They are referred to as "floating people". For generations, they have been living in boats and earning their livelihood by catching fish from rivers.
These people have demanded that they be known as the Sardar community, another version of the Dalit, an ethnic community. However, their identity is mentioned as "Bede" (snake charmer) in the National Identity Card (NID). This bars them from getting the Fisherman Identity Card (FIC) and facilities meant for fishermen. They expressed their discontent and said they are not "Bedes". They feel "snake charmer" is a stigma, as people look upon them negatively.
Moreover, it is an obstacle for getting the Fisherman Identity Card issued by the government. Although fishing is their only livelihood, the government has issued only eight FICs for 90 families (about 200 fishermen) of Tulatoli in the Meghna river basin of Bhola district.
For those having FICs, the government provides certain facilities during the period when there is ban on catching fish. These include 40kg of rice and some cash, to enable them to continue with their livelihood.
However, the FIC holders alleged that they are not given the rice.
Sanu Sardar, head of this community, told The Independent: “We have been catching fish for generations. We don’t have any land as our homes were destroyed in river erosion. We are not Bedes (snake charmer). The government mentions in our identity card that we are Bedes. It is a stigma on us as we cannot mingle with local people. Actually our profession is fishing, not entertaining people with snakes. As it has been mentioned that we are Bedes, we do not get the Fisherman Identity Card.”
Two other fishermen, Abdur Rahim Sardar and Bishu Sardar, agreed with him. This correspondent found that their culture and lifestyle are different from those of snake charmers. They live in boats and earn their livelihood by catching fish, while snake charmers live in boats and tents on riverbanks and earn their livelihood entertaining people with snakes and selling herbal medicines. Their women go from door to door selling bangles, cosmetics and many other things.
They often try to heal pain of old people by sucking blood. Experts said people who live in boats traditionally and catch fish call themselves Sardars. They are something like the fishermen community but live in boats. The status in the NID that mentions Bede sharply contradicts the Constitution of the country. It is also a new identity crisis for the river and climate resilience community.
“The government cannot change the identity of any ethnic community. They are traditionally fishermen and live in boats on rivers. The government should ensure their identity," said Pavel Partha, researcher, Ecology and Biodiversity Conservation Coordinator, BARCIK (Bangladesh Resource Centre for Indigenous Knowledge).
“In their NIC, their permanent address has been mentioned as the bank of the Meghna river. People who have no land, have a permanent address on the river bank. The government has no special policy for these floating people. The mainstream people have no idea about the community. As they are mentioned as Bede, they cannot move about freely.”
When contacted, Kamal Hossain, Upazila Nirbahai Officer (UNO) of Bhola Sadar, admitted that they are not Bedes.
“They earn their livelihood by catching fish. If they lodge a complaint with us that they are facing problems for being mentioned as Bede in the NID, we will take up the issue with the higher authorities. If anyone does not get the rice sanctioned, we will take action after getting a complaint,” he added.