How store owners and pedestrians dodge police in lockdown

Monday, 26 July 2021

It is 9:45 am in the Shia Mosque area of Dhaka’s Mohammadpur. The corner stores, mobile recharge outlets, laundries and electronics stores are all open. But their shutters are half-closed. And then, a shout echoes: “They’re coming! They’re coming!”, bdnews24.com reports.

Instantaneously, the shutters fall. Vendors of fresh fruits and vegetables back their van rickshaws into the alleys. By the time the patrol car from Mohammadpur Police Station passes, there’s nothing much going on at all.

The car patrols the Mohammadia Housing area, passing the culvert and heading off to the Lohar Gate area. Within minutes, the shutters are up and customers are creeping out.

Such was the case on Monday, the fourth day of the ‘strictest lockdown’ imposed to curb the coronavirus pandemic after Eid. But this deception has been ongoing – playing out several times a day for a few days now.

“You can’t do anything when the police come by,” Shafiqul Alam, who owns a corner shop called Nurjahan Department Store in the Mohammadia Housing Area, told bdnews24.com.

“They don’t want to listen to reason. My store sells essentials, but they still want to shut us down. We have to survive. People need to buy things.”

“You need to get odds and ends, don’t you?” said Amjad Islam, a customer who had retreated behind a store shutter when the police car passed. “What would we do if police closed down the shops? It’s better for them to stay open. I had to stay in an enclosed space for a few minutes. That’s a health risk!”

The situation at an intersection in Rupnagar was much the same. Groups of chatting youths were on the lookout for police patrols and sent out warnings by whistling or by making a phone call. They would run and hide when the cars passed by and celebrate once they were gone. None of them wore masks.

“We can’t do much if people don’t behave sensibly,” SI Debraj Chakrabarty of Rupnagar Police said. “It’s like the local kids are playing cops and robbers with us. We go one way and they rush the other way and start a commotion. It’s maddening.”

“Still, we are trying to keep calm and fulfil our duties.”

Pharmacies, restaurants and groceries in the Rupnagar area have been open for some time, but other stories are also starting to lift their shutters.

The ‘Bookish’ bookstore at the Rupnagar intersection opened around 10 am. “I don’t have enough money for groceries,” store owner Md Mustafa said when asked why. “We need to eat, so I took the risk and opened today.”

Rickshaws and motorcycles are out in force in the area, but cars are few and far between.

Shops and stores in the alleys of the Siddheswari area are open, but are keeping at least one shutter closed.

“Stores can stay open from 9 am to 3 pm,” said Farid, a department store shopkeeper. “That’s the rule we follow. But sometimes the police come around and disturb us, or scold us. Who among us is going to argue with them? So, we keep one shutter closed. If they tell us to close up, we will.”

There are more rickshaws on the main thoroughfares in the Dhanmondi, Mohammadpur and Satmasjid Road areas. Some stores in the alleyways are open as well.

There is some traffic congestion at the checkpoints and law enforcers are seen questioning pedestrians and drivers.

“We have not taken any direct action against anyone so far today,” said policeman Zahirul around 11 am. “We’ll see what happens once the executive magistrate arrives.”

There are more people out and about on the fourth day of lockdown in Old Dhaka and stores selling necessities have been open since Monday morning. There were more cars and rickshaws in the Azimpur, Lalbagh, Kellarmor, Bakshibazar and Polashi areas as well.

Some non-essential stores are also open on Lalbagh road and Chakbazar. Van rickshaws selling fruits and vegetables were common in the alleys and more people were about. Restaurants that closed in the first two days of the lockdown are open again.

Most of the roads in the New Market, Nilkhet, Hatirpool and Green Road areas were taken up by rickshaws and cars. Of particular note were the many private ambulances that rushed through, blaring their sirens.

“The lockdown is stricter in the morning,” said Md Qayyum, a rickshaw driver working in the Green Road area. “It eases up after dark. And more people are going outside the longer the lockdown continues.”

But there seemed to be fewer people and vehicles on the streets in Mirpur than in previous days. Stores on either side of 60 Feet Road were closed. But several stores in the alleyways, including some restaurants, were open.

Ten or so police personnel were conducting searches in the Bhanga Bridge area.

“There seems to be less traffic and fewer people outside today,” a police sub-inspector on duty said. “Some people haven’t been able to give an appropriate explanation of why they are outside. We detained them for a brief period.”

Eight to ten motorcycles usually wait for fares in front of the UNICEF offices in Agargaon. By 10 am on Monday, there were only two in the area.

Many patients leaving the various hospitals in the area often have difficulty reaching their destinations amid the lockdown.

The motorcycle drivers are charging Tk 250 for a trip from Agargaon to Mohakhali. Rickshaw drivers are charging Tk 200 for a trip to Bangla Motor.

“I don’t even earn Tk 500 a day!” said Siddiqur Rahman, an employee of a pharmaceutical company, as he was heading to Mohakhali. “And now they won’t go for less than Tk 250!”

There were many more people and vehicles on the road in Fakirapul, Paltan, Shahjahanpur and Bijoynagar on the fourth day of the lockdown.

Traffic police were even working to redirect a substantial number of rickshaws from the Shahjahanpur intersection.

“The lockdown has loosened,” said Shahjahanpur resident Jibon Islam. “Just look at all the vehicles on the streets. Are they all government vehicles? Of course not. Private cars and cars for private organisations are going about as well. There are more pedestrians on the footpath.”

“But what can you do? How long can you stay at home? We aren’t used to living such confined lives. That’s why we shouldn’t expect to see lockdowns working the same way here as they do abroad.”

Jibon Islam works at a private company in Motijheel and is walking there with his ID hanging from his neck.

“Despite the lockdown, you’ll see that many organisations in Motijheel have stayed open. They have continued to work. So, we have to leave home to get to the office.”

“We are following health protocols though. Everyone has to be sensible about this. There should be no opposition. But the way that traffic is increasing each day and the number of people on the streets – it could cause a horrific increase in cases.”