Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sand Business

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(View on an embankment in Mymensingh. On the left is the Kalli Bari community, on the right the Brahmaputra River.)
When I enter the Kalli Bari community in the Northeastern part of Mymensingh I find the roads muddy after two days of rain. Until one year ago people lived directly next to the Brahmaputra River and were threatened by floods during every rainy season. Now the settlement occupies a narrow strip located along a recently built embankment. That the river is not only a threat but also a source of income I quickly learn here. The word ‘river-bank’ makes sense in two different ways in Kalli Bari.

(A ridge of sand silt in Kalli Bari.)

A heavy yellow truck with charming paintings on all its surfaces struggles to escape the mire. Its engine revs noisily. Eventually, the truck wrests itself from the mud and departs with a load of fresh fine sand, exposing a small ridge of grey sand-silt to my view. Mixed water and sand is pumped through pipes from a boat in the river onto the top of the ridge. The sand-silt then dries as the water drains off through other pipes on the bottom of the ridge and returns to the river. What remains is fine grey river sand ready for construction purposes.

(Abdul Modtaleb (right, with the white shirt) is supervising the sand business in Kalli Bari.)

I meet Abdul Modtaleb working among others on top of the silt. He is the supervisor of the sand business at this part of the river, with experience stretching back more than 15 years. Abdul lives here with his wife, kids and parents. Because they did not have land in their home village his parents moved to Mymensingh in 1974. Before he started the sand business he was working in a saw mill factory. He makes around 500 Tk. a day now and this is enough to maintain himself and his family. “The price of the sand from here is 1.5 Tk. per cubic foot (about 28 litres), but 40 percent of the proceeds from every cubic foot sold goes to a private investor. We can keep the other 60 percent. Business is going well.” The investor holds a leasing contract with the Pourashava of Mymensingh for the rights to the extraction of sand on this particular stretch of the Brahmaputra River. At the same moment as Abdul is explaining how well his business flows, the stream of silt suddenly gets interrupted. “What is happening? Work finished today?”, I ask.“No, no this is normal. Every 20 to 30 minutes the machine gets stuck”, he replies.

(On the boat. The filter in the middle of the pipe gets stuck every 20 to 30 minutes because of garbage which is also extracted from the riverbank.)

To discover the reason why the silt flow stopped I ask him to show me the heart of his business. We cross the embankment, following the pipes down to the river. A small raft brings us to two boats which are tied together forming a catamaran. When we step on the boat we meet Kanchan, the machine operator. He is busy unhooking wet garbage from a small metal container incorporated within an arrangement of two engines, rods, pipes and arbors. A smell of diesel is in the air although the engine is not running. Everything looks quite improvised. Before the silt is pumped through the pipe to the ridge at the riverbank, it passes a filter. “The problem is that there is garbage all over the riverbed, so that the machine has to be stopped to free the filter from the garbage. We have to stop it every half an hour.”, Kanchan says. He is about twenty years old and has been working with machines since he was twelve. He has never been to college but he understands the kinks of this Chinese engine. He has learnt by doing. At the beginning of his working life, Kanchan learnt about electric wiring and air conditioning before five years ago he secured a job the assistant technician, later getting promoted to his current position. Together with his parents, Kanchan also lives in Kalli Bari. Because Kanchan is still unmarried he can live on the 280 Tk. he gets every day from the consortium.

(Kanchan fixes a problem with the engine.)

Only two weeks back, a consortium of ten people from Mymensingh used their private savings to purchase the boat with its equipment from the same private investor who holds the leasing contract. Abdul Modtaleb is part of this consortium, each of whom owns an equal share of ten percent of the business.

(Kanchan's "invention".)

To compensate for the current of and the waves on the river, Kanchan invented a flexible piece of pipe so that the main pipe can not break. It also looks very improvised but seems to work. However, with the upcoming rainy season the river will have more water and the current will be too strong to operate the suction machine for about two months. Even the invention made by Kanchan will not help then and during that time the equipment will be stored at the riverbank . Abdul will be able to earn during that period by selling a stock of sand they have already accumulated, but for Kanchan it will mean unemployment. Maybe he can use the time to find a wife and get married. “I would like to, but my parents are going to decide this issue” he comments.

(Eventually they engine runs again and Abdul and Kanchan are back in business.)

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