As all of Bangladesh is still reeling from the terrorist attack in Gulshan on July 1st, the government has responded with unprecedented vigor. Security forces are conducting raids across the country, catching suspects, busting dens. The government and many civil groups are trying to mobilize the society against terror; the UGC's call for a human chain at all universities on August 1st is but one sign of such efforts.
Rajuk has chosen this moment, using the terror attack as a pretext, to resume an all-out eviction drive.All across the world we see governments working with affected establishments and sectors to help them get back on their feet. The Rajuk drive is doing just the opposite; it is battering the worst-hit sector: evicting small shops and cafes when even the unevicted are struggling to survive.
We all feel the need to manage the unbridled spread of commercial operations in residential areas. But trying to evict them en masse is as insupportable as letting them run rampant--as government agencies have done for years. What is more, it is Rajuk's signal failure that it never planned remotely adequate commercial space for the city. Rajuk is now effectively punishing entrepreneurs for its own planning failures.
In the process, Rajuk is also willy-nilly uprooting the kind of small cafes, salons, kindergartens and corner shops that are essential to the fabric of urban communities everywhere. This is not only where people go, at walking distance, for daily essentials, but also where they meet and bond, in an age of increasing isolation. Evicting them overnight is to tear at the fabric of these communities.
Here are the main problems with this long-held policy of eviction that has plagued the city periodically since the dreaded days of the Caretaker Government:
1) Wrong time, wrong pretext
: Whether a restaurant was authorized or unauthorized is not the reason a terror attack took place. Terrorists choose high-profile and symbolic locations like the Twin Towers in New York, Taj and Oberoi Hotels in Mumbai, and Lindt café in Sydney. Holey Artisan Bakery was a place of special value among Dhaka's foreigners and locals of that neighborhood--and that is why the terrorists targeted it. And their aims are working: many foreigners are leaving, textile buyers are only conducting meetings abroad and embassies are telling family members of their staff to leave.
2) Adding to Joblessness.
As these small businesses are shut down without even a day's notice (Rajuk's claims of newspaper ads notwithstanding), many young people are instantly thrown out of their jobs. The government needs to recognize that these young people--waiters, cooks, barbers, sales staff, and merchandizers--will not be able to go back to their home districts or villages and find similar jobs. They have now learned a trade and the families at home depend on their earnings.
3)Killing entrepreneurial investment.
In the 70's, 80's,and 90's one could set up industries, real estate businesses or get government contracts with 30/40 lakhs taka. Nowadays for young entrepreneurs it is impossible to enter large sectorswith sucha small investment. So it's the small businesses: the cafes, boutiques, food supply, IT, and marketing agencies where the youth invest. Their outlets and offices are mostly in residential areas as rent is too high in commercial spaces. These entrepreneurs are losing all they had, all they had built up.
4) Where will the youth go?
The young generation of Dhaka city need places to go to—like small cafes where kids meet up with friends and families. The city does not have enough parks, fields, or public hangout spaces on par with other mega cities. Which safe space can these kids go to now? Especially at a time when we are also discussing that these young people are easily targeted by extremists.
5) Commercial areas make no sense.
Most great cities have no such thing as purely residential areas. In the 1950s, Dhanmondi enjoyed the status of a Western suburb today. To think we can return to that pristine reality in the world's most congested city is absurd. Yet, even people who campaign in the name of environmentalism have pushed that line - from offices rented in those very residential areas.
We cannot have policies based on fantastical conceptions. We need "mixed use" neighborhoods for real. No customer will go from Gulshan or Dhanmondi to Purbachal for a coffee or hair cut, or send their toddler to day care 8km away from home.
It is preposterous that anyone even contemplated any action against the owners of Holey Bakery. Even if that were justified before July 1, precisely due to the attack they now deserve nothing but support both from state and society.
This Rajuk drive could not be more ill-timed. It must stop now and resume only after a more rational plan has been put in place. After a terror attack the city is in a state of shock. Citizens need to be assured of safety. Confidence needs to be restored so life can get back to normal. Instead of giving this confidence, Rajuk's plan only adds to instability and fear.