Moulvibazar, Sylhet: The indomitable spirit of Khasia communities in the face of Covid-19

In the tribal villages located in Moulvibazar, Bangladesh, Khasia community leaders have enforced strict restrictions so that no life is sacrificed during the pandemic. Sohanur Rahman reports.

This is the forty-fifth in the series of stories from Voices from the Frontline initiative by ICCCAD and CDKN.

Khasia (also known as Khasi) is a matriarchal ethnic group found in the Indian state of Meghalaya and north-east Bangladesh. They live a segregated life in hilly, forested villages and mostly rely on betel leaf cultivation for a livelihood. Khasias call their villages “punjis”, which are clusters of houses within the cultural boundary of their own community.

Magurchhara Punji is a tribal village inhabited by the Khasia community. It is located in Kamalganj Upazila of Moulvibazar District which is an administrative region of Northeast Sylhet division, Bangladesh. In this division, there are about 90 Khasia Punji sheltering 40,000 Khasia people. During the lockdown, the Khasia community in Magurchhara Punji has shown extraordinary skills in following health guidelines and safeguarding their locality.

Dealing with Covid-19

Gdision Prodhan Suchiang (51) is the headman (leader of the clan) of Magurchhara punji and president of a community-based organisation called “Khasi Social Council” which comprises 30 headmen from different punjis. When the first Covid-19 case of Bangladesh was identified in March, the members of the social council decided to inform their community about it.

They wanted to start off by sharing leaflets with important information and precautionary measures related to Covid-19. But since many of them do not understand Bengali language, they decided to run awareness campaigns in the local language instead.

“We have also protected our punjis by barricading entrances with  traditional fences. We are running from one punji to another — advising everyone to wear masks, maintain social distancing, and adhere to hygiene rules. We ourselves maintain strict hygiene and use protective gears during the campaigns,” says Gdision.

In each punji, people have been put under strict lockdown: only those who are sick are able to leave – to get medical assistance. Residents who have been elsewhere are asked to maintain a 14-days quarantine outside before they can enter. Not even relatives of the residents have been allowed to enter during this time. Handwritten notices were posted in the punjis to warn away visitors including people from other punjis.

“Even sacks of rice and pulses bought from outside were disinfected and kept in a hut adjacent to the punji gate for a week, as a precaution against the virus. Under the strict restriction, community people have stocked three month worth of food and daily commodities in the punjis and going out was only permissible if it is for medical purposes. Piling up of goods reduced the number of visits of the vendors and whenever they visited, they were strictly told to wear masks,” he adds.

For perishable goods such as fish and vegetables, they hired two fixed vendors who would deliver the items at selected locations. After buying them, the community members were guided to wash the items properly at home. After three months when the stockpile began to decrease, each family made a list of what they would need for the next month. The volunteers collected all the lists and sent them to a shop. After receipt, the products were disinfected and kept in a secluded place for 5 days and then distributed.

From January 2021, the headmen have permitted the villagers to visit the local market but only to buy one month’s worth of supply. They have also decided to let customers enter punjis for business purposes with proper hygiene measures.

Public gatherings at religious places have also been restricted by the headmen. For the first three months, even priests and nuns who made regular pastoral visits to the village were not allowed. On Sundays, villagers held prayer gatherings in the village chapel. Recently, priests and nuns have been allowed to visit on a limited scale following health guidelines.

Following these precautionary actions, none of the villagers have been infected. Other punjis followed the same process and people have been saved from the deadly coronavirus.

Cultivation of betel leaves

Traditionally, Khasia communities grow betel-leaf on trees which is different from plain land betel-leaf cultivation. Tree-based betel-leaf cultivation is a productive and sustainable agroforestry system. Following the countrywide shutdown and business closures due to the pandemic, betel leaf cultivation was put off for a month. It created an extra financial burden on the communities, but thankfully they could recover from it after a while.

After a month of shutdown, they again start cultivating and selling betel leaves. “For this, we chose a place outside our area. There, we conducted our trading with proper hygiene protocols. After that we properly washed our hands with soap, soaked our feet in disinfectant solution and sprayed them before entering the punji,” explains Gdision.

The education of Khisia children was not much hampered compared to others, as schools used to function in two shifts, one in Khasia language and another in Bengali. As the Khasia language shift is facilitated by villagers themselves, they restarted it after being closed for two months. But the Bengali shift is still closed, in compliance with government rules.

“We suffer badly at times due to the poor condition of hilly roads and no electricity facilities. There are so many remote punjis where there are no modern facilities. People outside the community mocked us for such extreme restriction but villagers ignored them. Our main objective was to protect the community people from the pandemic by applying their own indigenous knowledge and practices. All these efforts have enabled us and the restrictions will continue in the village as long as it is needed,” he adds.

“Dealing with such calamity like the pandemic is new. The pandemic has helped us learn lessons like how to maintain better relationships with each other, help the poor and helpless, or change our food habits if necessary. The main reason behind our initiative was that we did not want to lose anyone. We did not want any family to lose a loved one and we were successful. Not a single life was lost during this pandemic,” he concludes.

Interviewer’s Perspective

The story of Maguchhara punji has shown the world that it is not that hard to follow the rules. If a remote village with no modern facilities and amenities can follow rules that can save their people, then why can’t we? It has further highlighted that indigenous knowledge is very essential to tackle any crisis. Community-driven approaches and local leadership has enabled them to protect their community with no casualties. So promotion of local traditional knowledge and enhancement of local leadership is extremely important to deal with future crises. But at the same time, it is also important for the government to listen to their needs and respond accordingly. Government must acknowledge and protect the rights of indigenous people to food security, healthcare, entrepreneurship development, and agriculture.


About the Interviewer

Sohanur Rahman is the coordinator of YouthNet for Climate Justice, the largest youth network working to support coastal communities during humanitarian crises. He advocates globally on youth-based rights, especially in the areas of climate change, disaster risk reduction and global Agenda 2030.

About the interviewees

Gdision Prodhan Suchiang is a 51 years old Christian man. He has been living in Magurchhara Khasia Punji since his birth. He is the headman of Magurchhara punji and the president of Khasi Social Council.