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Who’s extorting whom?

  • Published at 12:46 am April 4th, 2017
  • Last updated at 12:48 am April 4th, 2017
Who’s extorting whom?
When Dhaka North, a city corporation eager to ease the movement of its residents, prompts, among eight other embassies, to clear the footpaths before their premises, it makes news. In Dhaka South, another city corporation threatens (after many unanswered requests, one must concede) to evict hawkers from the footpaths; here, what makes news is their counter-threat of “crippling the city.” The foreign missions used to encroach the footpaths with security establishments, also marking a distinct space -- a space of power. The hawkers have been encroaching Dhaka’s streets and many of its junctions for lack of dedicated space for trade -- a space of everyday life. The first received letters of request and must relocate the security facilities within their usually spacious lawns; the latter don’t have anywhere to go, also because the sites the state alleges to have allotted for their rehabilitation are as yet unknown. So, the first disciplinedly complied with the city corporation’s request, the latter have been deemed conspirators and extortionists by the responsible mayor.
The hawkers have been encroaching Dhaka’s streets and many of its junctions for lack of dedicated space for trade -- a space of everyday life
Now, there can be hardly any doubt that those claiming the power to “cripple” a city would be closer to mastaans than to ordinary sellers, who probably would like to believe in the prime minister’s assurance that hawkers will not be evicted without rehabilitation and wouldn’t mind renting salesroom at fair prices. But vis-à-vis last years’ worrying accumulation of incidents related to access and use of space all over the country, and especially in the capital city, the question is: Who’s the worse extortionist? The people, encroaching space to dwell, work, or trade against the backdrop of land loss, floods, appallingly low wages as well as lack of affordable housing and dedicated commercial premises in the cities (leaving the mushrooming shopping centres aside), or a state that evidently adopts different language and different measures for different groups? A state building projects destined to endanger not only flora and fauna of a forest enlisted in the UNESCO World Heritage, but certainly also the livelihoods of thousands, who will join the other thousands displaced earlier, in the aftermath of ecological damages linked with shrimp cultivation and deforestation? A state seemingly eager to establish control and order on the roads than to ensure equal access to basic rights -- education, housing, a safe environment, equal treatment before the law, adequate salaries, so for the rich as for the poor? [caption id="attachment_56322" align="aligncenter" width="900"]_MHO0895 PHOTO: MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU[/caption] A state that doesn’t hesitate to use brute violence itself, like the kidnappings of opposition members and the shocking numbers of “crossfire deaths” show? A state that, having failed in 40 years to establish a national law regulating the modalities of rehabilitation and resettlement, must rely on ad hoc measures (whose fair implementation is all the more uncertain) whenever an eviction occurs? I’m not posing these questions to myself. I pose them to all citizens of Bangladesh who read English newspapers today, like I have been discussing them with the much larger group that reads the Bangla ones or doesn’t read at all in the last 10 years. They resonate in a somewhat exacerbated tone right now, and this has to do with the fire that in the night between March 15 and 16, devastated parts of Korail bosti -- a place where, in the years, I have felt and been helped to feel “at home” by persons whose right to be at home hasn’t yet been acknowledged by the state agencies. On the contrary, their existence has been marginalised throughout the past decades: In most maps of Dhaka, much part of the area covered by the settlement is represented as vacant, and according to the census, its population is 40,000, ie, less than one-third of the population recorded by the inhabitants in their own surveys, whose accuracy I have had the opportunity to witness.
Such a deep distrust, expressed after fires in other bosti as well, calls for urgent attention. When do people lose trust in the state?
