When Dhaka had been a provincial capital between 1960s and 1970, it featured a few unauthorised swathes filled with shanty dwellings. The now-evicted Babupura-Nilkhet, Tejgaon and Agargaon slums were part of them. As part of a common tale about the slum dwellers, they continue to be lured by syndicates into shanties, which at one time or another are dismantled by the authorities concerned. Then the search for another slum by the evicted persons begins.
Slums are integral to Dhaka as they are to any fast developing city. A picture of the present state of Dhaka slums was presented at the Jatiya Sangsad on June 16. In reply to a written question from the MP from Dhaka-7 Haji M Salim, Local Government Division Minister Tajul Islam told parliament that some 0.65 million people now live in 3,394 slums across the capital. The minister said there are 1,639 slums in the Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) area. A total of 4,99,011 people live there. The minister added the number of slums in Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) is 1,755 with a population of 1,47,056. Quoting the slum census of 2014, the minister said there are 1,35,340 housing units in DNCC, with 40,591 coming under DSCC. The Local Government Division Minister has not forgotten to present a list of projects taken up to improve the lot of the slum-dwellers. Apart from upgrading the living standards of the slum dwellers, the government aims at improving the primary healthcare of the slum people, the minister said while elaborating on the answer. The fact, however, is in spite of initiatives to cut down on the number of slums and their dwellers, these poverty stricken people continue to be added to the city's deprived population.
In a fledgling national economy 30/40 years ago, the number of ultra-poor people's income generation activities was negligible. As a result, the city's slum population comprised menial labourers, petty traders like peanut or betel leaf-cigarette sellers and the omnipresent rickshaw-pullers and part-time female domestic help. The socio-economic condition of the slums, has, undergone changes for the better in the following decades. The slum-dwelling population, too, witnessed remarkable promotions in terms of professional identity.
The past image of squalor mixed with bouts of desperation that distinguished the slum dwellers eventually was replaced by one of a dream --- a long-nurtured thought to see them as a part of the mainstream society. It is quite rational on their part. Moreover, to demand connections of utility services like electricity and supply water is part of their basic rights. Perhaps the latent force of this collective dream resulted in some slums selected for being connected to water supply lines and electricity. The same goes with sanitation and literacy. What makes one upbeat is that some UN organisations and local and global NGOs have shown their eagerness to help out Dhaka's slums. Most of the people living in these slums are victims of river erosion, which has made many of them veritable paupers. The capital, the seat of the government, is their last resort. Here they try to clutch at straws. Instead of even unwittingly keeping them on the sideline, the hapless slum dwellers should be included as part of society's mainstream.