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.
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
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
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.
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.
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