Demands for a ‘People’s Dhaka’

Two incidents that occurred in the first two days of the Bangla new year have exposed the faces of the powerful people.

The incident of sexual harassment on Pahela Baishakh at DhakaUniversity campus would have missed public attention unless there were hue and cry. The government, too, has failed to suppress the issue for the mass protests. All except a few would agree, Dhaka has been one of the most unsafe cities, which is more hostile to women and low-income group of people. Sexual violence coupled with arrogance of power has reached an endemic level and women irrespective of age and attire have been target of attacks.

The incident of untimely deaths or killing of a number of people has added to the list of snatching, extortion, accidents, enforced disappearance, cross-fire, robbery, fire and death in manhole and so on. The collapse of tin-shed house on marshland in one of the most densely populated areas in Dhaka city shows unabated land-grabbing here and there. In Khilgaon, for example, playgrounds have disappeared due to sales of plots. An additional asset of this particular township was a jheel (marshland) which is about to be lost entirely in the expansion of high-rise buildings.

A ruling party leader has built a number of slum houses based on vulnerable structures with bamboo, as means of making money. He must have shared the ‘booty’ with others. The district administration and the police did not even know how this structure was built illegally! Where was RAJUK or the city development authority? The unwillingness of the land-grabbers to develop safer structures for the poor tenants led to the tragic incident – the deaths of at least 12 men and women. The local people claimed that more people were missing.

The police, however, did not find the culprit. The administration looked always friendly to those who grab public land and properties but has no hesitation to make the life of these commoners hell.

What are the occupations of these people? Construction and transport workers or small traders selling goods on footpaths and near railway? So, they are being subjected to extortion by influential people, and the extortionists do maintain hobnob with the police and the administration. The poor often become victims of power politics.

The size of the informal economy is growing day by day in the country because of nature of development and Dhaka city has been made the central point of it. Dhaka’s rickshaws, small traders, hawkers, construction industry – all are the sectors that employ the workers who have nothing but their labour or tiny capital. The rise in Dhaka’s population is double the national population growth rate. The city houses 15 million people although the number of voters is only 4.4 million. And 40 percent of Dhaka’s people are slum dwellers. The city’s rich people and even a significant portion of the middle class are seriously uncomfortable with the slum people who are sometimes evicted. But it does not work forever since the gentlemen cannot live a comfortable life without the help of slum dwellers. These poor people pay disproportionately high amount everywhere but are not treated humanely in terms of their security and legitimacy of staying in this mega-city.

Despite poor civic amenities, Dhaka is one of the most expensive cities and particularly, the price of land is increasing, outpacing the rates in New York and London. A major reason for this price-hike of land in Dhaka is the dominance of ill-gotten money and centralisation of everything. Of course, remittances, too, played a part in it. The skyrocketing of land price has instigated encroachment and land-grabbing. This has damaged the legal system and institutional arrangements and further made the political process hostage to evil elements.

The centralisation trends have made everything ranging from administration to education and healthcare services to utilities confined to the capital city. This has further encouraged the process of influx of people from across the country into the city whereas Dhaka is not ready to accommodate even a portion of this population.

Despite the growth of high-rise building, there is no system developed for ensuring water supply, sewerage and public transport for all. Public places and priorities remain more neglected while the atmosphere for women has been vitiated. The crisis of public toilet and public transport has made the life of the commoners miserable.

Commercialisation of education and healthcare services as well as the economy of trading has turned Dhaka into an apparently glittering city in recent times. We see mushrooming of shopping malls and private educational and diagnostic centres but not growth in public hospitals and public educational institutions. We see excessive growth of private cars but not a mass transit system. We need playgrounds for the children. Our stupid urban development plan caters to the needs of money makers through procurement of plastic trees instead of encouraging plantation.

If the normal flow of the Buriganga is ensured, its water would be clean and city dwellers would be free from many diseases. Unfortunately, the Buriganga could not be made free from pollution and land-grabbing although many relevant projects have been commissioned. The project money has not been dropped to the waters rather than going to the pockets of some powerful people.

However, let me propose a few things to make Dhaka a city of the people:

Firstly, a massive land reform programme is a must. The city dwellers do not need to own more than one flats; rather each citizen needs a ceiling of around 500 square feet of area, in this densely populated city. An area of 3,000 square feet is enough for a family and I think land will be available for undertaking a master plan on housing.

Secondly, all illegal structures including the BGMEA Bhaban should be evicted to ensure open space and marshland as common resources of all. Public hospitals, educational institutions and playgrounds should be given priority in utilising urban land. The Buringanga must be freed from land-grabbing and the city should be made green.

Thirdly, a mass transit system must be developed and private cars should be limited to a rational level. No family can own more than one private cars and commercial areas should be off-limit for them. Movement of vehicles can be suspended inside the city for one day a week.

Fourthly, working women and female students must be provided with safe and enhanced transport facilities on a priority basis. Security of women on the streets must be ensured and the number of female members of the police sensitive to the women should be increased.

As we are heading towards city polls, we can just revisit our concerns. Definitely, the authority and jurisdictions of the mayors are limited. Even then, if the candidates empowered with ‘black’ money win the electoral battle, we can assume, Dhaka will be plagued further by land-grabbing and higher environmental pollution. The city’s environment will be more hostile for living.

Irrespective of results of the ballot, we actually need change in politics, including the one in Dhaka city. No change is likely unless we clear our thoughts and rectify our actions.
(Published on 24 April 2015 in Prothom Alo online english version)