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Life on the fringes: survival

Life in Dhaka's shanty towns is a perpetual struggle. Aasha Mehreen Amin spoke to men and women about life in poverty.

The Bashantek-Kafrul-Mirpur area is a neglected locality of Dhaka city, which has, over the decades, been transformed from acres of forests and paddy fields into congested townships cluttered with shanties and low-cost housing. Day labourers, rickshaw pullers, domestic workers, and garment workers live here as this is the nearest housing to their workplaces they can get.

Thousands of poor people come to the city to find work, any work, to save them from starvation. A secure, permanent place to live is an unimaginable luxury as regular evictions and rising rent often force them to frequently be on the move. Most people have migrated from districts where floods have led to crop failures and jobs are few as very little industry has reached the villages.

Gruelling work barely meets costs

There are plenty of jobs in the city – in construction, transport, factories and the homes of the wealthy. In the villages work usually involves farm work or being a labourer at development sites where the pay varies from 50 taka to 60 taka a day and only that when such work is available. In the cities construction work is usually abundant and a labourer may earn 100 taka to 150 taka a day. But all too often the gruelling hours of work pay barely enough to meet the high cost of urban living.

As the sole breadwinner of the family, 35-year-old Rabeya Begum, is always worried. Her husband cannot work because of his disability and feeding themselves and their three small daughters is a daily challenge.

"As soon as I get my salary, the first thing I do is pay the rent and then buy as much rice as I can for the month," says Rabeya who gets TK 1500 (US$ 22 approx) a month as a part-time domestic maid. Rent for the little room she shares with her family in Ibrahimpur, is TK 1000 (US$ 15 approx.) and at TK 30 (US$.44) per kg of rice, she buys about 30 kg for the month by borrowing or working extra odd jobs at the local bazaar. She usually has to borrow money from neighbours or buy on credit.

Losing everything

About two years ago, things were slightly better. Rabeya had managed to secure ownership of the shanty she lived in with her savings and so did not have to pay rent. But there were no documents involved in the deal and the shanty was demolished in one of the many eviction drives ordered by the government. "My husband has nothing in the village," says Rabeya. "We sold off even the little piece of paternal land that we had before coming to the city. But when they kicked us out from the slums, there was nothing we could do except go home.”

"The night we got evicted the five of us slept under the open sky, holding on to our belongings. It was drizzling and we just had a sheet of polythene to cover us. In the morning I found that people had taken away all my pots and pans that I had packed in a jute bag. All I could do was cry. I went crying to my employer, carrying my youngest. She gave me some money to go to the village but even she could not give me shelter as she lives with her in-laws."

Forced back to the city

At her husband's village they had to depend on the hospitality of relatives. "But how can they help us," says Rabeya, "They themselves are poor. Life in the village is very hard. There are no jobs and everybody is poor there so who will give you a job? I tried to do some tailoring jobs, but hardly got any orders. The bazaar is a three hour walk from our place. My husband, children and I, we all became very thin and got sick. Sometimes the whole day we ate just rice and a bit of chilli and salt." Rabeya was forced to come back to the city and start all over again.

Now she works two jobs, as a sweeper for the nearby market for TK 800 (US$ 11.78 approximately) and her old job as a domestic maid. From next month, however, she will lose the sweeping job and Rabeya has no idea how she will keep afloat.

Soaring food prices have become an additional worry. Rabeya’s family’s diet includes mainly rice and a small portion of vegetables or lentils. Fish, an expensive item, comes in about once a month if they are lucky. Most of the money spent on food goes on buying rice and its increased price means less money to buy other foods. "Now we have to cut down on food," says Rabeya," The two of us eat less and let the children eat more."

Hunger rising

Apart from the ripple effect of increasing world food prices, poor administration and speculative price increases by a cartel of unscrupulous traders combined to push up costs. The rate at which they rose was a rude shock for poor people.

According to a 2008 report produced jointly by the Food and Agricultural Organisation and the World Food Programme, Bangladesh's food insecure population is now estimated to be 65.3 million and has risen by 7.5 million people, largely because of the impact of higher food prices.

While the wealthy have financial cushioning to tackle inflationary pressures, the poor, whose incomes have hardly risen, have to struggle with the increased cost of living in terms of high food, housing and transport costs. The same study points out that as prices rise, households tend to spend less on nutrition-rich essential foods such as vegetables, fruits and pulses. With fewer nutritious food items affordable, malnutrition is high and health is the first thing to suffer.

See also: Life on the fringes: the cost of health

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Aasha Amin

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01/29/2009

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