Violence and displacement in suburban Dhaka

A combination of violent rural and urban displacement have produced rings of poverty and exploitation on the outskirts of Dhaka, one of the world's fastest growing cities.

Shahadat Hossain
14 August 2013

Bangladesh is currently encountering rapid urbanisation. Dhaka the country’s capital, following prolonged rural displacement triggered by the government’s structural adjustment policies, has emerged in recent years as one of the fastest growing cities in the world. Korail, Dhaka. DPU-UCL/Flickr

Most new migrants to the city take shelter in the peripheries: Kamrangirchar, Keraniganj, Tongi, Gazipur, Demra, Kachpur, Narayanganj and the now infamous Savar, due to easily available, low cost housing. While those who remain in the city centre are increasingly being forced out to the peripheries due to increasing demand for urban development; as such, the overwhelming physical feature of Dhaka’s urbanisation is peripherilisation, a peripheralisation represented in rings of (sub)urban poverty enclosing the city centre.

Urban renewal

Today's Dhaka is a city of shopping malls, restaurants, cafes, beauty parlours and glamorous gymnasiums. Urban renewal and redevelopment in Dhaka like in many other cities around the world, drives the urban economy yet operates to serve a very small proportion of the urban population. Dhaka in a short space of time has transformed, the landscape now dominated by new developments and an array of real-estate advertisements offering lucrative land and housing deals across the city.  The majority of these development projects, with the exception of those accessed through party connections, are high-end luxury real-estate for the powerful and ‘global’ classes. Alongside these new developments a new wave of service privatisation, of universities, hospitals and schools is sweeping across the city, pricing out the vast majority from access to basic services.


Eviction in Dhaka. Firoz Ahmed/Demotix

Beautification projects in the city have also marginalized poor communities from the city. The government has recently inaugurated the Hatirjheel infrastructure project in the city centre which has displaced almost half a million, mostly urban poor to the new peripheral towns. A key objective of the project is to install storm drainage system to prevent flooding of the capital alongside urban beautification and environmental conversation. Completion of recreational and landscaping components, including a“celebration point”, water court, floating walkway, viewing deck, child playing area, water taxi terminal, lakeside landing steps, and amphitheatre is expected by the end of 2013. In total the project has cost TK 1,971 crore (£163m), more than half of which, TK 1,048 crore (£87m), spent on land acquisition alone. On the whole it was the city’s working populations who used to live in the area, and who one will now find in the city’s impoverished periphery.

Conditions of the periphery

National economic restructuring has played a significant role in reshaping the urban space of Dhaka and the subsequent formation of these new urban peripheries. Formal urban labour markets have ceased absorbing labour, generating a substantial increase in unemployment and underemployment, and a generation of restless, poor individuals on the outskirts of the city. This contrasts with the prevalence of technology-based employment opportunities for the middle-classes in the Central Business District (CBD), jobs simply inaccessible for the unskilled or semi-skilled rural worker; rural migrants are mostly illiterate and lack employment training.

What exists of the informal sector, the historical destination of newly arrived migrants is also unable to absorb the huge influx of labour. Moreover, the government has over the years increased regulation over the ‘informal economy’, restricted it’s areas of work and ability to earn, such regulation of informal employment (for example the evictions of street vendors) has led to a general degradation in the living conditions of millions of the urban poor who thrive in the informal sector.

The majority of the urban poor are involved in these informal economic activities like rickshaw pulling, petty trading and street selling, transport, construction, garments, and personal services. Incomes are insufficient for managing the costs of everyday life in the city. Whatsmore it is commonplace for working people to encounter harassment at their workplace by their supervisors and employers, most accept harassment due to the fear of losing their employment.

In Kamrangirchar, Kajoli supports her family by working in a factory where she is often harassed by her supervisors: ‘I always accept their harassment because I desperately need the job to support my kids. You know, it is really hard to get a job here.’In fact, workers are simply not in a position to object to their conditions of employment.

