Bor-porong: stories drowned in Kaptai Lake

Reading Samari Chakma’s Kaptai Badh: Bor Porong, Duburider Attokothon (2018), a book about Jumma people’s enduring suffering and life journey after the construction of Kaptai dam, Nahid Riayasad asks the tourists — next time you pay a visit to the Kaptai Lake, setting aside your Bengali nationalist worldview, look closely, hear carefully, you may be able to see the lost heritage drowned there in the greenish-blue beautiful water.

Opening of the book in Bangla Academy book fairIn the post-accord Chittagong Hill Tracts, Rangamati has become a desired place among the Bengali tourists, particularly among the youth.  With the implicit and explicit support of military and civil administration, tourism industry is growing exponentially and resorts are mushrooming. As the Bengali tourists enjoy the beauty and tranquility of the nature in Rangamati, Khagrachari or Bandarban, do we know the collective grief of ethnic minority communities embodied in this ‘natural beauty?’

We don’t! History has always been about representing and preserving majority voice. Samari Chakma, based on oral historical narratives of people who lost their tangible and intangible property to the Kaptai dam, writes against this majoritarian Bengali history.

Since the turn of the last century, contemplation on a hydropower station in Rangamati had started. With several changes in the plan and spot for the dam, Kaptai was selected, about 65 kilometers upstream of river Karnaphuli. The site was decided in 1951 and the construction started in 1957 and ended in 1962. The dam, eventually, created a large water reservoir known as Kaptai Lake. This water body, containing 6477 million cubic meter of water, has submerged 655 square kilometers of area, including 40 per cent cultivable land of the area. As a result, approximately 100,000 people from 18,000 families, 70 per cent of whom were Chakma people, had been forced to leave their ancestral land and embrace the harrowing life of refugees.

Beyond the economistic calculation of what is lost and what is gained from the construction of this dam, there are enduring affects and social sufferings that lasted across generations. Sisters were separated from brothers; mothers were separated from children as part of the family left for India’s Arunachal province. As water submerged the land, family members lost ties. In people’s memories, this experience of loss and separation is popularly known, particularly among Chakma people, as ‘Bor-porong (the great departure)’. Those who saw the on-rush of water are already at the dusk of their lives, many have died. Samari Chakma, who is also the first woman advocate from Chittagong Hill Tracts to enroll with the Supreme Court,  has taken up this challenging work of uncovering memories of those displaced and dispossessed by the construction of hydro power dam in Rangamati. Her book, Kaptai Badh: Bor Porong, Duburider Attokothon (2018) published by the Comrade Rupak Chakma Memoerial Trust was launched at the Ekushey Book Fair on February 15, 2018.

Cover of the bookThe book consists of ten oral historical accounts of men and women displaced by the dam. It was not only the construction of the Kaptai dam, but also the compensation and rehabilitation processes were wrongly construed. The ethnically chauvinistic government failed to understand the social fabric of ethnic communities, their ecological relations. Therefore, they approached the compensation process in strictly economic terms. For Chakma community and others affected, it is not a just plot of land that drowned, but their ecological relations that are very different from the Bengalis were disrupted and broken. According to the compensation package, each family would have gotten a maximum of ten acres if they had ten or more members. That amount of land, more importantly, a bounded notion of land was inadequate to sustain their way of being. Moreover, for compensation, lands were categorised in three categories. This process has also been questioned by those who spoke with Samari.

Samari has manifested the collective sufferings in her brilliant account. The air of frustration, indecision and fear — everything became vivid and real in her book. The first indication of the coming armageddon was cutting trees; government employed a large number of people to cut down trees, many of which had lived through centuries. Along with the trees, memories of people had started being uprooted. This was done for easy movement of water transportation, when the lake would form. With this, people started to understand that the water was coming and there was no escape from it. The on-rush of water did not even spare the palace of the king of Chakma circle.

Many families, who had already collected the compensation, bought lands in other areas. As told earlier, all the families were joint, indecision formed on where to move thus breaking a family into many separate families. In this book, there are accounts where siblings are reunited after three-four decades; some are not that lucky to have met lost family members ever again.

Thousands of Chakma people have migrated to India. They had to take a long boat ride and a walk to reach India, not to mention, that was one perilous journey. Countless women, children and old had died on the road due to diseases, lack of food and of course, with a broken heart. According to witnesses from the book, dead infants could be seen half-buried in the earth. Once in India, there were temporary camps set for the refugees. The Indian government then took them to Arunachal, a chilly uninhabited region covered with thick forests. That journey was also demanding and arduous. Camps were set up for temporary rest but alike the previous journey, many died on the road.

On reaching Arunachal, the problem had just started. They were allotted lands in the middle of nowhere, covered by thick dense forest. One description was common in all accounts; the forest was so thick and dense that even the sunlight couldn’t penetrate through in many places. They had to clean up patches of forests to make space to live and cultivate. That process took a couple of years, in the meantime, food scarcity hit high; diseases spread and claimed more lives. Arunachal, unlike CHT, is a comparatively cold place which added to their suffering.

In the name of development, the projects that are undertaken by successive governments have persistently refused to acknowledge the political-ecological and economic system particular to the ethnic communities living there. Essentially, a majoritarian state policy has denied Jumma people of their history, and denied Bangladesh of our ethnically plural, culturally diverse history. From the generation of Kaptai Dam, that relationship with monarchy, their land and social structure has been completely ravaged, leaving an entire community with shattered and wounded. Not many writers have attempted to record their sorrows, until Samari took up the challenge. In this regard, her work is a portal, which could be used to see the sorrows of a community, victimised by the notion of ‘development and progress’. Her attempt, in reality, has opened a window to those lost words of the lost world, silently weeping, as the security forces march through their forest land. Next time you pay a visit to the Kaptai Lake, setting aside your Bengali nationalist worldview, hear carefully and look closely, you may be able to see the lost heritage drowned there.


Nahid Riyasad is a member of the New Age Youth team.




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