Monday, April 28, 2014

A Place for the Poor: Slum Dwelling in Dhaka City

A wall between the rich and poor is being built, so that poverty does not annoy the powerful and the poor are obliged to die in the silence of history - Pablo Richard

In August 2012 I started my fieldwork Dhaka’s largest squatter settlement: Korail bosti. During my six months of research I witnessed a rather peculiar construction project evolve: a large wall was being erected to separate the shacks at the fringes of the slum from the main road. Tea-stalls that were previously directly located at roadside were now all at once separated from their customers by a blind wall. Moreover, many of the narrow goli’s that meander through Korail suddenly found themselves destined toward a dead end.

While the wall gradually gained height, I wondered what kind of physical and symbolical division this boundary was expected to realize? Fort his rather insignificant construction project seemed to hint at a bigger question, namely: ‘What place do the urban poor have within the landscape of megacities such as Dhaka?’

Slums have existed in Dhaka for over 200 years, but became a prominent element of the city’s landscape after Bangladesh gained independence in 1971. From the early-1970s onwards landlessness, unemployment and natural disasters in rural areas instigated many people to resettle in urban areas. The continuous influx of migrants makes Dhaka currently the fastest growing city in the world. The capital of Bangladesh counts over 13.5 million inhabitants, of which one-third is estimated to livein squatter settlements.

From the city’s point of view the constant influx of (poor) urban migrants is generally perceived as a nuisance, as their arrival is adding to the already severe population pressure. In addition, many property developers are aiming for the hectares of land that are now ‘illegally’ occupied by slum dwellers. For, although the inhabitants of Korail monthly rent (approximately 2,000 Taka) to local landlords, they are paradoxically not legally entitled to their houses. Ongoing disputes over land ownership have resulted in highly informal and insecure land-tenure arrangements, which in combination with the unreliability of public services- such as drainage and water supply – underscore people’s second-class position within the city.

Slum dwellers themselves are all too aware of their precarious position within the city. When discussing the construction of the wall around Korail, a male shopkeeper expressed his fear that the wall would be a forebode of eviction and forced displacement. For rumor had it that a multiple story building would be constructed on the grounds next to the wall. The reality has proved that fear of displacement is all but unfounded. In April 2012a large part of Korail was forcibly evicted, leaving an estimated 2,000 families homeless. Many saw their houses being destroyed by bulldozers and were forced to seek shelter under pieces of plastic during the days of rainfall that succeeded the eviction.

Although eviction is probably the most violent form of displacement that slum dwellers are faced with, there are also more subtle threats that coincide with living in a squatter settlement; forms of displacement that are characterized by neglect rather than by orchestrated force. The non-durable housing structures within Korail, for example, coincide with the ever-simmering possibility of collapse. This threat is especially salient for families whose houses have been built over the nearby lake. Since land is a scarce resource, local landlords have resorted to building houses directly over the surface of the lake, using bamboo poles for support. The damp and fumes that rise up from the polluted water make the bamboo floors moist and consequently result in a constant threat of collapse.

The risk of fire outbreaks is another danger that has the capacity for drastically uprooting the community and is inherent to living in an overpopulated and largely unplanned squatter settlement. A community leader that I spoke to in Korail emphasized the need for more fire extinguishers within the locality. He explained that the improvised way in which the gas-lines have been set up results in a constant threat of fire outbreaks. Moreover, the congested roads and the walls surrounding Korail make it impossible for fire trucks to enter in case of an emergency, and similarly, obstruct people from leaving.

At the start of this article I raised the question what place the urban poor have within the landscape of Dhaka. My brief case-study portrays Korail slum as a place that is characterized by a certain frailty of structures and where the risk of displacement is simmering beneath the surface of everyday life, either in the form of eviction or in the more subtle form of institutional neglect. Hackenbroch (2012) has introduced the term ‘spatial injustice’ to make sense of the ways in which poor people are excluded from the city’s landscape and its services. This exclusion, for example, manifests itself in the deliberate construction of the wall that separates Korail slum from the rest of the city and in the institutional unwillingness to view slums as sites for proper urban planning and development. These exclusionary politics are underpinned by the idea that poor people have no rightful claim to the city, as “elite perceptions remain focused on rural areas as the rightful home of the poor, and this is exacerbated by negative images of crime and squalor” (Banks et al. 2011).

However, despite popular opinion the poor actually are an indispensable part of city’s economy and landscape. For how would Dhaka function without the many day-laborers, rickshaw pullers and garment workers that live in slums? How would dustbins be emptied and drains be unclogged? Who would build the flats and houses for Dhaka’s ever increasing population? In fact, the landscape of the city would look completely different without the labor of the poor. It therefore seems to me that they have earned the right to a more permanent place within the city. Fortunately there is hope… For in February 2013 the inhabitants of Korail, after years of advocacy from the local NGO ‘Dushtha Shasthya Kendra’, got access to legal water supply. Let us hope that this gesture will be a forebode of further infrastructural progress in slums in Dhaka.

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