I was born in Dhaka, and have lived close to 30 years in this city so far. During my long career living in the “least liveable city,” two questions have puzzled me greatly, and throughout the various stages of my life, I have tried to find answers to these questions, but without much success.
Every time I find myself faced with these questions, I get depressed and lose any semblance of hope, at least when it comes to Dhaka.
The first question: What purpose do the footpaths in Dhaka serve?
The second: Who owns them?
I mean, when you really think about it, there’s no difference between our footpaths and public toilets, being used and abused by everyone treading on them with no sense of hygiene -- an analogy that is taken to its extreme when we consider the fact that people oftentimes literally answer the call of nature on footpaths. The footpath near the Mohammadpur bus stop is notorious for this.
Which makes the fact that our footpaths also have space for makeshift shops hawking their wares all the less palatable. Most footpaths in the city are occupied by hawkers, who will stare daggers at you as if you’re intruding their territory. And they have no qualms in expressing that through the various hollers and quips they make as you walk past.
One thing is for certain, of course, these spaces are called “footpaths” for a reason. That is, they are meant exclusively for feet to tread. But often, you will see people plying their motorbikes and bicycles on them without any sense of awareness about the illegality of this practice on the part of the riders.
These spaces are called footpaths for a reason. That is, they are meant exclusively for feet
The other day, I saw a young motorbike rider and his friends as they proceeded to physically assault a passerby for protesting this practice.
This is what I call street injustice.
Footpaths for rent
I spoke to some hawkers who occupy the footpaths near New Market, Purana Paltan, Farmgate, and Mirpur 10 -- and it turns out they actually pay rent for setting up shop on the footpaths. They have to pay a hefty sum to certain influential “area men,” in exchange of which these influential people ensure some degree of “protection” to the hawkers.
If you ask me, this smells like a potential racket.
According to some of these hawkers, the rent they pay for market space in the footpaths can be higher than what brick-and-mortar shops pay at some malls. Curiously, when I inquired as to why they don’t just set up shop in a mall then, they said that sales are better on footpaths.
After these exchanges, any potential answer to the question of who owns the footpaths kept becoming increasingly more convoluted.
No place to walk
It is difficult to walk around in Dhaka city. It might sound ridiculous to some, but traffic congestion is much worse on our footpaths than our roads. And as our footpaths are occupied, people are forced to walk on the roads instead,exacerbating the traffic situation even more.
By leaving our footpaths to the proverbial dogs, the state is actually denying the people their right to walk. However, it seems that our policy-makers are concerned more with big development projects instead of bringing some discipline to the city.
Without which, sooner or later, this city is bound to collapse.
Mushfique Wadud is a journalist.