Sunday, December 13, 2009

Migrants’ tales – Mixed fortunes in the city

by: Carolin Braun

According to the UN, there are about 200 million people each year involved in migration. In many Asian countries, migration towards megacities or even to other countries and continents plays a major role in socio-economic development. As Bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world, I wondered how people with the lowest incomes who choose to migrate deal with the challenges that migrants frequently face, such as the risk of homelessness, a lack of social networks, the temporary loss of resources and incomes, and difficult travel conditions. For this reason, I decided to have a closer look at the issue by talking to people inside slums in a city close to Dhaka, called Narangayanj.

(People are committing to different kinds of work every day to earn a living)

Part I: A tale of two migrations

An elderly lady in a sari receives us in her small house. Little light enters the tiny room enclosed by brick walls and scarce furniture. She invites us with a smile on her face to take a seat on her bed, while she stays sitting on the floor. A welcoming atmosphere surrounds us and diminishes the sorrowful impression of poverty that I initially felt.The wrinkles on Monoara Begum’s face give proof of what she has been through in her life. She was married for 31 years to her husband, who later divorced her and supports her with 20 Euros a month. During Bangladesh's War of Independence in 1971, she came to the slum as a young girl to join her future husband. Like many other citizens in the slum, she has had to find many ways of earning a living. Similar to her husband, she was at first engaged in day labor, being hired every morning again for minor jobs in the area. Initially she was working in the garment industry. Being somewhat better off, she later found a job as a maid close by. Finally, together with her husband, she tried to go abroad to the Middle East to search for a better life. This is a strategy adopted by many people in Bangladesh who seek informal paths of immigration as a golden opportunity to make the transition from poverty to relative wealth. They tried to escape with the help of a travel agent to ease their path into a better life. Their ambition to leave was cut short by a deceitful agent who stole their money. Without children, Monoara says she has no more plans to look for ways to improve her life. Though she is disappointed by how many things have turned out in her life, she seems to be content with the circumstances in which she is now living. The little money that she has left to maintain her being did not detain her from offering to serve us a meal, while smiling at me throughout our conversation. Facing the living conditions of the people in the slum, they seem to renounce the further search for better conditions, but are content with the improvements they achieved by moving to this area and accept their respective fate.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Beside the tracks

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(At the Gandaria station.)

The railroad between Dhaka and Narayanganj is not only the link of two prospering cities, ensuring the flow of people and goods. It is also the home of thousands of families who live and work besides the tracks. Some of the settlements are very compact bamboo-tin structures; others are scattered camps where people live in improvised tents.

(Scattered tents beside the railroad in the Gandaria area.)

I jump off the train just one stop ahead from the main station in the Gandaria area, in the outskirts of Dhaka. People watch the train slowly moving off from the station heading southeast. Fully emerged, the kids gaze up at the kites as they dance up and down in the smooth breeze. Aisha and Mamuni, two kids from the neighborhood get attracted by the ‘bideshi’ who is now walking along the tracks to make pictures of their area. Two pairs of big deep brown eyes follow my move.

(Looking inside a home of four people.)

They show me the place where they live. In this tiny tent, erected on the naked ground Mamuni and Aisha are living together with their mother and father who are now at work. The heap of concrete bags and blue plastic blankets look like they were just thrown randomly on the improvised bamboo structures. But when I shake it, it appears stable enough to even survive a heavy rain fall. Although their parents can afford food they do not have the money to send their kids to school, making the children waste their time along the tracks. Around fifty households live at this place between the tracks on the one and the street on the other side. Originally, all people came from different villages in the North of the Gaibandha Disctrict. After the waters of the Brahmaputra River flushed away their lands and houses about fifteen years ago they had to move and founded a new nameless village within the city. Before the flood most of them lived from farming, now people survive on rickshaw-pulling, day laboring and begging.

(The author surrounded by locals from the area in an interview with Lalmir (on the very right).)

This is the case of Lalmir. He works as a rickshaw-puller from 2 pm to 10.30 pm, so in the morning he can relax. Lalmir’s tent is located on the last edge of the camp and only two steps away from the track. “As long as I am living here never an accident has happened. Even the kids are conscious about the threat”, he tells. “In the night we do not get bothered by any noise, because the last train comes by around 10.30pm.” When he tells about his kids and that none of the four are going to school, somebody from the crowd around us interrupts: “See. These are the dangerous people for our country, producing many kids but do not send them to school!” Besides Lalmir, the whole crowd is laughing mischievously. Eventually a small smile appears also at his face. ‘Harsh, but true’, I thought to myself. Perhaps Lalmir had the same idea.
The guy who interrupted disappears in a narrow road between the huts on the other side of the tracks. On that side the situation looks quite different. Houses are made from tin and bamboo and look much better compared to the improvised tents.

(Full of proud: Hafeza in front of her house on the opposite site of the railroad.)

In fact the families there are better off, as I learn from Hafeza and her husband Ali Hussein. By steamer, they both moved from Barisal after the big floods in 1988. “We came almost naked. We could not even save the dishes”, Hafeza moans. Alone in the urban environment they had to build up their new lives from nothing. But soon after their arrival they find a good way to make a living. When I meet the couple they are busy with drying up dark little essence sticks on the tracks. A company provides them with straw and coal and they put these two together and sell it back to the company which then adds the smelly essences that make these sticks so popular all over Asia.

(Hafeza dries up essence sticks.)

They receive ten Taka per kg, giving them enough to afford the small luxuries they enjoy in their home. With 700 Taka a month, Ali Hussein “manages” from neighboring plots, the electricity for the fan, a bulb and water. When I ask about the family Hafeza proudly responds: “We have five daughters and one son. Three daughters are already married and two are going to school.” Her son also got married recently and is working in a car workshop. When they were farmers in Barisal, Hafeza and Ali were better off, she tells, “but we are happy here. We have a business close to our house and our kids are well.”

