What haunts us at night
Election day, predictably, was a hectic day for me—as it should be for a journalist. Work in different forms kept me busy till 11:30 at night. Exhausted from the day's work, I went to bed at around 2am, but my experience from that afternoon kept me awake for three more hours.
Earlier in the day, I visited one of the biggest slums in Dhaka. And what was evident is that people really are struggling beyond any comprehension to get by—at least for you and me, and definitely for the high and mighty who were running in the election, seeking (or, as some said, not seeking) their votes.
The first person that we (I was there with a young colleague) spoke to was an elderly man. He, it seemed, fixed bicycles and rickshaws for a living. The first question that we asked everyone was, "Did you vote?" His reply was, "No." Someone had apparently called him on his phone (he showed us the caller's number), verified his information, and said that his vote would be cast on his behalf, so he did not need to bother about going to the polling centre. We then asked what he expected from those running for office. His reply was, "Nothing. Since politicians no longer need people's votes, they couldn't care less about us."
While speaking to an extremely shy young woman outside of a tiny roadside restaurant, another man called us in. Saying he wasn't afraid to speak his mind, no matter the cost, he then went on to say that people were afraid to speak their minds because of the repercussions, but given the situation in the country, someone had to tell the truth. He said he was earning Tk 10,000 a month. With that salary, he could no longer afford to feed his children, his wife and himself three square meals a day, because of rising commodity prices. "People used to say Bangalees eat fish and rice. Now we can't even afford potatoes with rice because potato prices are so high. Forget about fish and meat." He mentioned how the poor are suffering, and how politicians have lost all ability to emphasise with them. He couldn't believe how human beings could fail so miserably to feel any empathy for other human beings, and it was apparent on his face that his shock was genuine.
Eventually, we approached an elderly man who was selling jujube fruits in a basket. The 78-year-old said he didn't go to vote; some ruling party men had asked people in the slum to submit a photocopy of their NIDs, which he did. They then told him that he didn't have to vote. With tears in his eyes, he said that is the real state of things for people like him. He said he was struggling terribly to survive, but he always remembered his father telling him when he was younger that no matter how difficult life gets, he should always work hard for a living. That is why he has stuck to doing honest work, and he will carry on doing so even if that leads to his demise.
The last person we spoke to was a middle-aged man who had suffered a stroke three years ago. He used to own a convenience store, but he could no longer afford that, so he shrunk his store down and was only selling cigarettes and a few other items. "I used to get by comfortably by selling Benson cigarettes for Tk 4 apiece. Now I can't earn a living by selling it at Tk 17," he said. "Politicians talk about development. But the majority of people are not getting anything out of it." He said he hadn't been able to afford any proper treatment for the stroke he had suffered. As a result, the right side of his body has become paralysed.
"What sort of a country have we created? People no longer care for others. Is this development and progress?" he asked. This was not how things used to be, he lamented, adding that all discussions, whether about the elections or politics, are irrelevant as long as they do not centre around people. Most people like him have become invisible. They have become like ghosts to the rich and powerful, who are the only ones benefiting from the direction the country is headed.
These were the stories that haunted me that night, as well as the distressed faces of these supposed "ghosts." If knowing about their suffering made sleep difficult, I wondered how the suffering itself would feel. To them, these are not just stories; they are their daily realities—which these human beings have to live through every day.
According to the preliminary Population and Housing Census 2022 report, about 18 lakh people live in slums across Bangladesh. Only recently, following a fire in a Karwan Bazar slum, the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) announced financial assistance of Tk 5,000 to each family affected by the fire. Two people died and nearly 300 homes were destroyed in the fire. If a man cannot run his family with an income of Tk 10,000 in Dhaka city because of inflation, how long will the affected families be able to get by with Tk 5,000 assistance, especially with prices of rice, potato and other essentials rising again?
And how long will these 18 lakh people continue to lead such precarious lives, where they face daily uncertainties about how many meals they and their children can have? About when they can afford to seek medical treatment for their own ailments, as well as those of their loved ones? What haunts them at night? Is it the extreme difficulties they face day in and day out, or the complete lack of empathy they see from our "elite" class, which is driving our "development" model and is depriving us all of what these slum dwellers consider to be the foundational building block of what it means to be human?
Eresh Omar Jamal is a journalist at The Daily Star. His X handle is @EreshOmarJamal
Views expressed in this article are the author's own.
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