Tenants of Karail Slum were watching demolition operation in the nearby slum along the bridge at Banani 11. The families were almost done; they were allowed to pack their belongings and move from the small piece of land they had been living for over 10 years — along the boundary wall of Water Development Board on Banani 11, at the west bank of Gulshan Lake. Before evening, most of around 60 families left the place in presence of Rajuk and police officials. They left, without saying a word or waging protest, as there had been no words of hope came from the authorities over their future destination.
Rajuk held another drive in this slum on September 20 last year following a short notice conveyed through local security guards. That time, around 120 families were forced to leave the place amid police presence and with the help of local rowdies who reportedly tortured people when they protested the drive. But some families, from the next day, started living at the same place finding no better way under the makeshift shanties — this time made temporarily with polythene and bamboo fearing a sudden eviction. Fortunately, for them, neither Rajuk officials nor police came to vacate the place in the next four months before the fresh operation on February 6.
This time, Matiar Rahman, who works as a security guard at an apartment opposite to his slum, said they did not protest as it was launched following a High Court order to demolish the structures set up illegally on the lake. “We have to find new place though it would be a pressure on our limited and small income.”
Parallel to this eviction drive, the people living in Karail’s lakeside shanties started removing the structures. The police also warned them of a possible “eviction drive” within days if the “illegal structures” are not demolished. According to the High Court’s recent order to free the lake from illegal encroachers, parts of Karail Slum that fall on the water must be removed. This is what Abdul Mannan, general secretary of the slum’s Central Committee, as well as others living in the area knew, they said. Most of the structures on the water were removed by the dwellers themselves before the law enforcers had come a week later and demolished around 60 shanties.
The High Court order came in mid January following a news report that illegal land grabbers had occupied part of Gulshan Lake’s west side afresh and built shanties there.
But, Mannan said they had heard that Rajuk intends to demolish the whole slum, within the 60-day stipulated by the court, in cooperation with Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited, Public Works Department (PWD) and Ministry of Information and Communication Technology — owners of the land of the slum and adjoining areas. And this panic swallowed up fresh threat of eviction among the mess of the slum, regardless elderly men, mothers, shopkeepers and even schoolgoing kids. They wanted to know whether it was true. Moreover, they heard Rajuk officials reportedly saying that after vacating the area, they would set up park, walkways and scope for other facilities for the residents and visitors in the city’s posh Gulshan.
Meanwhile, an eviction order on the Karail people put forth by the PWD in 2008 had been stayed by the High Court following a writ petition by rights and legal aid body Ain o Salish Kendra (ASK). Moreover, previously the High Court several times mentioned that the government should ensure rehabilitation of the slum dwellers before evicting them from a place in Dhaka and elsewhere.
The High Court in January also directed the government to demarcate the lake as per Revisional Survey (RS) records and remove the illegal structures from it in the next two months. The authorities concerned were also asked to declare the lake an environmentally critical area.
But, neither any government agency, nor the court, this time, said anything about ‘rehabilitation’ of the people staying on the abandoned government land. And thus the panic spread around swiftly following deliberate or careless ignorance in recognising these people who are a part of the Dhaka city’s societies for their contributions.
“We want to live peacefully, but will be united if you are thinking of evicting us from here. Give us 5-acre land here to build cheap apartments; we will certainly shift from here. We do not want to live in a slum and pollute the Gulshan Lake,” Mannan said.
“We are ready to pay the government for the land we are staying on, water, electricity and gas. Now only a few houses have illegal water and gas connections while the power supplied in the slum is illegal too, thanks to some dishonest staff of the government bodies,” he added.
There are at least 125,000 people living in the slum where people had started living around 32 years back on a 90 acres government land. Over 16,000 shanties — mostly made of bamboo, wood, tin and polythene — have been set up on the land wall-to-wall. In the recent years, some shanties were set up along the water on its three sides by some influential. The highly crowded area is surrounded by water on three sides and there are five other small slums on the other side.
