It’s nearly winter in Bangladesh and the capital, Dhaka, is already sinking under the combined weight of grey skies, sticky air, and 12 million inhabitants. The population here is growing fast, with nearly half a million new migrants arriving in the city each year hoping to escape rural poverty.
Many of these arrivals end up building their new life in one of the city’s slums, or bosti, of which Korail is one of the largest. It is home to an estimated 120,000 residents, who inhabit 170 acres of swampy government land in the heart of wealthy Dhaka suburb Gulshan.
Sumi, a woman in her 20s, has lived in Korail for eight years, along with her husband and their five children. On 4 April this year, her family and neighbours woke to the sound of bulldozers. "We didn’t know what was happening. We heard a loud noise and lots of people were yelling, so we left our home and ran. When we came back, our home was gone," she told New Matilda.
The bulldozers razed approximately 2000 people’s homes and shops to the ground within hours. Ordered by the Dhaka District Magistrate, the destruction came with less than a day’s warning for the locals, meaning that many residents like Sumi and her family were caught unaware. Two children were reportedly killed and several others injured. Sumi lost her home and everything inside it.
The eviction was based on a High Court Order delivered on 25 January, which declared the area of Korail illegally occupied — the land belongs to the state-owned Bangladesh Telecommunications Company Limited, the Ministry of Housing and Public Works and the Ministry of Information and Communication. The January order contradicted an earlier High Court Order, which forbade the eviction of any settlement unless residents were provided with alternative housing.
In the week following the destruction, Korail’s occupants took to the streets of Dhaka to form road-blocks in protest. They were all but ignored, apart from a petition delivered on their behalf by a coalition of non-government organisations, challenging the legality of the demolition.
Court hearings took place in May, July, and again on 21 October this year, when the High Court finally issued another order. Now, the Ministry of Housing and Public Works has been directed to create a commission investigating options for resettlement for affected slum dwellers. Recommendations are required to be presented within three months, and Korail residents have been granted a six month period (until the end of April next year) recognising their right to stay in the slum.
But Abu Obaidur Rahman, Deputy Director of the Legal Advocacy and Policy Reform unit for Ain o Sallish Kendra — one of the non-government organisations who submitted the petition challenging the eviction — said the latest court order was still only a temporary remedy.
Sumi and her family have been living a makeshift plastic tent since their home was destroyed. In a small enclave between the road and the lake, she and five other families have pitched their tarps together. They faced intense heat in summer under the black plastic tarp. Then the monsoons and mosquitoes came. Now, at the beginning of winter, they are concerned about the winds and fogs of the next few months. Strewn across some pieces of bamboo, Sumi’s tent houses her family of seven and cost 1000 taka (AU$12) to buy.
Although they’re homeless, her family still pays 1000 taka a month to a landlord who demands rent for land he has just as little legal title to as Sumi. Sumi’s husband, a rickshaw puller, barely makes enough money to cover rent. The family doubts they will be able to save enough to build a new house and they are considering not sending their children to school as a way of saving money.
Despite this, her family — like so many others — have chosen to stay because they have nowhere else to go. Sumi and her husband, like many slum dwellers, worked on farms before they came to Dhaka and returning is no longer a viable option. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization, nearly 60 per cent of Bangladesh’s farmers are landless, meaning they work the land for someone else and reap little benefit from the long hours doing so.
Months after the slum was bulldozed, the effects are still keenly felt — family members are still in hospital and business equipment is lost or damaged. Two men whose rickshaws — their only source of income — were destroyed, still haven’t saved enough money to buy new ones.
But hammers clanging on metal signal the gradual rebuilding of lives. The process is a slow one — like Sumi and her family, most people living in Korail work in some of the lowest-paying jobs in the city, lucky if they make 3000 taka (AU$35) in a month. Rickshaw pullers, garment workers and labourers will take months to save enough money to build somewhere new to live.
Mohammed is one resident who has started to rebuild. He bought his shop with a collective of 30 other slum dwellers and estimates that when their section of shacks were destroyed, they lost the equivalent of nearly 400,000 taka (AU$5000) worth of goods, furniture and buildings. He remains defiant, even though he is aware that when the High Court’s six month order expires, the buildings could be destroyed again. "We live a lottery. If they demolish again, we’ll re-build again, it’s all that we can do," he said.
For the residents who have lived in Korail for years, raising families and building lives among the chaos and uncertainty of slum life, rebuilding again is the only sure thing they can do in a city and system that has failed them. As Sumi told New Matilda, "For a long time now, we have been sleeping under the stars. We will stay here because we have nowhere else to go."
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