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Eviction of Mironjilla settlement of Harijan community by City Corporation is lack of conscience

Chiroranjan  Sarker

Chiroranjan Sarker

Thu, 13 Jun 24

The measure of a society's civilization is determined by the rule of law it upholds. Alongside race and religion, humanity is a significant aspect of a country. Ignoring this humanity and the rule of law, an eviction drive was carried out in the Mironjilla settlement of the Harijan community in Ward 33 of Banshal, Dhaka. In this eviction drive, one person, overwhelmed with anger and despair, attempted suicide. Despite being supposed to attend school in their uniforms, students joined a human chain to protest against this eviction.

With black cloths covering their faces, they chanted slogans in protest. These slogans were about protecting their homes. Why was such an inhumane operation carried out? There seems to be no answer to this question. The eviction drive began on the afternoon of June 10. This occurred despite an earlier meeting between a delegation from the Harijan community and Dhaka South City Corporation's mayor, Barrister Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh, who had assured them that there would be no eviction. However, turning this assurance into a farce, the Dhaka City Corporation proceeded with the slum eviction drive.

Citizens have expressed strong reactions to the repeated eviction drives conducted without providing any alternative housing arrangements. The slum where the eviction took place is home to the poorest Harijan community in the country, who have been living in this colony for several hundred years. They were brought here to serve the city's residents. Now, the City Corporation wants to evict them to build a vegetable market. Why must they be evicted to construct a vegetable market without arranging for their resettlement? Is there no other place available for the market's construction?

Why is there such a heartless and cruel attitude towards those who keep the city of Dhaka clean? Is the City Corporation emboldened to carry out such operations because these people are poor? Why doesn't the City Corporation conduct similar operations against the hundreds of wealthy individuals who have occupied playgrounds, parks, rivers, canals, and government land? Is it because the slum dwellers lack money and power? Yet, they are also citizens and voters of this country. Constitutionally, they have the right to live in this city!

In the Mironjilla Sweeper Colony, where the City Corporation officials have forcibly carried out evictions, nearly 4,000 people live. The area includes a temple and a school. So many people have been pushed into uncertainty. They have taken refuge in the nearby temple, school, and community center. Many are living an unbearable life with children and the elderly.

Almost all the residents here are sanitation workers for the City Corporation, but the authorities have cunningly created divisions among them. They claim that only permanent employees hired through official orders will receive houses, while temporary workers will not, labeling them as illegal. There are only 40 permanent workers, yet nearly 500 families live there. Those who have been allotted houses have refused to take the keys, demanding that housing be provided for everyone. Otherwise, they too will not move into the new houses.

In our country, the Harijan community is among the most marginalized, even more so than other marginalized groups. They are considered 'untouchable' in society. No one rents houses to them, and there are even restrictions on their entry into restaurants and hotels. A common sight used to be seen early in the morning on the streets of Dhaka: every sanitation worker would carry a broom and a tin mug. This was because they were not allowed to sit in restaurants frequented by the general public. They had to bring tea from the restaurant to drink from their tin mugs. Our society’s attitude towards them is extremely narrow-minded and cruel. The City Corporation authorities are perpetuating this cruelty, which is deplorable. Such behavior is not acceptable from anyone in the 21st century.

Evicting someone without providing alternative housing is not just inhumane but also unlawful. The constitution recognizes access to food, clothing, shelter, education, and healthcare as fundamental rights. However, Dhaka South City Corporation aims to develop by evicting impoverished Harijans. Even after residing there for centuries, there is a lack of dialogue with them.

In our country, slum dwellers are often portrayed as being dirty, problematic, prone to crime, illegal occupants, environmental polluters, and obstacles to economic progress and development. Such negative stereotypes are commonly propagated, and evictions are sometimes encouraged as a solution under the guise of promoting national progress. However, the reality is that slum dwellers are not just creators of problems. In our modern society, their contributions are crucial for maintaining beauty and dynamism in urban life.

International agreements, the country's constitution, or laws are not often considered in the context of slum evictions; rather, the eviction process itself raises significant ethical concerns. This is because such actions often raise questions about humanity, discretion, human rights, and civil liberties. In this country, the common practice is to evict slum dwellers forcefully using methods such as setting fire, police force, or even employing thugs to intimidate residents. These approaches often mock principles of humanity and civil rights, turning them into subjects of ridicule.

These slum dwellers come from various areas, once driven by economic necessities to the city. They have contributed to keeping the city clean and functioning, serving as household help in others' homes, transporting passengers on rickshaws or buses, running inexpensive shops by footpaths, and even providing essential services like pushing trolleys in hospitals. They have integrated into the daily urban life in various ways. However, lacking legal rights to the land they occupy, they cannot build permanent structures. What they construct using materials like tarpaulin, polythene, bamboo, and similar materials is highly vulnerable, lacking proper ventilation and often unsafe.

The urban development plans of the city often disregard the strong presence of these residents who contribute daily to its functioning. Those who are shaping and building this city, carrying passengers daily, providing affordable food—they deserve safe and healthy living conditions. How much longer will we delay addressing the need for secure housing for them? There is no clear policy on slum development, nor specific laws to protect their rights. Government agencies sporadically intervene without consistent support.

The term "Slum” essentially refers to a small area with minimal facilities where many people live, often competing among themselves to survive in challenging conditions. This situation makes them vulnerable, as they struggle economically and are often at odds with the administration. Their labor becomes cheap, and they lack access to fair wages or legal housing.

The "rights of the city" essentially mean the right to live and thrive in the city with dignity and access to basic necessities. It includes having a healthy working environment, fair wages, and adequate facilities for rest and relaxation after work. For those living in many slums, basic civic services like clean drinking water, electricity, and proper sanitation are often minimal or absent. In these areas, narrow alleys, open drains, and inadequate toilet facilities create an environment that compromises human dignity. The residents, often laborers, rely on these conditions for their livelihoods. Without acknowledgment and improvement of their housing conditions, the situation remains unchanged.

For residents living in slums, the concept of "smart cities," "green cities," or any urban development policies without a plan for safe and legal housing is meaningless. The primary concern should be addressing the problems faced by slum dwellers. Without this focus, a significant portion of the city's population will continue to struggle, often resorting to living in precarious conditions. Instead of waiting for the next disaster or facing the constant threat of eviction by bulldozers or government forces, these residents deserve attention to improve their living standards. Creating policies that prioritize safe and legal housing for slum dwellers should be the first step in any urban development strategy. Only then can the city truly progress towards becoming smart, green, and sustainable for all its residents.

The government should empathize with and show solidarity towards the residents living in slums. Initiatives should be undertaken to plan and provide alternative housing for them. Evicting them forcibly under duress, through violence or coercion, without offering viable alternative accommodation, only exposes the authoritarian face of the government. The constitution grants rights to all individuals. The government holds authority under the oath to protect the constitution. It is not constitutionally permissible to violate someone's rights for the supposed benefit of others. Safeguarding everyone's rights is the government's sacred responsibility.

Author: Columnist.

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