Taking all of this into account I leave the area a bit puzzled: as I wonder where Hafeza and Ali get the power from to rebuild their lives, whilst Lalmir and his family have barely managed to improve their conditions over the last 15 years.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Earning a living in Dhaka slums

by: Nicola Banks

Having spent much of the last three years working in various “slums” across Dhaka, I have come to resent the use of the word “slum” – too often it has been used as a term that instantaneously strips the dignity from the millions of people who live in these areas, and who regardless of their living conditions live proud and humble lives living in circumstances in which we ourselves would never be able to survive. We can help overcome by not thinking of “slums” as an entity, but to take a deeper look at the lives, struggles and successes of their residents.

From the outside, low-income settlements look primarily like residential areas, row upon row of corrugated iron shacks squeezed tightly together on top of poorly-serviced land. It is near impossible, however, to find a low-income settlement that is entirely residential, with even the smallest of settlements having a few tea shops and grocery stalls to serve the local residents. A deeper investigation into employment among the urban poor in four low-income settlements of Dhaka, however, revealed the number and variety of businesses and enterprises through which people forge their livelihoods and struggle to improve their households. Here I take a brief look at some of the entrepreneurs and their businesses that I came across during my fieldwork.

The more expected businesses to come across in urban poor communities are the stalls and shops serving the communities with all their daily needs. The size and variety of market shops in Karail, the biggest low-income settlement in Dhaka, was surprising, however. A huge and bustling market lies at the centre of the settlement, selling not only fresh and dry foods, flours and rice, but also saris and lungis, jewellery, make-up, and even some electronics goods. Even amongst the more residential sections of the settlement, housing is interspersed with tea stalls and grocery shops and shops selling firewood, and in some busy areas this stretches to pharmacies, tailors, rickshaw garages, restaurants, and more.

(Rhuma, another of our respondents, sits in her tailor’s shop, through which she supports her family. Her husband is ill and unable to work regularly, so she is the main-income earner in her household)

The most unexpected businesses however, are not visible walking up and down the main footpaths of the settlements, and you only find them when you set foot in some of the houses off the beaten track. Walking through a gate in our first settlement we came across our first such business, greeted by the sight of a small courtyard, or uthan, taken up by three large cows calmly chewing their cud as they inspected the new visitors. We discovered dairy farmers like this in three of the settlements, who supported their households by rearing and breeding cows, and by regular sales of milk and dung, which can be used as fuel.

(Saddam Hussein (yes, really!) stands beside the cows which provide the household income. His father bought these loans with an initial NGO loan, which is now fully repaid. Now they are earning a good monthly income from these cows)

In two of the settlements, a regular sight was seeing women outside of their rooms embroidering salwar kameez, a flexible job which allows them to supplement their household income at the same time as looking after their children and household duties. It was still a surprise, however, to step into one room and to see large-scale embroidery businesses to be running in two adjacent rooms of one settlement. Stepping through the door we could not miss the large sari stretched across a large embroidery frame with around 10 or 15 children sitting around it and adorning it with sequins and other embroideries. In this settlement there were three such businesses through which households were slowly improving their household income and integrating with the outside economy where they sold their saris.

(Ibrahim (back right) displays one of his finished saris, which he sells outside the settlement to middle-income commercial areas. He has ten boys living and working with him in his house here. He has been running the business for the last year, and has improved his household in this time)

In a nearby settlement, we came across an even more unexpected sight, walking into a room in which 15 or 20 women were sitting around baskets of human hair, untangling it and sorting it into different lengths. The businessman, Mustak Ahmed, bought hair from beauty parlours across the city, sorted and cleaned it, and then sold it on to national and international buyers, for up to 10,000 taka a kilogram. Not only had he reinvested and expanded his business greatly, in the process making a healthy income for his household, he was also providing employment – and relatively good wages – for a large number of women in the community, close to their home and with relatively flexible hours.
(One of Mustak Ahmed’s cul baccha (or hair selectors), who refine and sort lengths of hair. He employs 15 women permanently, who are better for this kind of work with their small fingers)

Unfortunately these success stories do not extend to all, however. The majority of poor households cannot save the capital required to start-up and run a small business. In other cases, rising costs were destroying people’s business prospects. Walking into one room we saw an elderly man crouched over a wooden slab making tiny sandals. Abdul Rashid has made children’s sandals for the last 9 years. He used to be able to support his household through this enterprise, but now he can only manage around 1,000 taka (around $15) a month and must rely on the incomes from other household members. Recent price increases have been devastating to his business, with all of his raw materials – brightly coloured plastic, glue, cardboard and plastic piping -having more than doubled. Meanwhile, he is unable to increase the price of a finished pair of sandals as this would make them unaffordable to the income of his customers – poor urban residents whose incomes have also been squeezed by price increases in household essentials.

What lessons can we learn from both these successes and obstacles faced by businesses run by the urban poor? While I have focused here on small businesses, my wider research has also focused on two other main employment categories, namely unskilled labour and formal sector jobs. In all categories you can find households who have been able to improve their household situation through the income generated by this employment, and those who have not. It is only by trying to understand the ways in which poor urban citizens make their livings, and the barriers that they face to improving their household situation, that development interventions can start to help turn more of these livelihoods into success stories.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Dialectic Discourse in Rally Bagan

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(Mohammad Sujon and Ashan Ullah sitting in their tea shop in Rally Bagan.)

Quite by chance, at a tea stall in Rally Bagan (Narayanganj), I get involved in an interesting little argument while having a relaxed cup of tea with the two gentlemen who run the shop. It is an oppressively hot day and I ask this and that to make small talk. But the question: “How old is that slum?” suddenly provokes a vexed discussion between the two men and the people who are bunched up around me and my translator. Bengali words are flying quickly between Mohammad Sujon and his uncle Ashan Ullah. Soon, the people who are standing close by all have their own opinion to share. I do not understand anything and even my translator can hardly follow. It turns out that the term “slum” (bustee) is the bone of contention. While Mohammad considers Rally Bagan a “quarter”, Ashan insists it is a “slum” in which they are living. In fact, the British company Rally Brothers built brick-made houses to accommodate workers from their big jute mill more than one hundred years ago, and Mohammad argues that a quarter is “a place where the employees live”. Although the Rally Brothers and the major jute industry of Narayanganj are long gone, the place still looks different from the “slums”, he maintains. In contrast, Ashan insists that “slums” are “places where the poor people live, so Rally Bagan is also a bustee”. The audience accepts both arguments as true. Eventually, the discussion leads to the broad consensus that Rally Bagan is a quarter (for historical reasons) but also a slum. People are poor and crowded together, and, as with other slums, extensions made from bamboo and tin can be seen, but to view Rally Bagan only as a slum is to neglect its long and unique history.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

United in Poverty

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(At the entry gate of Patgodam.)

