Dhaka waits for winter with the zeal and desperation of Vladimir and Estragon, but unlike Godot, in the Samuel Beckett play, it arrives with clockwork precision. Music and literary festivals are its harbinger, pithas (sweet and savoury snacks) that make the city pretend to harken back to long-forgotten traditions, and wedding receptions that grow more extravagant in a never-ending game of one-upmanship, are its bedfellows. The patriotic bandwagon rolls into town in December, steered by militant nationalists. Dhaka suffocates a little less too, as its upper and upper middle classes fly off on their annual foreign retreats, freeing the streets a smidgen. In its attempt to breathe even easier, the city has visited more congestion on its streets by emptying slums onto it this year.
The residents of two sprawling slums in Korail and Agargaon are being driven out of their homes. The former is in the surrounding opulence of Gulshan and neighbouring Baridhara, which are demarcated as beggar-free zones. Operating under the maxim of “if they cannot be seen, they do not exist” has preserved the sanctity of the Potemkin village.
The ruling Awami League has become palatable to the world and Dhaka’s elites as the pioneers of development and the only bulwark against Islamist terror. The twin fallacies of development and security have coalesced to render the most vulnerable class of urban citizens homeless, supported by crony capitalism masquerading as nationalist pride. Homelessness is not a figurative concept for these people – they are condemned to literally live on the streets. They are migrants who cannot return to the villages since Dhaka needs them to function to the standards demanded by the upper and middle classes, and since they need Dhaka’s spare change for their survival.
The unwanted needed
The $27 billion of yearly garments money that keeps the lights on in the city is made possible by over five million of these unwanted, but needed, migrants working in greater Dhaka and living in slums. The government estimates that there are over two-and-a-half million people living in slums in Dhaka proper – a conservative estimate by people who intend to look good which will be proven soft by independent verification.
In addition to servicing the garments industry, the slum population works as domestic help, street cleaners, labourers, rickshaw-pullers and beggars. Slums are illegal at their inception, often built on unclaimed public land and water bodies, subjecting them to de facto landfills. There are legal provisions that allow occupants of abandoned land to lay claim to its title after 12 years of occupation, but despite the permanence of the Agargoan and Korail slums for at least 20 years, their inhabitants have never been allowed to make such claims.
The complete absence of any form of housing policy for decades has meant that slums are the only way for these people to have roofs over their heads. Additionally, the lack of long-term planning has seen Dhaka emerge as the centralised hub of industry, fuelled by unbridled entrepreneurial greed. Thus, cheap labour is a necessity. The human lives behind the toil are not considered. Dismissing them so blithely has no consequences, as there are more where they came from.
Dhaka has two mayors – the result of an ill-conceived political manoeuvre designed by the ruling party to undermine its opposition and further convolute an opaque bureaucracy. Dhaka North City Corporation, where the Korail and Agargaon evictions are taking place, is overseen by a decorated garments businessman. Even such a mayor, a direct beneficiary of the capital’s informal housing system, has shown no inclination to find a solution, playing his part instead in the abuse.
Korail has been earmarked for an Information and Communications Technology village as part of the Digital Bangladesh movement that is the brainchild of Sajeeb Ahmed Wazed, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s son, who was appointed Information and Communications Technology advisor in 2014. This superficial development is endemic in a country whose government is not interested in actual development for the vast majority of its 160 million people. It appeases the small faction, who control the money from Dhaka, who constitute a vital component of the Awami League house of cards.
Why the Dhaka focus?
In simple terms, Gulshan and Baridhara are pleased that the eyesore is being removed from Korail, and will celebrate when the Information and Communications Technology village goes up in its place generously lining a few pockets along the way. The question of why the seeds of an Information and Communications Technology industry are not being planted in another town or city that could be dedicated to it, is not being asked, just as it was not, and has not been, asked about the garments industry over the years.
Greater Dhaka is responsible for over half of Bangladesh’s carbon emissions, and the garments industry is its contributor-in-chief. A small measure, such as situating it near a port, would reduce the industry’s carbon footprint significantly. In the country that is amongst the most affected by global warming, policies of this sort are not only prudent, they are essential. The resulting internal displacement sees rural populations migrate to Dhaka. The citizens arriving with their possessions in their hands and on their backs are not moving into the palaces in Gulshan and Baridhara. They are taking refuge in the Korail slum.
In the name of security
Agargaon saw bulldozers, sanctioned by the City Corporation, ride in for the demolition last week. The Korail eviction has been more subversive. The inhabitants of the slum used the adjacent lake as a means of cheap and efficient transport, thereby providing a livelihood to aspiring boatmen ferrying people on rafts fashioned from plastic bottles and other jetsam.
In October, law enforcement agencies, acting under the orders of the City Corporation, put a stop to this transport network, citing security concerns.
Dhaka’s elite class has been immune from the violence that is commonplace in the country. A terrorist attack in Gulshan in July was the first time its safety was threatened. Overt security measures, however specious, have since been applauded. The government has complete freedom to do anything in the name of security for its select rarefied citizens. The manufactured hindrance, aided by blocking roads connecting the slum to the city, was not enough to force the inhabitants to relocate. They were nudged along by a fire on December 4 that destroyed over 500 makeshift houses – the second fire in Korail in nine months.
The slum, like all others in the national capital, is controlled by syndicates linked to political parties. Displaced tenants attest to the slumlords’ connections with local Awami League leaders, as well as its parliamentary opposition Jatiya Party and political opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party. They assert that they have been under pressure to leave for a while, and that the fire was not an accident. Land grabbing instigated by the ruling party is reminiscent of the violence that displaced religious and ethnic minorities in other parts of Bangladesh in November.
Battle for survival
The long-standing effects of the weather on health, especially in a country whose population is at the mercy of the whims of climate, sees fatalities increase on the streets of Dhaka as the temperature drops. The eagerly anticipated pleasures of winter are neither known to nor experienced by the inhabitants of slums. They rest their hopes on makeshift houses protecting them from the elements, enough for them not to become part of the statistics when the death toll after the next cold wave is calculated. The former residents of Korail and Agargaon will be deprived of this hope in 2016, and the government and the upper and middle classes do not have any answers for them, for now or the future.
Ikhtisad Ahmed is a columnist for the Dhaka Tribune and author of the socio-political short story collection Yours, Etcetera. His Twitter handle is @ikhtisad.