12:00 AM, August 03, 2018 / LAST MODIFIED: 06:20 PM, August 05, 2018

The road expansion project that will demolish Bihari homes

*the road shown in the picture is to become 30 ft wide - Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

On the morning of July 26, 2018 the “bihari” camps in Mirpur sectors 10 and 11 were gripped by panic as they waited with bated breath for a bulldozer to drive up their alleyways and tear down their homes.

As I stepped out on lane number 5 of Block C in Mirpur 11, a tiny four year old spotted me and made a dash for her house crying, “Mother, they've brought the bulldozers!” A flustered woman ran to the door pulling a scarf over her hair. “Who are you? What do you want?” she yelled at me. I tried to explain that I did not bring a bulldozer and then attempted to ask questions about their fear of being evicted, but the sight of an outsider had jarred the mother so much, the conversation did not go much further. The mother-daughter duo were residents of a block of tiny one-roomed houses at MCC camp.

According to the locals of the area, the imams of Masjid Baitul Rahmat had announced during fazr prayers that anyone who did not want their belongings crushed under the wheels of the bulldozer had to pack up by the start of the business day. None of the people I met that day had actually packed up because unlike the residents of Dhaka, who all have a “village home”, the Biharis only have these camps. This is where they were settled in 1972 as refugees by the International Committee of the Red Cross after Pakistan refused to take back its Urdu-speaking population

On May 2, 2016, the Planning Commission's Member Secretary of the Physical Infrastructure department, Khorshed Alam Chowdhury, presided over a meeting evaluating the details of a project to expand the road systems of Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC). The roads of Mirpur were to be expanded in width to fit at least two opposite-facing lanes comfortably. A total of 126 roads and lanes of Mirpur 10 and 11 were targeted, as per project documents supplied by the DNCC office. According to numerous government officials, this project is significant for another reason as well—these roads are a stone's throw from the proposed metro rail stations that are being built in Mirpur 10 and Mirpur 11. The webbed network of these lanes also connects the (relatively) newly built main roads of Kalshi to the spine of Mirpur, i.e. Begum Rokeya Sarani.

And among these lanes that are to be widened, at least 22 run alongside Bihari camps, as per spot visitations by Star Weekend. The Bihari community, however, alleges that the actual number is closer to 39. The number of Bihari families in this area is around 12,000, according to population statistics.

Shaheen School, established in 1973 and located inside the camp, and touting itself as an institute for “non-locals” (Biharis) is set to have its playground reduced to a narrow strip of lawn. Its playground is already more of a front yard and allows for little sport other than a game of tag. “The camps are completely devoid of any playgrounds, and while the boys play rough on the streets, this place provides a safe space for recreation for girls,” said Mohammed Shamsad Alam, the headmaster of the school.

“They will also be breaking down our school's Shaheed Minar. It's important for us to have that because it helps with integrating the Urdu-speaking children with the majority population. We barely have any funds to rebuild a wall, let alone a Shaheed Minar,” he adds. According to project documents, the yard is set to lose 5 feet in width.

Also on the demolition list is a magnificent one-storey high silver Tajiya gifted to the Shi'a practising community by benefactors in Iran. The Tajiya is a well-hidden secret to those not local to the area. Tucked away behind large green mausoleum doors on Lane 18 of Mirpur 11 Block C, the Tajiya is rarely opened to the general public, but is a sight to behold. The exquisitely carved shrine is, for this rootless population, a physical manifestation of heritage. According to project documents, the road is to be widened to a little more than 30 feet, while currently it is less than 20 feet wide.

The bulldozers had already come once on July 23, to break down housepainter Nasim's home on Lane 22 of Block C Mirpur 11. The locals claim to have stood in the way of the bulldozer and saved his home. But city corporation workers still managed to tear down the walls on one side. They also tore down the drains on his street, leaving tepid drainwater and floating sewage all around. As Nasim talked about his home, a child slipped and fell into the open sewer.

“We intervened and did not let them do anything to Nasim's house or to the others on the block,” says Shahid Ali Bablu, the general secretary of Urdu Speaking Peoples Youth Rehabilitation Movement (USPYRM), “We could do that because the demolition was in direct violation of a 'status quo' ordered by the High Court on the eviction of the Bihari camps in 2017. The High Court ordered that no eviction can take place without doing a survey of the camp boundaries.”

