As the government reportedly speeds up the construction of an ICT Park in Korail slums, the locals are worried that they may no longer have a roof over their heads.
In the last year alone, fire broke out twice in Korail, one of the country's largest slums and home to nearly one lakh dwellers. With suffocating living conditions, the slum, located near the city's affluent Gulshan area, exemplifies the stark inequality that persists between the rich and the poor. On one side of the Gulshan-Banani lake lives the most opulent class of our society; on the other, the poorest of the poor.
With all its unique traits, Korail best resembles the fact that our system is rigged against the poor.
It is obvious, from the series of events, that many attempts have been made to erase the differences by excising the poor from the area—in the name of “development projects.”
In 1999, one eviction notice was annulled by a High Court order that set rehabilitation as a prerequisite for any possible eviction. About four years later, the High Court provided an injunction against any eviction.
Yet, these orders didn't stop the authorities from trying over and over again. In 2011, according to a report by Ain O Salish Kendra (ASK), a spate of evictions affected nearly 200 slum households.
In January 2012, the High Court issued a Suo Motu rule directing the government to clear illegal structures around Gulshan Lake. On the pretence of carrying out the court order, the authority in the next three months ousted thousands of people from the slum, which is about 400-500 meters away from the place in question.
In April that year, the law enforcers and goons alike forcefully, violently and suddenly drove out people, giving them no time to resort to legal protections.
As it turns out, our government violates the court order, either to protect the richest or to destroy the poorest. So much for equality.
After the July 1 terrorist attack in Gulshan, the government reportedly planned to take control of the slum in order to “beef up the security” of the area. Security for whom, by the way? Those living in utmost privilege and affluence? If so, aren't we ensuring security for a certain section of our citizenry at the expense of the whole livelihoods of thousands of other citizens? When did someone's need for security start to outweigh another's life?
If the past is any indication, the reported plan to speed up the process of the planned construction of a so-called ICT Park is another pretence to evict the slum people without having them properly rehabilitated. Also, how could an ICT Park—essentially a tower block—need acres of land? Several development experts, including international donors interested in financing the “park”, agree that there is enough space in Korail to build the ICT Park and modest houses to rehabilitate the existing dwellers.
On July 10, The Daily Star reported that at least 20 syndicates were operating inside the slum to provide illegal gas, electricity and water supplies to the residents, filling a void left out by the government's sheer negligence towards the slum dwellers.
Local officials of the Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority said that they made some progress in supplying water—which is laudable—and they look forward to meeting the needs—which is appreciable. The local DESCO (Dhaka Electric Supply Company Limited) officials are claiming that the amount of electricity they provide is sufficient. Apparently, this is not true. If it was sufficient, why do the dwellers use illegal electricity lines at higher rates? On the other hand, the gas supply authority says it's not possible to legalise the existing illegal gas lines and replace them with legal ones.
Our sources tell that the local officials are in partnership with those syndicates supplying illegal utility services. So, covering the entire area with sufficient service is not in their interest. Nonetheless, the failure from the part of the state to provide the Korail residents with a fair and decent living condition must not be overlooked.
When in 1999 the High Court reversed the government's eviction measure, it stipulated that the Constitution's Article-15 concerning the citizen's fundamental necessities of life outweighed the legality of the eviction.
The government has long tried to evade or trick the High Court by violating its clear orders. But the stifling punishment the government imposes on the slum dwellers for not obeying its illegitimate orders by depriving them of fundamental necessities is itself a clear case of the violation of the Constitution.
As The Daily Star reported, the local syndicates, while supplying unsafe gas lines using general pipes, exposed the slum dwellers to a life-threatening risk. In the government's own words, the previous fires in the slum area might have taken place due to these gas leaks.
The people of the area understand the risk, but they will naturally take their chances rather than be evicted. The dwellers must not be compelled to choose between the lesser of two evils.
Nazmul Ahasan is a member of The Daily Star's Editorial Department.