UCA News.
"The Catholic Church always patronizes such organizations and provides them with moral support. We cannot always support them financially, but sometimes we need to do it too.”
Bangladesh has 167 commercial tea estates, mainly in the Sylhet region. The industry employs about 98,000 permanent registered workers and about 30,000 seasonal workers. The total tea worker community is estimated to be 700,000.
Tea workers get a daily wage of 120 taka (US$1.41), the lowest in the world, and some fringe benefits including weekly food rations. Most live in mud-walled thatched houses called labor lines.
One of the poorest and most marginalized communities in Bangladesh, tea workers are mostly lower-caste Hindus or from indigenous groups brought to the country by tea planters during the British colonial era. About 10,000 tea workers are Catholics.