Saturday, January 27, 2007

Facing an Uncertain Future

Life for 1,00,000 hawkers and street-vendors of the city has turned into a hellish nightmare after the government’s drive to evict them from the streets and footpaths where they used to sell things as wide in variety as nail polish to mint-leaves. Though promises have been made to allot them an alternative place to run their businesses, no initiative has so far been taken by the government to implement that pledge. These hawkers, poor as they are, have always remained outside the paradigm of power, and chances are, they along with thousands of others will slip into social and economic chaos.

Twenty-eight year old Fatima came to Dhaka along with her husband after the great flood in the eighties (The year she does not quite remember; but she says at the time of that deluge Ershad was always seen on television). Her husband, who started working as a help in a rickshaw-garage, left her after the birth of their second girl-child. So she really did not have an option when a neighbour offered her one hundred taka and suggested that she could sell boiled-eggs and bread to ricksaw-wallas on Rupnagar main road, near the Shialbari intersection.
Fatima has never heard of Women Empowerment nor does she know how her decision to send both her girl-children to school (“No matter what happens…I do not want them to grow up a feeble woman like their mother.”) is going to help boost her beleaguered country’s Gross Domestic Product. Even before members of the Rapid Action Battalion, like Death itself, in their menacing black garb turned up and told her to close down her small stall, which consisted of only one clay stove and a pot to boil the eggs, even before that, life, for Fatima, has never been smooth sailing. Law enforcers were a problem: Policemen from nearby thana would turn up, asking for the daily toll, sometimes handing down a ten Taka note would not quench their thirst: our men in blue would pick up one or two eggs or a loaf of bread to eat on their way back to the Police station; or worse still they would stare at her work in a gaze that she knew was lecherous.
Still, life had a pattern then, Fatima told us, the attack never came on her very livelihood, or the future of her two children, or thousands of women and men like hers.
This is not Fatima’s story alone; ten-year-old Razzak, an orphan, had to stop selling candy at Maghbazar intersection because some gun-toting army-men have told him to do so, now this child, raising his emaciated hand, begs to get his day’s meal.
The move to clean the roads and footpaths of hawkers (read poor people) may have a cosmetic aspect, it may make urban life pleasant and beautiful for some, but children like Razzak are bearing the brunt of this drive. Razzak confesses to us that the sheer pangs of hunger has made him toy with the idea of stealing: “Two days after the Army told me to stop hawking, I had very little money left on me, and then I thought, ‘What if I pull the vanity bag of some woman passenger in the dark.’ I seriously thought of doing it, then an old man, seeing me standing on the footpath in my bedraggled clothes, had mercy on me, and that person gave me twenty taka with which I had my first lunch in two days,” he says.
Md Waliullah Patwari, founding president of Bangladesh Combined Footpath Hawkers Council, says around 70-80 million people have been hit by the drive. “There are about 8 million hawkers who are rendered jobless by this drive; not only that, several cottage industries in and around the capital are also facing closure as they are dependent on us hawkers to ferry their products,” he says.
Five traders, who used to sell decorative items made of clay in front of Sishu Academy at Doel Chottor, have closed their makeshift shops. Not only are these traders who are bearing the brunt, but potters of Munshijang, from where these clay-products come have been hit hard by this government move. Of the potters, Monoranjan Karmakar has decided to change jobs, but this man in his late forties does not know which profession to take up.
“I am too old to change my profession,” he says, “But if the government remains firm on its decision, then, I have to do something else to run my family. It will be difficult as my forefathers were potters and I have never learnt anything else in my life; but this time round it is really difficult to survive because no-one from Dhaka or any other of the big cities is turning up to buy my things as the hawkers themselves are on the run.”
Karmakar alleges that this move will only help big businesses. “The dinner-bell I sell at TK 20 is sold at a double or treble price in the air-conditioned shops in Dhaka,” Karmakar says, “Now these big shops will be benefited from this government decision to evict the hawkers.”
Interestingly, this move has also affected middle-class households from where the buyers of these evicted hawkers come from. Naznin Sultana, a school-teacher living in Mohammedpur, says she has always dependent on these road-side vendors as, she says, “They sell it cheap, and I do not have the time to go into one of these malls and wait in the queue, to buy, say, one kilogram of aubergine; I used to stop by near one of those pushcarts on my way home and buy the needful”.
It is understandable that the street-vendors can afford to sell their goods at a cheaper price, as they do not have to pay the electricity bills, neither do they have to pay the rent. And, Naznin adds, it is nearly impossible for a woman to shop in the bazaars as they are always dirty and it is always difficult for a woman to go there alone.
Alluding to the existing trends in Bangkok, she says that instead of booting them out of the streets, the government should do something so that these poor hawkers get a chance to sell their goods. “In Bangkok, hawkers and street-vendors are allowed to do business till seven or eight in the morning,” she says, “We can do something similar. This is a part of our culture, a vibrant and noisy street. There is no points in just telling the hawkers that enough is enough, now just leave. We who have some wealth are lucky that these poor people are selling us things; I will not be surprised if these jobless poor people indulge themselves in mugging and extortion. A hungry stomach, after all, is the root of all crime.”
Ain O Shalish Kendro, BLAST and several left parties have criticised the government decision to clamp down on the hawkers. They have termed the eviction of the hawkers as unconstitutional as they argue that the highest law of the land guarantees every citizen the right to livelihood. Interestingly as the State of Emergency is in effect, the fundamental rights of the citizens have been suspended, and it is even not possible for the “aggrieved”, as the new emergency law puts it, to seek justice in the court.
Having hawkers and vendors blocking the footpaths and roads have been an eyesore, there is no denying it. But showing them the door, without rehabilitating them, may cost the country’s social harmony dear. How to rehabilitate them and where, are million dollar questions, and politicians and the technocrat advisers of the recent government tend to shirk the answer. History of such rehabilitation is mired in corruption and mismanagement. Hawkers’ leader Waliullah says though a number of hawkers’ markets are built at Bangabazar and Nilkhet, getting possession of a booth in these markets have remained far beyond their means as each stall costs around Tk 2,00,000 to 3,00,000. It is also alleged that in most cases the shops are allotted to members and supporters of the ruling parties. Instead of benefiting the poor hawkers these rehabilitation projects become another money-making drive for the country’s lumpen middle class businessmen.
So, the fate of the country’s hawkers hangs in balance. The government, which is a constitutionally mandated one, has so far remained silent about making a new arrangement for them so that these people do not slip into the extreme poverty line. If rehabilitation does not take place soon, chances are there that however minimum social balance we have in our economic life will be lost; this is a dangerous prospect, which can rapidly become a reality.

This article was first published in the Star Weekend Magazine on February 2, 2007.