It may not be palatable for the Dhaka Municipal Corporation to count how many eviction drives were undertaken in the past decade or so, and what those actually resulted in. Now that Dhaka has two Municipal Corporations and both are engaged primarily in reclaiming government lands, water bodies, footpaths, even parks from illegal occupants, it remains to be seen how far can they advance in what seems a last ditch effort on their part.
From what the people have experienced so far, it appears that demolition of illegal structures on government lands is relatively easy, but when it comes to freeing the footpaths, the task does not seem to be so. The drive on the capital's footpaths that began a fortnight ago has, in reality, produced no noticeable result. Whatever respite the pedestrians got was during the period of the drive. But with little over a week gone, it seems the energy level has dipped far too low to keep up with required vigilance.
Most of us living in the capital can well recall that one of the main election pledges of both the mayors was recovery of government property from unlawful possessions that obviously meant pulling down illegal structures and eviction of occupants from government lands meant for public use. True, in the meantime some structures, even permanent structures, were knocked down, but as observers say these are just a peanut given the mushroom growth of such unauthorised structures, whose owners in most cases resort to temporary court injunctions to keep the evictors away at least for a while, in the hope that delaying the process would weaken the strength of the drive - as has always been the case in the past.
So, it's more than a test for the city mayors; and given the state of things, failing to prevail on the errant elements this time will dispel any chance of success in the foreseeable future. That's precisely why, most city dwellers look up to the ongoing drive as a last ditch effort, failure of which will bring unthinkable urban misery in the 'second most unliveable city in the world'.
But half way through the on-going drive, the city corporations have shifted their focus from footpaths and illegal structures to reclaiming canals. These canals believed to be the capital's lifeline as natural drains and repositories of water during excessive rainfall and flash flooding are either no longer visible, or if at all, narrowed into slimy, muddy trickles due to encroachment. It has been learnt that reclaiming the canals and restoring them to their original shapes and lengths begun last week. Interestingly, the first task the joint drive of the city corporations is to make the missing/disappeared canals reappear. There are reportedly eleven such canals that have disappeared, available only in official records. The Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) is conducting the canal reclamation drive in coordination with Dhaka Water Supply and Sewerage Authority, Bangladesh Water Development Board, Dhaka district administration, the police and the Rapid Action Battalion.
Reports have it that it is not only the land grabbers who are the mastermind behind illegal filling of these canals to raise structures, even concrete-built ones, to set up business houses, godowns and markets, some of the structures were even built by the Dhaka Zila Parishad and rented out as shops and markets. Two markets of Dhaka Zila Parishad built on the Trimohini Khal at Nandipara in the capital were demolished on the first day of the joint drive. So, a government agency whose job is to protect government property also fancies land grabbing as a convenient way of raising revenue. Shop owners in the two demolished markets have alleged that they had bought possession of the shops at government rate for shop allotment. Who can tell whether these ill-gotten revenues were at all accounted for?
Evidently, freeing the city from illegal occupants and land grabbers is a daunting task, more so because of the slack moves for decades. It is not known what the mayors are thinking now about their next move on footpaths which have again gone into the grip of the vendors and small shopkeepers - backed obviously by powerful vested quarters. As for the canals, it is the same fate that has repeated time and again. In the past five years, there were around a dozen drives, and as usual, soon after the drives ended, the grabbers returned. One valid reason for the failure was absence of any punitive action against the grabbers.
If the city corporations don't mean their on-going drive to be an eye-wash, the only way out of the futile and pointless exercise is to get equipped with political will - endorsed, if necessary, at the highest level.