An outcome of this politics of marginalisation was that state programs of in-situ rehabilitation, whether in Korail or other self-organised settlements, were not deemed necessary; the inhabitants continued to develop their settlements on their own, often in unhealthy environments, harassed by local musclemen, and obviously, under constant threat of eviction. A few NGOs helped providing basic services, from schools to health centres to microcredit; the fieldworkers of Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK) conveyed to the inhabitants, and especially the leaders of respective Community Based Organisations (CBOs), the skills to prepare community maps and carry out the mentioned census surveys. Among the articles that covered the fire in Korail recently, some reporting about the immediate circumstances and help initiatives, others expressing larger concerns about the poors’ living conditions in Dhaka, again others demanding more socially responsible public spending, one cites architect Mobassher, who, at a conference on the right to shelter and livelihood, organised by BLAST two days after the fire, said that bosti dwellers, while being deprived of access to basic civic amenities like water, electricity, sanitation, and gas, pay more per square foot than most of the residents of Gulshan. This is tragically true, and points once again at the inequality that rather than decreasing, has been constantly aggravating in Dhaka and elsewhere. When in urban bosti and para, villages and towns, I asked how the country’s doing, the most common answer I got in the last five-six years has invariably been a helpless “the big people are becoming bigger, and the rest struggle harder.” I have often wondered whether the prime minister and all other ministers, when they praise the achievements of the country at public functions and press conferences, consider this negative perception of the current state of the arts. From this sentence, however, emanates an even deeper despair, because till today, that “rest” of the population largely define themselves and are defined by many politicians and so-called educated persons “choto manush.” Small people. People whose lives are insignificant? Whose labour is not worth minimum wages? Whose losses and traumas after floods and river erosion deserve just a mention in the newspapers, but far too rarely are met with public subsidies and rehabilitation programs? Whose shanties, when they are destroyed by fires like those that only in Korail, have erased the houses of some 4,000 families last week and of another 526 in December, must be rebuilt as quickly as possible out of fear that the authorities send bulldozers and raze the rest? As far as Dhaka’s bosti are concerned, there have in fact been positive developments in the last three-four years. To name the probably most significant: Korail and other settlements, previously not connected to the municipal water network due to their “illegal” status, obtained an official water supply in 2013. This was possible because the CBO leaders had kept fighting for their settlements’ right to water for seven years. The state, also in this case, didn’t move a finger: Once WASA had agreed to the provision, the inhabitants carried out the construction of water tanks and the installation of water pumps with logistical support from DSK and start-up financing by WaterAid and UNICEF, which supplemented funds they had raised themselves. [caption id="attachment_56323" align="aligncenter" width="900"]ELISA-T-PIC2 PHOTO: MAHMUD HOSSAIN OPU[/caption] Today, they pay for both the water and the maintenance of the infrastructure on their own and according to WASA, their payments reach in average more timely than those of many clients from other parts of the city. There is one rarely mentioned point to make here, which should be considered by those advocating for equal development for all. The monthly bills for the legal water provision amount to less than half compared to those paid in the days of “informal” supply. So when arguing that the rents paid by the residents of urban bosti are, proportionally to the space they avail of, higher than those born by the residents of “legally” provided houses, we must add that far too high prices have to be paid also for basic services. Such is, still, the case with electricity: In Korail, a self-organised network, meanwhile, serves all the single households and every hut has got at least one light bulb and one fan hanging from the ceiling; many families own a television. But although every house owner pays according to the actual monthly consumption, which is recorded by a meter, those who “trade” electricity charge additional fees for the connection and maintenance works. A survey carried out by Habitat Forum Berlin in Korail in late 2012, for example, showed that the tapped electricity, paid Tk5 per unit at the source ie, to regular suppliers, is resold at a price that can be 33% higher. The point I’m trying to make is that the unfairly high prices of self-organised housing and services take an extra toll on households that are already financially weak, further retarding the improvement of their living conditions. In more direct words, Bangladesh’s poor are not at all “choto,” but with every rejection of their applications for legal public services, with every delay in updating the minimum wages, and with every more month in which they’ll be refused the full legalisation of their bosti, the state apparatus actively makes their chances to get out of poverty smaller, if not impossible. This is, probably, the origin of the perception that the big are becoming bigger, and the rest only continue to struggle. When, after the last fire, people denounced loudly to the press that this was no accident but a case of arson as the government wants to establish an IT-Park on the site, it stood out that many of these oppressed don’t only have very low expectations on the state, but truly distrust it. It isn’t my call to comment on the allegation, but such a deep distrust, expressed after fires in other bosti as well, calls for urgent attention. When do people lose trust in the state? The evictions carried out by various governments in rather haphazard manner and without abiding by the international laws in the last decades (in Korail and many other bosti of Dhaka) can be regarded as episodes of state terror that have surely taken their place in the collective conscious. It seems to me that in the last nine months, two key moments have flanked them. For one, the shock that followed the Holey Artisan Bakery attack on July 1, 2016 had as a consequence security measures that hit the city’s bosti particularly hard. Because terrorists could easily find refuge in them, the government ordered to block the means of transportation to and from Korail (and other bosti), ie, the boats of its fully self-organised ferry system as well as a huge fleet of mainly unregistered cycle rickshaws. Obviously, the ban cost many inhabitants their jobs and compelled some to move away. Moreover, the overall move was perceived as unjust: “They want that our bellies are so empty that we cannot protest against anything anymore” were the words of a young father, jobless due to the rickshaw ban back in October 2016: “Thereby, all those terrorists are rich people’s children.” Second, Korail dwellers expressed doubts on the nature and cause of the December 4 fire too, but their hints were not pursued further by the police, or if investigations were carried out, their results haven’t been made public. Although the prompt intervention of NGOs and civil society, which helped the victims to rebuild their huts within weeks, and the usual struggles of everyday life might have temporarily silenced those doubts and anger, in the long run the state’s negligence and lack of transparency cannot boost trust. The next question, then, is: What do millions of betrayed citizens, be they Gulistan’s sellers or Korail’s inhabitants, do when they’ve lost all trust?
  Elisa T Bertuzzo is a cultural scientist and focuses in her research the everyday life facets of urbanisation and settlement in South Asia. She is the author of Fragmented Dhaka (2009) and from 2010 to 2016, guided with Günter Nest the project Paradigmising Korail Bosti of Habitat Forum Berlin.