Reclaiming the streets of Dhaka
Last week the Mayor of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Annisul Huq had found himself confined to a room encircled by agitating labourers after he had tried to evict a couple of illegal establishments from government land. He had later put his foot firmly down and the encroachments have been dismantled. This is a fairly brave move that deserves to be lauded. It is also a long overdue action to free the area adjacent to a truck terminal in Tejgaon that was under illegal occupation for over a couple of decades. It is however not an exception, but a norm, following which public spaces are encroached upon to make room for illegal private establishments. Most of them are reportedly used to run shady activities. Some of the evicted structures in Tejgaon were frequented by drug peddlers.
What makes it even more grievous is the land grabbers' connection with the law enforcers. There are hundreds of illegally occupied government land across the capital that have been spared any eviction drive because of the nexus that exists between the police and local hoodlums who in exchange of bribes allow the land grabbers to run their activities. It is no less than tragic that a large swathe of railway land, especially the ones on both sides of the rail line that snakes through the capital, has been grabbed by private individuals who have set up slums to rent them off. Most of the footpaths in the city are also occupied by makeshift stalls. This clogs the walkways and, at times, spills over the street, seriously impeding vehicular traffic. The situation is even worse at crossroads where these street vendors are a serious threat to the traffic movement as they force pedestrians to take to the street, a move that inevitably gives birth to road accidents. Illegal parking of buses and other private vehicles in the street and in walkways pose considerable threat to the pedestrians.
It is time that the DNCC Mayor's move to reclaim the streets and government-owned land was replicated across the capital. It is understandable that these makeshift stalls are the only source of livelihood for the poor hawkers who are illegally occupying the footpaths. Having said that, there cannot be any private establishment built on a public space. These stalls must be immediately dismantled after rehabilitating these small traders in a manner that will help them flourish. The rehabilitation plan can include giving them a Smart ID card that will help them to quickly get a trade license and other government service. Setting up a separate hawkers market where small businessmen will be able to run their trade is a good idea, but it will take a couple of years to make that happen. Before that, both the city corporations can designate certain places in the city where the hawkers will be allowed to set up stalls at a certain time of the day. There are such instances in Singapore, Bangkok and other Asian capitals where hawkers are allowed to sell their goods in some designated streets. The ID card will incorporate the hawkers under the city corporations' jurisdiction and will break the extortion racket some police officials and thugs at the grassroots allegedly run. It will also help the mayors' office to identify the hawkers when the rehabilitation takes place.
The biggest challenge in this regard is perhaps the fluid nature of the business that these traders run. To make matters even more complicated, some hawkers in the city slap a temporary moratorium on their business for a couple of months during the harvest, a time when they return to the village. New hawkers turn up; these stalls do not have a set-up cost to speak of as the investment is low. Keeping track of them is indeed tough and demands a separate department in the city corporations.
Illegal parking of vehicles is a huge problem. This is especially true for buses, which board passengers in the middle of the street and that too with a certain degree of impunity. The latter is the mother of almost all traffic related evils. The government's earning from traffic related fines in surprisingly low in a city where flouting of traffic laws is more than rampant. The traffic police, as a force, is understaffed and riddled with corrupt practices. There is no denying that Dhaka has earned the ignominious title of the second most unliveable city in the world because of corruption and the culture of impunity that shrouds it. It is true that it is not possible to enforce law in every sphere of life; this is especially so in case of traffic, which is manned by law enforcers who are not even properly equipped with the knowledge or the logistics to perform their job. There is no quick fix to the problems that have been heaped on our everyday life over the years. A good beginning lies in setting up examples, precedents that will help the violators of the law to know that one will be punished regardless of how influential s/he may be. That can start with evicting the rich and powerful who have been occupying public spaces for a long time. Annisul's move, if followed by the others, can be the beginning of a popular movement against corruption. Only time can tell if he has what it takes.
The writer is author, editor and journalist. He is the Editor of Daily Star Literature and Head of Daily Star Books.