The annual “monga” season of deprivation has arrived in Kurigram, as well as six other northern areas, including Nilphamari, Lalmonirhat, Gaibandha, Rangpur, Panchagarh and Thakurgaon - some of the poorest of Bangladesh’s 64 districts.
During the monga season - which generally begins at the end of September - there are no crops to be harvested and very little work, so many farmers rush to the cities to become temporary rickshaw pullers or day labourers in an effort to pay off loans and earn much-needed cash to take back to their families.
However, many return even poorer than before, while others do not come back at all, running away from the hunger that awaits them at home.
Each year, tens of thousands of people from hundreds of villages along the banks of the Teesta, Dudhkumar, Dhorla and Brahmaputra rivers in Bangladesh’s northern region face monga. Natural disasters such as flooding, riverbank erosion and drought exacerbate this annual occurrence, leaving scores vulnerable to hunger and disease, while at the same time fuelling poverty levels.
Because of recent monsoon flooding, thousands of poor families lost their incomes and livelihoods, and the prolonged effect has reduced food security in the area.
Many farmers place all their financial assets into securing tools, seeds and fertiliser for the rice harvest, only to lose it all in the floods, becoming paupers overnight.
In case of an “aman” crop (60 percent of Bangladesh’s rice yield) failure due to floods in July-August means food insecurity intensifies in September-October until the “boro” crop (40 percent) can be harvested in November-December.
Women and minorities suffer most
“The immediate impact of monga is on employment, then on household incomes, then on food security, and finally on nutrition levels,” Rakhal Chandra Kangshabanik, former deputy director of the Ministry of Agriculture, told IRIN.
Women and female-headed households fare the worst, he said, partly because there is already a greater likelihood of them being malnourished and partly because of discrimination.
“When there is an oversupply of day-labour, employers tend to hire men rather than women,” Kangshabanik said.
The impact on local indigenous minorities is also severe.
“Relief materials and other safety net assistance are distributed first among those who have the power. We receive only the trickles,” said Dwijen Sharma, president of Panchbibi Upajila Adibashi (indigenous people) Multipurpose Development Organisation (PUAMDO), an indigenous people’s rights organisation in Joyporhat District.
Photo: Shamsuddin Ahmed/IRIN
|People in northern Lalmonirhat District brought out their rice bowls demanding immediate food relief|
Monga in the “chars”
Monga manifests most viciously among the “chars” or river islands, where some 600,000 of the poorest people live.
They flood in July as the rainwater from the Himalayas rushes southwards, reappearing only in November. Most of the displaced live along the river banks until the rains stop and the rivers begin to recede.
According to relief agencies, residents of the chars and displaced landless farm labourers along river embankments are more vulnerable to chronic poverty than most.
The floods displace them in July-August before the monga sets in from September through early November.
For them, alternative income sources are even more scarce than on the mainland.
There are no brickfields, only a handful of paddy-processing facilities, very limited construction and road works, no rickshaws and little scope for business activities.
According to a 2006 survey of 425,000 families in the monga zone by Palli Karma Shahayak Foundation Palli Karma Shahayak Foundation, an NGO, and the country’s Institute of Microfinance, about 20 percent had no choice but to sell their assets and property to feed their families, while 40 percent had to migrate to other places for jobs.