Each day poses new threats and new questions for Jahan Ara, 33: Whether to eat food cooked beside the rolling sewage near her home or stay hungry and avoid disease? Whether to save money for a proper toilet or feed her children or send them to school? Her daily routine begins by gingerly walking over a narrow bamboo bridge to a ‘toilet’ that is perched precariously on stilts over a highly polluted lake. She cooks the family meals in her kitchen, which is barely five metres away from the toilet, and amongst all this filth, her kids manage to find some space to play in their free time.
Jahan Ara, who is six months pregnant, lives in a one-room shanty made of corrugated steel sheets in Dhaka’s largest slum located near the posh Gulshan Lake area of the Bangladeshi capital. Walking past the high-rise buildings, mega showrooms and sprawling homes that line both sides of the street in the heart of town, a sudden turn changes the scenario completely. The lanes become narrower and dirtier; instead of the concrete walls and glass windows are steel sheets with small holes cut out in them for windows.
This is the Korail slum, spread out over 90 acres of government land. According to Salina Bagom, Chairman of the Nogor Bostibashi Unnayan Songastha (Urban Slum Development Organisation), Korail came into existence about 25 years back and today has a population of 78,000. In the one-room, 100-200 sq. ft. dwellings, families with an average of five members, have created a life for themselves.
Unfortunately, the lived realities in these narrow lanes – no wider than three to five metres – are pathetic. For residents like Jahan Ara, spaces between lanes lined with steel sheets serve as bathing areas or kitchens. For her children, Shamim and Shahab, and their friends, these gullies double up as play areas, where they practice cricket regularly. And in these very narrow alleyways there are around 800 shops operating – be it a barber’s shop or a tailor’s, a general merchant or a medicine store. In fact, there’s also a dentist’s clinic, a community centre and a coaching centre here.
Nonetheless, when it comes to basic amenities, the 16,000 families of Korail are struggling. Not only are they grappling with severe sanitation and water problems, they don’t have any access to government-run health or educational institutions either. Says Abdul Mannan, a community leader, “The problem is that we are considered illegal residents and, therefore, we are not entitled to any government facilities like health, education, water, sanitation, and so on.”
Mannan is not wrong. A visit to Korail will reveal that it has just one government-run health centre, while there are no state schools at all. Of course, to fill in these service gaps, there are at least 30 formal and informal community-run schools functional in the slum as well as several local health ‘clinics’, though no one is sure of their authenticity. Obviously then, the health indicators are very poor here, with residents regularly suffering from debilitating ailments such as jaundice, skin infections and gastro-enteritis.
Dismal sanitation is the other big challenge in this area, one which especially affects the women and children. These days, a heavily pregnant Jahan Ara constantly fears slipping and falling off the narrow bamboo bridge on her way to the toilet, built after spending a precious BDT 1,000 (about US$ 13). In fact, more than 70 per cent of the slum dwellers, who do not have proper toilets, face similar insecurities.
Like their homes, the toilets-on-stilts, built over the Gulshan Lake, are steel sheets and bamboo structures. Fitted inside the small, one-square-metre space is a squat toilet fashioned with two heavy stones with a hole in the middle into which a four-inch plastic pipe is attached. The other end of this pipe opens into the lake.
Realising the urgent need for building proper toilets here, Salina Bagom, who has been working in Korail ever since the slum came into existence, and who acts as a bridge between the civil society organisations (CSOs) operating in the area and the local community, has facilitated the operation of a sanitation project, Advancing Sustainable Environmental Health, spearheaded by Dushtha Shasthya Kendra (DSK), a Bangladesh-based NGO, and supported by Water Aid, a UK-based charity organisation.
Under this project, 5,000 households are being targetted for toilet construction and hygiene promotion. The average cost of building a proper toilet comes to around BDT 10,000 (120 dollars) and the community is being motivated to contribute money to build one toilet among 10 households.
When Jahan Ara heard about this proposal, she eagerly volunteered to collect the funds. However, with only six families in her lane, it’s unlikely that her dream of a proper toilet will be fulfilled. “I am collecting money to get a proper toilet but do not know whether I will ever get one,” she wonders.
Jahan Ara’s husband, Abul Kalam, has a push cart and can manage to earn around BDT 5,000 a month. A major chunk of this money goes into buying medicines, because her children fall ill frequently. Whatever is left goes into buying food and water.
In Korail, residents have to buy drinking water, though they can ill afford it. Though there are plastic pipes with drinking water supply coming into the slum – incidentally, these have been laid in the filthy Gulshan Lake – this is not official. An arrangement has been worked out with private vendors, who have provided illegal water connections for which each family pays at least BDT 600 per month.
Says Kalam, “It is an irony that people living in well-to-do areas across the lake avail our services – we drive their cars, maintain their gardens and clean their houses – but none of them ever bother to think about us; of the dismal conditions in which we are leading our life.”
Life of dignity
Community leader Mannan also feels that such severe neglect on the part of government authorities can only mean that they may be thinking of getting the slum site vacated. However, he has a proposal in mind. “We are demanding that the government make multi-storey buildings on at least 20 acres of land where we all can live properly,” he says. And for this, the slum dwellers have filed a petition for a stay order in the court. Unfortunately, Mannan’s prediction has come true – recently, more than 2,000 shanties in Korail, and adjoining areas, were razed to the ground in an eviction drive carried out at only a few hours’ notice, rendering thousands homeless.
Jahan Ara has the final word: “Just because we are poor it does not mean that we do not deserve a life of dignity. We also need potable water and proper toilets. Even my children deserve a decent education and something as basic as a playground.”