Businesses may have to pay the price for the failure of this and previous governments to build a safe city. And whenever businesses have to pay, consumers must inevitably follow suit.
After the July 1 terror attack, the government has been spurred to action to rezone the city, claiming it necessary to fight terrorism. Notices have been sent to some 13,000 businesses in this regard.
The decision to evict commercial enterprises located in residential areas has even led to finger pointing against the owners of Holy Artisan Bakery, whose property was the scene of Bangladesh’s deadliest terror attack, for not having the proper authorisation.
But is this renewed bureaucratic zeal the answer? And will it make Dhaka safer for its inhabitants?
The link between terrorism and coffee shops situated in remodelled houses is not at all clear. But the economic disruption of such a move seems evident.
“A sudden decision to evict hotels from the Gulshan and the diplomatic zone would be a disaster for the businesses as they have invested crores of Taka,” said H M Hakim Ali, president of the Bangladesh International Hotel Association.
Some 200,000 people would be in danger of losing their jobs if all of the hotels in the area were to be evicted, he said.
The government would lose a massive amount of revenue from the sector, Hakim added.
A cabinet meeting in April, months before the terrorist attack, had already settled on rezoning Dhaka and evicting unauthorised commercial establishments including eateries, stores, hotels, educational institutions and hospitals from residential areas in the capital within six months.
An initial drive in which some business were demolished was short-lived and faced accusations of favouritism – business owners with the right connections were thought to have been spared the demolition crews.
But the attack on Holey Artisan Bakery has caused the government to speed up the eviction process.
With three months remaining in the original six-month deadline, the government has threatened to disconnect the utilities of establishments that fail to move.
There has been no offer of compensation for eviction.
Business community leaders point out that as far as terrorism is concerned they are innocent and being unduly harassed.
Some observers have sounded warnings that tens of thousands of low income workers, men and women, facing a sudden loss of employment would be vulnerable to radicalisation.
Many business owners are asking where they could go, whether the economic geographies of alternate sites would sustain their businesses and whether this move would serve consumers.
Some 95% of hotels are operating with government permission, said Hakim Ali, the hoteliers’ trade body president. He urged the government to rethink its decision and set a reasonable time frame for relocation.
But where in congested Dhaka would business relocate to?
“We do not have any shortage of commercial areas in Dhaka. There is plenty of space in many commercial high rise buildings situated in the residential areas,” Housing and Public Works Minister Mosharraf Hossain told the Dhaka Tribune.
He said businesses rented space in residential buildings and not commercial buildings to take advantage of lower rents. “For example, all the buildings situated on either side of Gulshan Avenue are commercial establishments where the businesses do not go because of high rents. They prefer residential buildings to save on rent.”
Business owners said they feared that they would lose customers, saying that location was crucial when it came to high-end retail.
“Most customers here are foreigners and they reside in this neighbourhood. Well-to-do locals form another segment of our clientele, and they are not likely to travel too far to have a cup of coffee,” a manager at a renowned coffee shop said, asking not to be named.
“This will definitely hurt business,” he added.
Md Helal Uddin, director of the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry, said: “We do not have any objection to the eviction of unauthorised businesses located in the diplomatic zone. The government ought to do this for the sake of the safety of expatriates.
“But the latest move can only benefit the government if traders have to leave empty-handed. Entrepreneurs will suffer huge losses. The government should compensate them to help them re-establish their businesses elsewhere.”