01 / 1998
Paikgacha and Batiaghata are not the most famous of places in Bangladesh. Only local people have heard of these remote areas in Khulna, a district located 350-km southwest of Dhaka.
>From 1995 onwards, these villages have achieved national prominence, following several reports of a number of violent incidents and indiscriminate abuses of human rights in commercial shrimp cultivation areas.
Violence erupted in Horinkhola village within polder 22 (a polder is an embankment)of Paikgacha early one morning in November 1990. Polder 22 had been maintained as a shrimp-free zone at the insistence of local people, who wanted to protect their environment and agriculture-based, traditional livelihood.
Wajed Ali, a rich shrimp farm owner and businessman, arrived with his armed hired hands, intending to forcibly breach the embankment and establish shrimp farms there. The villagers rushed to the area to resist. They marched to the riverbank, women and children in the lead, believing that this would ensure a peaceful, bloodless confrontation.
Instead, Wajed Ali’s men hurled bombs and opened fire with rifles and machine guns. Fifty women and men were injured. A 45-year old woman, Korunamoi Sardar, was killed in the firing. The body of Korunamoi Sardar was taken away by Ali’s men, while a tuft of her hair and a portion of her brain remained on the battlefield for two days. Ali and his men had to subsequently flee in the face of the strong resistance by the villagers.
After news of the murder was flashed in the national newspapers, the police finally arrived at the scene. Although the villagers filed suits against Wajed Ali and 34 others, Ali’s membership in the ruling political party ensured his immunity from prosecution.
Wajed Ali, instead, filed suits against 50 villagers. Some of them were arrested in their hospital beds, as they recovered from the wounds inflicted by Ali’s attack, and placed into detention without bail.
It was Nijera Kori, an NGO, was working with landless women and men of Khulna, which helped the arrested villagers obtain bail. Though the villagers’ murder suit against Wajed Ali is still pending, they have won one battle of environmental justice through their activism and sacrifice of life-polder 22 (surrounded by shrimp-cultivating areas)is still a shrimp-free zone.
In another incident in September 1994, Jabber Sheikh of Batiaghata Thana was seriously injured by bombs thrown at him by unknown assailants. He died in the hospital four days later.
Jabber Sheikh, a member of the Amirpur union council, was against commercial shrimp cultivation in his area and had mobilised the local people to resist it. He was a targeted enemy of the shrimp cultivators.
The murder of Jabber Sheikh enraged the villagers, who mobilised and repossessed the lands illegally occupied by the shrimp farmers. The shrimp farmers attacked the villages many times to reoccupy the shrimp ponds, but the villagers successfully resisted these incursions.
However, valuable land areas still remain barren, as villagers try to cultivate agricultural products, but are foiled by shrimp farmers, who forcibly breach embankments to flood land with salt water and ruin crops. The villagers allege that the local administration and the police do not protect them. Instead, they side with the shrimp farmers. In the minds of local people as well as other citizens of Bangladesh, such incidents have raised serious questions about human rights, sustainable human development and the obligation of the government.
The problems have been compounded by the fact that the local administrative officials and the police, who are supposed to maintain law and order, and implement their own stated policy of "protecting the innocent and punishing the criminals", have allegedly done just the opposite.
In recent years, the area under commercial shrimp cultivation has expanded considerably in the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Export earnings from shrimp have increased and thousands have found employment in the shrimp cultivation and processing industry.
However, the livelihoods of thousands of small and marginal farmers, fisherman, and the landless poor, are being destroyed as unregulated shrimp cultivation leads to the irreversible degradation of land, water systems, biodiversity, forest and vegetation. Violent confrontations between these marginalised groups and shrimp farmers have left many injured, wounded and dead.
The State needs to devote serious attention to the increasing environmental degradation of coastal areas and to the declining law and order situation. The growth of shrimp farming must be regulated and the livelihood and human rights of marginalised coastal people must be protected by state agencies.
Articles and files
NILUFAR, Ahmad, Innocent victims in. Samudra Report, 1997/03, 17