When we met Nargis Begum at her in-laws' home in Kochua upazila in Bagerhat district, she was at a loss for words. She did not even turn, instead kept staring out the window with blank eyes.
Nargis was waiting for her husband Hafijul Babna (30), a sea-going fisherman, who had gone missing in a tempest in the Bay of Bengal two days earlier. The year was 2015, Nargis was 25 years old and seven-month pregnant.
Her wait never ended.
Her son, now seven years old, has never seen his father. That year alone (2015), Bhasha village in Dhopakhali union of Kochua upazila, where Hafijul lived, lost 19 of its men.
Such is life in the fishing villages across the coastal areas of Bangladesh. Wives and children wait for their husbands/fathers for their entire lives, because they don't even know for sure if their loved one has died, especially because, in most cases, the body cannot be recovered.
The sons grow up hating the profession that took their father's life and choose another livelihood, or once-rich fishing boat owners go into hiding unable to repay the loan after losing one or more fishing boats to the storm - these are just some of the appalling commonplace stories in these communities.
Every couple of years, dozens of fishing boats with hundreds of artisanal fishermen capsize in the Bay of Bengal.
This year is no different. At least 38 fishing boats from different coastal districts capsized last month. Many went missing, some were rescued, and at least 114 fishers ended up in India, still waiting to return.
This rather regular loss of human lives and property - boats, fishing gear and supplies - is attributed to a number of factors, among them are the dearth of modern equipment and rescue facilities, as well as the desperation of the boat owners and fishing hands to protect the investment made into each fishing trip.
"Our artisanal fishers go to the sea like blinds. They don't have the equipment to locate fish schools, they don't even have GPS devices or marine VHF radios. Fishing boat owners spend Tk1 crore to build a boat and Tk1-2 lakh for each fishing trip, but they cannot spend some money for the safety of the fishers or modernisation of the boats," said Mirza Shahidul Islam Khaled, executive director of Sangkalpa Trust, an NGO that has been advocating and pushing for modernisation of artisanal fishing boats for a long time.
"We repeatedly called on the leaders of the fishing boat owners' association to apply to the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission (BTRC) for radio licences. We would assist them with the application process if they wanted to. But they are not active enough to pursue the matter," Khaled said, expressing his frustration.
"Indian artisanal boats that fish in the Bay of Bengal have fish finders, VHF radios, and all kinds of modern equipment," Khaled added.
The old ways versus the new equipment
To dig a little deeper into this matter, we spoke to Golam Mostafa Chowdhury, president of Patharghata Trawler Owners' Association.
"VHF radios are big deals, we haven't got them yet. But the government is now distributing GPS trackers among the fishing boats," Mostafa told The Business Standard.
"Our boat owners cannot afford VHF radios, But Indian boats are bigger, their engines are stronger [and] they have radios," Mostafa said, responding to a query.
Indian artisanal boats used to be relatively bigger than those of Bangladeshi origin. However, Bangladeshis are now building even bigger boats. While traditional boats are 7-10 tonnes, newer boats are 20-25 tonnes or more, requiring a lot more investment compared to the not-so-distant past.
Providing further details, Mostafa said that a radio costs Tk30,000 or more. When reminded that the boat owners spend a lot more money for every trip out in the sea, Mostafa said that's an expenditure the fishers cannot do without. But they can go fishing without radios.
Most artisanal fishing boats in Bangladesh do not even have the most basic safety gear like life jackets. Fishermen, in the sight of a coming storm, hold onto fishing net floats to keep themselves afloat in case of a boat capsize.
"In the last storm, 10 of Barguna's fishing boats capsized in the Bay. Only nine of our fishers went missing. If the fishers had not applied many tricks like using net floats, many more of them would have been gone," Monnan Majhi, the president of Barguna Fishing Trawler Workers' Union said.
While the absence of modern instruments remains a fact for the absolute majority of the boats, a handful of the larger boat owners have started using those.
One such boat owner is Mizanur Rahman Masum from Patharghata, Barguna. He has five boats that use VHF radios, echo sounders and fish finders.
