It’s such an interesting event that occurred earlier this week in the caverns of Hatirjheel, Dhaka’s urban paradise of sorts for the middle class. It appears that an elderly woman of extreme poverty had the impudence of building a jhupri right inside Hatirjheel. No big deal house but of course it was a hovel, a dwelling and so what could the members of the national security forces do? Well, they went there and torched the hovel even as the woman screamed, shouted and protested. But fortunately they were stronger. The hovel was burnt down.
She didn’t like this burning of her home one bit, which is such a shock. Didn’t she have any respect for the men in national uniform who are paid to serve the state? Worse, had she no respect for Hatirjheel? What’s the matter with the poor? How many times will the authorities have to burn down homes before the simple message gets through that Dhaka in particular and Bangladesh in general are not meant for the poor?
The reaction of the woman when her jhupri was torched was one of anger. Is one forgiven if one’s home and that too a helpless lady’s home — okay, jhupri doesn’t qualify as a home in Dhaka — is calmly and deliberately torched by some very powerful people against whom no one dares to do anything? As a witness informs, “We just stood there and watched the jhupri burn down. The lady was so angry that she wanted to throw her son into the burning jhupri. Whatever she had was burnt to ashes, her clothes, her belongings… she was screaming angrily and wanted to rush to the fire with her child but some people held her back and it saved the child’s life.” The burners waited till it was burnt into ashes.
Dhaka’s most famous building is called the BGMEA Bhaban. It stands majestically on Hatirjheel and has been doing so for long in total disregard of the law, environmental safety and standard notions of architectural good taste. It is the greatest symbol of wealth, power and arrogance in Bangladesh. In June 2016, the Supreme Court Appellate Division ordered its demolition within three months but, as we said then, ways will be found to delay or avoid this. Here is an excerpt:
“The BGMEA has always been able to get away with what it wants, because it is a very important part of the economy. Many AL and BNP leaders are also RMG factory owners and shareholders, and most contribute to the political coffers. Several ministers are not just friends but play the role of lobbyists of the BGMEA inside the government… But there is no shortage of efforts, and no one can say with total certainty that the Supreme Court decision will be the final word on the matter.
Implementation of the decision has now become a test of legal and good governance for the government system as well.
But the BGMEA building is not about whether an illegally constructed building should be allowed to stay or not. It is about whether the super-rich will be allowed to roam free because of their financial clout. The building was built on environmentally protected land, because the BGMEA had thought it could get away with it.”
Three months passed more than three months back but the BGMEA has managed to escape the ropes of legal order, even those of the Supreme Court. If there is any evidence that some people are above the law, then the BGMEA building at Hatirjheel proves that. It is illegal and only as illegal as the jhupri of the poor woman which the forces of the state found so easy and convenient to burn down.
It’s such a strangely different reaction to two illegal structures. While one continues to stand although there is a court order against it, the other is torched, now the favoured method of the powers that be to remove the poor from their housing.
Couldn’t the woman have been asked to remove her belongings before the jhupri was torched? There is almost an element of entertainment in all this. It must have been great fun to do it, knowing she had no place else to go, would suffer through the chilly night with the child, her paltry belongings gone and nothing could be done against those who burn such jhupris down.
Welcome to Bangladesh 2017!