They face constant threat of eviction and harassment by plantation owners.
It’s been more than a century since the Kanda tribe left its ancestral home in the Indian state of Odisha in search of a better life and settled in Sreemangal, a tea plantation hub in Moulvibazar district, about 213 kilometres northeast of the Bangladeshi capital, Dhaka.
The tea industry, started by the British in the mid-nineteenth century, grew through the sweat and toil of tribal people like the Kandas. But in recent decades, the tribe has carved out an independent existence, cultivating its own plantations and gaining moderate success though the farming of lemons, pineapples and guavas. Now, however, tribal people find their way of life under threat once more.
For the past 10 years, Catholic Kandas and the Hindu-majority Tanti communities have been at loggerheads with the Syed Tea and Land Company Ltd, which has sought to expand its Julekha Nangar tea estate by forcibly evicting hundreds of families. In recent months, the situation has escalated. Mobs of armed men deployed by the company have vandalized homes and destroyed crops on multiple occasions, in the hope of forcing tribal villagers from the land.
“For four generations, we have lived on this land but never before faced such a threat to survival” – said Atit from the Kanda community – “the armed mobs have destroyed my pineapple plantation. I don’t know if I will be able to overcome this loss.”
Like other tribal people, the Kanda relies solely on the plantation for a living and the damage has left them penniless. Bikram Tanti, a Hindu, said he legally purchased 1.8 hectares of land including his homestead. “I refused to sell the land, so [the company] came in and destroyed my lemon and pineapple plantation. I have lost everything because of their greed,” he said.
Kiron Rozario, a development worker, said that the tea company has paid the local administration, politicians and police for their support. “The company is using financial and political influence to fulfil its target. We have helped tribal people to resist the move for years, but the wind is stronger on the other side”.
Syeda Gulshanara, owner of the tea company, said the entire estate, including the Lakhaichhera punji (tea estate village) where the villagers live, has been a leased property of the government since independence from Pakistan in 1971. “We have generously allowed tribals to reside and cultivate the land, but it is frustrating that they claim it as their own. Our men didn’t destroy their homes and crops, but some damage was done while they tried to clean up the area for the estate expansion,” she said.
The tribals in Lakhaichhera are not the only eviction victims. About 500 tribal Khasia people at Jhimai punji in the Kulauara area near Sreemangal are also facing threats to their survival.
There are 166 tea estates in Bangladesh including 133 in the northeastern Sylhet division that cover four tea estate districts. There are about 700,000 tribal people belonging to more than a dozen tribals groups in about 100 punjis in Sylhet.
Most of the tribals are Hindus and some are Christians; the majority of them rely on low-paid jobs in the tea industry but some tribals like the Kandas and Khasias rely on agriculture for a living. Most tribal villagers have settled in various punjis since British rule with verbal permission from the government, living an impoverished, uncertain life. Over the years, many tribals in Sylhet have faced abuse and a number have been made homeless by opportunist tea estate owners and forest officials. “Most tribal people are simple and poorly educated. They don’t have money and they are unaware of critical legal issues. It makes them easy targets of so-called development plans,” said Oblates of Mary Immaculate Father Joseph Gomes, who has worked for the rights of tribal people in Sylhet over the past 25 years.
“Since 1947, more than 15 punjis have been merged with tea estates and hundreds of tribals evicted. More than 3,500 cases have been filed against tribal people in order to threaten them not to resist these activities. With few exceptions, police usually don’t want to file cases in favour of the tribals,” the priest said.
Human rights activist Rosaline Costa says tribal people face constant threats to their survival because of anti-tribal segments in society and the state. “The rights of tribal people are frequently violated because some influential people in society don’t consider them an integral part of society and equal citizens. Unless their mindset changes, the situation for tribal people is not going to change,” she said.