Rural displacement

The urbanisation and subsequent peripherilisation of Dhaka is closely linked to rural displacement and forced migration of rural populations to the city. Agriculture is no longer heralded in economic plans nor considered a viable solution to the economic needs of a growing rural population. Alongside a restructuring and reconcentration of the economy, many people involved in agriculture are gradually being displaced from their land and forced into non-farming activities like services, trading and commercial activities.

Inequality of the ownership of land plays a crucial role in this rural displacement. Ali, a worker who recently moved to Savar, a peripheral town, explains the phenomenon of absentee landlords which drove his own displacement from his home in the Southern district of Barisal: Most absentee or rentier landlords, he says, have gained wealth from remittances either from relatives living in Dhaka or overseas. He describes how the matter of owning land is somewhat a matter of prestige in rural areas, as such competition in buying up land is fierce. Landlords are not directly involved in farming or agricultural practice, but rather use the land to develop housing. It is this concentration of land within the hands of developer-landlords and move away from agricultural uses of land, which has contributed to the country's rapid urbanisation.

The blurred divide

In the previously rural areas of the urban-periphery the process is mirrored. Small rural landowners are simply unable to keep their land due to the increasing demand of land for non-agricultural purposes. Rahman a worker living in Mirpur a town in peripheral Dhaka explains: ‘All of my brothers were working in the land inherited from my father. A group of people from Dhaka offered us to lease our land to them for farming. We had no way to reject them as they had both money and power. At last they bought our land and we become landless.’

In Dhaka’s periphery land grabbing has become a key source of everyday crime and violence. Fraud, kidnapping and killing are common crimes directly related to land speculation in greater Dhaka. There have been numerous cases of land owner torture and expulsion from the city. For example, Manan a worker living in Kachpur I interviewed, lost his land beside the link road of Dhaka-Narayanganj after he was tortured and forced out from his land by the cardres of a local gang leader.

While each year the numbers of land related police cases rise across greater Dhaka, the cases are lengthy and heavily influenced by political parties, and as such the victims rarely see justice. In the absence of legal channels to challenge land grabs, violent outbursts and mass protest has become a central feature in struggles for land. In 2010, local residents of Rupjang, Narayanganj staged mass protests against the appropriation of their land for the development of an army barracks. A number of protesters were killed and eventually the project was halted. The following year the city-government had to halt the development of a new airport in Arierbil, Munshiganj while local residents staged violent demonstrations. While local villagers have thus far been relatively successful in protest, with the increasing violent nature of both the protestors and the government response, questions remain whether local residents will be able to continue to hold their ground.

Manafacturing exploitation

It is thus in this context in which the peripheries have become centres for poverty, violence and exploitation. Yet despite these volatile living conditions, many new migrants choose to live in the peripheries as they are able employment unavailable in the city. The city of Dhaka, or rather it's peripheries, have become an important centre for production of readymade garments. Garments workers mostly receive low wages (BDT.3000- 5000 equivalent to £20-40 per month) despite working long (at least 50 hours per week) tough hours, while work place conditions are very unsafe.

In the past year more than one hundred workers have suffered burns in Tazrin Garments factory located in Savar. Recently more than a thousand workers working in garments in Rana Plaza in Savar died due to the building collapse. Thousands of workers have been injured and many of them will never be able to return to the workforce. This tragedy has attracted huge attention from international media and human rights communities. And still garments workers are demonstrating in order to raise their pay and improve the conditions of their workplace. Yet, the government has heeded little attention to the demands of  the workers, workers whose labour significantly contributes to the national economy, the garment industry accounts for 76% of the country's export earnings and 10% of its GDP. Rather, their dissent is met with violence.


Garment workers protest, Dhaka. Reazsumon/Demotix.

Urban poverty, widespread violence, and massive population movements to the Bangladesh's cities has contributed to the peripheralisation of poverty and violence, an intrepid process which without intervention and concerted development remains on course to continue.

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