The image is all too familiar, so much so that it is almost forgettable: A woman wailing amongst debris that once was what she called her home. To many passersby, it was one of the countless slums where people who are not particularly welcome had come to stay. They are those who have fled after rivers took away their homesteads or who could no longer find work in their village. They came to the city with dreams of earning enough to have a decent life, maybe send their children to school so they could get good jobs and hopefully never have to live in a "bosti" (slum) again. And for most of them, work was readily available—in households, factories, ply rickshaws, carry heavy loads or build mansions they would never live in. But at least they had a roof over their heads and a space they called home. Yet one frightening night, that tiny piece of security was bulldozed into a pile of rubbish.
Slums are demolished regularly and not much fuss is made of it because of various reasons. Non-slum-dwellers don't find anything wrong with a city being “cleaned of those dirty shanties where all kinds of nefarious activities take place—drug trade, sex trade and the like.” From the government's perspective, the slums are illegal occupation of state-owned land and so there is nothing unlawful about evicting a few thousand people who shouldn't have been living on this land in the first place.
In all these narratives, what is missing is the fact that we are talking about lives here—of people who contribute to the economy and to the wellbeing of their compatriots in a multitude of ways. They may seem invisible to many but they are the ones who clean our homes, take care of our children, and drive us in rickshaws, CNG-run three-wheelers and buses. They are the ones who have helped build an RMG industry worth more than USD 30 billion. They are the ones who risk their limbs and lives building flyovers and high-rise luxury apartments and offices. They all have families; they all have stories to tell and dreams of a better life somewhere in the future.
Yet while we slept peacefully in our beds on February 19, the monstrous bulldozers had started their ruthless demolition in a slum in Bhashantek, mercilessly crushing to a pulp the only possessions of 10,000 people. Saleha (not her real name) who had lost her little hut that she had “bought” from her landlord describes the tragic scene: “All our things were just crushed under those machines. People's tables, chairs, mattresses, steel almirahs, even fridges that some had managed to buy—everything. Some were just dumped into the swamp.” And all night long, Saleha, her husband and their three young daughters sat under the open sky guarding whatever belongings they had managed to salvage as there was no one to help them get their things out—everyone was in the same boat. Most of all, there was nowhere to go.
Desperate searches for alternative accommodation went in vain for many of the 10,000 residents of this area. Either they had already been taken by those who had anticipated the eviction or they were far beyond their means. But why did they wait till the last minute to look when they knew it was inevitable?
This is where the story of eviction begins.
A report in this daily quotes an official of National Housing Authority who said that in 1970 the government acquired the land and since then it had been “grabbed and used illegally by locals.” Apparently, although several notices were given, the slum-dwellers did not vacate the area. Even the night before the drive, they had asked the people to vacate but they did not believe that it would actually happen.
“We didn't believe it," says Saleha, "because our landlords gave us assurances that they would not do this and that they would talk to the people in government so they would allow us to stay a few more months at least.” The “landlords” were either politically connected themselves or had bought the land from politically influential individuals. Little shacks were then rented out for Tk 4,000-6,000 or upwards depending on how much could be extracted. This explains the electricity and water that were “managed” in some of the slums. Saleha, who cooked on a mud stove, had her own latrine which she had installed. The hut she lived in used to be in a swamp propped up by bamboo sticks and plagued by mosquitoes. It wasn't much of an accommodation but it was her own place; she had “bought” it from her landlord, oblivious to the fact that even he did not legally own that area. Now she has nothing—just like 10 years ago when she had been evicted from another slum in a nearby area.
I saw Saleha after almost a week after that horrific night, her thin body even more emaciated than before, her face tired with fatigue and grief. It is the same grief I saw in Zulekha who cried when she told me how her children's textbooks and guidebooks had been destroyed in the eviction drive; and in Beena, who had to give up her prized fridge and keep it in a relative's house, perhaps indefinitely. “My children (aged 2 and 4) keep asking me, 'Ma, when will we go home?' I don't know what to say.”
The eviction drive had come at the worst time for all the SSC candidates in the slum whose world turned upside down as they were preparing for and taking the most important exam of their lives. “They had promised they would demolish the slums after our exams,” says 14-year-old Sharmin who is taking the exam this year. “But they didn't care. No one came to see us or talk to us, not even the media. If we fail the exam or do really badly, will anyone realise that it's because our homes were being destroyed and we couldn't study because we were helping our parents to pack up?”
Unfortunately, there is no one to answer such painful questions. Because honestly, it's true, no one really cares. It is ironic that there is so much talk about projects to alleviate poverty but there are no projects to relocate thousands of people who have been forced to come to the city fleeing landlessness and joblessness, just to survive. The eviction drives may be perfectly legitimate as this is acquired land being recovered. But if it means crushing homes, precious possessions of poor people, livelihoods, disrupting children's education and destroying communities that have organically grown in the area, the whole idea of “cleaning up” urban spaces becomes a meaningless, ruthless exercise that leaves the poor poorer. Slum-dwellers are not aliens—they are our fellow city dwellers. Many of them are voters. Does not the state have a responsibility to ensure their right to a roof over their heads?
Aasha Mehreen Amin is Senior Deputy Editor, Editorial and Opinion, The Daily Star.