32. Journeys (5): Learning in Sirajganj

I spent the last two days in Sirajganj – a district in the Rajshahi division in the north-west of the country – as part of a group learning visit organised by VSO Bangladesh, under their governance programme. As well as Hosne Ara from VSO, the group consisted of eighteen local government representatives, six from each of three union parishads in the south of the country. [Note: union refers to an area of rural villages and parishad means council. The union parishad (UP) is a local government administrative unit – the ‘rural council’. See post 8 pt. 13.] Two fellow volunteers working in governance and based in Sirajganj – Tony and Rosie – were also part of the group. (They were part of the volunteer group that I had arrived with last March and so I was looking forward to catching-up and experiencing what life is like for them in rural Bangladesh.) The objective of the visit was to learn from best practice in local government at our destination and thereby facilitate ‘horizontal learning’. The Horizontal Learning Programme is a union parishad led peer-to-peer learning initiative, facilitated by the government and supported by development partners (such as VSO). Under the programme, union parishads connect with each other to identify, share and replicate the best practice of their peers.

Tarash and the Chalan Beel

Our destination was Tarash upazila (sub-district) in the west of Sirajganj district – an area surrounding Tarash town. (See map on left. Click to open a larger, clearer version in new window.) You will see from the poverty maps discussed in post 30 that Sirajganj district is relatively ‘poor’. Agriculture is the principal occupation. The most significant geographical feature in the Tarash area is the Chalan Beel. This is a series of depressions interconnected by various channels to form a more or less continuous sheet of water in the rainy season, covering an area of approximately 143 sq. ml. (370 sq. km). It extends over parts of four districts (Rajshahi, Pabna, Natore and Sirajganj) and was formed when the old Brahmaputra River diverted its water into the new channel of the Jamuna River. Originally, it covered an area of 420 sq. ml. (1088 sq. km.) but it has been silting up rapidly. Land is being reclaimed and new villages are springing up in these areas. The Chalan Beel dwellers are amongst the most disadvantaged groups in this region. The watery landscape is beautiful to look at though. The room that I shared with Rosie backed onto wetlands: flooded fields awash with bird-life and stretching as far as the eye could see. In places, people tended animals and crops, moving deftly through the water. Herds of cows and goats too sloshed about. Although it’s coming to the end of Barsha (the rainy season) there is still a lot of water on the ground.

The Jamuna Bridge

I love journeys and so I was happy when the VSO mini-bus left Dhaka – eventually. It was a luxury to be sitting in a comfortable, air-conditioned vehicle, driven ably by Sulieman. We drove west past Savar (see post 23) and made a stop in Kalihati in the Tangail district to get something to eat. It felt good to be out of Dhaka and surrounded again by beautiful verdant rural landscapes. One of the highlights of the journey was crossing the Jamuna Bridge (opened in 1998) – also called the Bangabondhu Bridge (see post 14) – between the Tangail and Sirajganj districts. (See map above.) I had heard a lot about this bridge – the longest in South Asia and the 11th longest in the world at 3 miles (4.8km) – and was looking forward to the crossing. In a riverine country such as Bangladesh, bridges are important transport links and this one provides an efficient access route to and from the Rajshahi division, parts of which have historically suffered from remoteness. The width of the Jamuna River is staggering, as is the length of the bridge, especially when you consider that the longest river bridge in Ireland (the River Suir Bridge on the M25) is just over one sixth of a mile (less than a 1/4 km) in length.

Our hosts GKS (Gono Kalyan Sangstha)

Once in Sirajganj, the landscape became even greener – if that’s possible. We passed NDP, the NGO (non-governmental organisation) where Tony works, and soon we were travelling down a gorgeous, narrow, tree-lined road, where people were walking barefoot in the company of ducks and goats and the odd cow. We arrived shortly at the GKS premises where I met Tony and Rosie. GKS (Gono Kalyan Sangstha i.e. People’s Welfare Organisation) is a local NGO founded in 1985 and employing 205 people in 19 offices around the country. In a ‘welcome presentation’, Saima told us about the broad remit of their work in the areas of governance, livelihoods, disaster management and human resource development. For me, it was very interesting to see case studies of the work of a local NGO: if I hadn’t been assigned to a government department, I would probably be working for an NGO like this one.