The scenario of poverty and inferior living conditions is similar in the other slums in the city. The total number of people living in the slums amounts to around 4 million only in Dhaka.
The instances of evicting ‘illegal’ occupants from unauthorised lands show that in most cases the residents, not the land grabbers, were targeted by the Rajuk and the other government agencies concerned, and were penalized (evicted). And none of them were ensured housing facilities from the government or anybody else.
The eviction drives, surprisingly, are not seen at the time of construction of those “illegal structures”.
Locals say there are a number of illegal structures erected along the entire lake. Over the past years, many influential have grabbed much of the lake at its different parts resulting in its present sorry state. The authorities, until now, could hardly recover a piece of those lands, where buildings have already been constructed, due to legal tangles. It, however, was successful in freeing some land by removing structures including small shops, and rickshaw and car garages. The map of the lake has also been changed over the years to accommodate the illegal plots.
The previous caretaker government in 2007 formed an eight-strong committee headed by Prof Nazrul Islam, to look into the issue of slum dwellers. Upon its recommendations, the then government pledged 5-acre land for rehabilitating the evicted tenants in low-cost apartment buildings in Mirpur’s Kalshi area. The issue is yet to be materialised. In 2007, at least 29 slums were knocked down.
Meanwhile, another housing project for these poor people was launched in Bhashantek area. But allegations are there that the genuine slum inhabitants were not rehabilitated there.
The slum dwellers’ forums demanding their housing rights and an end to eviction threats also hope the prime minister would resolve the rehabilitation issues sincerely.
Generally, almost all the 4,000 slums in the capital are packed, unhygienic, unhealthy and risky amid scarcity of authorised civic facilities. They have already accepted it or taken for granted that they might not get something better in a 80 square feet hut at a cost of around Tk 800-Tk 1,500. They accept because they are too poor to afford a better place. But they have to live in the city for work since their income is higher here than their village homes. In most cases, they were found to be landless, affected by river erosions, floods, natural disasters and severe unemployment.
Different social organisations both international and local have been working in the slums of Dhaka and elsewhere in the country to better their livelihood, with special assistance in education, health, sanitation, credit facilities, and social and legal issues.
According to a survey in Karail Slum by Dushtha Shasthya Kendra or DSK, more than 30 percent of the dwellers are day labourers, 20 percent rickshaw- and van-pullers, 18 percent garments workers, 12 percent small traders, around five percent drivers and others doing jobs as housemaids and small-wage labours. Of them, over 80 percent families earn only Tk 2,500-Tk 4,500 a month.
Following the warnings by authorities on February 6, several schools and madrasas, shops and others structures set up on the danger mark of the lake started to shift from the place. Officials of the schools, two mid-aged shopkeepers and others were consulting the issue with Mannan, who himself was in a mess due to his heavy responsibility to save the people from eviction. They wanted to know what they should do in this circumstance. Members of different social, healthcare, sanitation and other service and training provider non-governmental organisations also gathered at the west bank of the lake to see the eviction drive in Banani Bridge slum.
From the first day, many of around 300 families in Karail Slum started looking for new place to live at an affordable cost — a major problem in the slums. The next few days they passed in discussions, tensions, and negotiations. None came on February 9th and 12th, but on the 13th Rajuk officials came and dismantled some 60 shanties of Karail Slum’s west corner considering which the court gave its recent order.
In both the cases, the operation executing agencies were strict on their motives — to follow the court order, to free the lake “in a short notice”, and thus they did not provide any assistance to those who had been evicted from the slums to continue their livelihood in another relatively cheap slum, did not say any words about the children’s schools and madrasas, or condoled their leaving.
This is contrary to what the constitution asks the government to do for its citizens and the directives of the highest court.
