Tapping the potential of 'charlands'  

Shihab Sarkar   | Published: December 03, 2018 22:11:21

As part of a geological feature, increase in the intensity of erosion continues in the country without pause. The land, covered by around 700 rivers and their tributaries, has been witnessing the phenomenon since long.  Erosion is a feature integral to the process of river-flows in the country. On the other hand, it leads to the formation of large and small shoals, called 'charlands' or 'chars' in Bangladesh. At present over a hundred 'chars' dot the country's rivers. They are different from off-shore islets in the country's south. According to a survey conducted in the early 1990s, the total area covered by river 'charlands' in the country was 1,722 sqkms. That the size has multiplied many times is implied.

An easy destination of the river erosion-hit and veritably pauperised rural people are the 'charlands'. However, a number of these shoals remained uninhabited for long in the past. Others growing grasslands, weeds and small trees attracted people desperate for dwellings. In course of time, those semi-arid swathes turned into full human settlements; in fact villages interspersed with croplands and rows of trees. In general, vast tracts of sandy land fill the expanses of the larger shoals. Thanks to the continued arrival of settlers, the spectacles of the past have been on constant change. The process gained speed over the last couple of decades. Hundreds of thousands of people have now made 'charlands' their permanent homes. Fleeing socio-economic and natural adversities back in the mainland, these people have chosen both types of shoals -- the 'island chars' and the 'attached chars'. The former of these two types are formed in the middle of a river surrounded by water. The latter comprise extension of parts of the mainland into the river -- not detached or isolated like the mid-river 'chars'. Erosion plays a direct role in the process of these attached shoals. In a broad definition, 'chars' are 'by-products' or result of hydromorphological dynamics of their rivers.

Thanks to the committed charity services extended by large international humanitarian agencies, like Concern Worldwide, many chars have lately emerged as instances of all-round development at the grassroots level. Organisations like it have brought about radical changes in the different aspects of life of people living on the 'chars'. In sectors beginning from livelihood means like agriculture and other vocations, education, women's empowerment to health and hygiene, these organisations have been warmly accepted by the perennially neglected 'char' inhabitants. These organisations operate massive floating hospitals, manned by doctors and nurses and are fitted with operation facilities. The ships sail from 'char' to 'char'. Due to the fast rise in the population of these pockets of largely marginalised poor, even the specialised government agencies apparently find it a herculean task to attend to all the problems afflicting the shoals.

Unlike many river-filled countries, ensuring a better life for the 'char' people is increasingly becoming a challenging national task for Bangladesh. River-island shoals in the country are scattered across 5 (five) sub-areas around the country's rivers. The rivers are the Jamuna, the Ganges, the Padma, the Upper Meghna and the Lower Meghna. Besides, there are some other 'chars' along the Old Brahmaputra and the Tista rivers. In spite of differences in locations, geophysical features and the inhabitants' professions, these chars have one thing in common: the day-to-day challenges facing the dwellers. Apart from isolation, these hapless people have to remain engaged in a struggle to adapt to an unforgiving environment - monsoon flooding and erosion being the two dreadful scourges. Most of these people have eventually to give in to the destructive forces of these natural calamities. As a corollary, grinding poverty continues to overwhelm them. In short, except a few luckier ones, most of the 'char' people are doomed to remain caught in an inescapable cycle of poverty.

Thanks to their unique location and the geological nature, chars are seen by many as being a source of many potential. Not tapping those on time points to a lack of sagacity and a lackadaisical approach vis-à-vis 'chars' on the part of the policy makers. That many of these shoals are gifted with fertile lands have long been proved. Apart from paddy and some major crops, the 'char' soil is also ideal for growing vegetables. Farmers living on these supposedly crop-production-hostile areas these days cultivate both paddy and other crops on large tracts of fields. A large volume of these produce is finally destined for the closest mainland markets. Buoyed by financial incentives from the government, the farmers can spectacularly ratchet up their crop yields. These produce can considerably help meet occasional deficits during disruptive harvests. Due to their being close to water, fishing and producing dried fish, locally known as 'shutki', has long been an age-old vocation of people on many 'chars'. They also carry a lot of market value.

However, a section of development activists would like to lay emphasis on solar power to be generated by panels installed on the vast 'char' expanses. Due to the soil infertility of these tracts, they mostly remain uninhabited. These barren lands can be infused with productivity, and meaningfulness, through ventures of solar energy production on a massive scale. Plots could be leased out to entrepreneurs interested in generating this cheap energy from sunlight, which is unhindered and apparently abundant on the sandy 'chars'. Dwellers on many 'chars' these days are used to operating their electrical appliances, especially lights and fans, on domestically generated solar power. These consumers will be eager to purchase power from the mini-grids set up in their neighbourhoods.

Due to its mass production, the solar power procured from these establishments is expected to be cheaper, apart from being free of transmission glitches. The mini-solar power grids installed on the large 'attached chars' are set to be blessed with a lucrative outlet of profit. After meeting the local need, the entrepreneurs can sell the surplus power to the nearby areas on the mainland. In the age of technological and economic innovations, the perennially neglected 'charlands' can easily be bailed out -- much to the benefits of the nation. With necessary policy and infrastructural backing, vacant areas on many 'chars' could be turned into Special Economic Zones. Dearth of ideal sites for these zones can serve as a potent rationale behind this state-sponsored initiative.  


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