A fishing village by Kalni river: The charm and economics of Das Para Shutki Dangi
Inside the lives of a small fishing community in Kishoreganj who produce dry fish that reaches all corners of the country, and travels overseas as well
A part of the Kalni River that breaks away before merging with Meghna, flows beside the Kuliarchar bazaar in Kishoreganj. The Das community (a Kaibarta caste) lives by this flow of Kalni.
There are more than 6,000 people in this community, in the locality. For generations, they have survived by fishing in the river.
Besides fishing, a big part of the community is engaged in the dry fish business on the bank of Kalni. They call it 'Dangi' – a kind of raised bamboo-made platform where they process the fish and dry them in the sunlight.
The rooftop of Das Para crematorium offers a bird's eye panoramic view of a vast area encompassing bamboo-made Dangis raised high on the river bank – earthen jars surrounding each of them, and fishing nets spread in all corners.
Standing on top of the crematorium amid dozens of pigeons in mid-flight, we felt the intense sun scorching the land, in contrast to a typical February day.
The drying fish on the vast river bank exuded a distinct smell, but not the typical pungent smell of dry fish. This was tolerable.
Different traders own different Dangis – all established side by side.
From puti and boaal to ayer, dozens of variants of freshwater Shutki are found in Das Para Dangi. And they command a good reputation in Bangladesh, and also in different parts of the world.
Generally, more than a hundred Dangis are set up here every year. But this year, the number fell to less than a hundred because business is comparatively dull now, according to the Dangi owners.
The founders, owners and most of the workers in this Dangi are traditionally from within the Das community. From teenagers to septuagenarian elders, people of all ages and genders work together here.
Torulota Das, a mother of three daughters, was working in one of these Dangis when we visited. She was collecting dried puti fish to put in earthen jars. They transport the dried fish to wholesalers in these jars.
"I have been working here for over 15 years," she said. "My husband is a fisherman. My entire family is either involved in fishing or working in dried fish Dangis."
Shurobala Das, working beside her, said she has two sons. One of them went abroad as a migrant worker, and the other works in Dangi.
Ekanto Das, a high-school dropout, was working in a neighbouring Dangi. "I studied till class eight. I don't like studying. So I left school and started working here," he said.
More than 800 metric tons of dry fish in a year
District fisheries officer Ripon Kumar Paul said that there are more than 800 beneficiaries (including owners and workers) here at the Das Para Dangi, whose livelihood depends on the dried fish business.
"If we consider the number of their family members, a lot of people directly benefit from the Dangi," Ripon said.
"Kishoreganj produces around 1,500 metric tons of dried fish [yearly]. Of this, more than 800 metric tons are produced in Kuliarchar Das Para Dangi," the fisheries officer said.
"This is the largest Dangi in Kishoreganj. This is also one of the largest freshwater Shutki Mahal in the country," he said. "Starting with smaller fishes, they produce Shutki of gojar, ayer, boaal, baila, and all other freshwater fish."
Osto Lal Das, a 40-year-old man, owns a Dangi here in partnership with his brother Jawhar Lal Das. He has been in this business for 13 years.
Osto Lal was producing puti dry, which is known as Chepa Shutki in Bangla. This is one of the top-selling Shutki variants that costs around Tk1,000 to Tk1,400 per kg, depending on the quality.
His Shutki were almost ready to be transported to the wholesalers in the earthen jars.
"I was born into this," Osto Lal said. "All the dried fish that you see here are freshwater fish. For example, puti, shoil [shol], boaal, ayer, baim, lathi fish, tengra, gutum, keski [kechki] and everything else."
But Osto Lal regretted that many "good fish" like Mohashol, for example, have become nearly extinct in Bangladesh.
"I myself caught 'Taka fish' once. But those fishes are gone. I don't know what they are called in other places, maybe Rupchanda. We called it Taka fish," he said.
