Kaibartas: Born to fishing

    • From time immemorial, fishermen in rural Bangladesh have been living a community life in neighbourhoods or villages around the water bodies, creating their own history, distinct traditions, and patterns of daily life.

      Traditionally, the occupation of catching fish belongs to the Hindu community. But Muslims are also seen in the trade especially during the seasons when their labour in the field is not required. Hindu fishermen believe their occupation to be sacred, although in the castes hierarchy, they are ranked the lowest of all occupational groups.

      There are at least 20 separate castes of fishermen and the Kaibartas are one of them.

      In the past the Kaibartas could catch fish from the water bodies on their will. But with the introduction of the government’s Water body Management Policy in 1986 it has become impossible for them to catch fish in the water bodies freely.

      The government policy is meant to provide access to water bodies (locally called jalmohals, haors and beels) only through leases to fishermen’s co-operatives. But, according to the poor fishermen themselves, rich moneylenders (mahajans) have hijacked the whole programme. In connivance with the police and local officials, these powerful interests have become the de facto leaseholders of these water bodies.

      As a result, the Koibartas like the other fishing castes around the Tanguar Haor of Sunamganj can fish for only two to three months of a year when the region goes under flood water during the rainy season. But as soon as the water level reduces and the shores and riverbanks become visible the lakes, rivers, haors and beels go to the leaseholders.

      Apart from the two or three months of free catching which is the hardest working period, the rest of the year they either have to work for the mahajans or do something else to earn a living. Many of them, having no other choices, move to the small islands on the haors with their families into temporary makeshift shacks to work for the mahajans. They get a scanty 30% share of their catch as the 70% of it goes to the leaseholders.

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A portrait of a man from the Kaibarta (a caste of fishermen) community, in his shack on an island in the Tanguar haor (water body) in Sunamganj, Bangladesh. February 25, 2007. One of a set of images from the photo story Kaibartas: Born to fishing, by Md. Akhlas Uddin.