Fragmented thoughts on Independence Day
When was the last time you looked at the face of the rickshaw-puller who gave you a ride? Or the guard who opened the door for you at a mall? Or the cleaner who was sweeping the streets you walked along? Did you exchange glances? A smile, let alone pleasantries? Chances are you did not even see them. Yet, these are the invisible people representing 80-90 percent of the labour force on whom the informal sector of our economy depends. They include wage labourers, self-employed individuals, unpaid family labourers, seasonal workers and other hired labourers. With too much focus on the leading faces, the initiators, and the ideation process, we often forget the "ordinary" implementers and their "extraordinary" contributions not only to our economic growth, but also to our very existence.
Today, as we celebrate the nation's independence, it is important to recall the valour and sacrifice of the marginal groups and remind ourselves of our duties towards them for a sustainable growth.
After the massacre on the night of March 25, 1971, these invisible men and women from the social sidelines were catapulted to the political centre. The Pakistan Army's Operation Searchlight clicked the images of the bullet-ridden body of a rickshaw-puller lying on his mode of livelihood, the body of a street vendor being dragged by stray dogs, the body of a student sleeping in his dorm, the body of a policeman who was killed even before he could react. These corpses highlighted the indiscriminate nature of the military mayhem. The social body was dispersed. The political body regrouped. They worked as one to form antibodies against the occupying force, and ultimately defeated it after a nine-month-long guerrilla warfare. The violence that erupted in the capital was dispatched to every part of the country. Ordinary men and women resisted. Their resilience expedited our freedom. Yet, after 51 years, the part of the body that suffered the most remains inflicted as ever.
The urban-based power base that has emerged as the centre of economy has little sympathy for the margin that has its roots in our villages. According to a report, 50 percent of Dhaka's population is invisible to the city's policy and planning frameworks. The city sees the inflow of about 300,000-400,000 internally displaced population each year. Many of them are seasonal migrants who look for jobs in the city during the lean seasons. Many others come seeking upward social mobility. And for many of these people, the slums become the landing ground. Some of them join institutions of higher education to gradually move up the social ladder. A 2007 UNDP report estimated about 3.4 million living in Dhaka's slums. Surely, the number has risen since then. The lack of record-keeping shows the systematic process of exclusion. Public surveys mostly focus on the residents of formal households. The slums remain a niche area of interest for development agencies or NGOs—not so much for city planners. Their basic needs for water, sanitation or power are provided through an "informal" patronage system. These men and women residing outside the official frame rely on local syndicates or political nexus for their existence. They are fed into partisan politics for their basic sustenance, including jobs, with no civic rights or public entitlements. For them, freedom is a far cry.
I was browsing through a trip advisory blog where visitors were commenting on Dhaka city. The suggestions there made me think of the invisible side of our visible city. For instance, one commentator mentioned that finding a female companion in Dhaka was relatively easy as many college-going students were engaged in escort services. There was another blog mentioning that one could buy intimacy with a woman for as little as Tk 100. A video interview of a woman, who had to sleep with 20-25 men a day for her livelihood, brought tears to my eyes. The trip advisors suggested not going to these floating sex workers in fear of STDs, just like they suggested not giving alms to any street beggars. "They'd gang up for more and tear you into pieces like in Hitchcock's movie The Bird," one comment said.
I felt ashamed to be introduced to the underbelly of the city in which I travel from one place to another with my upper-middle-class privileges. The man who ferries me throughout the city would get two annual leaves. There are so many like him with biological needs, who allow the informal system of prostitution, for instance, to grow. The house rents would force many of these working men and women to live in a city where their needs are not catered to. The same goes for many migrant workers who work abroad to contribute to our wage earners' scheme. The money they send often gives rise to social problems that we are not ready to acknowledge. Adultery is often reported as a cause for murder or kidnapping. We benefit from the informal economy without doing anything significant for the invisible men and women. Fifty percent of the city dwellers take care of the other 50 percent in a symbiotic, if not a parasitic, relationship. The existence is far from healthy.
When the clarion call for freedom was made, we wanted independence from all forms of oppression. We wanted to be free in our thoughts and in our actions. It is about time our policymakers bridged up the formal-informal divide and outlined a healthier alternative. Freedom is not only about getting rid of the chains of the oppressors, but also about providing the rights to live with dignity and mutual respect.
Dr Shamsad Mortuza is the pro-vice-chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB).