Mahinoor was shipped to the capital at the age of five. Her widowed mother brought the child girl to the city, from the island district of Bhola, after the mighty Meghna swamped their house and all that was in their possession.
Both finally found their way into Korail slum, a sprawling shantytown sandwiched between Dhaka's upscale Gulshan and Banani.
Ms. Mahinoor, now 22, had grown up in this slum while battling umpteen odds. When she turned just eight, she began picking up rags to supplement her mother’s income, strolling miles around the endless allays in the city.
“My daughter hated this work” and she was determined to seek a better one, recalls Minara Begum, the gaunt mother in her 60s.
After relentless efforts, Ms. Mahinoor landed a job, as a helper, at Mascot Garments located at Mohakhali, a stone’s throw from the slum area.
Never tutored to read or write, she is paying high price for that: her promotion remains elusive. At present, she squeaks by on a monthly paycheck of Tk. 1662 or US$23—the minimum wages set for an entry level worker in the $13 billion apparel industry. Overtime pays another Tk. 400-500. The income is barely enough to feed and clothe herself, her son and mother. The rent of 8-feet-by-7-feet room eats up almost half her wages, alone.
Never had her family managed to pull itself up by its bootstraps. The family continued to be buffeted by a string of misfortunes instead. Fire once bruised her left ankle. In 2007, she was abandoned by her husband as she was expecting her first--and so far--only son. Poor eyesight has kept her mother languishing at home.
Mahinoor’s story explains how uneven the benefits of sustained growth in Bangladesh is, not enabling a broad swath of slum population to move up the prosperity ladder. This also mirrors the complexity of city life where millions of impoverished urbanites live cheek-by-jowl with a few thousands super-rich—at least by local standards.
In fact, the single mother offers a case study of the plights an estimated 12 million urban poor—or 40 per cent of Bangladesh’s urban population—face.
The urban poor live illegally either on public lands or in privately owned slums where they end up paying exorbitantly high charges for rent and other basic services.
Unlike rural folks, the urban shack dwellers are denied basic education and health services. They don’t have access to other services like piped water, gas, sanitation and sewerage, thus making them “multidimensionally
poor” as categorised by Oxford economists.
The UN’s new multidimensional poverty index (MPI) has used 10 indicators to measure poverty in three dimensions: education, health and living standard. It has not only looked at income poverty, also taken social deprivation into account.
But more than poverty, more than hell-like condition, the news of eviction unsettles each and every slum dweller.
"It (eviction) has become a perennial fear. It haunts me like a ghost," said Ms. Mahinoor as she stitched her son’s dress, squatting on her haunches. “Korail, we are told, will be uprooted soon. This will again throw us into the sea of uncertainty.”
All on a sudden, her face weathered. Her gaze travelled from the needle work to the 3-year-old baby playing on the floor, a stream of flies dancing on his face. Putrid and stinking odour was coming in. Her mother, whose eyes were flashing with constant discharges, fans herself to protect from the sweltering heat inside the hovel. Just outside, open sewerage is running between shanties.
Korail, which fans out over 100 acres of public land, is arguably the capital’s biggest slum and officials say it is slated for the largest slum-clearing ever since the demolition of Agargaon slum, where 40,000 people were rendered homeless.
State-run Bangladesh Computer Council, which partly owns the land, has planned to set up a software park in Korail as it seeks to raise the country’s profile on the world technology map.
Golam Sarwar, an official with the Council, said the state agency requires vacating its land for the park to be built. "We can't allow people to occupy public land and also compromise with development," he said.
If set up, he added, the park will help catalyse billions of dollars in foreign investment from global information technology titans like Microsoft.
The UN, realising the Council’s intention, has responded promptly and stepped up lobbying the government for resettlement of dwellers before it removes the 35-year-old slum.
Last month Anna Tibaijuka, under secretary general of the UN, flew to the capital to negotiate with the government side, trying to work out a compromise deal under which the poor can be relocated elsewhere in the capital.
"The eviction shouldn't come at the expense of the poor," Ms. Tibaijuka told this correspondent during a visit to Korail. "We're fighting poverty, not the poor. We're fighting slums, not slum dwellers."
Populated mainly by low-income groups and odd-jobbers, Korail is swarmed with an estimated 120,000 residents, the bulk of which hails from the delta nation’s coastal and northern hinterlands. Many are reported to have been hammered by natural disasters such as river erosion, cyclones, flooding and drought.
This raises a debate on whether migrants like Minara Begum fall into the category of economic migrants or climate migrants.
“In the absence of a systematic process to distinguish economic from climate induced migrants, the apparent nexus between climate change and migration is still often treated as coincidental,” wrote Rabab Fatima, of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM), in a research note.
Dhaka City Corporation officials have figured out the Korail eviction threatens to rob the livelihoods of more than 80,000 dwellers, many of them are daily wage earners.
This is not an isolated case. Researchers at the World Bank estimated that at least 131 slums in Dhaka were removed by the authorities between 1975 and 2004.
The perennial threat of eviction mounts the stresses of everyday life for slum dwellers like Abdus Salam. The 47-year-old rickshawpuller narrated his story how his family became destitute when Agargaon slum was torn down in a major eviction drive. He had already moved four times. That was the fifth occasion.
“It happened six years ago. But it still makes me shudder if I conjure up the images of police vehicles and gigantic bulldozers that smashed the Agargaon slum to the ground,” he said.
The fear of an impending eviction inhibits donors, public, private or aid agencies from investing in slums, thereby denying the rights of urban poor, said Mustafa Quayyum Khan, who heads Coalition for the Urban Poor (CUP), a campaign group. “Even slum dwellers themselves are unwilling to invest because of the threat,” he added.
UN officials also agreed, saying the UN Development Programme (UNDP) under its urban poverty reduction project had to put US $70,000 infrastructure spending in Korail on hold after the demolition notice by the authorities.
“It has a huge human cost ... Forced eviction disrupts family stability and dismantles urban poor’s social network,” says Sabina Faiz Rashid, an expert on urban poverty. “It puts massive psychological strain on dwellers.”
Ms. Rashid, who co-authored a major study on urban poverty for the World Bank, said governments across the political spectrum don’t hesitate to displace slum people, although such an act is incompatible with the National Housing Policy that recognises the rights of urban poor for housing, shelter and food.
Mr Khan, of CUP, said the present government, which sailed back to power in a stunning victory, also promised to provide housing for all by 2021, making it one of its key electoral pledges.
“Now we’re pretty sure those were hollow promises,” he said.
Mr. Salam, a father of five, settled in Korail, having displaced from Agargaon slum in 2004. “Things haven’t changed much since then. So far, we’ve received more than 40 eviction notices,” he says, stubbing out the low-priced Navy cigarette.
"Where can I get rented house near my factory now?" Ms. Mahinoor asked as tears rolled down her cheek, fearing the eviction could bulldoze all her dreams.
"Urbanisation is irreversible," but the UN top official said at the same time the government should develop other urban centres equally to help reduce pressure on Dhaka, whose primacy has eclipsed hundreds of others.
Dhaka is one of the fastest growing mega cities in the world. Its population of 15 million, nearly triple the size in the 1980s, is adding 400,000-plus new residents a year.
Meanwhile, impoverished rural people have kept pouring into the capital, enticed by its teeming economic opportunities, primarily jobs.
Zahid Hossain, a senior economist of the World Bank, said Dhaka's economic dynamism and higher wages have made it “a magnet for rural migrants, even if many of them are still stuck in gutters.”
Wages in urban areas are 1.5 times higher than in rural areas - a factor he pointed out can draw increasing rural people into Dhaka.
Peter Kim Streatfield, head of Population Programme at the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Diseases and Research, Bangladesh (ICDDR,B), however, estimated that two-quarters of the new arrivals in Dhaka were added to the slum population.
Data by Dhaka-based Centre for Urban Studies showed that the total population living in Dhaka’s slums more than doubled in less than a decade, reaching 3.4 million in 2005.
More than one-third of Dhaka's residents are already huddling in slums and freshers, like Rangpur's Rahim Bakhs, end up in one of 5,000-odd informal habitats.
Nearly two years ago, in search of livelihood and better wages, the “hardcore poor” took his fellow villager's advice and followed him to where he had moved years ago: Kamalapur Railway slum along Basabo road.
The Kamalapur Railway slum has steadily sprung up since 1995, making it a temporary abode for new migrants, who arrive in droves by train mainly from Comilla and northern Rangpur.
As the settlement is so visible, there were repeated attempts by the authorities to displace them, but dwellers always returned, police and residents say.
Urban experts say although Bangladesh is rapidly urbanising, the country is ill-equipped to handle the influx and has not an urban policy in place.
In an interview, Local Government secretary Manzur Hossain acknowledged the policy on urban development, drafted in 2006 with support from the Asian Development Bank, is yet to be approved.
He said the policy has discouraged “blanket” eviction of slum people but it has also made no reference of land rights of urban poor, even at a limited scale.
"Land is a sensitive issue, especially in urban areas," said the secretary, whose ministry oversees six city corporations and 309 municipalities.
"Urban poor are always pushed off the policymakers’ radar screen," said Sarwar Jahan, a professor of urban and regional planning department at Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology.
He urged policymakers to opt for granting "limited" land rights, stretched over 10 to 15 years, for slum dwellers in a cooperative arrangement, which can be further extended.
Ms. Tibaijuka, who also heads the Kenya-based UN Habitat, said Bangladesh can introduce what she called "pro-poor" mortgage financing, enabling even slum dwellers to own low-cost houses in urban areas.
"This kind of mortgage financing will involve flexible repayment schedules spanning over a period of 40 to 60 years," she added.
Rights groups say politicians always court slum dwellers for votes but boast of being anti-slum firebrands when elections end.
Abdul Alim, a Dhaka city councilor of Gulshan-Banani area, denied the allegation, saying politicians are “now more responsive to the needs of urban poor than before.”
"It's an irony that slum dwellers can elect mayors and councilors but they don't have the titles in cities," said Azahar Ali, who coordinates a US$120 million project run by the UNDP.
The DFID-funded Urban Partnership for Poverty Reduction project will seek to lift around three million slum dwellers living in major cities and municipal areas out of poverty by 2015.
Life in Korail is hard, even worse for most of its dwellers than the one they left behind but Ms. Mahinoor says, "If I go back, never will I be able to support myself, let alone my son and mother. In Bhola, work is so scarce."
"I'm not gonna go back."
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