In the Patgodam poor community (Mymensingh) I get introduced to a totally different aspect of urban poverty in Bangladesh. The houses made from bricks are rotten and it appears to me that the walls could collapse at any time. The narrow roads between the houses are muddy and covered by garbage. The place is crowded. At first view it seems to be a slum like many others that I saw in Bangladesh, albeit one of the worse ones though. But that is only half the story, a fact I realize when I spot a big sign, which says: “Stranded Pakistani General Repatriation Committee”. “This is an organization of the Urdu speaking minority. We call them Biharis, but they have many names”, my translator answers my questioning look.

(One of the "main roads" of the settlement.)

I meet Mohammad Shakir Ali, a leader of the community. When he introduces himself I am rather confused. He was born in 1944 in Uttar Pradesh (India), speaks Urdu, Hindi and Bangla and seems to be a smart and educated guy. Why is he working as a night guard and lives in this miserable place? The story of him and his family is the story of three countries and a lot of tears and blood. During the unrest after the partition of India in 1947, his father and his family escaped the communal riots that threatened their lives and came to Mymensingh in then called East Pakistan. From zero they had to build up a new life in a new environment far away from their ancestral homeland. He joined the Pakistan Railway Company and so did his son Shakir Ali when he was sixteen in 1960.

(Shakir Ali, the local leader of the community in his house.)

Shakir Ali made a good living as train driver, so the Railway Company provided him with a house and a comfortable salary. But in 1971, history again turned against his family. The liberation of Bangladesh from Pakistani domination jailed him in the slum where he still lives today. In the first place, it was for his own good to stay here. Bengali “freedom fighters” branded all Biharis as enemies of newly born Bangladesh and collaborators with the Pakistani army, killed many of them in revenge of war crimes done by the Pakistanis and evicted them from their living places. The Indian army, which helped Bangladesh to get independence, “resettled” about 600 Urdu speaking families in Mymensingh who were scared and scattered all over the town. Their lives were saved but almost the whole community had lost property, jobs and standing overnight. Calm and without bitterness Shakir Ali tells me how he lost family members and friends.When the community found itself unwelcome, unsecured and reckoned as non-Bangladeshis anyways they considered themselves as “Stranded Pakistanis” hoping that Pakistan would take them to its territory, providing them safety. Indeed, after the independence of Bangladesh the government in Islamabad evacuated some 100.000 officials and loyalists to former West-Pakistan, amongst them also many Biharis. Shakir Ali also applied for departure to Pakistan in the 1970s, but that has never happened. Just one of his four brothers could manage to go. Since then the family was divided while he stayed and kept the history of the Biharis in Mymensingh. Nowadays Shakir is on the secretariat of the “Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee”, an organization that pushed for a suitable solution of the Bihari issue from the beginning. As the name implies, the main objective in the past was to “repatriate” the community into Pakistan, although most of them have never been there. Still the name is the same, but the attitude changed over three decades: “We no longer want to go back to Pakistan. All our children were born and raised here. We want to be accepted as Bangladeshi citizens”, Shakir says. He thinks that, once they are accepted as citizens they will get some kind of compensation for their lost properties. For more than 36 years the whole Urdu-speaking community had no status at all in the Bangladeshi society, were in fact literally stateless, neither Indian, nor Pakistani, nor Bangladeshi citizens. Although they got enrolled in the voter's list during the last election after a remarkable High Court decision (2007) and therefore are legally seen as part of the Bangladeshi people, the situation in different camps all over the country is hardly becoming better. The same applies for Padgodam where most of the people have Voter's Cards now but still only five places to get drinking water for more than 3,500 people living here.

(One of the few places where the community can get access to drinking water.)

Following an invitation for tea I sit together with Mohammad Hussein and his family. During the War of Liberation he was 17 years old. He spent his entire live in Patgodoums, and is currently working as night guard in a private market. Mohammad also lost everything during the bloody days of 1971 but he somehow made his peace with the past. “What can I do? There is no alternative to this place to live.” However, his children want to get out of the poor conditions. The younger generation did not witness the events that happened in 1971 and played no role in it but they have to manage the present situation.

(Mohammad Hussein's family sitting in their home. From the left: Hira, Mohammad, Liza and her mother.)

Mohammad’s daughter Liza already realized that the key to escape the slum is education. But in school the young Urdu speakers do not feel fully accepted by their classmates and teachers, the eighteen years old girl tells me. “The Bengalis are not interested in mixing up with us people. Also the teachers are treat us differently,” she says. Her cousin Hira dropped out of school because he did not feel welcome there. Nevertheless, Liza set her priorities and continues to study. She just deals with the situation by staying with her Bihari friends. Apart from going to school she never leaves the slum because especially her mother is afraid of “bad speaking” that could occur. However, to mix up with the Bengalis is not becoming easier this way. But one day she wants to leave the community to study at the Mymensingh University, following her successful brother Raju. He already managed his Engineering diploma (mechanical). But when the family shows me his CV I realize that Bangla and English, but not Urdu is mentioned there as language skill and the address at the head of the document is different from the place in Mymensingh where his family actually lives. “We have to hide our identity, if we want to mix up with the Bengali people. Otherwise they will not accept us,” the father Mohammad Hussein comments.

(From the left: Golati, her son, Bengali neighbour Halimat and her daugther.)

