Nearly two weeks after a huge fire gutted one of the largest slums in Dhaka, some 40,000 hapless victims are still living under the open sky, their hopes for rehabilitation receding as fast as their shacks went up in flames.
Fortunately, there were no fatalities as most of the slum residents had gone to their village homes during the long Eid holidays, returning to the capital after the August 16 disaster.
The fire refocused attention on the miserable condition of the millions of slum dwellers and the hardcore poor across Bangladesh whose daily struggle for survival magnifies whenever a disaster like this strikes
At the same time it exposed the hollow promises made and broken repeatedly by the ruling elite, who hastened to declare their moral and material support for the victims aimed at facilitating their quick rehabilitation.
Just hours after the fire broke out in the Jhilpar slum in Mirpur suburb, for instance, ministers and other high officials including the Mayor Atiqul Islam, disaster management and relief Minister of State Enamur Rahman and local ruling party member of parliament Elias Molla visited the area, assuring the victims of all manner of assistance including rebuilding their shanties.
But their utterances soon proved to be no more than a pep talk. After providing temporary shelters in nearby schools and handing out food items for about a week, authorities forced the victims out three days before the August 25 reopening of the schools following the long Eid vacation, leaving them high and dry.
This has become an oft-repeated scenario that fits a tragicomic script: Every time a slum burns down or a natural disaster strikes, leaving thousands homeless, higher-ups rush to the spot and make promises of rehabilitation, followed by handing out of food rations and clothing while the television cameras roll.
The occasion makes for good visual coverage and, most importantly, it helps enhance the image of the authorities as bent on showing their concern for the poor.
Within days, though, the victims are painfully reminded that those promises will never be met and they are destined to fend for themselves and once again embrace the miserable existence.
After the fire, television footage showed many of the victims sifting through the debris in desperation to salvage whatever they could so that they could rebuild their lives.
“What will happen to us? Where will we go now? No one is talking to us.” That was the lament of Shahida Begum to the daily Prothom Alo. “The government will no longer take care of us? Are we not citizens of this country?” she asked.
Begum may have been echoing the overwhelming concern of many who were forced out of the temporary shelters on Friday ahead of the schools’ reopening on Sunday. They all knew pretty well that such questions would go unheeded.
To be fair, their fatalism is forged over years of the neglect, deprivation and lack of opportunity that have forced them to embrace a subhuman existence in the first place.
A visit, even a short one, to any of the slums defies imagination as to how one can live in such squalid condition. Tiny shacks made of tin and plastic, packed with people, are often ringed by fly-infested open drains in which children can be seen defecating in the open.
The situation gets worse during the monsoon when raw sewage and mud mix into a disease-breeding brew. It’s no wonder most slum dwellers suffer from various diseases – cough, fever, chronic dysentery – which means they cannot work every day and thus lose income.
To be sure, this subhuman existence is not confined to the slum dwellers only, whose numbers are estimated at more than 10 million across Bangladesh. Overall about 30 million, considered abject poor, endure such conditions on a daily basis.
The wretched condition of such a large number of people has led economists and commentators to question what is wrong with the prescription of development practitioners.
“Every now and then I wonder what development is all about, if so many people are left out, and why there’s no effective mechanism that will lift the poor out of poverty,” Mohiuddin Ahmed, a former diplomat and commentator who studied economics, asked ruefully.
True, Bangladesh has done remarkably well in poverty alleviation, reducing the number of hardcore poor from 46% to little over 21% in the past 15 years.
Analysts say it’s no small feat in a country long known for being impoverished, one that the former American Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, shortly after liberation, called a “basket case.”
Development organizations like the World Bank are now calling it the second of the top five fastest-growing economies in the world (after Rwanda), achieving 8.1 GDP growth in 2018. It’s also being billed as a role model for other countries plagued by deep poverty to emulate.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina often takes delight in her government’s pro-poor focus, which she claims has graduated Bangladesh from a one of the least developed to a country of lower middle-income in the past 10 years.
Analysts, however, beg to differ, saying these numbers have done little to allay the perennial anxiety and hopelessness of millions who have not been a beneficiary.
“They can’t eat the numbers and stats to fill their stomach. They need to have something substantial in their life to be satisfied, Ahmed, the commentator, said, adding “the poor are just numbers and not humans.”
The Jhilpar slum, one of the capital’s largest, was situated on a 20-acre plot of government land acquired by the housing authority in 1973 to provide housing for middle-income people.
The land lay vacant for a few years, which made it an attractive spot for rural poor who were desperate for a shelter in the capital from which to search for any work – day laborer, rickshaw puller, domestic help – in the surrounding areas.
Within a couple of years the area turned into a huge squatter community consisting of tiny shacks made primarily of tin, bamboo and plastic sheeting.
As they grew in number, eventually to an estimated 40,000 people, the squatters became a lucrative source of income for successive ruling party local leaders who extort a monthly fee from them as insurance against eviction.
According to the Dhaka Tribune, monthly extortion income divvied up among the local leaders is reported to be over 10 million taka ($120,000) – a staggering amount for a poor country like Bangladesh where the per capita annual income is less than $2000.
In addition, the leaders earn another 3 million taka ($40,000) by providing illegal utility connections. According to the preliminary investigation by the Fire and Safety department, it was the plastic pipe through which gas is supplied that burst and triggered the fire.
Elias Molla, the local Awami League MP, sounded equivocal when a reporter asked about whether his men were involved in the extortion racket and about the finding that the illegal utility connections triggered the huge fire.
“I’m the MP of Mirpur-7 and most of the constituents are my supporters,” he said, adding that he was not aware of extortionists. He further claimed: “None of the people providing illegal gas connections work for me,” the Tribune reported.
He also said: “The slums will be rebuilt with proper roads so the fire and other emergency services have access.” He did not, however, specify how and when it might be done.
His denial and assurances elicited blank looks and fury from the victims but, fearing reprisal, they were too afraid to vent their anger to reporters.
“They have the power and money and we’re at their mercy”, one victim said, adding “we’ve no recourse but to live with this reality.” He begged the reporter not to reveal his identity.