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.