You have 30 minutes to evacuate

Shahana Siddiqui.

Published in the Daily Star on 14 August 2010.

This piece describes the recent slum-eviction in Mahakhali.

THURSDAY, 5 August. The police assure concerned basti bashis of Sattala, Mohakhali that no eviction would happen. The people believe the police officers and go on with their daily activities. The noon prayers end. Riot police suddenly appear, armed and ready to go. Demolition workers from nearby slums accompany the enforcements.

A high up government officer takes a microphone and obscurely tells the people that their homes will be demolished. You have 30 minutes to evacuate. The race against time starts…. NOW!

Chaos takes over. Two bulldozers appear. Riot police take position to put anyone out of line. Because to protest against the destruction of one’s home would be wrong, would be illegal.

Oh wait, that’s what they are — illegal. Thousands of people, homes, households are all illegal. They should not have been here to begin with.

Go back to where you came from. If you are not going to go on your own, our bulldozers will help pave the way for you. Few hours is all that was needed to destroy 2.5 acres of households, communities, homes. Approximately 8000 men, women, and children, about 2400 households evicted, destroyed one fine Thursday afternoon.

The evictees take whatever they can. Personal belongings, construction materials, electrical wiring — anything they can live on or sell to get them through the next few days.

The question is then, where are the activists, where are the well off neighbours? Where are all that cultural, political and religious ideals of pro-poor, pro-people, socialism, inclusion, Constitutional rights?

Bangladesh is a leading example in post natural disaster relief yet, we don’t know what to do in manmade disasters. Suddenly mandates, policies, project limitations chain our basic sense of citizenry and humanity. Yet, manmade destruction is in many ways worse — a human consciousness is at failure here, a choice is made, humanity and respect for fellow humans are purposefully left aside.

Bengali bhadraloks romanticise the rural poor and despise the urban ones. We see the latter as freeloaders and their living spaces as den of all evils. Our decent Bengali way of living is always under threat by these bastis.

Our sons would never get into drugs if it wasn’t for the dealers living in the slums. Neither would they ever be tempted by carnal sins if it wasn’t for those street prostitutes. And of course women from good families are never to be seen on streets that are roamed by these meyera of dubious character. Our cities would be safe if the mastaans did not emerge from these shanties.

Our footpaths would be cleaner, our lakes prettier if it wasn’t for these makeshift homes and latrines. Because of them, there is such pressure on our electricity, water and other amenities. Not to mention how inconvenient it is to have these beggars, ferriwallahs, street vendors, hustling us to buy or give something while we sit in traffic, go for a walk, or enjoy a plate of phuchka.

It’s all their fault that they are poor and trying to just survive one day at a time. It’s their fault that they do not have the education, options and orientations to lead the bhadralok life. It’s their fault that government and non-government provide band aid solutions and no long terms economic and social opportunities to the urban poor. They will leave soon, so what’s the point of investing?

Millions of urban poor both in Dhaka and in secondary cities have been living in those areas for generations. Yet, they are not our equals as city dwellers. To be a basti bashi, no matter how many years of residency, immediately means you are an illegal occupant and therefore do not have any rights. The threat and reality of eviction are constant without any protection from government or non-government.

Yet it is these basti bashis that run our homes and industries, our society and the economy. They break their backs everyday to clean our streets, drive our vehicles, build our fancy apartments and commercial buildings, carry goods from one end of the city to another, maintain our households and raise our children, watch over our homes while we sleep so peacefully at night. And it is these thousands of basti bashi men and women (whose minimum wage we refuse to pay), who are generating the highest export earning for Bangladesh.

The informal economy constitutes of over 65% of all employment in the city. Those employees live in over 3000 slums and squatter settlements throughout the capital. Of over 2.5 million (a quarter of Dhaka city population) slum residents and other poor segments of the city, less than a third own land or have access to decent housing.

In all our talk of saving people and establishing a democratic, accountable governance system, the bhadralok shomaj of the city fail to take a strong stand against evictions and atrocities against the urban poor. Just because we depend on them, does not mean we have to like them, right?

While the largest NGO in the country has been raising money in the past week for the Pakistan flood victims, at the heart of Dhaka city 8000 people (and rising) are now homeless — yet no single facebook update on that.

Within days of the Nimtoli fire, friends and families rushed to the site to stand by the victims. One week into Sattala eviction and not a single human cry for help, justice.

Difference — Pakistan is a misfortune, Nimtoli a tragedy, Sattala is illegal.

Will we sit back and allow such human rights violations to happen in our backyard? Are we to accept government’s blatant disregard and disrespect of High Court stay orders? Will we not hold our civil servants, politicians and policymakers accountable to why these people who support our entire economy are not given adequate housing?

Is it not our Bengali value to stand up against atrocities? Is it not our religious duty to fight for social justice and help the less fortunates especially during the month of Ramadan? Are these duties and values not the foundation of our bhadralok shomaj?

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