Eviction without rehabilitation is deeply irresponsible
We are alarmed by the news of continued eviction risks facing the tenants of the South Kamalapur Railway Colony near the Gopibagh area in southern Dhaka. These people belong to the Harijan/Telegu community who for generations have served as cleaners and sweepers. They also happen to be one of the most marginalised groups in the country. The colony, popularly known as the Gopibagh TT Para Sweeper Colony, apparently stands in the path of a rail line being constructed from Kamalapur to Jashore and other structures planned under the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project, and the tenants are expected to go along with it at the risk of upending their own lives.
The Tk-39,247-crore railway project is an important part of the vision surrounding the multipurpose Padma Bridge. Once the entire 169km-long rail line is opened to the public, it is estimated that the distance from Dhaka to Jashore would decrease by 200km, and the travel time would be nearly halved. While we understand the need for reclaiming railway land for such a vital project, the question is, is the method being followed – eviction without rehabilitation – the best way to go about it? Reportedly, evictions are already underway in phases. In the first phase in 2019, 112 families were evicted. Later, 27 more families were evicted last December. Project officials apparently warned that 40 more families would be evicted at any time.
According to some of the tenants, people involved with the railway project had assured them of rehabilitation and compensation before any eviction drive. But none of those promises materialised to this day. Instead, evictions were allegedly carried out without any notice. Some of the victims described the suffering and uncertainty that it caused as well as the humiliation of being denied rented accommodation outside the colony because of their identity, which many tend to look down upon. Finding no other option, a number of ousted families were forced to move in with those that still lived there. This is totally unacceptable.
The director of the Padma Bridge Rail Link Project has claimed that most tenants were living here "illegally". Many of them are retired from the railway service, many work for the city corporation, and most work in private companies, he said. That may be the case, but together they play a vital role essential to the smooth function of the city and associated services, and thus deserve to be treated with special consideration. Also, why were those evicted not rehabilitated as promised? Project authorities say that a building is being prepared in the Shahjahanpur Railway Colony where former TT Para tenants, or at least those they consider "legal", will be shifted. Just one building? This is too little, not to say too tokenistic a gesture to be an appropriate response.
Eviction without rehabilitation is a deeply flawed, coercive and immoral method that no one can support under any circumstance, especially in case of marginalised groups. We urge the relevant authorities to quickly undo the damage they already caused and ensure that all former and current tenants of this colony are properly rehabilitated before any further attempt at land clearance is made.