Current Situation – Past and Present
ECDO hopes this page will give a rough overview of the history of the indigenous communities in Sylhet Division, and some of the main issues that affect their survival and development today. For more detailed information, please visit our Resources page, or contact ECDO directly.
Although there is no definitive specific recorded history of the indigenous peoples, it is estimated that up to four hundred years ago more than forty-five original distinct indigenous communities lived in different parts of what is known today as Bangladesh. Gradually an influx of migrants came from different regions of the Asian subcontinent and forced the indigenous people through violent coercion to settle selected locations. Presently, indigenous people are congregated mainly in the districts of Rangpur, Dinajpur, Rajshahi, Mymensingh, Sylhet and the Chittagong Hill Tracts.
The main ethnic groups in Sylhet are Khasi, Manipuri, Garo, Patro, Bishnupriya, Tripura and Santal, although ECDO’s non-formal survey identified 35 indigenous groups in total. Among these groups the Manipuri and the Khasi are greatest in population in Sylhet Division. Each group has distinct linguistic and cultural practices.
It is estimated that more than one hundred thousand indigenous people, (1.5% of Sylhet Division’s population) live in Sylhet Division with various unique difficulties. Almost all of the regions that indigenous people inhabit are among the most remote areas with a large portion of people living a very hard life. An overwhelming majority of the people live below the poverty line.
Environmental degradation has made their lives even more difficult. They have become the victims of the negative impacts of modernization, as they lack the education and awareness to be able to harness and enjoy the positive benefits that Bangladesh’s economic growth has created.
The Bangladesh Constitution states that all Bangladeshis are equal citizens, but fails to make any provision for those who see themselves as a citizen of Bangladesh and an indigenous person. Consequently the Government doesn’t always acknowledge certain exceptional problems faced by indigenous communities, and as a result, their socio-economic situation is worsening day by day.
Indigenous people find it far more difficult to enjoy their fundamental human rights than mainstream groups, and indigenous people’s laws, values, customs and perspectives have been eroded by the influence of mainstream culture. The problems of discrimination and human rights abuses on the basis of ethnic origin against the indigenous and tribal peoples have been exacerbated by a lack of specific legal mechanisms against such discrimination.
The location of the indigenous people of Sylhet Division has produced some unique problems that are different from the indigenous communities in the Chittagong Hill Tracts region.
- The Sylheti indigenous peoples are dispersed in small pockets of settlements that are surrounded by the areas inhabited by mainstream people.
- The Sylheti indigenous community’s self-government system is not formally recognized by the law.
- Sylheti indigenous people have no direct representation at national level
- Instances of land dispossession suffered by Sylheti indigenous people is perhaps even more widespread than in the CHT region.
More specifically, some of the main issues that face the indigenous people of Sylhet District include:
- Education is low among ethnic groups. This is particularly evident in the Khasi community where education of children rarely progresses past primary level. The cause of these problems can be attributed partly to the remoteness of ethnic community villages; there are no secondary schools located nearby. Language also creates a problem as many lessons are conducted in Bangla and not the mother language. High illiteracy rates of guardians also lead to an indifference towards the value of education.
- Remote locations of villages means that medical facilities are far and very difficult to access. There are generally no people with formal medical training in the villages. Consequently typical diseases with symptoms such as diarrhea, fever, and reproductive health problems are highly prevalent, and in Khasi hilly areas, malaria is also present. Water and sanitation problems aid and create water borne diseases. There is a general reluctance to attend mainstream health facilities due to a fear of discrimination and an inhibition of cultural practices and rituals.
- There is very little awareness about the threat of HIV/AIDS within ethnic communities, and the general education rate is very low which limits the understanding on HIV/AIDS and connected issues. The location of ethnic communities in border areas by India, such as Jaflong, increases the risk of transmission due to high migratory rates across borders within the same ethnic communities. This makes Sylhet Division, in comparison to the rest of Bangladesh a disproportionately high risk area due to such high rates of migration.
- Employment problems are prevalent throughout indigenous communities. These problems are a product of the isolation of their communities and an unwillingness to integrate into mainstream society. In Manipuri community for example, employment initiatives are lacking and only a small minority attend higher education. There is no organized training, market place or co- operative for local craft making. As a result, market prices for cultivated products are often not known and indigenous people are often given an unfair price for their traded products.
- Land issues pose a huge threat to the livelihood and future of all indigenous communities in greater Sylhet region. The communities lack official documents which certify ownership of their land and therefore have no legal support for their land. There is a great need for legal assistance to ensure their land is protected, as land grabbing by a few corrupt members of the mainstream community and some corrupt Government officials is debilitating for indigenous communities.