With demolition of a further part of Karail slum — announced for the 2nd of May — little makes one think that its inhabitants would not believe in a future. The roads are, as usual, bustling with life – children in school uniforms, rickshaw-pullers heading to Banani or Gulshan, vans carrying eatables for tea stalls and groceries, boys listening music from their mobile phones. Along these roads, people are at work. Wood, plastic and other waste materials collected from the surroundings are weighed before being packed and transported further for recycling, women curved on sewing machines are stitching salwar kamiiz, and every kind of fruits and vegetables are being sold in the covered market of Bou Bazar.
Like many in Dhaka, the businesspeople look back at the losses of three days of hartal. A hard month, with rain making delivery of goods difficult, the political unrests disfavouring commerce. For some, to these problems felt all over Dhaka there adds the loss of their shop, or of their house, in the demolition drive carried out on April 4. No point in complaining; life has to go on, they tell.
“We’ll wait here until the government will do something”, said the owners of the demolished shops along the road connecting Mohakhali’s Wireless Gate to the T&T (BTCL) headquarters one day after the demolition drive. Two bulldozers had destroyed the structures in a few hours, attesting to the zero-tolerance attitude on the part of the State – but also to a blatantly unfair way to handle the demolition order, issued on January 25. According to BTCL, who carried out the action, the road, to-date unpaved, shall be widened to allow better circulation. “First they told us they will free a 5-foot-wide stretch on both sides. We prepared accordingly. But when the bulldozers arrived, they destroyed at least 10 feet”. The dwellers of various housing compounds lying beyond the shops could not at all make sense of the demolition of their houses, which were far remote from the road. Almost one month later, while no construction of the alleged road is hitherto following the action – and is not likely before the end of the rainy season –, one wonders about the haste with which such destruction was carried out. Why spreading panic, traumatising children and making hundreds of people home- or income-less?
For Karail dwellers, such misuse of power is common. In 2011, in a similar action, an area nearby the evicted road was cleared of around 100 houses, leaving their inhabitants on the street. “It was the Holy month of Ramadan and we could not honour it, we did not have facilities either to sleep or prepare iftar, nor could we fast”. After almost one year, the land, which according to Karail inhabitants belongs to a pharmaceutical firm, is still vacant. In 2012, BTCL raised a wall to separate its land (the area grossly corresponding to the T&T Colony) from the land owned by the Ministries of Public Works as well as Science and Information Technology. The wall literally cut in two various homesteads and interrupted communication ways used everyday by the inhabitants. The next demolition, due on May 2 [The Daily Star, 16.04.2012, “Free Gulshan Lake within 15 days”], shall regard a still undefined strip of houses built over the Banani Lake. Some mention a notice, given just to the dwellers of the southern part, for clearance of a 60-foot-wide stretch. Most have stopped to speak about it. They provide me the mobile numbers of some relatives, in case I should come back and not find them anymore.
The January 25 High Court Order – which was never published in its entirety – was based on the fact that the constructions built on bamboo stilts encroached the Lake and caused water pollution. Considering the overall lack of environmental consciousness of all of Dhaka citizens, it is however clear that water pollution does not depend on Karail Basti (slum) alone. A look at Dhaka Master Plan reminds indeed of another encroachment. Silently, the low-lying lands on the eastern (Gulshan) side of the Lake have been equally occupied, wiping away any appearance of the former water landscape. This is a type of environmental degradation all too often neglected in the public discussion, as much as the fact that the land value, employed to push the re-use of Karail, is nothing but a dumb argument trumping the lives of some 100,000 city dwellers. They will be evicted in the name of the vision of a homogeneous, exclusive city.
What does it mean to have a vision? The capability of envisioning makes us struggle for a reason, it gives us dreams to be transformed in actions. In short, it makes us humans. Before a vision takes a specific shape, it just consists of the faculty to see the future in a different way. It is thanks to this faculty that millions in this country make themselves on the way to Dhaka. Yet except for architects, usually projecting a Singapore-like city, it is rare to hear Dhaka citizens envisioning their city’s future. The last three weeks’ discussion on Karail Basti in fact mirrors a whole population that is badly in need of visions. How to otherwise explain that concern about the violation of human rights was expressed, letters asking for an alternative shelter for the basti bashi published in newspapers, but nobody is mentioning that the basti is not yet demolished, and could be still made a case for rehabilitation on site? Its inhabitants are still there, struggling for a different future.
A small group of its representatives, along with around 200 Dhaka inhabitants, demonstrated in a silent human chain at Press Club on Monday, 16 April. There is more to that event than a symbolic demonstration of an all-urban support to the basti bashi. There is a cross-social-group struggle to finally identify with a city that offers a future – instead of confirming the everyday impression of chaos, impotence and survival-of-the-fittest-type of law. With the achievements celebrated by Bangladesh’s growing creativity and entrepreneurial talent these days, why not envisioning a first-time-in-Bangladesh also with regard to its goal to reduce poverty and especially urban poverty? Basti dwellers are compelled to opt for “informal” solutions and cannot plan on a long-term basis due to their “illegal” status; hence they are exposed to exploitation on the part of various groups. In order to stop the vicious cycle of squatting and eviction, the government must find a just and coherent policy. The framework for the redistribution of Karail’s land to its current inhabitants – passing through legalisation and provisions for its regular servicing by the relevant authorities – must be urgently worked out.
Karail dwellers possess effective means to form and negotiate space, for example, when handling with common resources. Reaching Karail Basti from the T&T Colony, one finds a big esplanade used for various purposes, from playing, to hosting special fairs, to dumping and selling construction materials and performing the Eid prayer. To the bottom of this esplanade, there is a row of “garages” for cycle rickshaws. They belong to six big owners and lenders of rickshaws, who proposed to use the site as garage-area in order to solve the parking problem in the congested settlement. It took them several negotiations with the boro math shomiti until they could appropriate the space. They also had to ensure that a part of the garages’ income would be devolved to a nearby mosque and to a fund for families in need. This example shows that encroachment of community space even by influential interest groups is not accepted by the dwellers who are able to control its use. Provided land tenure security, Karail inhabitants are willing to build up a neighbourhood that could become a symbol of Bangladesh’s efforts to improve all of its citizens’ life.
As much as the Gulshan, Dhanmondi or Baridhara Societies maintaining the adjacent lakes, footpaths and roads, the creation of associations such as the boro math shomiti occurs on the basis of the inhabitants’ identification of problems and goals relevant to the community. Allowing Karail inhabitants to consider their neighbourhood as legally secure on a long-term basis means to boost their ability to maintain it and make it grow like all other neighbourhoods of Dhaka City. Rehabilitation on site may be, at the time being, “only” a vision. But it is one worth discussing. Or should we admit that this city does not accommodate visions, nor visionaries?
Elisa T. Bertuzzo is a Post-Doc researcher at Habitat Unit, University of Technology, Berlin. In 2009, she was tenant of a room in Karail Basti and has since continued visiting and doing research on the Basti.