"These modern instruments are helping me avoid unfortunate events like 18 August's storm and subsequent loss of lives. As the signal of the storm was hoisted, we informed one of our boats through the Teletalk network which covers 50 km off the shore, and the rest of the boats that were out of range were warned through VHF radios.
All of my boats reached the canals [used as harbours] before the storm hit," said Masum.
Merchant ships and Indian boats also circulate the news of a coming storm, he informed, which our traditional boats cannot receive in the absence of similar communication equipment.
"With echo sounders, we can gauge the depth of water, and we can locate fish with fish finders. These are the most essential instruments for fishing," said Masum.
Then why don't other fishing boats have them? "They are not aware of the benefits of such instruments," Masum replied. But now that some fishers have started using them, others may find them useful as well.
But that does not solve the problem.
The setbacks beyond lack of awareness
Two months back, a fishing boat from Patuakhali's Mohipal was seized for using such devices because the boat didn't have the necessary permits. Fishers from other areas also said that Bangladesh's security apparatus is barring them from using such devices in the sea, reportedly fearing that those could be used in illegal activities.
Seemingly another huge factor discouraging the fishers from using modern equipment. Artisanal fishing boats, most of which are not registered with the Department of Shipping, cannot get licence for VHF radios from BTRC. Mohammad Abdul Mannan, Deputy Assistant Director of the Spectrum Department of BTRC, said only fishing boat owners with registration can apply for radio licences.
Boat owners need to go to the Mercantile Marine Office under the Department of Shipping, located in Chattogram and Khulna, to apply for registration. And for the radio licence, they will have to go to BTRC's Dhaka office. Only a small number of bigger wooden boats actually have registration.
Mercantile Marine Office actually holds meetings with the sea-going fishers to encourage them to get registrations. But the campaigns have seen little success so far.
While a lucky trip can fetch the fishers tons of fish worth many hundreds of thousand taka, increasing number of depressions in a warmer sea and competition from illegally fishing boats from India and Myanmar, as well as local industrial trawlers means fishers now get unlucky trips more often than not. In recent years, many artisanal fishing boat owners went bankrupt.
In such a fragile and unpredictable financial state, artisanal fishers do not find interest in paying registration fees and bearing the burden of paperwork.
Experts opined that there needs to be one-stop service to provide necessary papers.
"There are instances where countries provide up to 90% subsidy in VHF radio for artisanal fishing boats. There should be bureaucratic red-tape-free arrangements for fishers to be able to purchase a radio, submit details on the BTRC's website and download the licence from the site," said Mohammad Arju, communications coordinator of Indigenous Peoples' and Community Conserved Areas Consortium.
The conservationist said the sea has become more unpredictable nowadays, and the days with fair weather are decreasing in number every year. In such a situation, communication instruments must be made available for fishers, he stressed.
Fishers said the Coast Guard should be equipped with rescue vessels and aircraft to run rescue operations after storms. They also underlined the need for an insurance facility that could cushion the impact of a failed fishing trip.
Meanwhile, under a World Bank-funded project titled Bangladesh Sustainable Coastal and Marine Fisheries, the Department of Fisheries is installing tracking systems in fishing vessels.
"Initially, we will install trackers in 1,500 industrial trawlers and 8,500 artisanal boats under the project. So far we've installed 1,000 of those. Eventually, we will issue an SRO (Statutory Regulatory Order) to make every fishing vessel use them," Kh. Mahbubul Haque, additional director general and project director at the Department of Fisheries told The Business Standard.
The official said the system will be activated in October.
The trackers in the artisanal boats are dependent on mobile phone networks. Mahbubul Haque said it will work within a 38 km offshore range. The trackers in the industrial trawlers, however, are capable of using satellite links.
Will the trackers help rescue distressed or capsized boats?
Fishers said most boats fish outside the 38 km range. Most boats built on the southern coast remain afloat, even when flooded or overturned but boats made in the Chattogram-Cox's Bazar area go underwater right away because of the heavier wood used in building the boat.
Even the floating boats wash away to the Indian side of the sea by the time the sea is calm, making the recovery impossible, fishermen added.
But the trackers will be useful in controlling the fishing operations, the project director said. "We'll be able to identify which boats have gone fishing, how long they are in the sea, etc," said the additional director general.