On our first evening, we sat outside in a circle of chairs set up on the grass and drank tea with ginger and snacked on nuts. Afterwards we ate dinner (indoors), the now familiar combination of rice, dhal (a lentil dish) and fish. Tony and I walked to a little shop later: it was so quiet and peaceful and as Dhaka became a distant memory I felt very happy to be in Sirajganj. Back at the centre there were numerous power cuts: luckily, Rosie had brought her torch so we were able to light our candle. It seemed even hotter here than in Dhaka. Our bathroom had a bucket and pitcher and squat toilet. The one thing that made me uneasy was the bathroom ‘window’ – a square hole in the wall through which large numbers of insects came and went. We managed to procure mosquito nets though which was a relief.

A day chock-full of ‘learning’

There was much to think about after our first full day. Despite reading a lot about local government in Bangladesh, I often struggle to understand concepts, structures and processes. I suspect that this has a lot to do with being confined to available material in English. Travelling through Tarash upazila today, attending two union parishad meetings and visiting an ethnic minority community made everything very real. While a lot was lost in translation, I certainly have a clearer understanding now of the practice of local government in Bangladesh, at least at the union parishad level. I wish I’d had this learning visit earlier.

Before we left GKS this morning, I got a chance to explore some of my immediate surroundings. Fortified by a breakfast of khichuri (rice and lentils) and omelettes, I set off along the country road outside the centre. I passed cows and goats and families of ducks. Some animals were being herded; others appeared to be ambling along of their own volition. I didn’t see any rickshaws like those in Dhaka, but there was no shortage of heavily laden, flatbed, bicycle-pulled carts. They were heaped high with 15-foot long bamboo logs; towering tangles of firewood; stacks of shiny, silvery, tin dishes in quivering columns; canvas sackfuls of rice and grain; dishevelled bales of hay and of course people too on every one. There was only the occasional motorised vehicle in the form of the scooter. Many of my fellow road users were barefoot. We occasionally exchanged greetings, smiled a lot and regarded one another curiously. All too soon I had to turn back. I wished (not for the first time in my life) that I could do a Forest Gump and just keep on walking. I vowed that I would get up and out even earlier the following morning.

Deshigram

Our first official stop of the day was at Deshigram, where we attended a union parishad meeting hosted by the Chairman Md. Khalilur Rahman Talukder. We arrived to large crowds both inside and out. Tony, Rosie and I were ushered through like royal visitors and seated towards the front of a long, rectangular table, around which the remainder of our group – the union parishad delegates from the south – took their seats. Hosne Ara (VSO) sat at the top and translated proceedings for us. A learning group from the World Bank were also in attendance. We all introduced ourselves and the Chairman addressed the assembly. It was a very interesting meeting and surreal to be sitting there amidst proceedings in the dark, warm, old-fashioned village-hall, with its many colourful cloth banners and the ubiquitous portraits of Sheikh Hasina and Bangabondhu (see post 14). This union parishad has had particular success in relation to open budget meetings and tax collection, and it was these ‘good practices’ that we were here to learn about. A question session followed, where further details were elicited and clarification sought on certain particulars. Towards the end of the meeting, we were given a brown paper bag containing a banana, a shingara (like a samosa) and a mishti (a round, soft, milky sweet). It was most welcome because between the heat, the crowds and the concentration required, I felt myself beginning to wilt. I would love to have had time to wander around the village for a while, but we were expected back at GKS for lunch, where we were joined by the group from the World Bank. It was interesting to put ‘a face’ on the World Bank and hear about some of their work in Bangladesh. Awolad Hossain (from the bank) told me that he was in my workplace (the NILG) last week where he is part of a project group. I felt embarrassed: I wasn’t aware of the project he was talking about. (I later discovered that he was referring to the LGSP project – see post 48.)

Madahainagar

In the afternoon, we attended another union parishad meeting in the village of Madahainagar. There were slightly fewer people at this meeting and the hall was laid out differently. Again, we sat at the front of the room just to the right of the top table. The Chairman, Md. Waheduzzaman, told us about their successful Community Information Centre. After the meeting, we visited the centre (in a room next door) and saw some of the videos they use e.g. information on how to protect crops from pests, procedures for injecting infected chickens, etc. Relevant videos are targeted at specific groups. This union also holds successful open budget meetings, and we saw a video of one such meeting which had a festival-like atmosphere. It was interesting to see the meeting in progress in light of discussions in Deshigram earlier that morning. Once again, we each got a brown bag containing a shingara, a mishti and a banana. After the meeting, I took a quick dash through part of the village. People looked really surprised to see me and were gesturing at me to come and sit down. I wished I’d had more time to explore these snatched glimpses of rural life. I saw a couple of thatched bamboo huts with conical roofs. I had read about these in the context of Bangladeshi architecture. Seemingly this style, known as bangla, dates back to pre-Mauryan and Mauryan periods (4th – 2nd centuries BC) and is the oldest known architectural form in the country. I saw a few women wearing black burkhas with veils in this village too.

