Indigenous People’s Economy, Myths and Realities

Last updated Jun 5th, 2020


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The economy of the people (particularly the indigenous peoples) is mostly based on agriculture.

According to Land Revenue Administration Report of 1965-66, the total area of the CHT was 32,59,520 acres, the total cropped area was 2,23,002 acres, and the net cropped area being only 1,30,000 acres.

That means, less than seven percent of the land in CHT is suitable for cultivation.[1]

The amount of land for plough cultivation is even less. The construction of Kaptai Dam in the early sixties, which submerged 54,000 acres or 40 percent of the most fertile plough lands of the CHT, added to the already existing land crisis in the CHT.

The topography and soil condition of the CHT made the people resort to Jum cultivation.

Besides Jum, plough cultivation is also practiced by the indigenous people in the plainlands, mostly in the river valleys.

Previously, Jum not only provided enough food to feed families, but also created surplus.[2]

But the situation is quite different now. The CHT, once a food surplus area, has now turned into food deficit area.[3]

The old observation, “Misery, undernourishment and starvation, a well-known feature in Bengal plains, did not exist in the hills.”[4], is no longer true.

After the Kaptai dam, some indigenous people, mostly living in and around the reservoir area, took to fruits gardening as a source of their livelihood.

Some even took to fishing, previously an unappreciated occupation to the indigenous people.

The fruit gardeners did not fare too badly during the initial years.[5]

But later they could not maintain the trend due to deteriorating soil condition and lack of adequate marketing facilities.

Problems of Population Growth

In Bangladesh, more than 121 million (in 1995) people are squeezed into an area of 1,47,570 sq. kilometers.[6]

Until the seventies, the rate of population growth in the CHT was almost similar to the one in all of Bangladesh. But between 1974 and 1981, the growth rate became abnormally high.

During this period, while the population growth rate in Bangladesh was about 18 percent, it was 47 percent in the CHT.

This abnormal growth in population in the CHT has been caused due to government sponsored, planned in-migration of Bengali settlers from the plains.

The ratio of indigenous and Bengali population in the CHT was 91:9 in 1951 and 88:12 in 1961. But in 1981 the ratio became 59:41.[7]

There are reports that during 1960-1987 (mostly during late seventies and early eighties) about 580,000 Bengalis were settled in the CHT under state sponsored settlement programmes.[8]

The planned settlement of Bengalis has caused enormous harm to the already miserable economic condition of the indigenous people.

The land crisis became more acute (forceful dispossession of indigenous peoples’ land was a regular phenomenon) and the occupational structure of the indigenous peoples also changed.

Classified into two major categories of occupation, Agriculture and Non-agriculture, it was found that in 1961 about 87 percent of the total working force in the CHT was engaged in agriculture and it came down to 59 percent by 1981.[9]

Historically, the indigenous peoples are agriculturists.

The sudden change in occupation (without having time and facilities to pursue other occupations) made many indigenous people ‘fish-out of water’.

Effects of Commercialism

Historical and geographical conditions made indigenous people in CHT less conversant with modern trade and commerce.

Earlier, because of their traditional right to land and abundance of forest resources, the indigenous peoples did not have to depend on the market for making livelihood.

They depended on the market only for purchase of a few items such as salt, dry fish, agricultural appliances, etc.

They used to barter their surplus agricultural and forest products in exchange for these items from Bengali traders.

The advent of commercialism in the CHT brought in more negative than positive impact on the economy of the indigenous peoples.

Firstly, the commercial trickeries were unknown to them and even by nature they disliked these.

Secondly, they were somewhat ignorant about the concept of private property and commercial value of land and other properties.

Thirdly, and most importantly, they were (and still are) victims of unscrupulous businessmen.

As in the past, trade and commerce in the CHT is absolutely controlled by Bengali traders from the plains.

They hold top business and commercial positions and most of the shops in the market and commercial places are owned by them.[10]

They have established near monopolies in wholesale and retail trades, in credit and in transport and other service sectors.

One would hardly find any indigenous person holding top commercial and business positions.

Thus, the Bengalis hold relatively higher forms of production relations in almost all the sectors of the CHT economy.

Because of this advantage and because of the natural operation of market forces, the Bengalis will continue to exploit their innocent indigenous brethren.

The common concept of the rich becoming richer (implying the Bengalis) and the poor becoming poorer (implying the indigenous peoples) under the market economy seems to be inevitable in the CHT, unless remedial measures are taken immediately.

Effects of Industrialization

The state of industrialization in the CHT is low even by Bangladesh standard.

However, the CHT holds some key industries like Karnafuli Paper and Rayon Mills, Kaptai Hydro-electric Project, Wooden and Timber Factory, Boat Building Industrial Corporation, Dockyards, Aziz Industries, etc.

But, most of the employees/workers in these industries are imported from outside the CHT.

At one stage of normal operation, the Karnafuli Paper Mill employed only 14 hillmen out of the total labour force of 3,290 persons.[11] The picture is almost same with respect to other industries.

Until recently the largest hydroelectric project in Kaptai supplied electricity to Chittagong and other places of Bangladesh, keeping in dark almost the entire CHT.

