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Special Feature

Street Secrets

Shudeepto Ariquzzaman

With the greatest effort, Babu manages to knock on the window of the posh Lexus jeep. His little head, however, does not reach the car window, his height does not permit him the luxury. But he manages to show the passenger his merchandise, some stickers. Even before he can make his offer, the passenger yells, “Get away, you scum. I have no need for your stupid stickers.” The passenger, a rich young man seemed insulted that 'the scum' was insolent enough to suppose that he would purchase this low quality product. “He is one of the better guys, at least he did not hit me,” says Babu, his smiling face betraying the everyday ordeal he has to encounter. At age 10, Babu works six days a week, starting in the morning and finishing late at night. “My mother is a part time domestic help, the income is not enough to support my family. I have a sister but she is too young to work. Things have been especially worse since my father left us and married someone else,” he said, the smile never leaving his face. Children like Babu possess the uncanny ability to smile in the face of the greatest hardships.

Babu looks small compared to his age, as street children often do. “I think it is something to do with my stomach, I feel frequent pains,” explained Babu.

As if the ordeal is not enough, Babu has to encounter other troubles. “If you don't pay me, you cannot work here, that is what the man told me,” says Babu, his smile disappearing for the first time. But whoever, this “man” is, Babu won't tell, and that goes for all the street children who work in the fixed locations of the capital city.

Welcome to one of the best-kept secrets of the streets, an issue that affects the everyday lives of most street vendors but an issue so secretive that everyone involved is too terrified to discuss. What appears at first sight to be a muddled and disorganised activity in the streets of Dhaka is normally governed by a set of ironclad rules, where almost everyone occupies a place in a sophisticated economic hierarchy and must owe loyalty and sometimes cash to the person above him.

It is not always about direct extortion, the 'business' is in most cases much more sophisticated. “ Throughout the city, we have a 1,200 member syndicate,” explained a nut seller who sells his merchandise at a busy traffic signal. “All members of this syndicate must purchase their products from a particular businessman Jalil who lives in the city's Shyamoli area. He looks after us, whenever there is trouble from the law enforcers he takes care of it, he is the real boss,” says 14-year-old Shimul proudly. “We know everyone in this area, whenever anyone outside the syndicate tries to sell nuts we drive them away, sometimes we do it violently. Any vendor who sells to the motorists and passengers must purchase his products from the boss.” Incidentally, Jalil is known to be on good terms with a certain mafia don.

“I hate going home, the streets are better,” says Shimul, a lemon vendor. Considering the fact that he lives in Agargaon BNP slums, his reasons for not going home are justified. Strange as it may sound, Shimul, despite his tough looking attitude and his obvious knack for violence is comparatively one of the more innocent kids on the block. The infamous Agargaon slum is a literal hellhole. The slum is infamous for its drug trade, especially for its trade in heroin.

In the darkness, two children aged approximately eight and 12 stand on guard. The older boy says to his apprentice, “I don't like that man's movement, I think he is a forma (informer),” pointing to a man walking in the field nearby. “Go check on him,” he commands his younger apprentice. “No way I am going out there by myself, send Jasim with me,” said the younger kid, obviously not very keen to be apprehended by a law enforcement agency. “You are such a coward, very well go inside and find Jasim, but be very quick, I will stay here.” The younger kid immediately runs back to the slum.

Inside the slum, there are numerous small time peddlers, many of them children. There is however, only one spot where outsiders gather to buy and consume heroin on the spot. Young boys and girls stand outside the spot and approach some of the more educated looking customers who do not want to go inside, most of them officers and students from a better background, afraid of being seen or being apprehended by law enforcers. For a single customer they can earn 10-20 taka. It is not difficult to see that many of the children, some as young as three or four, are hooked to the deadly drug. The children shout at each other in obscene language and constantly keep on fighting among themselves. A young girl, aged about 14, casually washes some dishes in a nearby tube well. At first sight she looks like a normal girl, but a quick movement in her eyes and her body language reveals that the child is in fact an experienced sex worker.

For different products, there are different syndicates. For example, vendors who sell lemons must purchase their merchandise from a certain man in Karwan Bazaar, and that goes for every product purchased by motorists and passengers in the city streets. “If I have to sell flowers here, I must purchase from Younus bhai,” explained 12-year-old Montu who plies his trade at another busy traffic signal. “We buy flowers for six taka apiece.”

Younus claims that he himself purchases flowers for three taka apiece. “I am a poor shopkeeper,” claims Younus. “I have a difficult time providing for my family.” But the truth is, despite his seemingly Spartan outlook, Younus has a very hefty income for a man who sells flowers from a roadside flower shop. Reliable sources have indicated that Younus is in fact a wholesaler whose cost for purchasing a single flower is no more than 50 paisa apiece. For this, Younus sells his products to the children for six taka, at a gross profit margin of 1100 per cent. Of course, the gross profit margin for Younus is misleading. In this extraordinary and sophisticated economic hierarchy, Younus must also pay up to his bosses.

“I need to purchase my merchandise from this particular man, otherwise they will prevent me from working here. I cannot always make a profit, on bad days much of my products remain unsold,” comments Jashim, another flower seller at a different spot. “Of course, he won't take my products back and I do not have enough to buy food.” But starving is not an option, what does he do then? After some hesitation he replied, “I steal.”

At late night, a lorry carrying chicken speeds off at Bangla Motor. At first sight, there appears to be nothing amiss. But a more observant individual can notice, that between the grills, there is a tiny boy with the intention of stealing one of the chickens locked in the grills. This particular day he is not very lucky, the lorry is too fast and by then he is attracting attention from two private cars behind the lorry, one of them turning on his beam to indicate that he has seen the thief. In an extraordinary display of courage and complete disregard for his life, the child jumps from the top of the speeding lorry, just narrowly missing being hit by the private car that brakes very hard. The kid does not wait to assess his narrow escape from almost certain death, he squeezes his small body between the barbed wire that stands on the pavements and runs like hell in the opposite direction towards the direction of Sonargaon road.

“As you can see, their lives have no value. Two months ago, a four-year-old boy called Hridoy disappeared. Later we found him abandoned in Bashundhara residential area near the Apollo hospital. About three or four days ago, a two-year-old boy disappeared, we never saw him again,” says Montu.


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