Although the Bihari community here is quite isolated and homogenous there are some Bengalis who are also living here. I meet Golati, who is originally from Sherpur, together with her eldest daughter Mousumi at their place. Golati came here for her love 15 years ago. Because her husband works as an assistant on a bus he is frequently going to Sherpur and met Golati’s brother who has a tea store there. The two men made friendship and Golati got introduced to her husband when he visited her family. After he asked to marry her, she agreed and moved with him to Mymensingh. For her family there was no problem with that. The first two years she felt uncomfortable because she could not speak Urdu and the living conditions were worse than what she was used to. “I feel comfortable now, because it is my husband’s house”, Golati tells, “Because we do not have a better alternative we consider this as a good place.” She thinks that the mix-up between Bengali and Bihari people today is much easier than in the past. For her livelihood that fact does not matter too much. “The relationship with the neighbors is not the problem. We have many other problems: too many kids, bad sanitation and housing conditions and insufficient water supply”, Golati tells me. It appears to me that the conditions of poverty unite people wherever they are from and whatever language they speak.

Some resources for further research in the web:

Many reports and documents on the issue (especially: related High Court decisions) on:

Website about a documentary on the Bihari issue from 2007:

"Imperfect World 2009", with special features about the Biharis during the last parliamentary elections:

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

An Oasis of Calm and Space in Dhaka's Biggest Slum

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(Saifur, a carpenter from Korail, surrounded by kids on a bamboo platform in the Banani Lake.)

If you go from Gulshan to Banani using the newly built concrete bridge, you can see the outskirts of the Korail slum on the other side of the lake. Beyond the lakeside huts - which are erected on bamboo pillars - there are the homes of about 100.000 people. Several times I crossed the bridge and saw people putting pillars into the muddy lakebed as a “foundation” for new houses. However, when I visit Korail it turns out that the latest structure erected is not a house but an oasis of calm and space for the people of Korail.
Although there is a kind of square at the southern edge of Korail which is used for cultural programs, sports and markets, open space is very limited. The immediate impression is that a place where people could relax in calm surroundings, enjoy an open view or even undertake a romantic liaison would be hard to find in such a crowded area.

The same idea occurred to Khondaker Hasibul Kabir, a young architect lecturer from BRAC University who has been living in Korail for two years. Before he lived in an apartment but felt lonely there and incomplete without a garden to look after. However, once he moved to this area he discussed a lot of ideas together with the community and a platform made from bamboo (where I meet him) is one such idea that became reality. Local carpenters (mistri) contributed labor to the project, while Kabir sponsored it from his private pocket. One of the carpenters is Saifur who I also meet at the platform. He brought about twenty years of working experience into the project - he has never been to school but learnt by doing from the very beginning of his working life. He has been living in Korail since 1991 and is well known in the community. Usually, people call him if they want to have something built and together with the client he plans the design and the costs of the material. However, sometimes he is given full responsibility and looks after the whole construction process from start to finish.

(People from Korail cutting the first sod for the platform.)

“The most difficult thing with these kind of structures is the starting process”, Saifur explains. First they had to build a scaffold from which to put the pillars into the mud. After that the pillars were linked by cross-bars to ensure the strength of the structure and a bamboo platform was set on top of it. Finally a roof with both bamboo and plastic layers was made and a small fence put up.

(During the construction process.)

It took three months to finish the construction. Some private businessmen disturbed the process with a claim for the land where the platform was built. “When they saw that we do not want anything commercial, they never came back and we just continued our work after a while”, Kabir says.The purpose of the platform is as a playground for children and a place for people to sit, relax and enjoy the view over Gulshan Lake. At night a few people also sleep here. “Sometimes wedding couples also come here to get themselves photographed with Gulshan in the background”, Kabir tells me.

(A girl from Korail lounges on the platform, looking at Gulshan.)

I can easily lounge here for a whole Friday afternoon surrounded by kids and other people who are constantly coming and going. I almost forget that the biggest slum in Dhaka is only a stone’s throw away.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Sand Business

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(View on an embankment in Mymensingh. On the left is the Kalli Bari community, on the right the Brahmaputra River.)
When I enter the Kalli Bari community in the Northeastern part of Mymensingh I find the roads muddy after two days of rain. Until one year ago people lived directly next to the Brahmaputra River and were threatened by floods during every rainy season. Now the settlement occupies a narrow strip located along a recently built embankment. That the river is not only a threat but also a source of income I quickly learn here. The word ‘river-bank’ makes sense in two different ways in Kalli Bari.

(A ridge of sand silt in Kalli Bari.)

A heavy yellow truck with charming paintings on all its surfaces struggles to escape the mire. Its engine revs noisily. Eventually, the truck wrests itself from the mud and departs with a load of fresh fine sand, exposing a small ridge of grey sand-silt to my view. Mixed water and sand is pumped through pipes from a boat in the river onto the top of the ridge. The sand-silt then dries as the water drains off through other pipes on the bottom of the ridge and returns to the river. What remains is fine grey river sand ready for construction purposes.

(Abdul Modtaleb (right, with the white shirt) is supervising the sand business in Kalli Bari.)

I meet Abdul Modtaleb working among others on top of the silt. He is the supervisor of the sand business at this part of the river, with experience stretching back more than 15 years. Abdul lives here with his wife, kids and parents. Because they did not have land in their home village his parents moved to Mymensingh in 1974. Before he started the sand business he was working in a saw mill factory. He makes around 500 Tk. a day now and this is enough to maintain himself and his family. “The price of the sand from here is 1.5 Tk. per cubic foot (about 28 litres), but 40 percent of the proceeds from every cubic foot sold goes to a private investor. We can keep the other 60 percent. Business is going well.” The investor holds a leasing contract with the Pourashava of Mymensingh for the rights to the extraction of sand on this particular stretch of the Brahmaputra River. At the same moment as Abdul is explaining how well his business flows, the stream of silt suddenly gets interrupted. “What is happening? Work finished today?”, I ask.“No, no this is normal. Every 20 to 30 minutes the machine gets stuck”, he replies.

(On the boat. The filter in the middle of the pipe gets stuck every 20 to 30 minutes because of garbage which is also extracted from the riverbank.)

