The Khasis in Bangladesh and their struggle to maintain livelihood

 Silvanus Lamin



There are 45 ethnic communities’ namely indigenous people living in Bangladesh. Khasi is one of the indigenous communities in Bangladesh. The community has been living in Sylhet region (Sylhet, Moulvibazar Habigonj), particularly hilly and mountainous region of Bangladesh for centuries. The main occupation of the Khasi indigenous people of this district is cultivation of betel-leaf in the small hilly lands. Moderate sunlight, rainfall, sunshade and cool environmental space are the much needed elements for cultivation of betel-leaf. But due to climate change, less precipitation, temperature rise, cold wave, prolonged heat, dense fog are increasing in the area damaging the nature dependent betel leave cultivation of the community. There are 100 Khasi villages located in three districts of Bangladesh namely Sylhet, Moulvibazar and Hobiganj. Below are some pictures that depict the struggle and way of life and livelihood of the community in Bangladesh in a nutshell.


Land and rights of The Khasis

Land is very sacred to the Khasi people. They refer land as their life and religion. But this sacred land has become the most crucial and critical issue for the survival and existence of the Khasi including other indigenous people in Bangladesh. Alike other indigenous people, the Khasi community also faces problems to retain their lands as land grabbing is a very common problem in the Khasis inhabited areas due to the lack of legal support. Most of the Khasi villages are built based on the settled, leased r ‘managed’ lands. They have been nourishing, managing and using these lands for years in a pro-community approach. However, some of the community members do have documents of their lands, but they have never updated them. There exist no laws and policies that safeguard the traditional community land ownership system of indigenous communities! So, mainstream people taking this advantage many times forcefully grab the lands of the community by either damaging their (Khasi) betel leaves garden or filing false cases against the community. Besides, there has been has been evidence where the state itself, chooses to establish eco-park and some other infrastructure buildings acquiring the lands of the Khasis where they have been living for centuries!

Most of the Khasis, for instances, do not plant and farm crops that take time to produce yields thinking that anytime they might be notified to leave the lands due the absence of land related documents. Thus over the years, the Khasis have to depend on betel leaves cultivation only for livelihoods! But when disasters such as cold wave, hailstones, drought, storms and less rainfall occur and cause damage to betel leaves they count huge loss. Thus because of the complication in regard to land ownership, the Khasis in Bangladesh lead a nomadic life! Many families move from one village to another village for searching of lands. When their lands couldn’t produce betel leaves due to loss of fertility or when the lands are forcefully grabbed, they make flee to another village to find a safe place for living and earning livelihood!

Being the citizens of Bangladesh, the Khasis hope that state would take initiative and intervene to make overall development in the Khasis territories but in vain! Initiative from the state to protect the lands of the community is absent. Reversely, the state itself has so far tried to implement projects such as Eco Park, social forestation project on the lands of the Khasis that contributed to evicting them from their ancestral lands!

Bangladesh spends huge amount of money in its social safety net projects every year but Khasis are not included in that process. When Khasis lands are grabbed or forcefully taken away there have been no initiatives either from the states and NGOs to protect their lands and lobby in their favor. Having excluded and sidelined in every social, economic and cultural activities of the state, the Khasis bound to think that the state consider them as strangers rather than citizens! Over again, since the state is reluctant to ensure security of Khasis life and livelihood, it becomes easy for the land grabbers to apply all their efforts and force to assault, evict, harass, deceive and torture the Khasis both physically and mentally every now and then.

There have been many unpublished events of land grabbing, betel leave garden damaging, tree felling, physical and mental assault in the areas but these incidents have never been reported in public! According to some articles and research papers, Khasis are the result of political deals of India and Pakistan! When the two states came into being in 1947, the Khasis who live in the border belt of Assam and Meghalaya became part of East Pakistan and the same thing happened when Bangladesh got independence. So, Khasis are not the ‘forced population’ but the ancient citizen of Bangladesh. Considering this fact, Khasis in Bangladesh, as legal citizens, are supposed to have access to all civics rights and facilities provided by the state. But they do not!

Education, Culture and social problems

The literacy rate of the Khasis in Bangladesh is very low! Approximately 20% of the community people can read and write only while the rate of enrolment in higher educational institutions is too small to count! This resulted due to the absence of government led educational institutions in the Khasi people’s areas! About 90% of the Khasi children get education from the missionary and NGO led primary schools. When they complete the primary education they have to go to the town for getting admission in high school as there are no government and non-governmental high schools in the Khasi villages. However, the absence of high schools in Khasi village contributes to curtail the numbers of school going children. Because, only the rich and comparatively solvent families could afford to send their kids to town for higher education. The poor families having no means to send their kids for education are compelled to get their children involved in income generating activities. On the other hand, those children who go to the towns for higher education face accommodation problems due to lack of seat in the mission run hostels. Thus the absence of higher educational institutions in Khasi areas and accommodation problems in the towns has somehow contributed to increase the rate of dropout in education resulting to the small numbers of educated people among the Khasis.