“Every house of the tribesmen is so to say a small factory of one variety or the other”.[12]

— though indigenous peoples possess the skills of various crafts (weaving, pottery, cane works, dyeing, woodworks, etc), few of them find jobs in related state-owned and other large-scale industries.

The benefits of industrialization to the indigenous peoples can be stated as

“the state sponsored exploitation of natural resources (hydroelectricity, timber, natural oil, gas, etc.) without regard to the interest of local population”.[13]

Effects of Development Projects

Governments undertook various development initiatives in the CHT. The reality shows, the indigenous peoples could not enjoy the fruits of such development projects.

In fact, in many cases, the development initiatives produced counter effects to the real economic well being of the indigenous peoples.

The horticulture development project in the early sixties turned out to be a failure (because of lack of adequate supervision and marketing support) as the local producers got much less than the market price from their produces.

The ADB sponsored road development project, aimed at improving people’s access to markets and reducing indigenous peoples’ cultural and economic isolation, brought little benefit for the indigenous peoples.

Instead, it benefited the Bengalis in two ways.

Firstly, as marketing was monopolised by them, the benefits automatically accrued to them.

Secondly, the improved road communication made it easier for the Bengali settlers 87 Collateral Damage of Development to migrate into the CHT.

Until recently, the top positions of the CHT Development Board were held by outsiders who were either less concerned about the nature of the indigenous peoples’ problems, or were less interested to solve such problems.

The local people had little chance to participate in and affect the policy decisions of the Board.

The forest development programme benefited the corrupt Bengali officials and the unscrupulous businessmen on the one hand, and indiscriminately destroyed the forest resources and ecology of the CHT on the other.

The recent attempt to bring more areas under reserve forest would also go against the indigenous peoples.

There are numerous examples of development projects inflicting more harm than positively contributing to the economic welfare of the indigenous peoples.[14]


The economic condition of the indigenous peoples is far from being satisfactory. Man-made crises are mainly responsible for this.

With the signing of the peace accord last year, an ideal opportunity has been created now to take positive measures in the direction of improving the over all economy of the CHT and the common people’s lot.

In order to ensure economic welfare of the common people I would suggest the following measures:

  • Restoration of land rights previously enjoyed by the indigenous peoples and other permanent residents of the CHT;
  • Proper rehabilitation of the returnees from India and other internally displaced people;
  • Creation of special provisions (both protectionist and promotional measures) for ensuring greater participation of the indigenous peoples in trade and commerce;
  • Creation of more job opportunities for the indigenous peoples in the government and non-government sectors, and creation of opportunities for self-employment;
  • Protection and promotion of indigenous peoples’ art, crafts and establishment of more vocational schools in the CHT;
  • Encouragement for formation and functioning of various trade and professional bodies and co-operatives in the CHT;
  • Expansion of the existing quota system for the indigenous students in the various technical and higher educational institutions of the country;
  • Establishment of a business school in the CHT for higher business education.


1. Also see Raja Devasish Roy, `Colonization, Marginalization and disempowerment of indigenous peoples in the Chittagong Hill tracts, Bangladesh; Will there be a reversal of the trend?’, a paper presented in a seminar on `Bangladesh: peoples Struggles (1971-1996), held between 18-20 October, 1996 in Montreal, Canada.

2. Khisa, A. L., Shifting cultivation in the Chittagong Hill Tracts, Dacca, 1963 (p. 71).

3. Shelly, M. R.(ed.), The Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh: The Untold Story, CDR,B. Dhaka, December, 1992, (p. 64).

4. Mey, Wolfgang (ed), Genocide in Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh, Copenhagen 1984 (pp. 81-82).

5. Raja Devasish Roy, `Land rights of the indigenous peoples of the Chittagong Hill Tracts’, in the Bulletin, 1993 Year of the Indigenous People, Dhaka, December, 1993 (p. 16).

6. Hossain, S.M., `Population Growth and Structure’, in Population and Development, MOHFW, GOB, Dhaka, 1996 (p. 61).

7. Chakma, P.B., `Chittagong Hill Tracts and its Development’, in the Bangladesh Journal of Buddhist Studies, vol. 111, no. 1,

Dhaka, May, 1986; also see Raja, op.cit.(1996) .

8. Barkat, A. and Huda, S. `Politico-Economic Essence of Ethnic Conflicts in the Chittagong Hill Tracts of Bangladesh, in the Dhaka University Studies, Part-D, December, 1988(p. 113).

9. Barkat, A.and Huda, S, op.cit.

10. Dewan, A., Class and Ethnicity in the Hills of Bangladesh, McGill University, Canada, 1979.

11. Ishaq, M.(ed.), Chittagong Hill Tracts, Bangladesh District Gazetteers, Dacca, 1975 (p. 139).

12. Ishaq, M.(ed.), op.cit.(p. 159).

13. Mey, Wolfgang, op.cit.(p. 31).

14. For detail see, Barkat, A. and Huda, S. op.cit., and Mey, Wolfgang, op.cit.

Presented at Conference on Development in the Chittagong Hill Tracts held in December 1998 at Tribal Cultural Institute Auditorium, Rangamati.

Writer : Pradanendu Bikash Chakma

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