To discover the reason why the silt flow stopped I ask him to show me the heart of his business. We cross the embankment, following the pipes down to the river. A small raft brings us to two boats which are tied together forming a catamaran. When we step on the boat we meet Kanchan, the machine operator. He is busy unhooking wet garbage from a small metal container incorporated within an arrangement of two engines, rods, pipes and arbors. A smell of diesel is in the air although the engine is not running. Everything looks quite improvised. Before the silt is pumped through the pipe to the ridge at the riverbank, it passes a filter. “The problem is that there is garbage all over the riverbed, so that the machine has to be stopped to free the filter from the garbage. We have to stop it every half an hour.”, Kanchan says. He is about twenty years old and has been working with machines since he was twelve. He has never been to college but he understands the kinks of this Chinese engine. He has learnt by doing. At the beginning of his working life, Kanchan learnt about electric wiring and air conditioning before five years ago he secured a job the assistant technician, later getting promoted to his current position. Together with his parents, Kanchan also lives in Kalli Bari. Because Kanchan is still unmarried he can live on the 280 Tk. he gets every day from the consortium.

(Kanchan fixes a problem with the engine.)

Only two weeks back, a consortium of ten people from Mymensingh used their private savings to purchase the boat with its equipment from the same private investor who holds the leasing contract. Abdul Modtaleb is part of this consortium, each of whom owns an equal share of ten percent of the business.

(Kanchan's "invention".)

To compensate for the current of and the waves on the river, Kanchan invented a flexible piece of pipe so that the main pipe can not break. It also looks very improvised but seems to work. However, with the upcoming rainy season the river will have more water and the current will be too strong to operate the suction machine for about two months. Even the invention made by Kanchan will not help then and during that time the equipment will be stored at the riverbank . Abdul will be able to earn during that period by selling a stock of sand they have already accumulated, but for Kanchan it will mean unemployment. Maybe he can use the time to find a wife and get married. “I would like to, but my parents are going to decide this issue” he comments.

(Eventually they engine runs again and Abdul and Kanchan are back in business.)

Background: Poverty brief: Mymensingh

Mymensingh, located beside the Brahmaputra River in the north of Bangladesh, is one of the biggest and oldest Pourashavas (municipalities) in Bangladesh, covering around 22 square kilometers. According to the Census of 2001 the total population of the Mymensingh Pourashava was 227,047. Due to migration from the villages and rapid natural population growth within the city the number of inhabitants is much higher today. The Pourashava assumed 2005 about 375,000 inhabitants. Almost half of the population (45%) is considered as "poor", many of them living in slums under bad conditions. Allo ver the city, the municipality counts 94 slum areas with altogether more than 140,000 inhabitants.
The slum dwellers (usually) are working as day labourer, rickshaw puller and Hawkers or running small businesses. The average income in the slums of Mymensingh is estimated as 3000 Taka a month.


Socio-Economic Household Survey of Mymensingh 2004 conducted by Bangladesh Unnayan
Parishad for ADB.

Poverty Impact Assessment in Mymensingh by GTZ in November 2008.

Ahsan, Shaikh Muhammad Mehedi (2009), Participation of Urban Poor in Municipal Governance in Bangladesh. A Case Study of Mymensingh Pourashava, Dissertationa at Civil Service College, Dhaka.

However, the individuals who are hidden in the statistics, their daily live, dreams and ideas can not be expressed in numbers. None of them are average. Poverty has always a face, a name and a story...

Wednesday, July 8, 2009


by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

Together with international students (Urban Planning) from Berlin I am under way in Mymensingh and Narayanganj poor communities. The result is a short moody video which shows you the atmosphere of different slum areas which I hope you enjoy watching.

Very special thanks goes to Aedy Ramli for his efforts.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

"Three Hundred Taka!"

by: Sayaka Uchikawa

Showing me their adorable smiles and small hands, three "tokai" boys (street waste-collectors), probably between the ages of six and eight, shouted at me in English. Being in Dhaka, as a foreigner, this is not an unusual incident. Wherever and whenever you go (even at midnight!), beggars will ask you to give them some Taka (money/petty cash). Even when you are in a car, they constantly bang on the windows of your car, gesturing to show how hungry they are, how small and sick their babies are, and what disabilities they have. (Some even produce a bill for medical treatment signed by a doctor.) I would never be able to get used to these daily scenes in Dhaka.

(Photo Right: Saiful (age 10). Helping at a recycling shop.)

However, when I met those three boys, I was amused at how well they read the situation between them and me. Firstly, they shouted at me in English, knowing or guessing that I (a foreigner) did not understand Bangla but English. Secondly, they chose "three hundred" instead of thirty or three thousand, understanding that a foreigner like me would probably have that amount of taka in her pocket, and could afford to give it to them. Thirdly, although I do not know whether or not they were aware of this, they picked up a number that could be divided by three. It was apparent that they were not begging from me, but playing with me. They did not slow down their pace to make the gestures, but just shouted loudly a few more times with their friendly smiles and carried on along their way.

On another day, my colleagues and I visited a learning centre where a local NGO provides non-formal education opportunities to so-called working children,and I asked the children if I could take a picture of them. One girl then said, Do you want a picture of us studying (gesturing writing something on her notebook with her pencil), or with our face up smiling?

(Photo Left: Baby (age 11). Breaking bricks. Since Bangladesh is located in the world's largest delta, there are not enough sufficient materials to produce concrete for building constructions. Thus, there is such an occupation as "brick-breaking," which is categorized as a hazardous child work by the ILO and UNICEF. The brick breakers work outside, under the sun, in the heat, and smash bricks into pieces that will be used as concrete producing materials.)

Then, when we left the centre, after asking if we would visit them again, some children said, Yes, you-kind-of-people always say you will come back and visit us again, but you never do. I was again amused by how much they know about usthe outsiders, often foreigners.

Moreover, I felt as if they were challenging our-kind-of-peoples usual notion of so-called child laborersand working children, the notion that we, outsiders, foreigners, often carry and have toward children in urban cities in a country such as Bangladesh.