The fact that the government holds no information on where the camp boundaries lie is the crux of the problem. As observed by Star Weekend, most of the structures that have to be demolished, if the roads are to be widened, are Bihari homes. Yet, when asked if the government has to acquire any land from homeowners, the engineers of DNCC said that no homes will be demolished.

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

“The camp boundaries have changed since we were first settled here. For example, camps were demolished to build the Journalists' Residential Area, and the Biharis were relocated elsewhere in Mirpur 11. Camps also had to be demolished to build the road that leads from Kalshi to Mirpur DOHS. These are only two examples, but the community is constantly evicted and rehabilitated so nobody knows the exact boundaries of these camps,” says Bablu.

When we visited the councilor's office of ward number 3 last week, we found local political parties deep in discussion about the impending drive scheduled for the next day. Local Biharis, as well as the local Awami League unit, were present.

“We will try to rehabilitate those who are extremely poor and are being evicted,” said Abdul Halim Majumdar, the president of ward number 3 Awami League. When pressed for details of when this rehabilitation would happen, he stammered a little, so his sidekick Jahir Ahmed, the former Vice President of the Dhaka North wing of Bangladesh Chhatra League, spoke up.

“When our late mayor Annisul Huq was in office, he met with the Bihari community and discussed relocating them to Beguntila,” said Jahir, “but after he died, nothing moved forward...”

Such an initiative, in fact, does exist. Star Weekend examined a letter sent in 2016 by the Director General of the Department of Disaster Management, Mohammed Riaz Ahmed, to the ministry's Secretary General, asking for 726 acres of land on the outskirts of Dhaka for the rehabilitation of the community.

But their rehabilitation is a project separate from their eviction. According to DNCC, the Tk 600 crore project that is tackling the road crisis has not allocated a single paisa for the rehabilitation of this community.

Photo: Kazi Tahsin Agaz Apurbo

“Either way, these roads have always been as wide as we propose to make it. Over the years, different encroachers have illegally occupied the roadsides, eating into it. We only want to reclaim that land,” added Jahir.

Jahir is not entirely wrong. When the camps were built, they were designed as rows of one-roomed houses for each family. Toilet facilities were shared. When the residents of Shahid e Millat camp living on the side of Road 5 of Mirpur 10 Block A needed more toilets as the population boomed, they just built makeshift ones out of corrugated tin sheets. These toilets are on the demolition list.

“It will be so difficult for us to function if they break down the toilets,” said Jamil, a resident of the camp on that lane.

Bihari camps are definitely not the only ones to be affected—Bengalis are on the list too. The problem is that each Bihari family is technically a small homeowner of a one-roomed house, while the Bengalis being affected are owners of larger structures. For example, Ferdausi alias “Shumir Ma” used to live in a rented room by the side of the road in Block C of Mirpur 11, when the bulldozers came to claim a few feet of her room. Her landlord asked her to clear out the room, and she moved to another one in the back in the same block. “I did not incur any losses. The landlord lost a few feet of his property,” she said. The property block was large enough to house ten one-roomed houses, each room being of a sizeable area. Walking through the roads, it could be noticed that most non-Bihari properties lost only their yards or storefronts in the road-widening project.

USPYRM's Bablu explained, “The local ruling party women's members asked me why I am being so stingy about letting go of a few feet for the roads. I said that a few feet taken away from her large flat won't matter but Bihari homes are barely 8 feet in width. How do we spare even an inch from there?” The Biharis were given ownership of these one-roomed homes in 1972 by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

The assistant organiser of the USPYRM Mohammed Johnny also pointed out: “Not a single Bihari living in the camps owns a car. Why would we need such wide roads?”

We were speaking standing on Avenue 1 of Mirpur 10 Block A. “You see this road here? Widening it will only benefit the scrap-cloth businessmen whose trucks have to ply this road.” The scrap-cloth businesses began at the end of the lane.

The bulldozers came on July 26 but were not allowed to tear down the homes because the night before the Biharis met with the police to convince them not to give police protection to the government. “I showed the officer-in-charge of Pallabi station the court documents declaring the status quo, and upon conferring with higher officials, they decided to not support the drive on this day,” said Bablu.

The bulldozers have been stopped until next time, but such poorly thought schemes to evict the Biharis are hardly new. For example, last year, on May 18, Kashimiri camp was demolished and 26 families were put to the streets. Fighting for their houses is, apparently, a lifelong struggle for this community that is already trying their best to make homes in a country that was not theirs to begin with.