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19 : Ethnic minority youth responses

Young social activists’ effort on social media for fundraising to stand beside indigenous marginalised communities. — Banafuler Jonno Jumma Toruner Valobasa/Facebook

The wrath of COVID-19 left no one untouched, but impacts of the outbreak are different based on the class, gender, religious and ethnic identities. Nahid Riyasad writes after attending a virtual discussion on adivasi youths’ experience of and responses to the COVID-19 pandemic  


THE ongoing pandemic has brought everyone except for the corrupts to their knees. Irrespective of class, race and culture, people are affected by deadly virus. The public health emergency has subsequently impacted the global economic system. When people closer to the economic centres are losing jobs in millions, margnalised communities are also struggling the same obstacle but the degree and scale of their suffering is much greater.

A group of youth leaders from ethnic minority communities has organised a virtual discussion on the struggles of their communities with a focus on young lives during COVID-19. The talk was organised by the youth office of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum and hosted from the Facebook page of inpnewsbd, a platform for indigenous peoples’ news in Bangladesh. Sohel Chandra Hajang, organising secretary of Bangladesh National Hajang Organisation moderated the discussion session and youth leaders from different corners of Bangladesh was present as panelists.

The panelists were: Alik Mree, general secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Chatra-Sangram Parishad, Chandra Tripura, general secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Cultural Forum, Horen Nath Singh, president of National Adivasi Youth Forum, Ripon Banai, youth secretary of Bangladesh Adivasi Forum, Tamlimon Bareh, social worker

Some of the main concerns addressed in their discussion include youths facing lay-off, accommodation crisis for students in the city, food security and access to health care in remote areas. However, the event not only discussed prevailing crisis, but talked the ways youths in the community are coming forward in time of crisis.

Many minority youths have lost their job since March when the pandemic COVID-19 reached Bangladesh. They are now passing their days in frustration and uncertainty, said Alik Mree.

Particularly affected are young indigenous women working at beauty parlors in urban areas. ‘I know a few who have already left Dhaka for their district towns and started working as day labour. I have also received complains that in most of the cases, they are facing wage discrimination for their gender identity,’ Alik added.

Mree also shared how his fellow organisers have created connections among the marginalised families in their respective areas and providing food and daily necessities.

Chandra Tripura is optimistic about the youth’s effort in building community resilience during COVID-19 outbreak. More youth from the community, in her view, have lent their hands in relief and other initiatives in their respective community. ‘I have seen a lot of youth are organising on social media platforms and share their experiences on how to bring relief to their communities during these days,’ she said.

Tripura also mentioned ‘Banafuler Jonno Jumma Toruner Valobasa’ (Jumma Youths’ Love for Banophul), a youth online platform that have raised more than Tk half a million and distributed daily necessities among Jumma people. 

In March, measles outbreak in Chittagong Hill Tracts claimed more than 10 children’s lives and the media has blamed insufficient medical facilities for these deaths. In collaboration with indigenous youth groups, Kapaeeng Foundation has responded with necessary medical expertise. 

Among the approximately 50 different ethnic identities currently living in Bangladesh, the inhabitants living in the northern parts are even more marginalised because their settlements are far from the urban centres, so their economic vulnerability during the pandemic have different dimension, said Horen Nath Singh.

He also mentioned that adivasis for their cultural orientation are historically reluctant to take or to ask for help from anyone else outside their community.

‘Because of this characteristics, the situation is worst for them as they are too proud to take help. Nonetheless, organisationally we are trying to contact the vulnerable and economically marginalised people and provide them with bare minimums so they could survive the ongoing ordeal’, Haren added.

Sohel Chandra Hajang elaborated their three-step measures through a network which started four months ago for Hajang communities. ‘The three steps are spreading awareness, raising funds and connecting indigenous communities with organisations or charities.’

Banai people mainly lives in Sunamganj and Mymensingh and are very few in numbers and they are facing unprecedented hurdles during the outbreak. Most of the members of the community are day labourers or work in informal sector so they faced severe food scarcity, said Ripon Banai.

Ripon, indicating to the recent budget and the government claim of providing over seven crore citizens food, said that many Banai, Dolu or Hodi communities have not received any government allocation. ‘These people have been under serious crisis and the state has responsibility towards’, he said.

Alik Mree also echoed Ripon Banai when he said that the government has failed to allocate anything specific to address the crisis of ethnic minorities of Bangladesh. ‘When mrginalised communities including adivasis needed more dedicated attention in the national budget and they are entitled to government support, they are simply left out’, Alik noted.

Chandra Tripura raised an important issue that once a family gets relief, naturally, the volunteer’s will try to provide another family in the next batch. Now, the amount of goods or cash provided are barely fitting for a week for a five-member family. How are they managing with that for four months, asked Chandra?

Incorporating internet technology for organising purpose has been a great leap for indigenous youths and strengthening technological knowledge will help them to combat the current crisis, said Chandra. She also said that the large number of indigenous youths working across the country, mainly in informal sector, should take the advantage of technology and think about localising their income sources which will help their own communities.

Tamlimon Bareh is a social worker from Khashia community who indicated that many members of their ethnic minority communities have no idea about the government relief programmes. The government has not even bothered to reached out to them, they are passing their days in misery. However, as mentioned, youth are playing the important role of connecting these two parties. 

Speakers also talked about the incidents of human rights violations against the ethnic minority communities during the COVID-19 outbreak. A Shantal woman and two Garo women were sexually molested, two Garo families in Dhaka were tortured over house rent.

In a separate event organised by Bangladesh Adivasi-Chatra Sangram Parishad on July 10, young indigenous women talked about the hurdles they have faced so far in the current crisis. In the programme moderated by Alik Mree, the panelists were Sabittre Hembram, vice president of Adivasi Chatra-Sangram Parishad, Jemi Tanchangya, Promi Khisha and Eliza Raksam.

The panelists elaborated on students issue like loss of time, accommodation crisis and overall conditions of their respective communities. They also discussed on different student initiatives targeted to help the marginalised communities.

The discussion session is a testament that ethnic minority communities in Bangladesh are at even worse situation during the COVID-19 outbreak. As most of the income channels are cut with no assurance of food and medical supplies, it is, as if, the state has disowned them. The recently announced budget with no specific mention for these communities indicates that the authorities pay little attention to their survival.

What the speakers said over and again that the state should take responsibility of these communities or at least include them in their social safety net programmes, otherwise, the government’s claim for an inclusive development will prove to be a sham.

Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth.

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