An estimated 1 to 1.5 million of those children who do not go to school but work reside in Dhaka. Many boys work at a shop (car/rickshaw garage, market, tailor, tea stall, etc.) from early as 7 or 8am in the morning to as late as 12am at night. They take orders from customers, bring a glass of water to adult workers, and do whatever they are told to do. Most of the girls, on the other hand, work as domestic workers/servants, and do cleaning, washing, and/or taking care of small children in a house. Some children say that they like working, and are willing to work, while some say they do not like their job and want to quit.

(Photo Above: Sohel (age 10). Taking care of a vegetable shop in a market. The salary is approximately Tk. 300 (US$ 4.25) per month.)

Despite the diversity of childrens work in Dhaka, outsiders sometimes quickly judge and define their work as so-called child labor, usually with the negative implications. Much literature, for example, writes about so-called child laborers and working children in Dhaka to suggest that: they are disadvantaged, vulnerable, and subject to economic exploitation; their work is unsafe, unhealthy, dangerous, and poisonous; and, they are trapped in low skilled and low return work that pushes them further into the vicious cycle of poverty.

Nevertheless, in Dhaka, the work the children willingly or unwillingly do is part of their everyday life (especially when there is no school to attend). They spend their days being around, talking and chatting with, and/or helping their father, mother, brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and neighbors, as if this is howchildhoods are in Dhaka today.

Then, through irregular visits of foreigners, especially of development aid workers (in the name ofassessment and/or evaluation studies), the children learn to internalize our notion of child labor andworking children, and act out the ideal type of working children”—how we think their lives areto the visitors. Although they have probably never read or heard what kinds of attitudes wethe outsidersoften have toward children like them, they understand (or act as if they understand) how the idea of child laborand working children has been constructed, idealized, and used in the international development aid context.

Today in Dhaka there are many development aid programmes/projects for those so-called child laborersand working children; however, their lives have not still been celebrated enough, because many of us know very little about them. They may know ushow we think their lives aremuch better than we think we know who they are.

(Photo Above: A learning centre for "urban working children" operated by the Bureau of Non-formal Education, Ministry of Primary and Mass Education of the Government of Bangladesh, UNICEF, and 20 entrusted local NGOs. There are total 8,000 centres for 200,000 children.)


Arat, Zehra F. (2002) Analyzing Child Labor as A Human Rights Issue: Its Cases, Aggravating Policies, and Alternative Proposals. Human Rights Quarterly 24: 177-204.

ILO Dhaka (2006) Baseline Survey on Child Domestic Labour (CDL) in Bangladesh. Dhaka: ILO.

SIDA (2008) 2008 What Does SIDA Do in Bangladesh? Bangladesh SIDA. Electronic document,, accessed February 2008.

UNICEF Bangladesh (2004) Project Proposal: Basic Education for Hard to Reach Urban Working Children (BEHTRUWC) Project Second Phase, 2004-2009. Dhaka: UNICEF Bangladesh.

UNICEF Bangladesh (2008) Bangladesh. Electronic document,, accessed February 2008.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Background: The situation of the urban poor in Dhaka

While searching the web to learn more about the issue of Urban Poverty I just discovered a comprehensive report about the situation of Slum Dwellers in Dhaka, done by the Worldbank in 2007. Have a look.

Tiny Gardens, Naughty Kids in New Jimkhana

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

In contrast to the small huts tin and bamboo that characterize the main part of New Jimkhana community, the core of the settlement consists of yellow painted brick-made houses (see photo), once constructed by the Bangladesh Railway Company. The inhabitants of these houses also give me a new impression of life in an urban poor community. First of all, tiny little gardens in front of those houses attract my attention during today’s visit.

(Above: the characteristic type of house in the core settlement of New Jimkhana.)

(Above: to be climbed up. A stage prepared to grow water gourd and pumpkin to the roof.)

(Above: small but rich. A tiny garden in front of a house in New Jimkhana.)

To learn more about these green cells and the people who are looking after them I knock on the door of Bashnaruni Dai’s house.
First I learn that when greeting people I should say nomoskar rather than slamalaikum at this residence. Accidently, I already used the Muslim salutation before I realized that I was being welcomed by one of few Hindu families. I did not expect to meet Hindus in this area due to the fact that the majority of people in New Jimkhana are Muslim.Of course their politeness and hospitality is not at all affected by my cultural mishap.
The house is owned by an employee of the Bangladesh Railway Company who lives in Dhaka now. Bashnaruni’s family rents the plot from him, paying 2.000 Taka for the original building. Since they began renting it, the seven member family extended the house on their own, using this space for free. “We have been staying here for about 30 years”, she tells me.

(Above: Bashnaruni Dai together with her younger son Shanto in front of her garden.)

The lovely little garden has been there for the last 20 years. Although her husband owns a small Hindu restaurant it was originally her idea to set up a place to grow something that can be used in her kitchen. In the beginning, they used to grow mainly vegetables, like water gourd (zucchini). Several years ago, however, she learned that the soil is not longer fertile due to pollution by plastic rubbish thoughtlessly thrown away by others. Two years or so ago the family switched over to plants that are easier to please. Today they grow bananas and a “Phulgass” – a tree that provides flowers necessary for Hindu religious purposes. In constant “danger” are the fruits of their borui tree. “Sometimes naughty kids are throwing stones to catch the fruits from the Borui tree.”In contrast, Bashanaruni is pleased with the development of her own kids. Her daughter, Miturani, is the first in this family’s history to attend university. She is doing her Masters on Accounting at the Narayanganj College. The eldest son works as a goldsmith in a nearby shop.

(Above: Mojina and her youngest son Alamun in their backyard garden.)