Veiled Dangis, widespread reputation
While visiting the bamboo-raised platforms, we found all these Dangis covered by fishing nets from every corner.
We asked Osto Lal, why this protection? "You see the crows out there? Who wants to give away such expensive fish to them?" he laughed.
"Once upon a time we threw puti fish back in the water. There was so much fish we didn't mind wasting it. I saw that much fish with my own eyes," he said.
"And we ate so much fish, we have no more desire to eat fish anymore. But our children will not see that. They can only read about them in books," he added.
The dry fish traders in Das Para Dangi buy fish from Kuliarchar Dewarsagar Bazar.
The Shutki of this Dangi is sent to Dhaka, Chattogram, Sylhet and different corners of Bangladesh. "Our fish go abroad as well. Our migrant brothers order fish from here, because our Shutki are very fresh and poison-free," Osto Lal said.
District fisheries officer Ripon Kumar Paul also agreed with him. He confirmed that the dried fish produced here are exported to India, the United Arab Emirates, Japan, the United Kingdom and the United States.
"The reputation of Kuliarchar Shutki is widespread all over the country, and abroad. This is especially popular in India's seven sister regions," he said.
'This is our national business'
While exploring the Dangi, we met Biswanath Das, a septuagenarian man, under the bamboo platforms.
He said he has seen this Dangi since he was a boy, and worked here all his life, as many do in their community. "It was smaller in size before, but now it is very big," said Biswanath, now a retired man.
Gaurango Chandra Das, a mid-aged dry fish trader, is president of the Dangi owners' association.
"This is our national business," Gaurango said. "This Dangi is an old one. We don't know its exact age. My father and grandfather also had a dry fish business here. This Dangi was established by our Das community back in the day."
"We are a Kaibarta nation [a Hindu fishing tribe, or descendants of], Das actually. Our home is on the bank of the river. All the houses you can see by the Kalni river belong to the fishermen – our people," he said.
People with different financial strengths do business here.
"Everyone doesn't have the same ability," he said, "While someone may sell more than a crore taka worth Shutki a season, others may sell only Tk10 lakh to Tk50 lakh per season."
Gender-based pay disparity among Dangi workers
Each of the Dangis hires 15 to 20 people depending on the rush; both male and female workers.
A Dangi owner named Rakha Basi Bormon for example hired around 20 people while Osto Lal hired around 17 people, mostly women, last season.
However, speaking with Dangi owners and workers, we realised that there is a grave gender-based pay disparity between male and female workers.
A worker named Mominul at Rakhal Basi's Dangi told us that he can earn around Tk15,000 a month. And most workers like him, Mominul said, earn something like that.
But Torulota Das said, "Our pay is very small. They pay me Tk130 per day."
President Gauranga, however, claimed that the women's pay is between Tk150 to Tk200 per day.
But he admitted that while a male worker can earn something between Tk12-16,000 per month here, a female worker's earning is something between Tk5-10,000.
Cry for easy loans
According to Osto Lal, the Dangi business is getting dull each year because the prices of fish are increasing, which is damaging their livelihood. "Last year, I did more than a crore Taka business from my Dangi. But this year, there is a scarcity of fish. I only bought around Tk10 lakh worth of fish as of now in this season."
Gaurango Das also said that business was a little dull this year. He said the number of Dangi was more than 100 last year, but this year the number has come down.
But instead of blaming the scarcity of fish as the reason behind the dull business, he said that it was the unavailability of easy loans that was discouraging people. "We are actually poor people. We neither have money, nor land. We even have to pay around Tk15-25,000 each year as land leases," Gaurango said.
"Most people do this business by taking loans. It requires a lot of money. Many take loans from NGOs or from local Mahajans with high-interest rates. The banks don't give us loans. They demand land or valuables as a mortgage."
Gaurango said that they had participated in a meeting with local government officials about facilitating more easily accessible bank loans, who promised them he would solve this issue.
"Nothing happened. They only use us, but give us nothing," Gaurango said.