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Ethnic communities face starvation in Bangladesh

Food and cash have yet to reach thousands of families who have lost their income due to Covid-19

Ethnic communities face starvation in Bangladesh

Indigenous people in Bandarban district of Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeast Bangladesh. Many indigenous people are starving without food relief during the Covid-19 shutdown. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Indigenous communities living in remote areas of the hills and plains of Bangladesh are facing starvation with little or no food relief despite state-run and private schemes to support the poor and needy during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Food and cash aid have yet to reach thousands of poor ethnic families who have lost their work and incomes due to the outbreak, indigenous rights groups claim.

Most of these people rely on informal daily labor for a living and, due to the remoteness of their areas, they have been starving without food relief, according to a joint statement from Bangladesh Adivasi Forum (BAF), Jatiya Adivasi Parishad (JAP) and Kapaeeng Foundation.

“About 90 percent of indigenous people in rural areas are poor day laborers and have lost their work. Now they are out of food but are not listed in aid schemes. Many are starving, and some are trying to survive with wild potatoes, snails and oysters,” Rabindranath Soren, an ethnic Santal and president of JAP, which covers northern Bangladesh, told UCA News.

In the Parbatipur area of Dinajpur district in the north, where Soren is based, only three out 200 poor ethnic families have received aid so far, he said.

Romen Kisku, 38, a Santal Catholic and head of a 10-member family from neighboring Gaibnadha district, said the family received minimal food aid from a charity twice — 10 kilograms of rice, two liters of oil and some potatoes.

“Three men of our family are day laborers and our income pays for everything. Now we cannot go to work and government aid has not reached us. The minimal aid was too little for our family, so we have to go on starving if things don’t improve,” Kisku, a father of five, told UCA News.

Kisku said he is planning to go to the Sylhet region to work as a paddy harvester to make some money for the family if the government allows him to do so.

The local Church and Catholic charity Caritas have been preparing an aid scheme to help the poor and needy during the protracted crisis, said Bishop Sebastian Tudu of Dinajpur.

“We have made an appeal to people in our parishes and areas, so they come up with whatever they can to assist those having hard times during this crisis. The suffering of people will intensify if the crisis lingers, so we need to help people any way possible,” Bishop Tudu told UCA News.

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Ethnic communities in the hilly Chittagong Hill Tracts of southeast Bangladesh are having hard times in the absence of work, income and food, said Mazharul Islam, disaster management manager at Caritas Chittagong.

“These people live hand to mouth and due to Covid-19 they have become helpless. Their savings have run out, so people are either borrowing money from others to survive or eagerly waiting for relief materials,” Islam told UCA News.

Caritas Chittagong has taken two emergency cash handouts of 2,250 taka (US$27) and 1,547 taka to support 950 families on the hills, he said.

Bangladesh’s government started food relief and subsidized food sales at the end of March with an aim to support about 50 million poor and needy people across the country.

During a meeting with chief government officers from 64 districts of Bangladesh on April 20, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina ordered that every poor and needy person should be listed for food relief.

Bangladesh has recorded 2,456 Covid-19 infections and 91 deaths, according to government data on April 19.

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