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.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Looking for the best cook in town

by: Toni Kaatz-Dubberke

(looking into a cooking pot in Rishi Para)

Dense smoke, lively conversation and a smell of freshly cooked meals meet me in Jimkhana. It’s lunch time. A dozen women and girls squat around eight firesides and busily prepare food. About 25 families from different parts of the community share this cooking place. They organize themselves spontaneously every day, using the stoves in rotation; first come, first served. Nevertheless every cook has to be quick and effective asthe cooks who came later eagerly await their turn. But during the wait they may just be able to learn some new recipes - especially the girls who can pick up a knack or two by watching the older women.

(Lotifa from Jimkhana preparing the lunch at the shared cooking place)

The art of cooking here means to make something from nothing, and as with humans everywhere, people in Jimkhana find plenty of ways to be creative. To my question “who is the best cook in town?” I receive cackling laughter and a diplomatic answer. “You have to try each one of the meals, then you can judge”, people tell me. I speak to Lotifa, an older woman with glasses which seem a bit too big for her face. Maybe she is the one I am looking for. She is a mother and grandmother and prepares the meals for two families with eight members in total. With only 100 to 150 Taka a day for the whole family, she really has to be an artist. Lotifa is busy with cooking shutki, dry fish (see photo on the left) . First it is ‘smashed’ or ground, then fried together with some chili and onions. One handfull of these tiny fish is one portion of a family’s meal. From a field right behind the cooking place she gets the ingredients for kachushak, an important source of vitamins and minerals made from the steamed and boiled leaves of the taro plant (see photo on the right). Most of the meals during the week consist of rice with spices, such as green chili and salt, and a bit of aubergine and zucchini. Fresh fish is served once a month and meat only once a year during Eid (festivals). On this occasion sweet shemai, made from thin vermicelli, milk and butter is also served. “If you bring some vegetables, then I can cook for you next time”, Lotifa says. With this invitation I take my leave and go to look in the cooking pot of some other families in the area.

In a small tin hut in Rishi Para I meet Masu Begum with one of her daughters (see photo on the left). Today she feels sick but usually she works twelve hours a day in a nearby garment factory along with two of her three kids. In the morning she prepares rice with dry fish, chili and lady fingers for lunch so she can eat together with her children during the one hour lunch break without being hurried. Although three of the household are working they spend nearly all they earn on food. Her husband has abandoned her and is living with another wife, although he is fair enough to come every day and bring them some money.Masu does not really like the place she is living in but has come to terms with the situation. “I am an old woman and have no alternatives.” Her neighbors are nice, she tells me, she sees them as relatives. Good relations with the neighbors are maintained through sharing fresh fish curry with them about two times a week. Her youngest daughter Harmin is thirteen years old and goes to school. She often prepares the rice for diner and looks after the fire, which is feed by bushi, sawdust. Her biggest wish is to be independent, maybe by running her own small business. “But before she should learn how to cook well”, Masu interrupts.