Only three plots away assalamu alaikum is appropriate and responded with oalaikum assalam. A hearty welcome meets me when Mojina, the head of this Muslim household, opens the door. The inside looks quite comfortable. Around the small inner yard six rooms are arranged. In addition to three bedrooms, they have a toilet, their own tube well and an interesting kitchen: a proper mango tree grows right through the roof of the kitchen! Alamun the youngest son immediately offers sliced pieces of this tasty fruit. They need to pick the fruits quickly at maturity, “Otherwise the neighborhood’s kids are climbing the roof to steal the mangoes”, Mojina says without much anger in her voice. Her husband once wanted to cut the tree to have more space in the kitchen. But not only was the law against this idea (the tree is growing on Railway land, so it is still Railway property), Mojina also insisted that it be left.

(Above: a mangoe tree, growing right through the roof of Mojina's kitchen.)

Her family lives in quite comfortable conditions compared to other New Jimkhana inhabitants. Mojina’s husband worked as a Police Officer (he passed away a couple of years ago), her eldest son joined the Army. Money comes from her brother who owns a small factory for dry food and from another relative who is sending remittances from Saudi Arabia. But her family consists of nine people and the house they rent from a member of the Railway Company costs 4.500 Taka per month. “We are happy with this arrangement and want to stay here. Nobody is bothering us and we have good relations with our neighbors”, Mojina says. One headache is to afford the money for the youngest son’s (Alamun) education. “Inshallah, he is going to finish his A-level soon.” After finishing school he wants to work as a professional driver and settle down.
Her tiny garden is on the back side of the house and looks a bit sparse. “During the dry season we grew vegetables in it”, Alamun explains, “and now we just put new seeds into the earth, such as lychee, green chili and beli flower“. In previous years the garden was more colorful. “We used to grow beautiful flowers but other people stole them together with the pots“. This sounds more like the work of naughty adults, I think.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Smelly Bargaining Chips

by: Nadia Goodman and Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

The capital of Bangladesh, Dhaka, is one of the fastest growing mega cities in the world. Officially, Dhaka has around 14 million of inhabitants. It is estimated that three million people live in poor urban settlements all over the city, facing a lack of public services and facilities. Often the houses of the urban poor are illegally built on land without having legal tenure, which makes it difficult for residents to claim their basic rights. Authorities, such as the Dhaka City Corporation, often ignore the illegality of their situation, given that the work done by many of the residents of poor urban settlements is essential to the efficient functioning of the city. Unfortunately, it seems that without any pledge in their hands the urban poor have nothing to bargain for the fulfilling of their basic rights. Poor communities and minority groups thus need to find niches that make them indispensable to the authorities.

(Above: the entrance of a Telugu community in southeast Dhaka.)

Aware of it, the Telugu community found a way to claim their rights in order to improve their living conditions. The Telugu are a people from Indian origin (Andra Pradesh) with their own language, predominantly low-caste Hindus or Christian believers. As a severe drought made it impossible to maintain their live on agriculture in the late 1940s the British colonial rulers came up with a ‘smelly’ offer. If they would move to Dhaka to work as sweepers, they would get housing and food security, the British promised. “Without big options our ancestors agreed and moved to Dhaka in 1947”, John Sander, one of the local Telugu leaders tells. The city needed ‘sweepers’, people to deal with all kinds of waste produced in a large city, work that is traditionally done by low-caste groups, such as the ‘Untouchables’.

A nasty job: not for everyone

(Above: also cleaning their own place: most members of the Telugu community are still working as Sweepers.)

The combination of drought, low-class status and the need for waste services in East Bengal led to the establishment of the city’s small Telugu Colony. They began by cleaning the streets and collecting large pots of human waste, work that the Muslim majority refused to do for religious reasons (it is deemed unacceptable for Muslims to have direct contact with faeces). Eventually, they became fourth grade employees of the Dhaka City Corporation. Their appointment to the DCC and their willingness to do a ‘dirty’ job that no one else wanted to do, made them valuable members of society, despite their low social status.

This value, however, was not always recognized by the Muslim majority who refused to rent houses to low-class sweepers because the job and the thus the people who are doing it were seen as dirty. As Dhaka began to grow phenomenal after Independence in 1971, the rapid pace of urban development forced the Telugu community to move repeatedly, getting a new place to live every time. Eventually, in 1979, the community was divided and one group settled in Dhalpur Ward in the southeast outskirts of the city. Ironically, this Telugu community settled on top of an old garbage collection site where for years sweepers had been dumping the waste they collected. Despite the fact that there were no written agreements with the authorities who had brought them here and promised them housing and food, their employers, the DCC, provided them with simple dwellings of bamboo and tin, as well as toilets and access to piped water. The Telugu did not have access to everything, however: sweepers were denied education on the basis that it was extraneous to the work they did. An NGO fills this gap since the 1980s.

Blessing in disguise

(Above: view inside the community. A lot of open space makes a liveable environment.)

At the beginning of 1996, the Telugus had little access to electricity in their settlement; Candles were used to provide light to huts of tin sheet with wooden roofs. That year, most likely as a result of the fragile construction of the houses, a fire burned down more than half of the settlement. Fortunately there were no human casualties because almost residents came together to watch a movie at the only TV place at that night. Left homeless, they approached their local elected Ward Commissioner for support, recognizing their importance to the city’s authorities. The Commissioner used his influence to lobby the Mayor of DCC for the construction of suitable low-cost housing, from bricks to avoid that another fire can be that harmful to the settlement again. This argument combined with a pointer on their importance for the city’s maintenance convinced. Over a period of seven to eight months, new houses were constructed for over 120 families. Even the NGO-run school was rebuilt. Some improvements needed to be made by the families themselves later on, but the basic houses and all services were provided free of charge.

(Above: structure plan of the settlement.)

Future challenges

Nowadays the situation for the Telugu community is changing. Since the system of pots was replaced by a sewage canal system in the late 1970s the direct contact with faeces was reduced. This slightly attracted other parts of the society. Also Muslims are now working as sweepers. Their attitude towards this job seems to change: to be a sweeper is not longer seen only as nasty but also as secured business.

(Above: John Sander (laughing) in one of the roads of the community. Right background: small extensions to the existing houses had to be made due to family growth.)