The Orao community in Dumoorpar

Our next visit was to the ethnic minority Orao community in Dumoorpar ward, still part of Madahainagar union parishad. We walked there which was nice. Along the way we unexpectedly came upon a market: one minute we had been part of a quiet, rural landscape and upon turning a corner found ourselves in a square full of activity. We walked through the square and down a narrow street from where we turned left to reach the ‘village’. It is difficult to find reliable, comprehensive information relating to the Orao (or any other ethnic minority group) in Bangladesh. There are acknowledged problems in this regard in the national data collection system and a paucity of research relating to social and cultural issues. Much of the information I have found is wildly contradictory. Official sources put the numbers of Orao in Bangladesh at 8,000 – though these numbers are contested. (See post 43.)  Most of what I have read seems to place the majority of Orao in Sylhet and Rajshahi, with smaller numbers in Khulna, Dhaka and Chittagong. Of South-Asian ethnicity, the Orao are to be found mainly in a rough arc from north-central India through Bangladesh to Assam in eastern India, with a presence in south Nepal too. Their biggest concentration is in Bihar, mainly on the Chota Nagpur Plateau. They are also known as Kurukh (amongst other names) after one of the many languages they speak. A majority in Bangladesh speak Bangla. They are mainly settled cultivators and also work as wage labourers and industrial workers. A small minority are Christian but most practice Hinduism. Like other groups, they have a rich cultural heritage with distinctive art forms (e.g. theatre) and many festivals e.g. Karam Puja.

In Dumoorpar, the Orao group was waiting to meet us and mats had been spread on the ground. Many from our group sat round in a circle on the mats, including the union parishad chairman: others sat on benches and chairs. The locals mostly stood on the perimeter of the circle. Two Orao representatives sat beside the union parishad Chairman on the mats. (I sat on a chair because I’ve done something funny to my knee.) One of the community representatives talked about the progress that had been made to date, in this union parishad, with regard to ethnic minority rights. He said that the most important issues for the community related to land rights and education. I didn’t get much of a sense of the lives of the Orao though, unfortunately, in the way that I did with the ethnic groups I had visited in the Sylhet division, for example (see post 18).

It was almost completely dark by the time we left the village, and we went straight to dinner when we got back to the centre. Later, when Rosie and I were back in our room, two of the lovely men who work in the kitchen brought us tea with ginger. A lovely surprise and very welcome refreshment.

Our final day: still learning

Yesterday, I got a good insight into some of the work of local government at union parishad level. Today, as well as seeing some of the work engaged in by a local NGO (our host organisation GKS), the focus was on the upazila (sub-district) level, of which the unions we visited yesterday are a part. (See post 8, pt. 13.) Before we set off, I managed to fit in another walk through the serene rural water-world on my doorstep.  An inspirational way to start the day!

Tarash town

Our destination this morning was the upazila hall in Tarash town, to learn about the formation of a local government association and a women’s forum. Because of a personal tragedy, the upazila Chairman was unable to join us: instead, the meeting was chaired by an Executive Officer. I didn’t fully grasp the concept of the local government association. During the discussion session that followed, it didn’t come up in conversation, which was disappointing. I would have liked to have learnt more about the association and its possibilities. However, there was a very interesting discussion about the area’s implementation of ‘good practices’, along the lines of those discussed the previous day. We discovered too that learning from Tarash upazila has been implemented in sixteen districts so far. The kinds of practices shared include for example, tube-well innovations, open budget meetings, successful tax collection strategies, formation of women’s fora, formation of local government associations, adolescent girls’ health training, and more. I was particularly interested in one project proposal outlined by the Executive Officer: they aim to choose one village in the upazila and work to make it completely free of early-childhood marriage (see post 35). This would then become a ‘model’ for other villages. I must try to find a way to follow progress on this project.  The officer explained that the many successes in this upazila can be attributed to a unified approach. The eight union parishads in the upazila share good practice, which is not something that happens in every upazila. We were told that in 2005, the World Bank came to observe good practice here. The bottom line is that by working closely together and showing strength and innovation they are able to attract project funding, something that the visiting delegations were very interested in. The Executive Officer finished by saying that through sharing and exchanging good practices throughout the country, local government in Bangladesh could be strengthened. He ended on an optimistic note, saying that this is a particularly hopeful time, as Bangladesh is seeing young, energetic and committed people joining local government.