It is to mention that those who got dropped out in education at an early age are responsible for creating various social problems in the Khasi society. Many of them get involved in unsocial works such as drug addiction and other social crimes such as early marriage. Thus early marriage and early pregnancy is increasing in the Khasi society. Due to lack of education, this portion of youth is not aware about their rights. They have no headache regarding lack of rights, lack of access to civic services and facilities provided by the state. They do not perceive the need to be united! Thus people of all walks take the advantage of illiteracy of the Khasis and deceive them in many ways!

Meanwhile, those who study in towns and attain higher degree in education, sometimes, face identity crisis. They feel shy to speak their native language and practice their own culture! Studying in Bengali medium and being exposed to mainstream culture these children and youth get influenced. Besides, the domination of the mainstream culture and lack of initiative from both the state and Khasi people to preserve the language and culture of the community is one of the reasons which accelerate the extinction of the culture and tradition of the community.

The state of health service is very poor in the Khasi villages. There are no governments and non-governmental health centres and institutions in the Khasis inhabited areas. So, when get sick these people either have to depend on traditional healers and paramedics or have to cross a long distance to get proper health treatment from the hospital. Thus, due to having no access to better health services and facilities these people suffer from various diseases. Mothers and children suffer from several diseases but could not avail good treatment and some even die due to absence of health services and service delivery institutions.  On the other hand, the state of physical communication is very poor. One has to walk over dense bushes, muddy and slippery roads to go the most of Khasi villages. This poor physical communication has somehow contributed to the lack health services and facilities in the Khasi inhabited areas!


Occupation, economy and livelhood

The concentration of the Khasis is found in the four districts of Sylhet division of Bangladesh. They live in hilly slopes, comparatively high lands, particularly in the forested areas. It is said that where there is forest there is Khasis. Over again, it is also said that where there are trees in the forest, there are Khasi people there. The Khasis have been practicing such sorts of livelihood that they must protect trees, conserve biodiversity and ensure environmental sustainability; otherwise they would face difficulties to carry on practicing it. This has led the Khasis to plant, protect and nourish trees including other herbs and flora and fauna.

The Khasi community, as their foremost traditional occupation, farm piper betel leaves in the hillock lands requiring trees to get wine type of betel leaves climbing upon. So, trees are the most important elements for practicing their traditional betel leaves cultivation. Although their agro-cultivation is known as ‘jum’ cultivation to others yet it does not involve slash and burn process. The Khasis when farming betel leaves, need just to clear and clean the dense bushes and grasses of the lands letting the bushes rotten within the lands for fertilizers. They then transplant the seedlings of betel leaves under trees so that piper betel could climb upon the trees. The Khasis then cut off the unnecessary branches of the tree where a seedling has been transplanted to let it getting air, water and sunlight for growth. The total process is done in such way that it lets trees growing and ensures other natural elements to perform their activities in a natural way.

Forested areas covered with lots of trees contribute to sequestering the emitted carbon. Tree itself takes carbon dioxide and leaves oxygen for its survival. We also know that greenhouse gas is a composition of carbon dioxide, methane, carbon monoxide and CFC gas. So, sequestering carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, tree helps to reduce the concentration of greenhouse gas in the atmosphere and makes the earth a better living place. Khasis through their life and livelihood have been conserving, protecting and planting trees from a long time. The Khasis have been implementing a low-carbon, in some cases carbon-neutral livelihood development initiative from a long time though their environment friendly initiative!


The Khasis earn their livelihood through farming betel leaves. But many times they do not get the fair price of their products. Depending only on a single crop, the economy of the Khasis, for instances, may seem good to others, but they have to take loans for running their families many times. They sell betel leaves but have to buy everything from the markets. Betel leave cultivation also requires huge investment but during the disasters, the Khasis counted huge loss. They do not have access to the government provided agriculture subsidies as well leading them to be indebted many times. Because of not getting fair price of the produces as well as being hit with disasters that caused damaged of crops, the Khasis today are not benefited farming only betel leaves. They search for lands and plan to farms diverse crops but landless situation has not allowed them space to do that rather their problems are getting intensified due to the skyrocketing of the daily commodities!



The Khasis, through their life and livelihood have been contributing to ease climate change by protecting forest and conserving biodiversity. The Khasis neither degrade forest nor deforest the forested areas where they have been living for years. Bangladesh government through its climate change strategy and adaptation paper, 2009 emphasizes on low carbon development. The Khasis has been implementing such low carbon development initiative for years. Therefore, we urge the state mechanism to patronize the environment friendly and low carbon livelihood practices of the Khasis by taking initiative by making process to provide them land ownership rather than fostering so called development initiatives (Eco-park, social forestation) which accelerate their eviction from the lands they have been living for years. Considering and recognizing their eco-friendly betel farming as well as citizens the state should ensure that the Khasis have access to education, health services and communication which are crucial for their progress and wellbeing.  Besides, state should provide subsidies for the smooth development and progress of the livelihood initiative of the community alike it supports other agriculture development.


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