The economy of the Chittagong Hill Tracts is controlled by the Bengali trading-merchant class which has developed itself under state patronization during the period of Pakistan. It further consolidated control over the economy of the CHT after independence of Bangladesh in 1971.
Before the British colonization of the CHT, the Jumma people’s economic life was centred round self-subsistent Jum cultivation. “Communal ownership of all material resources, sharing and exchange constituted the core of their economic as well as cultural values. The concept of surplus and private profit was totally alien to them, for it was subsistence economy.”
The British introduced and encouraged plough cultivation in CHT and brought the Jumma people into the fold of its own economic order. This had far reaching implications for the Hill people. While it laid the foundation for the emergence of the educated middle class of the Jumma society, which was to play a leading role in the autonomy movement in the post-independent Bangladesh, this new economic system also gave the British tremendous opportunity to exploit the Jumma people and their vast natural and forest resources. The British declared large tracts of forest land as reserved and monopolized timber trade in the CHT. They also introduced monetary system (money-economy) paving the way for the Bengali middlemen, traders and money lenders to exploit the Jummas at will. Captain T. H. Lewin in his book “A Fly on the Wheel” gave a succinct description of ruthless exploitation of the over-credulous Jumma people. The scenario has not changed even today.
The economy of the CHT is agricultural. But land suitable for plough cultivation is scarce as the area is covered with forests and rugged hills. This has been further aggravated by two developments: one is the construction of Kaptai dam in the early sixties which inundated 54 thousand acres of arable land, and the other is the politically motivated state-sponsored migration of 400,000 landless Bengali settlers from the plain districts from 1979 to 1982. These two factors combined with Bengali control and monopoly of trade and commerce have completely crushed the economic backbone of the Jumma people. On the other hand, anachronistic Jum cultivation, which is still practiced by poor Jummas, remains unprofitable and unsustainable.
The CHT has no major industry except the Karnaphuli Paper Mill and Karnaphuli Rayon and Chemicals Ltd. situated at Chandraghona. Set up in the fifties and sixties in the last century, these two industries do not contribute in any manner to the economy of the hill people as none of these has provided employment opportunities to them. The small and cottage industry has all the potentials, but due to lack of adequate support from the government it remains crippled.