In the past few weeks, Dhaka and the entire country has experienced heavy rainfall. The landslide in the hilly areas claimed lives and damaged properties. Dhaka's waterlogging problem once again rendered the city even more motionless than it usually is from constant gridlock. While everyone suffered in one way or another, the most devastating effect must have been on those who do not have a roof over their heads. In an already crisis-ridden city like Dhaka, the situation is immensely exacerbated when there is a spell of incessant rain for four or five days, sometimes longer.
The homeless are ever-present in Dhaka. They are so common that you hardly notice them. But where do they go when torrential rain and thunderstorms make people shut their windows extra tight? How do they sleep in relentless rain that literally doesn't stop for days, as we have experienced in the past few weeks?
When all you can do is endure
Dilu lives on the footpath adjacent to the Taqwa mosque at Dhanmondi 12/A. A young woman in her 20s, Dilu is quite indifferent to the problem, appearing to find the question of where she sleeps when it rains quite pointless. “You have to find shelter somewhere,” she says simply. She refuses to be specific about where exactly she goes. “Do you find shelter on shopping mall stairs, late at night?” Dilu laughs and nods, thinking it's a silly question. “Listen, sir,” she said, “you can write all you want in the newspaper but no one will give us a home.”
In an elaborate and methodical study by Research and Evaluation Division (RED) of BRAC, published in March 2011, the researchers found 36 percent of the homeless live on footpaths, 14 percent at rail stations and 13 percent in stadiums, and move to places having some kind of cover during the rainy season. The survey interviews a total of 2,264 street dwellers from 20 spots in Dhaka city.
“Don't take pictures,” said Khayrul, Dilu's disapproving brother. Khayrul works as a labourer during the day, six days a week. He shares that they just have to resort to polythene sheets and they actually don't always find shelter. Even the little spaces underneath shopping mall shades are too difficult to come by sometimes. They also don't want to leave the place they usually sleep in. In retrospect, it seems that they may have found it undignified to admit that they just clench their teeth and endure the rain.
The RED study found that sleeping on footpaths on rainy days actually increased with time among the group that are living in the streets for more than one year and less than five years. “In contrast to conventional wisdom (that what this population need most is provision of water and sanitation), shelter (especially during rain and storms) and security were found to be the two main concerns of the street dwellers,” the RED study read.
From the sample studied in the survey, during the rainy days 24.6 percent of the street dwellers slept on footpaths, 15.7 percent in stadiums, 14.8 percent in bazaars, 13.1 percent at railway stations, 11 percent in slums, 9.1 percent in launch terminals, 4.1 percent at bus stands and 7.7 percent of the respondents found other miscellaneous shelters.
No shelter, no sleep
Slightly further away from Dilu and Khayrul, on the North side of the Dhanmondi 32 bridge, sat Mokhtar Shah, where he begs during the day and sleeps at night. Aged over 60 and with a filariasis affected leg, Mokhtar is more or less immobile. He came to Dhaka from Nilphamari quite recently. When asked where he goes during the rain, he pointed to the other side of the road where there are dense trees sheltering the sidewalk, but that is not nearly enough as protection. When asked how he sleeps, the elderly man simply said, “No sleep.”
Mokhtar Shah had difficulties speaking full sentences and sounded exhausted when he spoke. “I find shelter in buildings too,” he said. When asked if he gets thrown out from building premises, he merely stared, unable to explain his methods.
Like Mokhtar, Dilu and Khayrul, there are thousands of people in Dhaka who live without a roof over their heads. Different studies find different numbers - one study found the number of footpath dwellers to be at 15 to 20 thousand, but these figures are inconclusive because of a lack of proper, exhaustive studies. The situation is further complicated by constant migration into the capital. According to one estimate, approximately 320,000 migrants enter Dhaka annually. The RED study recommended a comprehensive census and a number of short-term interventions, but what should clearly take precedence above all else is providing some form of shelter where the homeless can stay in the most turbulent weather.