Hazards of an urban slum
By Vanessa Curney
Dhaka, 29 February 2012: Just over two months ago, late in 2011, bulldozers arrived at the Rupnagar slum in Dhaka, and partially razed it. “About a year and a half ago, they said they might destroy one or two houses, but that would be all. The previous magistrate assured us that the area was ‘safe’ for our homes, but as soon as he left, it was just broken up,” says Doly, a 22 year-old resident of the slum. It seems there is an arbitrary targeting of lands and homes in Dhaka that leaves slum occupants increasingly vulnerable to threats and/or eviction by middlemen known as mastaans.
Apart from the now partially demolished state of their homes, residents have to make do with makeshift hanging latrines (reminiscent of the scene in the film Slumdog Millionaire where the main characterfalls into a pit of excrement whilst using a hanging toilet). The latrines notoriously deposit waste into nearby lakes and rivers rendering them disease-ridden. The slum residents’ complaints of stomach pains are perhaps a telling sign.
An estimated one hundred and ninety eight families are still managing as best as they can in their Rupnagar ‘home’. Before the area was razed, Doly and some adolescent girls run a local shop selling cleaning products and sanitary napkins to the slum residents.
“Before we set up the shop we used to just advise community members about hygiene. But then we had the necessary tools to help people deal with hygiene issues. We had sanitary napkins, soap and cleaning products. These things are costly outside but we made them accessible at a reasonable price” says Doly about her shop.
That store has gone along with Doly’s only source of income. Her college and university dreams have also taken a back seat. She stays with a friend in neighbouring Chakholi, but goes to the Rupnagar slum to take care of her seven-year-old twin sisters, Sumaiya and Suraiya, as well as her 12-year-old brother, Parvez, whilst her mum works at a BRAC delivery centre.
Parvez is a keen young boy whose serious demeanour and facial worry lines belie his young age. He looks demoralised. As President of the 16-member Children’s Group, he produces and acts in dramas that teach his neighbours about hygiene issues. He drifts in and out of school.
“I can’t study properly because there are mosquitos and there’s no electricity,” he tells me. In addition to being some distance away, admission into the local NGO-supported school he used to attend is between 1,500-2,500 takas ($18 – $30) for the first month, with books nudging the costs to 3,000 takas. Without the payment his periodic appearances are not particularly welcomed.
Worse, he says, is the dirty water coming up from the pipes at the slum. “I try to boil the water and just try to avoid it,” he says of his daily battle to stay healthy. “We use chlorine for the drinking water, but it’s hard to get it for everyone.”
When asked him what one thing he most wants to change about his predicament he is unequivocal. “If I could change anything, it would be for clean drinking water,” he replies.