Rather it looked like: the slum dwellers living on government land illegally must go upon allegation of polluting the lake’s water and simply because that they are staying on that particular land “illegally”. It’s true they dump all wastes on the lakeside and thus the water is polluted. The city corporation authorities are also deliberately denying their role to carry garbage from the area. Moreover, garbage of the adjacent five other slums of the Karail’s are hardly collected by the designated authorities concerned and therefore, dumped along the water body.
It is also recognised that drains and sewerage pipes are carrying waste from Gulshan, Banani and Dhaka Cantonment into this water everyday, while concerned authorities are reluctant to keep the lake clean. Meanwhile, after the eviction drive in September last year, Rajuk did not remove the debris that piled along the lake water due to the demolition drive at the Banani slum.
The lake was declared ecologically critical in 1997 since it lost the ability to contain oxygen.
The authorities should think twice before taking any such demolition activity since these affect the lives of many low-wage earners so much that it becomes tough worthy for them to recover the sudden loss. Moreover, the legal obligations stand.
The land of Karail and adjoining five other slums fall under ward 39 of Dhaka North City Corporation and is the parliamentary constituency of former military strongman HM Ershad. There are some 40,000 voters, Mannan claimed.
The High Court in a case filed by Bangladesh Legal Aid and Services Trust termed the slum dwellers “misfortune of the society”. With hopes, they come to the cities for work, food and shelter, it observed.
“Our constitution states that the state will adopt policies so that the citizens are given their rights to live, inhabit, and livelihood. In light of the philosophy of the constitution, and for the interest of common growth of rural life, the slum dwellers should be shifted from their current situation for rehabilitation… thus the slum inhabitants need to be evicted under a specific rehabilitation programme.”
The court also asked the government to ensure housing for those disabled as well as food, clothing and healthcare. They could be given vocational training.
In a similar case moved by rights body ASK in 1999, the court observed that scattered eviction of slums would not be a solution to the problem, “as these people would start living in another slum or build one anew which will multiply the trouble. The government should prepare master plan, rehabilitation schemes or pilot projects as a tool to deal with the slum inhabitants. It should start evicting them from a place only after ensuring their living place or managing an alternative or sending them back to village.
EVICTION BRINGS WOES
The word ‘eviction’ usually refers to an offensive activity since it is executed generally as a one-sided solution to a deep-rooted problem. Eviction has been a persistent threat for the dwellers of the Dhaka’s slums. Most of those are set up on government lands. During chitchats with a number of people, such landless and helpless, and going through media reports it was clear that these people, after coming to Dhaka, first go for the cheapest houses — in most cases owned and managed illegally by influential personnel.
These poor people certainly do not own those shanties, while those influential do not live in the slums and thus do not face the hurdles of life.
The nightmare possibly emerged from the visual of eviction drives in slum areas and the aftermath in regards to those affected poor people. In the recent past, there have been several major evictions of inhabitants from the slums in Sattola, Bosila and Mohammadpur Beribandh areas. Tenants from big slums like that in Bhashantek, Agargaon and near Sonargaon Hotel were also evicted in different times. In most cases, pledges were hardly made on behalf of authorities on their “rehabilitation”, and if made any, there have been development at a snails pace.
But it should end. Now, to maintain a harmony with the pace of urbanisation, the government as well as the city’s solvent residents should look into the matter seriously to cut down the number of slums in the highly dense city and put these people, who are also part of Dhaka’s societies, in a better place to realise bilateral interests.
The common Dhaka residents too should come forward pulling these people up from dumping places with a positive approach of “living in parallel”.
To pursuit a significant change in people’s living in Dhaka, the government agencies should leave the methodology of ignoring the rehabilitation issue while evicting slum tenants as they would finding no better way would start living in another slum, generally in a worse situation due to financial loss during the eviction. It evidently creates pressure on the population of the existing slums and the adjoining areas — no matter those are posh or middleclass or at the outskirts of the capital.
Four forums of slum dwellers on February 18 formed a mass human chain in front of Jatiya Press Club demanding their housing security. At the programme, they also demanded immediate allocation of genuine slum tenants in the government-funded Bhashantek project.