Mongla female crab farmers struggling to survive

The time of the year that Priyanka Biswas usually waits with the bated breath - crab harvesting season - turned her down this year instead, pushing her towards the brink of nervous breakdown.

After incurring huge losses during the previous season this year, the 21-one-year-old crab farmer from Sonaitola union of Mongla in the coastal district of Bagerhat and her husband are expecting to make good money from export during the time but they are yet to get any green signal from the buyers.

The couple are in utter despair as their crabs remain unsold and left to die.

"These crabs will die if those remain unsold for another one or two months. We have incurred a huge loss after the suspension of crab export in February due to the deadly outbreak of novel coronavirus. Our earnings fell drastically and it will be a double blow if we cannot sell those this time," said frustrated Priyanka.

After starting crab cultivation in a small pond seven years back, Priyanka learnt the scientific method of farming crab from Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) in 2014. She and her husband then took a lease of 28 bighas of pond, with a yearly instalment of Tk 3.50 lakh for farming female crabs.

And the profit was quite good – around Tk 7 lakh per year. The crabs are being imported to livemarkets of China, other South Asian countries and frozen markets of Europe. But things took a turn for the worse after the detection of Covid-19 in the country as Priyanka could sell only 25 percent of the crabs to Chinese buyers in Dhaka.

"Within two months (March-April), all the remaining crabs died in unsold condition. It was a loss of more than Tk 1.5 lakh. We released baby crabs worth around Tk 1.80 lakh in our ponds in January," she said.

She could not sell those locally as there was little demand in the market. One kg of crab was sold at Tk 200 while it was sold at Tk 2,200 to the buyers before the coronavirus outbreak.

Priyanka added that two months ago they were told by crab buyers in the local market that the export would resume after Eid-ul-Azha, and they again released baby crabs in their pond spending Tk 50,000. Those crabs were ready for harvesting in 40 days of release. But she did not get any response from the buyers.

"I don't know how we would pay the money to the land owner this year and when will everything go back to normal," she said.

Like Priyanka, suspension of crab export to virus-stricken China has left 358 female crab sellers in Mongla struggling to survive, said Md Shafiqur Rahman, project lead, women and youth entrepreneurship and employability at VSO Bangladesh.

He added that although they tried to earn by farming fish, those could not help much. Because, they get quick returns from crabs as those could be harvested in 40 days. But other fish require six months to sell.

Shafiqur said an overwhelming majority of these women once worked as day labourers at others' farms, before the project started.

"But, with their sound knowledge and our assistance, every one of them brought a change in their lives in the past years, in terms of financial solvency and decision making, asset development, and a better lifestyle," he said.

"But currently, all are struggling as their savings dried up amid a fall-off in the demand of crab," he said.

Although Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on April 12 announced a stimulus package of Tk 3,000 crore to give financial assistance to small and medium farmers to help them face the fallout of Covid-19, most of the female crab farmers are unaware of such support.

Hasan Ahmed Chowdhury, deputy director (finance and planning), department of fisheries, agreed that most of the farmers are not aware of how they can avail the money.

"The money from the stimulus package is being disbursed via the state-owned banks. At first, the concerned farmers, who need the money, should inform the upazila fisheries officer about his fallout due to the pandemic. Then the officer will visit his/her farm and receive his/her application," he said.

"We have a committee to select the beneficiaries in every upazila. If the committee has no objection, the loan is disbursed in accordance with the procedure of the banks," he added.

Sources at the finance ministry said that the progress of disbursement of the fund is slow. Last month, Bangladesh Bank last month extended the timeframe of disbursement.

As of August 31, the total disbursed amount was Tk 286 crore.

Noted agriculture activist Rezaul Karim Siddiqui said as the government announced it to help the farmers, there must be adequate campaigns so that these badly affected farmers can avail the support.

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