As under the British and the Pakistani rule, so today the agreement has always been in place. However, important to mention is that this promises were only made orally and never written down. The aim was never to integrate them into society, but to use their disadvantaged place in it. The community never got the legal ownership of the houses and the land they are living on is still DCC property. Therefore the danger of eviction becomes current. Life can change rapidly, if the authorities once feel that they do not need the Telugu’s service anymore. “Still at least one member of each family is working for the DCC and we hope that we can going on working with them. But we also recognize the increasing importance of our children’s education for their future perspective”, John Sander tells.

special thanks to: Ashley Wheaton

Thursday, May 28, 2009


by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

In a country with limited resources it is possible to make money even from garbage rather than just to waste it by throwing it away. The hundreds of garment factories in Narayanganj are producing a lot of fabric scraps, small patches that remain after cutting the blanks. Unsorted, these scraps find (for very little money) their way to the nearby communities, providing a source of income. The fibers are of good quality and be reused but first they have to be sorted with a lot of patience and due diligence.

One of these patient and careful sorters is Mojiton, who I meet in a storage room close to Rally Bagan poor community. She squats on the ground in a room filled with big heavy plastic bags. She is surrounded by small patches of fabrics of all colors, which she sorts by color and quality. The air is filled with a smoke-like dust of fabric fibers, which colors my nose from inside. When her husband died 10 years ago in an accident at a construction site, Mojiton took responsibility for herself and her two daughters. One of them is already married and lives with her husband nowadays. The other one lives with her in Rally Bagan. Every day she makes about 60 to 65 Taka. “It is not that much, but we can survive on it”, Mojiton says.

(above: Shaheen is sorting plastic and tin garbage)

(above: Shukur sitting in his shop in Rally Bagan)

On the other edge of Rally Bagan, next to the entrance, another kind of recycling business is going on. In front of his small shop, Shaheen and his older brother, Shukur, are sorting solid waste from garbage bags they bought from slum residents. Piece by piece, they separate mainly plastic from tin items. After sorting, they sell it to a bigger dealer, usually making about 10 Taka per kg. They earn 300 Taka per day, on lucky days even 600. However, in the last couple of months the price of recyclable materials, especially tin, is declining. The dealer now pays only 12 to 15 Taka per kg to Shukur instead of the 35 Taka he used to offer. This loss is then passed on to the slum residents they buy from. Shukur is well informed about world affairs and can easily explain the reason for the decline in prices: “I think it is somehow connected to the world market crisis that is going on”, he tells.

(above: Jahanara is pumping water out of the improved tube well)

On the way from Mojiton to the Shaheen and Shukur, yet another tube well attracted my attention. The neck of a plastic bottle is affixed on the tap. This innovation was created by Jahanara (see photo above), who happens to be around when I ask community members who came up with this idea. “Before water from the tap splashed randomly and we could not fill buckets and pots properly”, she says. The plastic bottle funnel was added only one month ago. I wonder why had nobody come up with this idea before.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

The meaning of red colors in Deara poor community

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

As I enter Deara poor community I feel like visiting a village in the rural sites. The houses are made from bamboo and tin, colored green or blue in some patches. Between the homes of about 300 families, there is space to walk and grow some cattle, the place is surrounded by vegetable fields. The green trees hanging over the Chitaloka River give me a romantic impression of the place. As romantic the river looks, people can not use the water for drinking purposes. Garment and dyeing industries located nearby feed their effluents into the river and pollute it in a way so that even swimming in it is not a pleasure. Community members mainly extract their water from tube wells from shallow aquifers.

(above: red marked tube well indicates the presence of arsenic)
When they show me the tube wells I realize that most of them are painted red. In fact this color is much more connected to the people’s fate than the green of the trees and fields. As always, red means something dangerous. The tube wells have been marked by Pourashava water experts to indicate the presence of something invisible: arsenic.The shallow layers of ground water, where most of the tube wells extract the water from are poisoned by this country-wide known affliction. Arsenic is not only without color but also without smell and taste. The fact that it is not immediately observable makes it difficult to avoid its consumption. If arsenic is present in excess in the drinking water, it has a toxic effect on the human body. When it enters into the body, parts of it are deposited in the skin, hair and nails, where it is firmly bound to keratin. It can take months and years until the poisoning of the body is visible but then it might be too late to do anything against it. To date there is no proper clinical treatment.The people of Deara are aware of the meaning of red-colored tube wells. Skin diseases and other consequences of arsenic over-consumption are rarely appearing due to the fact that people try to minimize drinking from it, Mizanur Rahman, member of the local community organization (CDC) tells me. But people still use the water from the red tube wells for washing and cooking purposes due to a lack of alternatives. The temptation to drink every now and then from it is of course always present.

(above: dissolved iron from this tube well is deposited on the ground)
Another disturbing substance that comes from the ground water is easier to avoid. Dissolved iron is present in excess as well in the whole Narayanganj region. Because of its bad taste and odor, people are reluctant to drink it. “We can not even wash clothes with it because the iron is destroying the fabric”, one woman that stands next to the tube well says. On top of that, the polluted water has a red shade which shows the presence of iron in it. Water with iron contents also comes from a red marked tube well in Deara. Therefore some people wrongly assume that the red shade of the iron is somehow connected to arsenic. There is at least one new tube well within the poor community that is drilled deep enough to extract clean and safe drinking water.

(above: Mizanur Rahman in front of his plot holding the tap where clean water comes out for free every day)
Another option to collect safe water lays on the way to the community’s mosque. Mizanur Rahman is not a poor man. In fact his family is financially very well situated. He has been living in Narayanganj next to the mosque of the Deara community for four years now. Mizanur’s business is ready made garments. His richer brother lives in Singapore. I meet him on front of his plot which is five minutes to walk from the poor part of the community. Two taps that are standing out of the red colored wall attract my attention. Inside the plot of Mizanur a deep drilled tube well extracts clean water from the ground and an engine pumps it into a 5000 liter tank to store. Every day in the morning, water from that tank flows for free one hour long. For the poor people of Deara, it is a chance to get big red buckets filled with safe drinking water. Mizanur enables himself to establish good relationships with community members. For me as a visitor it is the chance to learn about the meaning of red at this place.