The Women’s Forum: Tarash

During the second half of today’s meeting, Joinob Begum, the president of the upazila Women’s Forum, talked about its formation. The women in the area were conscious of not having any voice and so made a case for support to the SLGDFP (The Sirajganj Local Government Development Fund Project). (I had read about this project in the literature on local government.) The women managed to secure 50,000 taka (c. €470) through a UNDP fund. They formed the forum, charged a 25 taka entrance fee and arranged ten days of training for twenty-six people, in addition to purchasing raw materials. The World Bank was impressed with their progress and awarded them 68,000 taka (c. €635) with which they bought 8 cows. When the Local Government Association was subsequently formed, half of all funding was distributed to the Women’s Forum. This has enabled the forum to raise the voices of women, hold ‘processions’ and other empowerment events. They also foster different kinds of income-generating strategies for women. For example, they make boxes for mishti (sweets) – Joinob had samples – they were pretty – a set of differently sized cardboard boxes with pink covers of various designs. We saw samples too of quilts that had been made. Advocacy on issues that affect the lives of women is another of their activities e.g. they work against early childhood marriage, acid throwing, the dowry system and other issues. (See post 44.) At the request of the UNDP, they are now providing training in their wider community, as well as undertaking training in other districts. They see a lack of training as the biggest barrier to success. It was really interesting to hear about the breadth of their activity. (A disturbing observation from today’s proceedings is that all the union parishad Chairmen left the room when Joinob stood up to speak, and there were some glib comments passed by some of the remaining male participants during her talk too. I think it will take a long time, if ever, for genuine equality to prevail.)

Time to say goodbye

After lunch – pilau rice with deliciously thick dhal – we had a small closing ceremony in GKS, during which we were each presented with a brightly wrapped departing gift, which turned out to be a GKS mug. We made one final stop at an office in the village (I’m not sure if this was a GKS or a UP office.) Here, Saima showed us a wall chart outlining the emergency disaster response plan for the locality. As Saima spoke, I could feel how real and immediate the constant threat of disaster is, and found myself imagining what it might be like to live with that daily reality. However, I could see too how local communities respond, by working together to develop contingency plans. Saima also showed us ‘wealth registers’ which are in the process of being compiled for the area, and he explained the rationale and methodology for their completion (see also post 46). By identifying the poorest of the poor, the most vulnerable populations can be targeted – easily and quickly – in the event of an emergency.

Reflection

This trip to Sirajganj has been terrific. I am grateful to VSO for including me and enabling me to see something of the practice of local government in Bangladesh. I feel privileged to have been allowed to share in the meetings that I did, and am thankful to all the organisations that welcomed me. In relation to my work in the NILG, the trip provided invaluable insights into the lives of some of our stakeholders. It also gave me the opportunity to see how local NGOs work. It got me thinking too about how different my experiences in Bangladesh could be as a volunteer, if I had been assigned to a rural area and an NGO. Finally, any travel in Bangladesh is worthwhile in its own right. My last ‘big trip’ out of Dhaka was my first self-organised solo expedition to the Sylhet division. (See post 18.) This has been a very different trip in many respects. The landscape is much flatter in Sirajganj and seems to stretch to infinity in all directions, whereas I saw more hilly terrain and woodland in the north-east. Of course each area has its own distinctive geography, economy and history: the haors, tea plantations and stone quarrying in the north-east and agriculture, aquaculture and the Chalan Beel in Sirajganj. I was privileged to witness ethnic minority life in both places. And while I got to visit with a lot of local government organisations and personnel in Sirajganj, I interacted spontaneously with a lot more local people in the north-east. In both areas, I would like to have had more freedom and time to relax in the spectacular landscapes that enveloped me. In Sirajganj, for example, there was an in inviting balcony overlooking the Chalan Beel adjoining Saima’s office in GKS: I would love to have been able to sit there quietly by myself for an hour or so. Ultimately though, both my visit to the north-east and this one to Sirajganj were exhilarating, and a foretaste I hope of more to come.

Below are a few photographs from the trip. (Unfortunately, since Cooliris was acquired by Yahoo my lovely photo walls no longer work :(. I have replaced them with links to post-specific web-album slideshows until such time as I can find a better solution.)

Click on image below for PHOTO SLIDESHOW related to this post (56 photographs in all). Enjoy!

2 Jamuna Bridge - Wikipedia

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